Deep in the heart of the Southeast, Alabama is a big state with a lot of natural beauty and southern hospitality to discover. Nicknamed the “Heart of Dixie”, this state is famous for the Civil Rights Movement, music, college football, beaches, agriculture, and cotton.
As far as a bustling travel destination, Alabama often ranks lowly, but visitors should give it a chance. Discover rich culture, history, and amazing landscapes. Interestingly, the state is also strongly connected to NASA and space exploration.
Boasting much more diversity than people would assume at first glance, this state is sure to surprise you. Major destinations include the cities of Huntsville, Birmingham, and Montgomery, but there are plenty of small town communities to explore too. In rural parts of the state, gorgeous landscapes stretch on for miles and there are hidden gems tucked throughout the various regions.
Certainly one of the most unique places to visit in the US, Alabama is a delightful destination for curious explorers. Travelers that head to this southern state will experience an unforgettable time.
Livin’ La Vida Alabama
History of the “Cotton State”
Indigenous people have lived and developed unique cultures in Alabama for thousands of years. Prior to European arrival, the Mississippian culture was the most prominent and it lasted from 1,000 to 1,600 CE. One of the largest centers of the culture is the Moundville Archaeological Site.
Ancestors of modern Native Americans, it’s believed that the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Koasati tribes were the first to encounter Europeans during the 16th century. Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer, is credited as being the first European to travel through the area in 1540. However, the first settlement wasn’t established until the French built the Old Mobile settlement in 1702.
After the Seven Years’ War, the French lost control of the land and Alabama became a part of British West Florida. When the US won the American Revolutionary War, the land was divided with Spain, which retained control of the western region until 1783.
By December 1819, Alabama was admitted as the 22nd US state. The state capital changed from Huntsville to Cahaba and Tuscaloosa before eventually permanently moving to Montgomery. As a southern state, Alabama relied on slave labor and was predominately loyal to the Confederacy. It was during the Civil War that one of the state’s nicknames, “Yellowhammer”, emerged.
Named after soldiers’ yellow trimmed uniforms, Alabama soldiers in the Confederate Army became known as “Yellowtails”. Another version of the story states that the soldiers left for battle with feathers from the Yellowhammer bird (more commonly known as a Northern flicker) in the felt hat. Slavery in the state ended in 1865 with the passing of the 13th Amendment.
Although slavery ended, racial tension continued for decades in Alabama. The state would become an important place for the Civil Rights Movement with some of the most famous events being the Montgomery bus boycott, Freedom Rides, and various marches. Since then, the state has made progress as it emerges into the 21st century.
Capital City of Montgomery
Nesteled beside the Alabama River is the state capital, Montgomery. Home to 200,603 people as of 2020, the capital was first incorporated in 1819. Featuring a storied history, the city has changed from being the capital of the Confederate States of America in 1861 to being a major center for the Civil Rights Movement.
Montgomery has become a tourist destination. Showcasing the history and blending with modernity, the city is a “must-see” for travelers in Alabama.
Two of the busiest areas of the city are Downtown and the Waterfront. Packed with attractions, restaurants, shops and parks, crowds tend to congregate in these areas. Visitors can self guide themselves through the area or book a private tour. Haunted hearse tours are particularly popular for those that want to learn more of the city’s spooky history.
Among the long list of Montgomery’s attractions, some of the best are the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, Alabama State Archives and History Museum, Civil Rights Memorial, Montgomery Zoo, Old Alabama Town, and the Alley Entertainment District.
Huntsville, The Largest City in Alabama
In the northern region of the state and home to 215,006 people as of 2020 is Huntsville, the largest city in Alabama. Incorporated in 1811 as a town, Huntsville used to be the state capital before it was moved. Growing to become a major city after World War II, tourism is beginning to pick up momentum in “Rocket City”.
Drawn to the variety of attractions, tourists have also fallen in love with the idyllic countryside landscapes that surround the urban area. Picturesque and with antique charm, the beauty of Huntsville only enhances its character. One of the best places to enjoy greenery and architecture is the Twickenham Historic District where the oldest house dates back to 1819.
Other attractions that are worth seeing are the Huntsville Botanical Garden, US Space and Rocket Centre, Harmony Park Safari, Huntsville Museum of Art, Constitution Village, Bridge Street Town Centre, Big Spring Park, Madison County Nature Trail, Maple Hill Cemetery, and the Historic Huntsville Depot.
Birmingham, “The Magic City”
A historical and industrial city, Birmingham is home to 197,575 as of 2020. Steel was the dominant material in production, but it wasn’t the only one. The city also grew with the rise of railroads as they expanded to the south. Redeveloped, many industrial aspects of the city have been preserved for historic value.
Now, Birmingham is filled with parks, museums, restaurants, and shops as it seeks to become more diverse with its attractions. It has been called the “Dinner Table of the South”.
Many significant attractions and landmarks are tied to the Civil Rights Movement, which was an important part of the city’s history. Particularly important attractions include the Birmingham Civil Rights District, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Additional attractions in the city include the Birmingham Museum of Art, Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, Alabama Theater, The Birmingham Zoo, Red Mountain Park, Birmingham Botanical Garden, and Vulcan Park and Museum.
Mobile, “The Port City”
On the Gulf of Mexico, Mobile is a unique port city that has become famous for its small stretch of coastline. Supporting 187,041 residents as of 2020, the city’s more compact layout is ideal for urban adventures.
The location along the water makes Mobile the only major city in the state that has a port and beaches. However, beyond the picturesque setting, the city is renowned for its historic homes and southern charm.
Attractions in Mobile are very diverse with something to appeal to every traveler. From history to military, outdoors and shopping, tourists are guaranteed to have a full and fun itinerary for their trip to this southern city. Some of Mobile’s top sights are the USS Alabama, Mobile Museum of Art, Mobile Carnival Museum, Dauphin Street, Oakleigh Garden Historic District, Colonial Fort Conde, Mobile Botanical Gardens, and the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gult of Mexico.
Muscle Shoals, “The Hit Recording Capital of the World”
In the far northwest corner of Alabama is the small city of Muscle Shoals. Home to 16,275 as of 2020, Muscle Shoals is most famous for its musical history. Nicknamed “The Hit Recording Capital of the World” or the “Abbey Road of America”, some of the most iconic songs were recorded at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Big names that have recorded at the studio include Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, and Cher.
Although Muscle Shoals is pretty far from the beaten track, those that love music will find it to be a fascinating destination. Without the crowds, tourists can also sit back and relax amongst gorgeous landscapes that include the Tennessee River.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach
Much smaller than Mobile with a population of 15,014 as of 2020 is Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Suited for travelers that want to stay in a smaller community by the beach, the city population rapidly grows during the summer months. One of the top attractions is Orange Beach, which is the main sandy spot in Gulf Shores.
Set up to be family friendly, tourists can enjoy a pristine stretch of coastline that is packed with resorts, shops, restaurants, and attractions. Apart from typical resort activities, some of the more unique things to do include taking a cruise, dolphin-watching, and hiking.
Cheaha State Park
The oldest continuously operated state park in Alabama is Cheaha. Opened in 1933, the name comes from the Muskogee language where “Chaha” translates to “high place”. Befitting the name, the state’s highest point is located on Cheaha Mountain, which sits entirely within the state park.
Activities in Cheaha State Park include hiking, camping, mountain biking, and taking scenic drives. There are a variety of trails that run through the park, as well as a few specific nearby attractions like the Talladega National Forest and the Cheaha Wilderness Area. Limited accommodation is available in the form of camping or at the historic Bald Rock Lodge.
Point Mallard Park
Another place to enjoy the outdoors is at Point Mallard Park near Decatur. Covering 500 acres, this park is typically visited by wild ducks, which are the namesakes. Beyond ducks, species that are frequently seen in the park and neighboring Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge are geese, raccoons, opossums, deer, quail, and rabbits. Some of the more rare inhabitants include American alligators, which have a small population living in the area.
People tend to visit Point Mallard to hike and camp, but there are plenty of things to do beyond the basics. Interesting sights include the Point Mallard Golf Course, Spirit of America Stage, Ice Complex, Soccer park, and the Jimmy Johns Tennis Center. There is also an Aquatic Center, but it is only open during the summer months. The rest of the park is open year-round.
Cathedral Caverns State Park
For breathtaking rock formations, tourists should head underground to see the Cathedral Caverns State Park outside of Kennamer Cove, Alabama. Originally called “Bats Cave”, the attraction was renamed because of the formation’s appearance, which resembles the spires of cathedrals.
Although the cave is fairly large, visitors are only permitted in a small section. However, don’t be deceived by its compact layout. There are nearly 2 miles of paths for visitors to follow once underground. To stay safe, visitors are encouraged to book a tour of the caverns, although clearly marked paths make it easy to guide yourself too.
Little River Canyon National Preserve
Near Fort Payne, the Little River Canyon National Preserve protects what some consider to be the longest mountaintop river in the US. The preserve is on top of Lookout Mountain and it covers 15,288 acres. The main feature is the Little River Canyon, which has been carved deep into the rock and surrounded by lush foliage.
Although the area is beautiful year round, fall is a particularly popular season for tourists because of the changing leaves. Highlights of the park include the Jacksonville State University Little River Canyon Center, Canyon Mouth Park Day-Use Area, the Blue Hole, Little River Canyon Rim Parkway, and more than 26 miles of hiking trails.
Cloudmont Ski Resort
Another destination located on Lookout Mountain is the Cloudmont Ski Resort, which is the only place to ski and snowboard in the state. Alabama certainly isn’t known for its mountains, but in the Southern Appalachians, a limited amount of snow does fall in the area. Still, most of the snow is artificial and it covers only two runs. Perfect for a day trip, the ski resort is certainly a unique LOCAL place to visit.
For those that are looking to explore the southern roots of the US, Alabama is a certified hidden gem. With tourism rapidly growing on the coast, there are dozens of attractions in other regions of the state that are worthwhile destinations too. The diversity of Alabama is a welcome surprise for many who find themselves planning a trip to the Heart of Dixie.