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, and 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 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, its 22 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.
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.
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), which still knocks out those crunchy, salty tomato slices, along with a range of Southern favourites the state is best known for.
Grabbing lunch at a meat-and-three restaurant is an essential experience. Menus often change daily, but for usually less than $15 USD you’ll be able to fill up on fried chicken, barbecue pork, catfish or meatloaf plus three sides (think fried green tomatoes, mac ‘n’ cheese, rice and gravy, candied yams and fried okra). Martin’s Restaurant in Montgomery has been especially famed for its delicious fried chicken since the 1930s, while 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.
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 head to the art-smothered taproom at TrimTab Brewing, where delicious salted maple stouts and sours are poured.
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, which preserves his humble wood cabin crammed with personal memorabilia, 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, culminating with a spectacular night parade, lots of dancing, music and partying across the city.
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 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.
Get an overview of the entire Civil Rights era at the modern Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where multimedia displays include a replica of a Freedom Riders bus and the actual door to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Birmingham jail cell.
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, the 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.
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.
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Top image: Gulf Shores Orange Beach © Alabama Travel