Stop at the large visitors center at the south edge of town for maps and an overview of Natchez history and attractions (visitnatchez.org). Board one of the horse-drawn carriages parked in front of the old depot for an introduction at a pace that suits this Old South enclave.
Now you’re ready to decide which of the 11 mansions open for tours you want to see. Return to the visitors center for mansion tour tickets.
Don’t miss Stanton Hall (stantonhall.com), one of the grandest and largest homes. Lunch on Southern staples of fried chicken and signature silver-dollar-size biscuits at the Carriage House (Carriage House) restaurant on the grounds.
Walk the meal off on a tour of downtown sites, including the William Johnson House (free; nps.gov/natc), an 1840s building that belonged to a free African-American barber, and the Stratton Chapel Gallery in the 1817 First Presbyterian Church, a mesmerizing collection of 500-plus photos by early Natchez photographers.
Check in at Monmouth Plantation, built in 1818 and now a hotel. Wander the garden-studded grounds, then indulge in a five-course dinner (monmouthplantation.com).
Stop for a cinnamon scone and a lovely latte at Natchez Coffee Company (Natchez Coffee Company) downtown.
Drive to Longwood, a giant octagonal mansion that was only partially finished before the Civil war started.
For lunch, head back downtown for an oyster po’boy and yam fries at Biscuits and Blues. biscuitsblues.com
Tour Melrose Plantation (melroseplantation.org), a restored 1845 Greek revival complete with slaves’ quarters, owned by the National Park Service. Then explore nearby Dunleith, with wraparound, columned porches and plush inn rooms. Do dinner in the estate’s Castle Restaurant, starting with a frosty mint julep (dunleith.com).
Follow US-61 60 miles south into the Bayou State for more grand mansions.
St. Francisville A half-dozen historic plantations open for tours dot the area around this Mississippi River town. Oakley, where John J. Audubon did paintings for his Birds of America, is a state historic site (Audubon State Historic Site). Built in 1835, Rosedown, also a state historic site (Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site), has gardens patterned after Versailles’. The Myrtles, an 11-room B&B with a restaurant, is known as one of the most haunted houses in America (myrtlesplantation.com). But it sounds like the ghost Chloe, a former slave, is more playful than scary. St. Francisville Tourist Commission. (800) 789-4221; stfrancisville.us
Baton Rouge to New Orleans More mansions scatter along the riverbanks between these cities. In Vacherie, 300-year-old oaks shade the entry drive of Oak Alley, one of the best-known. In White Castle, Nottoway, built in 1859, is said to be the South’s largest surviving plantation home. It has 64 rooms and 365 doors and windows, one for every day of the year. Louisiana Office of Tourism. (225) 342-8119; louisianatravel.com
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® January/February 2009. Prices, dates and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)