Mobile, Alabama, is one of those genteel southern cities with a storied past, a fabulous foodie scene and enough outdoor water activities to keep just about any family happy. A weekend visit is enough to sample the cuisine, get a peak at the history (did you know Mobile is where Mardi Gras started in the USA?) and spend plenty of time on the water.
Things to Do in Mobile Alabama
In the heady years leading up to the Civil War, this port city was known as the Paris of the South. That was in the 1800s, when Mobile was the 10th wealthiest city in the United States, thanks to the port and the cotton trade. Today, it is a city coming back from much less heady times. The downtown area is reviving, the foodie scene is bursting with flavor and there are lots of ways to enjoy the water, from Duck boat rides to kayaks. This is a town that still feels Southern—from the famous Southern hospitality to the racial divide. Even the Mobile Mardi Gras celebrations honor two sets of kings and queens—one black, the other white. Visiting an all-black jazz club in a mixed-race group of one black and three white women drew us some curious looks, but nothing more.
Here are the 11 best things to do in Mobile, Alabama, and three great places to eat.
Best Mobile Attractions
1. Splash into Mobile Bay
I am ridiculously enamored with Ducks. Not the quacking kind. The driving kind. What’s not to like about a vehicle that can go from road to water with barely a ripple?
Every Duck ride I’ve taken has included some really lame jokes. The Gulf Coast Ducks that ply the streets of Mobile and the waters of Mobile Bay are no different. The jokes are dumb, but the ride is still fun.
We got a short narrated tour around Mobile’s small downtown, then splashed into Mobile Bay for a tour of the city waterfront, its cruise dock and the USS Alabama. The tour is supposed to include two dips into the Bay. Unfortunately, a stopped train that blocked access to the bay meant we didn’t get our second dip. But that one dip was still fun.
2. Learn about the Delta
We did this at the 5 Rivers Delta Center. This $10 million facility is filled with interactive exhibits, live animals and enthusiastic staff and docents. And it’s free!
A visit to the center is well worth the 10-minute drive from the historic downtown. It celebrates the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the second largest river delta system in the US, behind the Mississippi River delta. The Mobile Tensaw River Delta is where the Mobile, Spanish, Tensaw, Appalachee and Blakely rivers flow into Mobile Bay. (Five rivers. Count ‘em. Five. Hence the name of the center.)
I got a chance to lure an owl to land on my padded glove. (I cheated—it was really lured by the tiny piece of bloody meat and the two tiny kidneys the staff tucked between the thumb and forefinger of the glove.) There are swamp snakes (thankfully, those are kept in cages), a real live osprey nest (minus the osprey) and plenty of educational displays.
3. Kayak Among the Alligators
The five rivers that feed the delta are ripe for boating. We spent a blissful two hours kayaking the Bartram Canoe Trail, bird watching and alligator watching. That’s right. Alligators. Luckily, the two we saw were babies. The most they could have eaten would have been a couple of fingers. At least that’s what I told myself as I paddled past them.
Perhaps the coolest thing about the 5 Rivers Delta Center is its kayak launch. It’s the first fully accessible launch I have seen anywhere. My kayak partner, a kayaking rookie, struggled getting into our double kayak. Thanks to the accessible launch, we didn’t end up in the river. Without it, we definitely would have taken a dip.
Once we were safely launched, we joined our knowledgeable guide for a paddle around the delta. It was early spring, so the plants were just coming alive. But the birds were everywhere—she pointed out several varieties, none of which I remember because I couldn’t write anything down while I was paddling.
4. Take an Airboat Ride
I’ve taken airboat rides through the Florida Everglades and really enjoyed them, alligator sightings included. Unfortunately, high winds during my weekend in Mobile meant the airboat ride was canceled. So I can’t say how it went. But the Delta is lovely. Skimming across the top could only be exhilarating.
5. Watch the Sun Set on a Delta Cruise
Sunset cruises can be cliché. Or corny. Sometimes they can even be romantic. I was traveling solo, so the romance thing wasn’t happening. But our sunset cruise onboard the “Osprey” with Captain Mike Dorie of Wild Native Tours was great fun. Mike is clearly an experienced captain. He knew just where to position the boat to get the best views of the bright red sunset. And he knew his nature—naming all of the flora and fauna we passed. He also was a font of a funniness, telling jokes that were more than a cut above the ones we heard on the Ducks.
6. Marvel at the Opulence of Carnival
Did you know that the City of Mobile is the birthplace of Mardi Gras? Neither did I. Like you, I always thought of New Orleans, Louisiana, when anyone mentioned Mardi Gras. And we met several people in Mobile who talked about the “rivalry” with New Orleans over Mardi Gras. I have been to NOLA a few times and never heard anyone there talk about a rivalry with Mobile.
Regardless, Mobile is secure in its claim as the place where Mardi Gras started. And it has a museum to prove it. The Mobile Carnival Museum is really a train museum. Not the kind of trains that run on tracks, but the kind that get attached to the shoulders of lovely young ladies and handsome gents–the Mardi Gras royalty feted as part of the annual celebration in Mobile. Some of the trains can cost as much as $45,000 to make and are so laden with embellishments that they weigh more than the thin and lovely queen who will pull it across the floor. Those come with tiny wheels to help them glide.
As the home of America’s original Mardi Gras, Mobile is rich with Mardi Gras traditions. Take a tour of the jeweled crowns, intricately designed gowns and lavish robes of Mobile’s Mardi Gras Kings and Queens in this historic Government Street mansion. Guides shed light on the mysteries of Mardi Gras, such as: What is a Mystic Society? Who is King Felix? And Why do Mobile maskers throw doubloons and Moon Pies? You will even have a chance to climb up on a rocking Mardi Gras float and throw Moon Pies into a crowd yelling “Throw me something, mister!”
Get insider tips for celebrating Mardi Gras in Mobile.
7. Get a Feel for Southern Gentility
Bellingrath Gardens and Home is the creation of Walter and Bessie Bellingrath. He made his money doing something people back in the early 1900s thought was pure folly—bottling Coca-Cola and selling it to people to take home and drink. Moving Coke from a soda fountain experience to an at-home experience made the Bellingraths rich. Bessie thought he was working too hard and encouraged him to buy a fishing camp where he could relax. And, just to make sure he didn’t relax too much, Bessie, a teetotaler, went there to keep an eye on Walter, who was anything but.
She used their money to build a lovely English Renaissance-styled home and cultivate 65 acres of gorgeous gardens. I was lucky enough to visit in the spring when the more than 250,000 azalea bushes were just beginning to bloom.
Sadly, I was on a tight schedule and had only about two hours to spend there touring both the house and gardens (and, of course, drinking a Coke). This is the sort of place where one should bring a book and plan to while away the day, alternatively wandering the garden and settling on one of the swings or genteel benches along the way to read and contemplate while the kids run across the expansive lawns or play hide and seek among the azaleas.
Mobile Alabama weather can be very hot and humid—100 percent humidity on summer days when it doesn’t even rain. So, unless you like that sort of weather, plan to visit in the fall through spring. Bellingrath Gardens is open all year. Check the website to see what’s in bloom when you plan to visit.
8. Play Among the Shipping Containers
Really. All it requires is a visit to the GulfCoast Museum. It’s an incredibly entertaining and interactive maritime museum that celebrates Mobile’s history as a shipping port. It’s one of rare museums that is so well-done even those of us who aren’t all that into shipping containers can find plenty to entertain us at this museum. Every exhibit I saw had something interactive. In several spots, the moms and dads were having at least as much, if not more, fun than their kids.
9. Travel Back in Time at Dauphin Island
I’m a sucker for historical sites with interpreters who show visitors how things were done back then. At Fort Gaines in Dauphin Island, we watched a talented modern-day blacksmith use 1800s tools to ply his trade, explaining along the way what he was doing, how it worked and what tools he used. We were fascinated.
The younger kids, however, just wanted to run. We saw 3 cousins celebrating a birthday with the toys guns their moms bought them at the Fort Gaines gift shop. I have never seen kids having so much fun playing war and pretend shooting one another.
But the coupe de grace at Fort Gaines is the cannon. That’s right. A Civil War era cannon that was used in the Battle of Mobile Bay. And the period-costumed docent who gets to shoot it off every day clearly was having the most fun of anyone that day. Be sure to cover your ears and watch where you stand. I was off to the side where I could video the action and felt the shock waves.
10. Learn about the Sea Life of Mobile Bay
The Estuarium at Dauphin Island is Alabama’s only marine science education and research laboratory. Exhibits highlight the four local ecosystems of coastal Alabama: the Delta, Mobile Bay, the Barrier Islands and the Gulf of Mexico. But the big draw here is the sting ray touch pool. We were lucky enough to be on site during feeding time—it gave me a whole new understanding of the phrase “feeding frenzy.”
Sadly, a weekend in the City of Mobile is not enough time to experience everything it has to offer. We did not make it to two art museums I would have liked to see–the Mobile Museum of Art and the Alabama Contemporary Art Center. Nor did I have time for the History Museum of Mobile or the Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail tour. During the hot summer Mobile weather, I suspect any of those indoor, air-conditioned museums and bus tours would be a welcome relief.
Find out 6 other great weekend getaways in the South.
Mobile is a foodie town. Every meal we ate was better than the one before. The highlights of our Mobile restaurant experience:
Spot of Tea. This sweet restaurant was started by Miss Ruby and her son, Tony, in 1994 when they opened a tiny tea shop in a 200-year-old building across from Cathedral Park, a move that would start the central business district rebirth. Today, it is a charming breakfast and lunch spot that often has lines around the corner. Try the house specialty, Eggs Cathedral. It’s a concert of flavors in your mouth. And the portions are huge. Plan to share so you can save room for the signature dessert featuring Moon Pies and pudding. Here, the motto is: If you leave hungry, it’s your own fault.
TravelingMom Tip: Spot of Tea doesn’t take reservations, but you can call 24 hours ahead for “preferred seating.” It’s not a reservation, but it does guarantee that you don’t need to stand it the long line. You’ll get the next open table after you arrive.
Wintzell’s Oyster House. Eat at the original, at 605 Dauphin St. It’s charming and you can watch the cooks flame up the grill. I’m not a big oyster fan, but the oyster lovers in our group were in heaven at this restaurant that promises oysters “fried, stewed or nude.” And I found plenty of non-oyster options. Be sure to save room for the bread pudding.
Dauphin’s. This is a fine dining restaurant where the dining is fine, but the view is even better. It’s located at the top of the RSA Trustmark Building and the expansive windows offer an incredible view of downtown Mobile. The dishes were a tasty mix of seafood and steak with a Creole and soul vibe.
Mobile Alabama Hotels
We stayed at the 4-Diamond Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza, across the street from the waterfront convention center with, as its name suggests, a stunning view of the river. The location makes it easy to walk anywhere downtown, including to the GulfCoast Museum, the Carnival Museum and the incredible restaurants that line Dauphin Street.
But the real draw here is inside. My riverview room was spacious with a nice desk area, huge windows overlooking the convention center and river and an oversized bathroom. The TV was smart enough to have Hulu and Netflix. All I had to do was log-in with my account info. The TV assured me that I would be logged out when I checked out of the hotel, but I made sure to log myself out before I left the room, just to be sure.
Nearby is the historic Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel and Spa. We didn’t stay there, but did get a tour with George Moore, the concierge who doubles as hotel tour guide and was a font of historical knowledge. (For example, I learned that the Mobile area was not part of the Louisiana Purchase. It was considered West Florida then.)
The Battle House was built in the 1850s when Mobile was booming and the wealthy people who passed through the port needed a fine hotel. It burned down in the early 1900s and was rebuilt to host celebrities from Woodrow Wilson to Elvis.
Disclosure: I was hosted on this trip for the purposes of this reveiw. All opinions are my own.