The State of Surprises, Alabama, officially became the 22nd state in the Union in 1819, but its history dates back more than 10,000 years to when Native Americans called its thick woods and myriad waterways home.
The history of this state is extensive, and ancient Native American mound builders, European settlers, Civil War soldiers, and participants in the fight for civil rights all played a role. Just about every town and city in the state has established walking tours that lead visitors back in time to Alabama’s often turbulent history.
Let’s hit the road and visit six of the more fascinating walking tours in Alabama.
Alabama’s port city, Mobile, has a rich and eclectic history that dates to the early 1500s, with the city proper finally being established in 1702. Today, you can revisit pieces of this history with a stroll down its oak-lined streets.
The downtown walk covers Fort Conde, a recreation of the original fort built on that location in 1723; the historic waterfront that made Mobile what it is today; the Battle House Hotel that was built in 1851 and that hosted Stephen Douglas after he lost the presidential election to Abraham Lincoln; the 1927 Saenger Theatre, known as “Alabama’s greatest showplace” and “the most beautiful playhouse in all of Dixie”; and the Church Street Graveyard, the city’s oldest surviving cemetery, which was established in 1819 and where you can pay your respects to Mobile’s favorite son, Joe Cain, who brought Mardi Gras back home after it was halted during the Civil War.
Pick up a tour map at the Fort Conde visitor center before heading out. Your ramble through downtown Mobile will take you down Dauphin Street, where you’ll find electric nightlife and fantastic eateries, including the Loda Bier Garten, with its amazing pub food and arguably the best burger in the city.
The best time to visit Mobile and explore the city’s history is during Mardi Gras season, which is celebrated during the two weeks leading up to the first day of Lent. Mobile is known as the birthplace of Mardi Gras in America.
Take a trip to Monroeville to visit the courthouse where fictional attorney Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. This sleepy little Alabama town is known as the Literary Capital of Alabama, and many people think of it as Alabama’s own Mayberry because of its laid-back vibe and friendly residents.
A walking tour of the town will take you to Monroe County’s first courthouse, which is now the Monroe County Museum. (Monroe County and Monroeville were both named for President James Monroe.) You will also stroll past a monument to Atticus Finch; the site of Faulk House, where Truman Capote once lived; the Pineville Cemetery that dates to 1846; and many historic homes.
Plan your visit for April or May, when the Mockingbird Players present their live version of To Kill a Mockingbird. And if you are a writer -- or you simply love reading -- head to Monroeville during the Monroeville Literary Festival; it's held annually on the first weekend of March and features an incredible lineup of guest authors.
“From Civil War to Civil Rights” is the perfect motto for the city of Selma. This quiet, unassuming town on the banks of the Alabama River sweeps you into its incredible history on a 2-mile walking tour.
The most notable historic site here, of course, is the Edmund Pettus Bridge that crosses the river. Here, in 1965, a group of protestors assembled and began a march to the state’s capital to demand equal voting rights. On the other side of the bridge, they were attacked by state troopers and law enforcement armed with billy clubs and tear gas. The event was televised around the country and outraged the nation so much that “Bloody Sunday” led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act.
But there is more history to explore in Selma. The streets are lined with historic buildings dating to the late 1800s. There is the famous Walton Theater, where vaudeville acts performed in the 1900s; the Bridge Tender’s House, where the families who ran the Selma turn bridge once lived (and where you can now spend the night); and the only remaining riverfront antebellum hotel in the Southeast, the St. James.
Also dotting the streets are beautiful churches, many over 100 years old, where you can step inside and marvel at the ornate architecture. These include the First Baptist Church; the Brown Chapel AME Church, where the Selma marchers organized and where their wounds were later tended to; and the First Presbyterian Church, which dates to 1893. During the Civil War, the church’s pastor, the Reverend Richard Small, was killed. Legend has it that the Lady Banksia rose outside the church lost its petals when his body was returned here.
The best time to visit Selma is in April, when tour guides lead visitors on free walking tours. These hour-long spring walking tours are held annually.
It has been said that Eufaula’s future is tied to its past, and it’s true. The town, which lies on the banks of the Chattahoochee River and the Walter F. George Lake, is well known for its historic homes, especially those in the Seth Lore and Irwinton Historic District. Here, you will see beautifully restored late Victorian, Greek revival, classical revival, and Gothic revival homes that were built between 1825 and 1949. Two popular stops are Fendall Hall, with its ornate Italian marble fireplaces and foyer, and the Shorter Mansion, with its impressive 17 freestanding columns. The Shorter Mansion now serves as the home of the Eufaula Area Museum.
Along your stroll through Eufaula, you can also visit the Fairview Cemetery. Opened in 1868, the cemetery offers a pleasant walk along paths with hundreds of different species of trees and flowers.
One of the nation’s longest-running historic home tours, the Eufaula Pilgrimage, occurs annually the first weekend in April. You could also catch the holiday spirit during their Christmas Tour of Homes in December.
Alabama’s state capital, Montgomery, is dedicated to preserving its rich history -- and in particular, to celebrating those who have fought for civil rights in America.
Begin your tour by stopping at the Montgomery Area Visitor Center to pick up a brochure and map of the nearby sites so you can plan out your day. Highlights of a walking tour of Montgomery include the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955; the Rosa Parks Museum and Children’s Wing, which chronicles the fight for civil rights and is located on the exact spot where Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus; and the Freedom Rides Museum, honoring those brave souls who faced mob violence to fight for their rights.
You can either walk or ride one of the city’s trolleys to many of Montgomery’s historic sites. Visit the Montgomery Convention & Visitor Bureau website to download free maps of the civil rights walking tour as well as free audio files that describe each stop along the tour.
Only 25 minutes southwest of Huntsville along the south bank of the Tennessee River is the town of Decatur. Once just a little dot on the map, the city grew exponentially due to the railroad. In fact, the town was the site of the first railroad terminus east of the Appalachians.
What makes a walking tour of Decatur special is the city’s many historic homes and buildings that remain intact. You will visit the Hargrove & Murdock Grocery Store that was built in 1897 and is now, appropriately enough, an antique store; the Shadowlawn home, named for the towering oaks that surround the residence; a beautiful Japanese tea garden at Frazier Park; and the library that was funded by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1904 and is now the home of the Carnegie Visual Arts Center.
The best way to plan your tour of Decatur is to watch the series of videos the city has produced and published on their website. You can also download their free Old Decatur app to guide you on your journey.