“Sweet home Alabama, where the skies are so blue.” Everybody knows the lyrics to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s most famous song but how many have actually explored the state? Alabama is not a state that we generally associate with tourists; but if you visit, you will see how much this state has to offer, that many people are missing out on. Here are 6 places in Alabama that I recommend visiting.
Montgomery, surprising to many, is the capital of Alabama. Its capitol complex is stunning, one of my favorites in the US, decorated in proud Greek revival, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the First Confederate Capitol. Over 100 years later, the third Selma to Montgomery march ended at the Capitol’s marble staircase, with the events surrounding them leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
USA Today recently named Montgomery the #1 Best Historic City in the ‘Readers Choice Travel Awards’. Montgomery offers a revitalized riverfront pedestrian area and a plethora of history events; but my favorite thing to do is to drive through the Historic Garden District and admire the antebellum homes and mansions.
Montgomery also has noteworthy museums, gourmet restaurants, a cool craft beer scene, and a zoo. Foodies should try the country ham with red-eye gravy, a local favorite. History buffs will appreciate the 88′ tall Confederate Memorial Monument, dedicated to the 100K plus Confederate veterans of the Civil War. It certainly is a beauty. For me, one who loves anything flag-related will love the Avenue of Flag’s, a collection of all US flags with a native stone from each state, on the south wing of the Montgomery’s capitol grounds.
Mobile (pronounced Mob-EEL) is a historic city on the Gulf Coast with charming homes, pristine colleges & universities, and a thriving cultural scene. Carnival cruise ships made Mobile their home for a short time and plan to return this spring. Photogenic squares are abundant throughout this city as well as interesting bridges and a beautiful skyline. I am also impressed with the list of concerts and cultural events that seek their way to Mobile, my favorite being the 3 day Bayfest featuring 125 live music acts.
A crowd favorite in Mobile is the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park. The USS Alabama was launched in 1942 and decommissioned in 1947, finding its permanent home in Alabama after a successful campaign to bring the vessel back in 1964. This remarkable ship, nicknamed “the Mighty A” has the capability of firing shells as heavy as a car for 20 miles with profound accuracy. The Memorial Park contains aircraft and military vessels from several wars as well as a B-52 bomber. If you happen to gain sight of the 44,500 ton battleship while driving into the city by bridge, chances are you make another trip across just to see how gorgeous it is again!
Mobile’s downtown square, De Tonti, is my favorite. I love people watching around the square, watching the squirrels play, seeing the local traffic, and browsing the cool shops that adorn the brick sidewalks. For dining, I recommend a Guy Fieri pick and a Gulf Coast tradition since 1938, Wintzell’s Oyster House. You have got to see the wait staff shucking oysters faster than lightning! For the best photographs, my pick is I-10 toward the George Wallace underwater tunnel and at the RSA Battlehouse Tower and Arthur C. Outlaw Convention Center.
If you get the chance, drive through the campus at Spring Hill College. Spring Hill College, established in 1830, is a spot for pristine southern charm, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and has an 18 hole golf course on the grounds. Mobile holds the title for the oldest Carnival (Mardi Gras) celebration in America and though I have not attended, I was there the day after and could still see what fun the city had!
Huntsville, known as the “Rocket City”, is most notably known for the Marshall Space Flight Center/NASA and the US Space and Rocket Center. Huntsville offers a plethora of other attractions and activities as well. It is a family friendly mid-size city where most things are with-in 15 minutes of each other, which makes the city easy and relaxing to navigate.
Huntsville has over 3000 acres of parks and green space, making it an ideal outdoor recreation destination. The Huntsville Botanical Gardens is the number one tourist attraction as rated on TripAdvisor and their butterfly exhibit is worth the visit alone. One of the biggest parks is Big Spring Park International Park, the center of downtown and site of frequent outdoor concerts and festivals. Nearby is Cotton Row, a 2015 USA Today Top 10 Best Southern Fine Dining Restaurant that was voted #1.
Huntsville is quickly becoming a force in the craft brewing world. There are currently nine breweries in the Huntsville area, including both chain and local breweries. After going over 70 years without a single commercial locally brewed beer, things have quickly progressed. Thus, when in the area make sure to stop by a few for some tastings. In addition to great beer, they are perfect places to meet locals to get other recommendations.
Fairhope wins the prize as my favorite city in Alabama, with its upscale neighborhoods featuring over 100 unique stores, art galleries, and priceless antique stores, along with foodie-worthy eateries. This city, located on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, has gorgeous parks and the ambiance of a small town but with trendy coffee shops and a perky culture. My favorite places to eat are Panini Pete’s (the burgers will knock your socks off!) and Dragon Fly for their innovative Asian inspired rice and noodle bowls.
On a recent visit, I visited the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club, and Spa for dinner and a sunset walk around the bay. This is one stellar resort! Our meal was heavenly, the service impeccable, and the resort is unique in that it is not one bit like any other chain hotel I have ever visited. My girlfriend got married at the Grand Hotel many years ago and I can imagine this being the most beautiful wedding destination I can think of in all of Alabama. Though the resort is actually in Point Clear, all locals refer to it as being in Fairhope. Who am I to argue with them?
The Fairhope Municipal Pier is a fun place to stroll and people watch. Lots of picnics take place at this nice setting which also features walking trails and of course, fishing. I first read about this adorable place in Southern Living Magazine and knew I would love it before even visiting.
My daughter and I stumbled upon this beauty while driving the backroads through the state and I have to say that it was a pleasant surprise! The Natural Bridge Park of Alabama is a rock bridge formation made of iron ore and sandstone with an arch measuring a 148 feet span and is 60 feet high, making it the longest natural bridge East of the Rocky Mountains. Geologists date the natural bridge back 200 million years. We enjoyed climbing through the rock formations to take fun pictures, but be careful as the rocks can be very slippery.
Both Southern and Northern Civil War troops used trails in the Natural Bridge area and many soldier graves are located nearby. Along the trail paths, you will encounter around 27 varieties of ferns in the damp grounds and murky climate. Dotting the landscape is a variety of Hemlock trees that date back to the ice age. Natural Bridge Park has a gift shop and the workers are incredibly friendly and welcoming.
The Beaches of Alabama
When you think of Alabama, do you think of beaches? Unless you are familiar with the state, chances are something like football and Southern accents will come to mind. However, Alabama has some of the best beaches in the world that lie close to the Florida Emerald Coast. In fact I have many friends that dream of retiring here. While Florida’s beaches tend to overshadow those in Alabama, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are worth getting to know! Although they all offer a lot of family friendly indoor and outdoor activities, the 32 mile stretch of sugar white beaches are their best feature, especially because the water is generally warm.
The Gulf Shores State Park was recently named, by Yahoo, one of the top 50 state parks in the US in the article: “The 50 Best State Parks in America”. It offers beautiful beaches and features an outdoor pavilion with concession stands, tables for picnics, and bathrooms with showers. There is also a free public beach area offering similar amenities. Both are optimal places for spending laidback time with friends and family.
A trip to this area would not be complete without a visit to the famous Flora-Bama, founded in 1962. This enormous lounge and oyster bar is always packed and sure to be a good time. It gets its name because it is located just beside the line that divides Alabama and Florida. The Flora-Bama hosts annual events such as the Mullet Toss, Shindig on the Sand, Fishing Rodeo, Bulls on the Beach, and Super Bowl Chili Cook-off. You have got to check these events out for yourself!
A little over 8 miles away lies the beautiful Wharf, the Gulf Coast’s premier shopping and dining destination, often featuring concerts at their outdoor amphitheater. No matter what your reason or visiting is, the Wharf is sure to keep you entertained whether you are with your children, family, or enjoying a night out with friends, as they have a thriving nightlife.
So what did you think of my 6 places to visit in Alabama? What other locations would you recommend seeing?
A special thanks to Tara and Erica Cotten of Trippin Twins for helping write this article. After all, Alabama is their alma mater.
FYI: Mobile was the first capital of colonial French Louisiana in 1702. For the next 100 years, it would be ruled by the French, British, and Spanish flags, then eventually sold to the US in 1813.
FYI: With over 900 places of worship, one may find themselves in the true “Bible Belt” in Mobile.