A region rich in history and culture, natural beauty, southern hospitality, gorgeous white-sand beaches, forest-smothered mountains and NASA’s first moon rockets – Alabama is full of surprises.
Known as ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ the US state is the anchor of America’s Deep South. It actually has French roots, with Mobile founded in 1702, and American Indian civilizations here thousands of years before that.
Today the state’s biggest city is Birmingham, a thriving cultural centre with a fantastic foodie scene. Huntsville in the north is a hub for space and tech industries. Mobile, in the South is the original capital of the Louisiana territory and first home of America’s Mardi Gras. Montgomery, the state capital, Selma and Tuskegee are rich in African-American and Civil Rights history.
You can drive or hike to the highest point in Alabama, Mount Cheaha, which rises above Talladega National Forest like an island above a sea of green. Trails criss-cross the slopes, while Bunker Tower tops the summit amidst granite boulders and weathered trees. From here all of Alabama seems to spread below you like a giant quilt.
Further west, hiking the floor of Dismals Canyon is like entering a slice of Tolkein’s Middle Earth. The path twisting along and sometimes through the Dismals Branch stream, glittering cascades, fern-filled grottos, moss-covered rocks and ancient hemlock, beech and sweetgum groves. Take a night tour to see the “Dismalites,” bioluminescent larvae that glow blue-green on the rocks.
To the south the Gulf Coast beaches are swathes of sugar-white sand lapped by turquoise waters. The beaches on Dauphin Island are great for families – shallow, safe and peppered with shells, hermit crabs and small fish. At Gulf State Park, another pristine beach is backed by ancient maritime live oak forest, lakes and swamps, where bike trails reveal foraging armadillos and basking alligators.
Alabama, as one of the southern states, is not far behind in its hospitality. Prepare to be addressed as ma'am or sir, which is an informal greeting widely used in southern states. Locals will ask a lot of questions about where you are from, without malice. Residents of southern states are proud of their cities, so get ready to hear stories about southern history that you had no idea about.
And of course the trademark of the southern states is undeniably the southern cuisine, which seems to embrace the very meaning of hospitality.
Martin’s Restaurant in Montgomery has been especially famed for its delicious fried chicken since the 1930s. Cozy Big Bob Gibson BBQ in Decatur knocks out its legendary smoked chicken and mayonnaise-based barbecue white sauce, an Alabama specialty.
Chris’ Hotdogs in Montgomery has been serving up hotdogs (with its famous chilli sauce) and hamburgers since 1917. It was one of few eateries to ignore segregation laws and feed all its hungry customers equally. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Elvis Presley were all regulars. Seafood is king along the coast – try the fresh royal red shrimp (served with red potatoes, corn on the cob and garlic toast), or creamy shrimp and grits.
The small town of Muscle Shoals has been an unlikely hub of popular music since the 1960s, home of session musicians known as the “Swampers”. Take a tour of the legendary FAME Studios and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where still-used vintage recording rooms and instruments have been lovingly preserved. Everyone from Etta James and Aretha Franklin to Alicia Keys and the Rolling Stones has recorded here.
Just across the Tennessee River, Florence was the birthplace of W. C. Handy, aka the “Father of the Blues” (he composed St. Louis Blues, Beale Street Blues, and many others). Learn about the man and his legacy at the W. C. Handy Birthplace, Museum & Library or at the W. C. Handy Music Festival, held in Florence each summer (featuring live rock, pop, gospel, R&B and jazz).
Country and Western superstar Hank Williams was born in Alabama in 1923, later thrilling the nation with hits such as I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and Lost Highway. Listen to his greatest hits at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, where displays include Hank’s 1952 Baby Blue Cadillac, suits, boots and cowboy hats.
Alabama’s musical legacy is celebrated at the annual Hangout Music Festival, held over three days in May on the beaches of Gulf Shores. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Billie Eilish, Megan Thee Stallion and Lana del Ray have all performed here.
And don’t forget America’s oldest Mardi Gras, celebrated in historic Mobile. Exuberant parades featuring decorated floats and “throws” (moonpies, beads and other gifts tossed to the crowd) take place leading up to Shrove (aka “Fat”) Tuesday. It is culminating with a spectacular night parade, lots of dancing, music and partying across the city.
Get an overview of the entire Civil Rights era at the modern Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Here multimedia displays include a replica of a Freedom Riders bus and the actual door to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Birmingham jail cell.
If you are inspired by Alabama's rich history and already planning your trip - read our list of 10 things to do in Alabama.
Visit the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, at the site where Mrs. Parks was arrested, and ride a Montgomery city bus “time machine” to learn about the key role women played within the movement. The Legacy Museum, located on a site in Montgomery where enslaved people were once warehoused, reopened its doors in October with new exhibits on the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
For an outdoor alternative, visit the National Memorial for Peace & Justice. This nation’s first and only memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved African Americans and people terrorized by lynching, and humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow.
In Selma, follow in the footsteps of Dr. King, John Lewis, Reverend Hosea Williams and other Civil Rights leaders by walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On the south side you can check out the small but poignant National Voting Rights Museum, which documents the African-American struggle to vote.
Clean, comfortable rooms and a substantial continental breakfast at this cheerful hotel in an historic building at the centre of town.
Located in Montgomery, Alabama, this hotel features free Wi-Fi internet and an on-site swimming pool. Guests will be just 4.8 km from Auburn University’s Montgomery campus.
Among well-known writers either from Alabama or with strong Alabama connections are William Bartram, Philip Henry Gosse, Booker T. Washington, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Walker Percy, Winston Groom, and Fannie Flagg. With Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird Alabama joined the rare company of states that have contributed a classic not only to American but also to world literature.
Scout, Jem and Boo Radley lived in the fictional community of Maycomb, Alabama, but Harper Lee based her seminal novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) on her very real hometown of Monroeville.
Today you can re-live scenes from the novel at the Old Courthouse Museum, restored to its 1930s appearance. Plus you can view exhibits on Lee and her childhood friend and fellow writer Truman Capote, who also grew up here. “Play season” runs April to May, when locals re-enact the entire story on stage.
Lee’s novel was published at a tumultuous time in US history, from Rosa Parks’ refusal to take the back seat in Montgomery (1955), to the courageous Freedom Riders (1961), and Montgomery marches (1965). There’s a lot to see – the Alabama Civil Rights Trail (coupled with the excellent Alabama Civil Rights Trail Podcast) is a good place to start.
Alabama is America’s 28th largest exporter of agricultural products. It is the second largest exporter of aquaculture, the fourth largest exporter of poultry & eggs, the seventh largest exporter of miscellaneous crops, and the 28th largest exporter of cattle.
One of Alabama's fastest growing export categories is bolts, nuts & miscellaneous turned products, which have increased by 17 percent per year since 2006.
Alabama Constitution Village is in downtown Huntsville, featuring eight reconstructed federal-style buildings with museum displays. Shop the day away at the nearby Madison Square mall. The Huntsville International Airport is only five miles away.
The newly constructed Sleep Inn & Suites Huntsville near U.S. Space & Rocket Center is just minutes away from local businesses and area attractions like the Lockheed Martin Corporation, The Boeing Company and the Redstone Arsenal military facility.
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Top image: Gulf Shores Orange Beach © Alabama Travel