Just off interstate highways that crisscross Alabama is a world much different than the electric and exciting vibe found in one of its four major cities. Along the state’s backroads and scenic highways, life slows down and the residents in the small towns that dot these roadways welcome visitors into their world with pure Southern hospitality.
When you’re traveling through the state on one of those interstate highways, take one of the exits and visit one of these charming small towns to see this Southern hospitality for yourself.
On the eastern shore of Mobile Bay where five rivers converge before flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, we find the town of Fairhope, a small coastal town that drips with Southern charm and hospitality with a dash of contemporary living mixed in.
Fairhope is known for its simple pleasures, thriving art scene, outdoor recreation, eclectic dining and shops, and incredible sunrises and sunsets over the bay. Residents and visitors love to kayak the bay, putting in at the Municipal Pier for a day of paddling with dolphins and maybe a manatee. Bring your own or rent one at the Fairhope Boat Company.
The town’s artistic side is highlighted during its annual Arts and Crafts Festival. Held the last weekend of April, the streets of town are filled with music and hundreds of artisans from around the country.
One of the best times to visit Fairhope is during Mardi Gras season when the spirit of Carnival comes alive. During the two-week celebration, numerous parades with gigantic ornate floats and masked revelers take to the streets tossing trinkets and Moon Pies to the excited crowds.
Located on the banks of the Chattahoochee River that forms the border between Georgia and Alabama, the town of Eufaula lives up to its sobriquet — “a town whose future is tied to its past.”
Eufaula is well known for its beautifully restored homes featuring late Victorian through Gothic Revival architecture. The Seth Lore and Irwinton Historic District highlight many of these homes that were built between 1825 and 1949. Be sure to visit Fendall Hall with its ornate Italian marble fireplaces and entrance floor and the Shorter Mansion with its impressive 17 freestanding columns and is the home of the Eufaula Historical Museum.
Eufaula is also known for its excellent fishing in the 41,000-acre reservoir formed by Walter F. George Dam. It isn’t called the “Bass Capital of the World” for nothing! And
Birdwatchers will want to visit the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, an 11,184-acre patchwork of wetlands and marshes that plays host to over 300 species of birds as well as 40 species of mammals, fish, and reptiles including alligators.
Dining runs the gambit in Eufaula, from “upscale Southern cuisine” at the River City Grill to the more down-home family-style Barb’s Country Kitchen.
The restored historic homes of Eufaula open up each year during one of the nation’s longest-running historic home tours, the Eufaula Pilgrimage, which is held the first weekend of April.
3. Fort Payne
High atop Lookout Mountain, the town of Fort Payne is a nature lover’s paradise. Waterfalls and breathtaking vistas are the big draws for this small mountain community. Thirty miles of hiking and mountain biking trails at DeSoto State Park take you to numerous cascades while just down the road, the views open up at the deepest canyon east of the Mississippi River, Little River Canyon National Preserve, the highlight of the preserve being the powerful Little River Falls.
But it’s not all about the great outdoors. Downtown Fort Payne is teeming with an array of shops and eateries that make for a full day of exploring in and of themselves. And while there, visit the museum that celebrates the town’s favorite sons, the 13-time Grammy Award-winning band, Alabama, who hails from Fort Payne.
Only a few blocks from downtown Fort Payne is a fascinating and relatively unknown natural wonder, Manitou Cave. The ancient cave features fascinating geologic formations and evidence of Native American habitation from hundreds of years ago. Reservations for a guided tour are required and the number of people who are allowed into the cave is limited to protect its history and the environment.
Known as the “Gateway to the Appalachians,” Mentone is a quaint mountain town where the lush forests atop Lookout Mountain give way to breathtaking views and where downtown streets are lined with quirky shops and farmer’s markets. It has an amazing array of cafés with menus that run the gambit from Southern comfort food to Asian cuisine and everything in between.
As with neighboring Fort Payne, Mentone is the home of many beautiful waterfalls, in particular the 104-foot-tall DeSoto Falls where the water from the West Fork of Little River has carved out a spectacular canyon.
The town itself boasts some beautiful rustic, but well-appointed cabins and cottages where you can rest your weary head after a long day of exploring, many with gorgeous views of the surrounding Southern Appalachian foothills.
Tucked away in northwest Alabama near the banks of the Tennessee River is the town of Tuscumbia where its 200-year-old history makes it a fascinating destination.
Known as the “Charm of the Shoals,” Tuscumbia greets visitors with impressive antebellum architecture lining its streets. Restored historic downtown shops are inviting and offer an eclectic array of goods and dining experiences.
The town offers much to do and see. One of the main attractions is the town’s centerpiece, Spring Park, a beautiful shimmering spring-fed lake that features a water fountain that is dedicated to the wife of Shawnee Indian Chief Tecumseh. The fountain’s 51 jets are synchronized to music and lights.
Within the park is the world’s largest manmade stone waterfall, Cold Water Falls. Each day, over four million gallons of water, tumbles down the 42-foot tall stonework.
History abounds in Tuscumbia, including the birthplace of writer and activist Hellen Keller — Ivy Green, the Coon Dog Cemetery with its unique headstones and monuments to man’s best friend, and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame where the history of music legends from the state are honored and come to life.
For a unique dining experience, the place to go is the Rattlesnake Saloon. The restaurant and bar were built under a huge rock overhang and if there has been good rain, a waterfall drapes over the top of the restaurant. Oh, and the food is great, too.
To many, the sleepy little Alabama town of Monroeville is Alabama’s own version of Mayberry with its laid-back atmosphere, its super friendly townspeople, and downtown with the brilliant white-domed courthouse as its centerpiece. But most people know the town as the “Literary Capital of Alabama,” and for good reason. It was here that author Harper Lee wrote the world-famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Strolling the streets of Monroeville, the book comes alive as you visit the courthouse where the book’s fictional attorney Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson. Inside you will find the Monroe County Museum that pays tribute to the author as well as Harper Lee’s lifelong friend Truman Capote, and the fascinating history of this south Alabama town.
Plan your visit to Monroeville in April or May when the Mockingbird Players present their live version of To Kill a Mockingbird. The town becomes the epicenter of Southern literature the first weekend of March each year as writers and authors gather for the Monroeville Literary Festival. It’s a book lover’s chance to meet and hear from their favorite Southern authors.
It doesn’t get any smaller than our next charming town, Mooresville. Located only 20 miles southwest of Huntsville and 7 miles northeast of Decatur, Mooresville is less than a half-mile in size with six streets and a total population (as of last count) of 84 people, all of whom welcome visitors to explore their rich history. The entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The town’s history dates back to 1818 when it became one of the first towns incorporated by the Alabama Territorial Legislature. Park the car and stroll the streets to visit the oldest operating post office in the state (and one of the oldest in the country), built in 1840, and the beautiful Greek Revival styling of the Brick Church. The church was built in 1839 with handmade bricks that are almost perfectly symmetrical — unusual for handmade bricks. Look up at the steeple and you will see a hand pointing skyward. It was placed there to let people know the way to heaven, just in case they didn’t know. The original hand fell off in the early 1990s but was rebuilt by a local craftsman.
The town has a museum in the Stagecoach Inn and Tavern. Built around 1825, the building served as the original post office and tavern, where you could buy dinner for “2 bits.”
The best time to visit is in the spring when every Saturday the town hosts a historic walking tour, and the second weekend of May, when the streets are filled with local and regional artisans during the annual Mooresville Art Festival.
While in Mooresville, pay a visit to Lyla’s Little House, where they serve up incredible sweet treats, like delicious pecan pralines, German chocolate milkshakes, and addictive cheese straws.
These Alabama small towns, and many others, are a delightful surprise for visitors contemplating a trip to this Southern state: