There’s really not a bad time to spend a few days in little Oxford, Mississippi. Home of the University of Mississippi, this college town in the north of the Magnolia State stays charming and always rolls out the welcome mat. But be prepared for two distinct experiences: the one on home football game Saturdays in autumn—and every other time.
On game day, there’s nothing like The Grove—the acres of ancient trees that host the South’s fanciest tailgates. It’s genuinely unique and the scene of legendary pigskin parties, especially when the Rebs win (which they’ve been doing a lot more of recently).
But when there aren’t throngs of Ole Miss faithful fans packing every inch of the small city, you can better explore its many offerings, including its role in Civil Rights history and its legacy of inspiring literary icons. Plus, you can actually get a seat at its amazing restaurants featuring some of the region’s best and brightest chefs, which is crucial if you want to get a taste of what makes Oxford a must-visit regardless whether or not you give two toots about the college that calls it home.
Here’s my list of things to see and places to eat, and it’s more than enough to fill two days.
The oldest building on campus, the Lyceum still bears the scars left by bullets ricocheting off its thick white columns when, in 1962, the arrival of the university’s first African-American student, James Meredith, sparked outrage. With a Supreme Court decision and federal marshals on his side, he arrived on campus, and as he approached the Lyceum, which housed the admissions office, a protest erupted, and in the middle of the clash, shots rang out. When the mob was finally subdued, hundreds were injured and arrested, two people were dead, and Meredith was officially a student. A statue honoring Meredith and the progress he symbolizes stands nearby. While you’re on campus, visit the University’s Blues Archive too; it boasts one of the largest collections of the genre’s recordings, publications, and memorabilia in the world.
THE SQUARE SHOPS
The Square is Oxford’s historic city center pinned down in its middle by the imposing Lafayette County Courthouse. It looks like a set for a movie depicting idyllic small-town life, with its perfectly preserved buildings and immaculate landscaping, and offers shopping options galore. Pop in Mississippi Madness, packed with magnolia-state-made pottery and more; stop in Therapy boutique for flirty dresses and tops. Amelia is chock-full of items handmade by area artisans. And don’t miss Neilson’s, the South’s oldest still operating department store, or Rebel Rags, the place for Ole Miss-themed items.
In recent years, writers like John Grisham and Willie Morris have made Oxford their home and served as writers in residence at the University. Square Books, an independent bookstore that opened in 1979 and anchors a corner of The Square with two floors of tomes, hosts frequent book signings by famed Southern authors and is a treasure trove of Oxford’s artistic heritage. Nearby, Square Books, Jr. has stacks and shelves of kids’ lit.
This primitive Greek Revival House is ground zero for immersing yourself in in Oxford’s deep devotion to the written word. The home of William Faulkner from 1930 until his death in 1962, it is now owned by the University. Grab a detailed brochure to take a self-guided tour of the home, which features the author’s personal belongings, letters, manuscripts, his typewriter, and even empty liquor bottles that are on display. Don’t leave without seeing the grounds. Peaceful and secluded, the twenty-nine acres feel a world away from the busy streets circling the property’s borders and offer a glimpse of what inspired Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County that was based on Oxford and surrounding areas.
THE LAMAR HOUSE
For more area history, visit this beautiful example of preservation (that earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places list) and the former home of L.Q.C. Lamar, statesman extraordinaire. In the mid-1800’s, he was a congressman, a senator, Secretary of the Interior, and finally a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and exhibits outline how his became an important voice encouraging reconciliation after the Civil War.
All year long, Oxford visitors can take a tour aboard a red, double-decker bus, but every April, the Double Decker Festival brings thousands of folks to the city for its annual celebration of food, musi and the arts. It’s grown from one band in the bed of a truck to a highly anticipated event that drew approximately 60,000 people in 2015. The 2016 Festival takes place on April 22–23.
Don’t let the name fool you; there’s ever so much more than mere snacks at this gem tucked in a strip mall. Start with an expertly crafted cocktail; there are often seasonal specials taking advantage of whatever fruit and/or herb is ripe and ready. Then dive into Chef Vishwesh Bhatt’s French-meets-Southern cuisine, which will make your taste buds sing.
This breakfast and lunch spot is tucked in an alley off the Square, beside the Lyric Theatre. Check out the chalkboard list of the daily specials, which probably includes some type of taco, salads, soups, and sandwiches, and then order your choice at the walk-up window.
James Beard award-winning Chef John Currence put Oxford in the national culinary spotlight with his fresh takes on Southern favorites at his original eatery City Grocery. A meal here is a must, but don’t miss the bar either. Head upstairs and have a seat on the small balcony overlooking The Square.
At this diner (also on The Square), you’ll find heaping helpings of classic Southern dishes with meat ’n three and veggie plate options featuring standard selections like fried chicken, fried okra, mac ’n cheese, broccoli-rice casserole, potato salad, purple-hull peas, and jalapeno cornbread.
An unassuming atmosphere and a greasy-good cheeseburger with a side of golden-fried corn nuggets is what you want—and what you get—at this shack-like joint.
BIG BAD BREAKFAST
Also owned by Chef John Currence, BBB is known for its massive morning-meal options. You can’t go wrong with the Big Bad Breakfast skillet: a savory mash up of eggs, cheese, sausage, and home fries complete with a flaky buttermilk biscuit.
Enjoy a pint (or two) of Mississippi-made beer or just about any other Southern brew at this casual lounge right off The Square that always keeps a diverse selection on tap.
PLACES TO STAY
There are several charming bed and breakfast options in Oxford, including The Z, a welcoming spot housed in a cute cottage conveniently near The Square and campus. The Inn at Ole Miss, the city’s only full-service hotel, is another great choice.