The famously fertile fields of the Delta, breeding ground for the blues, stretch through Mississippi’s northwestern region. In the southeast, the glorious Gulf Coast beckons with more than 60 miles of scenic shoreline and some of the country’s best seafood. Between the two regions, there’s central Mississippi, the state’s beautiful beating heart. Home to the vibrant communities of Vicksburg, Jackson and Ridgeland, Mississippi’s middle offers blockbuster attractions and special events.
From visiting Vicksburg’s Civil War battlefield and touring the Civil Rights Museum in Jackson to sampling Ridgeland’s wealth of wonderful festivals, central Mississippi boasts some of the finest experiences for groups not only in the state, but in the entire South. Here are enough favorites to fill a week, or more, of touring.
Perched atop a high bluff on the Mississippi’s east bank, Vicksburg is a city of around 20,000 people. Though small in size, it’s mighty in attractions, with a wide range of cultural and historical stops. Many are fairly new, and likely to wow visitors. In the downtown area alone, five fine museums line the streets, in addition to other enticing locals businesses.
“We do have a lot of group tours that will drop off in our downtown and allow people to have free time to go to the different museums, go to the art galleries, to a dining establishment, or do some shopping and antiquing,” said Ashley Gatian, sales and marketing manager for Visit Vicksburg. “We have so much to see and do in such a small area.”
Among the institutions to explore is the Vicksburg Civil War Museum, opened two years ago. The private enterprise is filled with thousands of artifacts from the owner’s own collection. It zeroes in on the war from the Black perspective. Among the exhibits in this deeply moving museum are all kinds of weaponry, a slave cabin and a 52nd United States Colored Infantry enlistment document. Also opened in 2021, Catfish Row Museum tells Vicksburg’s story through a cultural lens, as it dives into food, music, worship, the arts and other traditions. The museum is free.
Of course, no journey to Vicksburg would be complete without a tour of its top attraction, Vicksburg National Military Park, which preserves one of the most pivotal battlegrounds of the Civil War. Step-on guides hop on motorcoaches to narrate the 16-mile tour road, which takes around two hours to complete. The park is also home to around $5 billion worth of sculpture and architecture, which is covered in a recently debuted Art of Commemoration tour.
“The guide points out the monuments and talks about who designed them, their value, where they were constructed, when they were placed in the park, things of that sort. It’s a wonderful tour,” said Gatian.
Around a dozen historic homes are also open for tours. Among them are a dozen show homes, such as Cedar Grove Mansion, which recently reopened after a year-long renovation. Built in 1840, the Greek Revival home now operates as an inn and can host private group dinners.
And for group travelers looking to stretch their legs, walking tours of Vicksburg are available from licensed guides from the military park or from Vicksburg Old Town Tours, founded by the great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis. Stops generally include a pre-Civil War mansion and Christ Episcopal Church, home to stunning Tiffany stained-glass windows.
Less than an hour east of Vicksburg on Interstate 20, Jackson, Mississippi’s vibrant capital, has undergone a bit of a renaissance, and it’s not just because of the presence of football great Deion Sanders, who coached Jackson State football for three years before taking another job last year.
The city experienced “an uptick in exposure with Deion Sanders in town,” says Sherri Ratliff, Visit Jackson’s senior tourism and convention sales manager. “But even before he came there was an increase in things that were being developed. Think about the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History. They were created in late 2017 — that was a Mississippi bicentennial gift. The Civil Rights Museum is the only state-funded civil rights museum in the country.”
Marketed as “Two Mississippi Museums,” the pair share the same $90 million, 200,000-square-foot building. The history side delves into 15,000 years of state culture, while its civil rights-themed counterpart explores, in eight interactive galleries, the period from the end of the Civil War through the three decades when Mississippi was at the center of the country’s most important social justice movement. Leaders can arrange for presentations from people who marched in demonstrations or otherwise participated in the fight for freedom, as well as take advantage of discounted group ticket prices.
When the sun goes down the fun goes up for groups, thanks to attractions new and old. Hal and Mal’s, a casual, downtown restaurant with a Gulf Coast-inspired menu, serves up live blues sets on Monday nights. Should they be musically inclined, guests are welcome to perform with the house band.
Or, leaders can bring their groups to the new entertainment complex in the historic Fondren neighborhood, which features the Capri, a luxury movie theater; the upscale bowling alley Highball Lanes; and The Pearl, a ritzy tiki bar.
Groups can also dig into Mississippi agriculture at the 68-acre Foot Print Farms. The farm offers sumptuous outdoor dinners prepared by a local chef with ingredients sourced from the surrounding fields; visitors can get their hands dirty if they wish, and pick the vegetables to be used in the meal.
“We can also accommodate with securing some entertainment for the dinner, whether it’s a single guitarist or a violinist, whatever that looks like for your group,” says Yolanda Clay-Moore, director of communications for Visit Jackson. “But you’re under a tent, on the land, at this long, beautiful table made from a tree that came from the farm. I’ve been to some private events at Foot Print and it’s just a really beautiful experience.”
A 20-minute drive due north of Jackson, Ridgeland is much more than a suburb of the capital. Located along the Natchez Trace Parkway, the town boasts its own identity and plenty of pleasures, including a bustling art scene and many outdoor activities. One of the area’s premiere attractions, the Bill Waller Craft Center, offers both of those diversions, according to Katie Coats, director of marketing and public relations for Visit Ridgeland.
“It’s home to the Craftsmen Guild of Mississippi,” Coats said. “They’re celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2023. They have a historic boardwalk trail in the back of their facility that we call the Old Trace, and then there’s an art gallery inside where you can purchase things from local artisans. They can also set up any kind of class — jewelry making, ceramics, things like that. You can watch a demonstration and then maybe everyone can participate. They’re very group friendly.”
While the Old Trace is a natural for ambling, nature lovers will especially want to head to Ridgeland’s Barnett Reservoir, a 33,000-acre lake with 105 miles of stunning shoreline. Pearl River Kayaks can arrange group paddling adventures, guided or not.
Or, folks can walk the paved Chisha Foka multi-use trail, graced by hardwood and pine trees, wildflowers and all manner of native wildlife. The pathway is about 10 miles long and curves through Ridgeland before it ends at the Barnett Reservoir overlook with lovely view of the water.
If possible, Coats recommends leaders plan their Ridgeland visits to coincide with one of the city’s beloved annual events. They include early May’s Art, Wine and Wheels — which in one weekend combines the Ridgeland Fine Arts Festival, the Mind Center Sante South Food and Wine Festival and the Natchez Trace Century Ride. In the fall, typically mid-October, the Renaissance Euro Fest brings in classic cars and motorcycles made in Europe.
A new visitors center that’s opening toward the end of this year will also be a good tour stop.
“We’re going to have some fun new offerings, some art installations and interactive kiosks where visitors can learn more about Ridgeland,” Coats said. “And we’ll also have a bike share program, so if part of your group wants to hop on a bike and get on that multi-use trail, we’ll be here to help make that happen.”