The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic first landing on the Moon on 20th July 1969 brings Alabama into the spotlight – where Huntsville’s NASA Marshall Space Flight Center developed the Saturn V rocket that carried all the Apollo missions. To celebrate, here’s our countdown of the state’s top attractions:
As Ricky Bobby (AKA Will Ferrell) said in Talledega Nights: “If you ain’t first, you’re last!” The longest NASCAR oval in the States is Talladega Superspeedway, which holds the Nascar speed record since Rusty Wallace hit 216mph in 2004. Speed restrictions implemented since have made for much closer racing as well as crashes involving multiple cars. The track is famed for its race weekend parties. From $99, you can have a go at driving the track – either by yourself or as a passenger.
Like any American state, Alabama has its share of slightly strange, eye-catching roadside monuments. The Boll Weevil Monument in Enterprise shows a classic Greek-style goddess holding aloft the nasty little bug that nearly destroyed the cotton industry in the early 1900s. Farmers switched to peanuts and diversification brought prosperity out of disaster, a triumph to celebrate. Elsewhere, find such oddities as the Bamahenge, a Stonehenge replica in Elberta (where you’ll also see dinosaurs in the woods), the Golden Peanut in Dothan, and an 18-foot-tall aluminum rock star close to the iconic Muscle Shoals recording studio in Sheffield.
Scottsboro is the place to go to be reunited with your lost luggage, or maybe someone else’s. The Unclaimed Baggage Center attracts more than a million visitors a year who come to browse the massive store, made up of unclaimed possessions collected at airports across the country. New stock is added daily to the bargains in clothing, electronics, jewellery, toys or anything else someone might take on a plane or train. If you wondering about the cleanliness of the items on sale you needn't worry – all clothing is drycleaned before making it out for sale.
Alabama landscapes range from Gulf of Mexico beaches to the Appalachian mountains, so outdoor lovers can enjoy everything from hiking to fishing, whitewater rafting and skiing. Swim or sail in the sea or one of the many lakes, play the 468 holes of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, or hike through the canyons and waterfalls of the Jericho Trail, once explored by American folk hero Davy Crockett.
College football is very much a passion in the Southern States and catching a game – along with a tailgate BBQ – is a great way to see stars of the future. The two major teams are Alabama (Crimson Tide) and Auburn (Tigers), who have produced players such as Joe Namath, Bear Bryant and Bo Jackson, the only athlete ever to be a baseball and football All-Star. Their annual match-up in the “Iron Bowl” every Thanksgiving weekend pulls in over 100,000 spectators (and 10 million TV viewers).
Harper Lee wrote her novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” – set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama – in 1960, but this American tale of racial injustice in the South still resonates. The state’s troubled history is marked by the Civil Rights Trail that journeys through Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma. Montgomery houses the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, preserving the history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Selma’s National Voting Rights Museum and Institute and Slavery & Civil War Museum bring other parts of the story right up to date. Rough Guides has paired with a local company to offer trips taking in the Civil Rights Trail and other historic sights – get in touch for more information.
Barbecue, usually involving slow-cooked pork, is an institution all across the Deep South. Alabama's unique contribution to this Southern genre is “white sauce” – a mix of mayonnaise, vinegar, apple juice and pepper that is a welcome contrast to the usual tomato-based alternatives. Along the Gulf Coast, seafood reigns, with dishes such as flaming oysters, deep-fried wild shrimp or blue crab soup are popular, while Southern fried chicken is a staple anywhere.
In the port city of Mobile, Alabama the Mardi Gras celebration long pre-dates the one in neighbouring New Orleans. The oldest annual Carnival celebration in the US began in 1703 when Mobile was the capital of French Louisiana. The party season lasts from November to January and includes exclusive masked balls held by Mardi Gras groups (known as mystic societies) as well as public parades with music and strings of plastic beads thrown into the crowd. Make sure you try a Moon Pie – made of marshmallow sandwiched with Graham crackers and coated in chocolate – a delicious treat and a Mardi Gras staple.
Alabama-born musicians include Nat King Cole, Lionel Richie, Hank Williams, Tammy Wynette, and The Temptations. W. C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues”, was also born in the state, in Florence – within jumping distance of Tennessee’s Nashville and Memphis. Florence is also just across the Tennessee River from Muscle Shoals, where everyone from Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan to Roy Orbison and the Rolling Stones recorded hits at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios
A visit to the inspiring U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville AKA the Rocket City, includes a tour of the nearby NASA facility, which still works on projects such as the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. There are plenty of rockets on show, including a full-size Saturn replica as well as a mock-up of the Apollo 11 landing site, complete with a lunar lander and the American flag.
A special exhibition, ‘Apollo: When We Went to the Moon’ runs until the end of 2019. Special events such as a Celebration Car Show, Moon landing concert and Guinness World Record launch of 5,000 model rockets are being held throughout July.