What is Alabama known for? Top facts and attractions

Stephen Keeling

written by
Stephen Keeling

updated 15.11.2022

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.

The information in this article is inspired by the Rough Guide to The USA: the South, your essential guide for visiting South states of the USA.

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.

 The Cheaha Mountain State Park In Alabama © Vallee/Shutterstock

The Cheaha Mountain State Park In Alabama © Vallee/Shutterstock

What Alabama is known for is its great outdoors

The range of natural wonders on offer is perhaps one of Alabama’s biggest secrets. From the wooded foothills of the Appalachians, ablaze with colour every autumn, to the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Twenty two state parks harbour everything from caves and caverns to swamps and towering waterfalls.

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.

To find more ideas for your trip to the USA take note of our list of the most beautiful places in the USA.

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.

Get more information about Gulf Coast in our guide about Alabama outdoor adventure.

Fort Payne, Little River Canyon near Johnnies Creek ©  Alabama Travel

Fort Payne, Little River Canyon near Johnnies Creek © Alabama Travel

Southern Warmth & Hospitality - another fact about Alabama

Unexpected kindness is a part of everyday life in the south. Southern states provide the foundation for some of the most significant events in United States history. As the basis for much of the Civil Rights Movement, this region is rich in historical landmarks and cultural artifacts. Add to that the region’s mild weather, abundant nature and world-famous cuisine, and you’ll find a lot of things to do on your adventure through the Southern States.

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.

Delicious Alabama foods

Foodies are in for a treat in Alabama. The 1991 movie Fried Green Tomatoes was inspired by a real-life Irondale Café (seven miles from downtown Birmingham). It still knocks out those crunchy, salty tomato slices, along with a range of Southern favourites the state is best known for.

Meat and three – and other classics

Grabbing lunch at a meat-and-three restaurant is an essential experience. Menus often change daily. For usually less than $15 USD you’ll be able to fill up on fried chicken, barbecue pork, catfish or meatloaf plus three sides.

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.

Fried chicken wings with sauce © Alexander Prokopenko/Shutterstock

Fried chicken wings with sauce © Alexander Prokopenko/Shutterstock

Craft beers

Alabama has enthusiastically embraced America’s burgeoning craft beer scene, with Birmingham especially blessed with enticing microbreweries. Grab an outdoor table at Cahaba Brewing and peruse the local food truck offerings while sipping a tasty Cahaba Blonde. Or you can head to the art-smothered taproom at TrimTab Brewing, where delicious salted maple stouts and sours are poured.

Music legends and landmarks

Unbeknown to most visitors, Alabama has a rich musical history that encompasses everything from country and blues to rock and jazz.

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).

Mardi Gras, Alabama © EQRoy/shutterstock

Mardi Gras, Alabama © EQRoy/shutterstock

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.

Cradle of the modern civil rights movement

What Alabama is undoubtedly known for is its role in the civil rights movement.

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.

Montgomery Rosa Parks © Alabama Travel

Montgomery Rosa Parks © Alabama Travel

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.

Immerse yourself in the history of the civil rights movement with this audio-guided tour of Montgomery.

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.

    Where to stay in Montgomery:

  • Hampton Inn & Suites Montgomery-Downtown
  • Clean, comfortable rooms and a substantial continental breakfast at this cheerful hotel in an historic building at the centre of town.

  • Drury Inn & Suites Montgomery
  • 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.

Home of the great novelists

Alabama has a rich literary heritage including such genres as travel and nature writing, autobiography, and humor, as well as poetry, drama, and fiction.

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.

Booker T. Washington statue in Alabama © Jeffrey M. Frank/Shutterstock

Booker T. Washington statue in Alabama © Jeffrey M. Frank/Shutterstock

Global export

Alabama ranks among the top 10 state exporters in 12 industries, including:

  • second in aquaculture ($31 million)
  • third in coal & petroleum gases ($511 million)
  • third in motor vehicles ($7.9 billion)
  • fourth in poultry & eggs ($55 million)

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.

Shrimp Boats on Mobile Bay © Jared Helton/Shutterstock

Shrimp Boats on Mobile Bay © Jared Helton/Shutterstock

Rocket City

Huntsville has been home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center since 1960, which developed the Saturn rockets for the Apollo moon missions. At the US Space & Rocket Center you can learn to fly a F-18 Super Hornet, virtually experience the Apollo 11 moon landing, and even scuba dive at the Underwater Astronaut Trainer.

    Where to stay in Huntsville:

  • Comfort Inn Huntsville near University
  • 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.

  • Sleep Inn & Suites Huntsville near U.S. Space & Rocket Center
  • 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.

US Space & Rocket Center © Alabama Travel

US Space & Rocket Center © Alabama Travel

You can choose the most attractive US destinations from our list of the best states to visit in the USA.

If you prefer to plan and book your trip to the USA without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.

Ready for a trip to the USA? Check out the snapshot Rough Guide to The Rough Guide to Southwest USA or The Rough Guide to The USA: The South. If you travel further in USA, read more about the best time to go, the best places to visit and best things to do in USA. For inspiration use the USA itineraries from The Rough Guide to USA and our local travel experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.

We may earn commission when you click on links in this article, but this doesn’t influence our editorial standards. We only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.

Top image: Gulf Shores Orange Beach © Alabama Travel

Stephen Keeling

written by
Stephen Keeling

updated 15.11.2022

Stephen Keeling grew up in England and graduated from Jesus College, Oxford in 1992 with a degree in history. After working as a financial journalist in Eastern Europe and East Asia, he moved to New York City in 2006. Since then he has authored and updated numerous Rough Guides, Insight Guides, Frommer's guides and DK travel books in addition to writing for Google, Zagat, the Independent, Budget Travel and other publications.

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