With stately mansions, pristine parks, and avant-garde dining, this port city promises bloom-filled adventures along its azalea trails.
By Mona Moore
Photography by John O’Hagan
The people of Mobile, Alabama, have a way of cherishing the past while building upon it for the future. From restored hotels to revamped gardens, this South Alabama city continues to delight and amaze visitors with its history, Southern charm, and reverence for nature. The state’s third-largest metropolis sits on Mobile Bay along the Gulf Coast, where it has served as a military stronghold and a thriving port of call for generations. But Mobile’s roots run deeper than its roles in historic battles or commerce. Indeed, the master gardeners who reside within its county lines are legendary.
Nearly 90 years ago, Mobile earned its Azalea City moniker when Junior Chamber of Commerce members (now known as Jaycees) encouraged residents to plant the longtime favorite perennial in their yards. Meanwhile, volunteers blanketed the blooming bushes along streets and public spaces. From that campaign came Mobile’s Azalea Trail Maids, Southern belles tasked with greeting guests while the azaleas were in bloom.
The thriving shrubbery still lines the streets of Mobile, borders formal gardens, and defines the local landscape with ribbons of pink and magenta blooms each spring. The city’s dedication to Southern hospitality is also stronger than ever. Warm welcomes, big smiles, and pleasant conversations are the standard, and Azalea Trail Maids have multiplied nearly as fast as the favored plants.
People have flocked to this area of the Gulf Coast to see the azaleas for more than 300 years—and it’s no wonder, with so many places to view their splendor. With more than 1,000 varieties, the Mobile Botanical Gardens are home to some of the largest collections of Satsuki and Aromi azaleas in the Southeast. In fact, the Aromi varieties are named after the Mobile professor and avid gardener who created them. The newly expanded Aromi garden features showstoppers in flaming orange, golden yellow, and fragrant pink nestled under a canopy of evergreen pines. Likewise, perennial favorite Bellingrath Gardens and Home, in the neighboring town of Theodore, includes hundreds of acres dedicated to beauty in bloom.
The splendor of the Mobile area extends beyond the gates of Bellingrath’s famed gardens. Its history includes Spanish, British, and French occupations, all of which have left an eclectic mix of architectural wonders in their wake. Painted ladies sit next to Greek Revivals and quaint cottages share fences with Confederate-era mansions. In the midst of the glory and grandeur, exquisite squares and community gardens await a lazy afternoon stroll or a midday picnic. Brighter than any lighthouse, stronger than any tide, Mobile’s magnificence will beckon you back for years to come.
Delight in the beauty of Mobile with a pleasant stroll amid the tranquil paths of Washington Square, one of a dozen parks spread throughout downtown’s eight historic districts. Eight miles west, you’ll find Mobile Botanical Gardens. Tucked along a meandering road behind Langan Park, the gardens are just a short walk from the Mobile Museum of Art.
Mobile’s entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well within the walls of the Urban Emporium. This downtown destination is the city’s only retail incubator, with space for more than two dozen entrepreneurs offering products with a quintessential Mobile flair. From ceramics to honey, the Dauphin Street staple has something for everyone. Serda’s Coffee Company is another Mobile original worth a visit for its delicious tea and coffee blends, as well as its decadent gelato.
Alabama’s green pastures and blue waters provide more than just picturesque backdrops to Gulf Coast adventures. Mobile’s culinary artists tempt palates with fresh seafood and farm-to-table treats. The Noble South has made a name for itself with an ever-changing menu that has included everything from chicken hearts to Wagyu beef tartare. Panini Pete’s will whip up an unforgettable muffuletta as you sip an espresso and take in the landscape from the sidewalk, or come for weekend brunch and treat yourself to a fresh beignet. Housed in a former fire station, Firehouse Wine Bar offers a great place to unwind with its extensive menu of wine and craft beers.