Alabama is quite an eclectic state, with many charming towns and attractions dotting its roads — each with its own unique story to tell.
From outdoor recreational activities to slightly strange attractions, the State of Surprises offers travelers some totally unique experiences that shouldn’t be missed. Here are nine of our favorite stops along the main drags and backroads of Alabama.
1. U.S. Civil Rights Trail — Montgomery
Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Not only was it the ending point for the historic Selma to Montgomery March that saw the establishment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but it is also where Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white man, where Judge Frank Johnson Jr. authorized the desegregation of buses, and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s moving speech at the Holt Baptist Church rallied millions to protest without violence for basic civil rights.
Montgomery is one of the stops along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, a series of historic sites across 15 states and Washington, D.C., that trace the history of the Civil Rights Movement. In Montgomery, you can spend multiple days learning about this important moment in American history by visiting the Rosa Parks Museum, the Freedom Riders Museum, the Legacy Museum, and the moving National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which recognizes the thousands of lynchings that occurred across the country.
And that is only the beginning of your journey.
Pro Tip: To get started on your trip through history, use the interactive Civil Rights Trail map to plan your visit.
2. FAME Recording Studios — Muscle Shoals
It all began in 1959 when Rick Hall, Tom Stafford, and Billy Sherill set up a recording studio above a drugstore in Florence, Alabama. The Florence Alabama Music Enterprise, or FAME Recording Studios, went on to create a sound like no other along the banks of the Tennessee River — the Muscle Shoals Sound that fused blues, R&B, country, and gospel music together through the power of brass and powerful bass guitars.
In those early years, the studio produced albums for the likes of Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett. Even today, artists including Alicia Keys and Steven Tyler have recorded there.
The studio has opened its doors to fans and tourists with a once-a-day tour Monday through Friday at 9 a.m. and on the hour every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Pro Tip: I recommend that you purchase tickets and reserve your spot for the daily tour in advance. And to really enhance your experience, reserve tickets for the new Backstage Tour that takes you even deeper into the heart of the studio’s musical history.
3. U.S. Space and Rocket Center — Huntsville
Huntsville, Alabama, is known as the “Rocket City.” Here, Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team developed the rockets that would eventually send men to the moon, where technicians monitor the International Space Station 24/7, and where components of the newest moon rocket, the Space Launch System, are being evaluated.
This rich space history is celebrated at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Within this museum, you will find thousands of historical artifacts that trace America’s quest for space from its earliest days to the present, including actual space-flown vehicles.
Throughout the center, interactive simulators and rides like the HyperShip motion-based simulator, the G-Force Accelerator, and the stomach-churning Multi-Axis Trainer allow adults and children alike to experience what it is like to be an astronaut.
Bus tours of the Redstone Arsenal are also available that take visitors to the site where our space journey began in the late 1950s.
Pro Tip: Not only is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center the home of Space Camp, where children, adults, and families can train like the astronauts do, but also new camps: Space Camp Robotics, where you build robots; the Aviation Challenge to learn about flight and aircraft; and the U.S. Cyber Camp to learn about cyber security.
4. Dismals Canyon — Phil Campbell
Hidden away in the northwestern Alabama town of Phil Campbell is a truly remarkable natural wonder: Dismals Canyon.
The canyon features a 1.5-mile-long hiking trail that kids of all ages will love. Dismalites, or Orfelia fultoni, are phosphorescent bugs that cling to the canyon walls and can be seen glowing brightly after the sun sets.
The path leads you through the boulder-strewn maze of the canyon with tall, moss-covered sandstone walls. The trail weaves its way back in time through centuries of geologic and human history, and two waterfalls brighten the otherwise endless greens. And, of course, at night there is that dazzling light show put on by the Dismalites.
After exploring, stop by the canyon’s country store for snacks, lunch, or a good old-fashioned treat from the soda fountain.
Pro Tip: The walk down into the canyon can be difficult for some. It is a steep walk.
5. Rattlesnake Saloon — Tuscumbia
Looking for a unique dining experience? Then make plans to visit the Rattlesnake Saloon in Tuscumbia. What makes this restaurant different is that it’s built under a deep rock shelter, a cave-like cut into a rock wall. And if that isn’t enough, when it rains, a natural waterfall flows over the front of the restaurant. How about that?
The menu is traditional American fare with good Old West sounding names – the Rustler Burger, Prairie Sandwich, the Buckaroo. Wash it all down with your favorite fountain beverage, beer, or cider.
Pro Tip: If you need a place to stay, there is the Seven Springs Lodge located right at the saloon that offers overnight accommodations in cabins, campsites, and, get this: rooms in one of two silos.
6. Museum Of Wonder — Seale
Billed as a “modern day cabinet of curiosities,” the Museum of Wonder doesn’t disappoint with its, let us say, “unique” displays: the world’s largest gallstone, Bigfoot’s footprint, a turnip with a human face. You get the idea.
The museum is the brainchild of artist Butch Anthony. Anthony delves into a form of art that he calls Interwangleism. He works with a wide variety of mediums to create freaky taxidermy and sculptures made of metal and bones.
Butch likes to keep to himself, but so many people wanted to see his collection that he opened it to the public as the world’s first drive-thru museum.
Pro Tip: Visit the museum’s exhibition webpage for other locations where you can see Anthony’s works — and when the artist himself leads a guided tour through the museum, a rare treat.
7. Cathedral Caverns State Park — Woodville
Your Alabama experiences continue underground at Cathedral Caverns State Park.
Located just north of Lake Guntersville in Woodville, Alabama, the entrance to Cathedral Caverns alone will take your breath away. It measures a staggering 126 feet wide, 25 feet tall, and is believed to be the largest such entrance at a commercially-operated cave in the world. But that is nothing compared to what awaits you inside.
A 90-minute guided tour led by park rangers takes you into the depths of the cavern, where decorative lights illuminate the incredible scene below the Earth. You will encounter a rock formation that looks like a frozen waterfall, a stalagmite forest, a gravity-defying stalagmite that is 27 feet tall but only 3 inches wide, and the big showstopper: Goliath, one of the largest stalagmites in the world. It measures 45 feet tall and 243 feet in circumference.
Pro Tip: Visiting the cavern any time of year is a joy, even in the sweltering heat of an Alabama summer. The cave maintains a constant 60-degree temperature year round.
8. Ave Maria Grotto — Cullman
Stroll the grounds of Ave Maria Grotto at St. Bernard Abbey along a two-block long path. It’s like traveling the world in miniature.
Along the two-block long walkway, you will discover the sights of the world, all hand-a and carved by Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk who arrived at the abbey in 1892. In 1918 he began creating the miniature architectural reproductions out of leftover construction materials and household items. His creation was completed in 1958 when he was 80 years old. When he was finished, there were over 125 reproductions.
The detail of the miniatures is remarkable. You will see Herod’s Gate, the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and more.
9. Bellingrath Gardens — Mobile
Bellingrath Gardens and Home is consistently one of the state’s most popular attractions. And it doesn’t matter what time of year you visit. The garden always has beautiful and fragrant blooms awaiting you.
In spring, thousands of red, white, and pink azaleas burst forth with color. In summer, hydrangea and roses unveil themselves. Fall brings the gorgeous cascading blooms of chrysanthemums, and in winter, its over 400 varieties of camellia and the spectacular Magic Christmas in Lights, during which all 65-acres of the gardens are covered with 3 million lights, over 1,000 set pieces, and 15 scenes.
Pro Tip: Bellingrath Gardens is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day). Guided tours of the home are given daily every half hour. The Bellingrath website has ticket information.