MOBILE, Ala. -- Mobile is that "other" city on the northern Gulf Coast, the one that sometimes gets lost between the beaches of the Florida Panhandle and the nonstop party of New Orleans. Local promoters call it "secretly awesome."
No, Mobile doesn't draw millions of tourists annually. But the bayside town drips with Old South charm and has plenty of things to do, some of the best of which don't cost a dime.
With a quaint downtown that's situated on Mobile Bay and framed by huge oak trees with gnarly branches, Mobile and the surrounding area offer visitors a variety of free activities.
The city's welcome center, Fort Conde is a redbrick re-creation of the French fort that protected Mobile for a century until 1820, when the original was demolished to clear land. Exhibits explore life in colonial Mobile and include artifacts from Indians and early European settlers who shaped the area.
Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
Consecrated in 1850 before the Civil War, the basilica is the home of the oldest Roman Catholic parish on the Gulf Coast. With twin bell towers, stained-glass windows, a vaulted ceiling and columns adorned with gold leaf, the church fronts Cathedral Plaza, a shady spot for an afternoon rest along Dauphin Street, Mobile's low-key answer to Bourbon Street.
Downtown streets are lined with homes and businesses with balconies and fences made of lacy-patterned ironwork.
Fish for flounder. Cast a net for mullet. Kayak in the marshes. Watch pelicans glide over the water. Sit on a park bench while a 1,000-foot-long freighter glides past. Stroll past waterfront mansions in nearby Fairhope. Gawk at the USS Alabama, a World War II battleship. Mobile Bay is 32 miles long and empties directly into the Gulf of Mexico.
Oakleigh garden district
One of seven nationally recognized historic areas in Mobile, the Oakleigh district is within walking distance of downtown hotels and features scores of homes dating back to the 1800s and early 1900s. Neighbors mingle on shady front porches and stroll along sidewalks cracked by the roots of huge live oaks and magnolia trees.
Bayou La Batre
Less than 30 miles from downtown Mobile, Bayou La Batre is mentioned in the movie "Forrest Gump" as the hometown of character "Bubba" Blue. In real life, the town of 2,600 is a major seafood processing center. It's also a photographer's dream with a drawbridge, small boatyards and a large fleet of colorful shrimping trawlers.