This Mississippi River town is a study in contrasts. It is best known for its many fine Victorian and antebellum homes as well as for the Vicksburg National Military Park, one of the best Civil War historic parks we've come across. But it is moving rapidly into the present—and cashing in on the casino craze. Four casinos operate in the city.

Vicksburg was the site of one of the critical events of the Civil War: Union troops led by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant laid siege to the town for 47 days. When Confederate Gen. John C. Pemberton finally capitulated, the Union had gained control of the vital Mississippi River and divided the Confederacy into two sections. The battle line of this great siege has been preserved in the Vicksburg National Military Park. A 16-mi/26-km auto route winds along both sides of the line. You'll find forts, trenches, cannons and more than 1,000 plaques and monuments (many on a grand scale) commemorating the tug-of-war over Vicksburg. The visitors center has artifacts, along with a short, introductory movie about the battle. Within the park is the Vicksburg National Cemetery, where 17,000 Union soldiers lie—a grim reminder of the deadliness of the Civil War. Many of the tombstones are simply marked U.S. Unknown Soldier. Another 5,000 Confederate soldiers are buried in Soldiers Rest, which is located in Cedar Hill Cemetery. Near the Vicksburg National Cemetery are the remains of the Cairo, a Union ironclad ship, dredged up in 1964, which had the distinction of being the first ship in history to be sunk with an electrically triggered mine. The Cairo Museum, next to the ship, houses artifacts recovered from the wreck.

Before or after you see the military park, take time to tour the Historic District of Vicksburg, which has mansions from the antebellum period and later. (If you can, we suggest scheduling your visit to see these homes during Vicksburg's annual spring and fall pilgrimage tours—one of the best pilgrimages in the South.) Among the houses to see are Anchuca, a Greek Revival home from the 1830s, and the Martha Vick House, an 1830s home built for the daughter of Newitt Vick, founder of Vicksburg. The McRaven Home should be seen whether you're on a pilgrimage or not. The home represents three distinct periods in Mississippi's history—it was built in 1797, enlarged in 1836 and enlarged again in 1849. The rooms are filled with museum-quality furnishings and period pieces. Civil War battles are re-enacted in its gardens.

More Civil War history is covered at the Gray and Blue Naval Museum located near the National Military Park: artifacts, paintings and Civil War gunboat models (said to be the world's largest collection). Downtown, you'll find the Coca-Cola Museum, a restored store and soda fountain where Joseph Biedenharn first bottled Coke in 1894. A notable annual event on Vicksburg's calendar is the Riverfest (street dance, entertainment, food, arts and crafts—April).

A relaxing alternative to the walking tour is the kind that floats. Tours on the Sweet Olive focus on the history of the Mississippi River during a 90-minute cruise. Daily and sunset tours are available; schedules are seasonal. Reservations are recommended. Phone 866-807-2628. 40 mi/64 km west of Jackson.

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