Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

Alabama’s Downtown Dynamos

It’s nice when a tour lets you minimize motorcoach time and maximize the number of stops, thereby providing extra time for exploration. Downtowns do that, and here are five in Alabama to remember.



Birmingham is Alabama’s largest metro region (more than 1 million people), but it’s still relatively young. Founded in 1871, it quickly became a center of industry, particularly steelmaking. But that identity has faded. The city brags on higher education, banking, Civil Rights history, arts, restaurants and sports rather than open-hearth furnaces and smokestacks.

Steelmaking, of course, is why a statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, rises atop Red Mountain. The view from the statue’s observation deck reveals the city’s expanse, and the museum at the base does an excellent job detailing the city’s origins.

From atop Vulcan, you easily see a modern-day city amenity: Railroad Park, a 19-acre greenspace celebrating Birmingham’s artistic and industrial past. Stroll through Railroad Park after visiting the Negro Southern League Museum or watching the Birmingham Barons baseball team at the modern Region’s Field. America’s oldest baseball park, Rickwood Field, is nearby.

Numerous thought-provoking destinations are in the heart of downtown, where part of the city is designated as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. Among them are the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the 16th Street Baptist Church, site of a horrific bombing in 1963. Across from the church is an impressive monument of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Additional tour stops can include the Birmingham Museum of Art, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and various food choices at Pizitz Food Hall.


The weight of history and the joy of pop culture and entertainment are counterbalancing attractions in Montgomery, Alabama’s capital.

The weighty, contemplative activities involve the nation’s racial past, the struggles of the Civil Rights movement and the illumination that current and future generations need to understand American history.

Start with the Legacy Museum, built on the site of a warehouse where enslaved people were held. Through technology, art, film and first-person narratives, the museum traces the transatlantic slave trade, domestic slavery and Reconstruction. Less than a mile away is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a powerful six-acre outdoor reminder of almost 5,000 lynchings in the U.S. between 1887 and 1950. Eight hundred monuments, each six feet tall, tell a painful story. That’s one monument for every county where a lynching occurred.

The museum and memorial are the work of the Equal Justice Initiative. The New York Times said, “There’s nothing like this in the country.”

William Shakespeare and country music legend Hank Williams are an unlikely pair to lighten a visit to Montgomery, but they manage quite well. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival started in Anniston in 1972 and has been a fixture in Montgomery since 1985. Now a year-round institution with a permanent facility, the festival is Alabama’s official theater, and throughout the year, it presents classic plays, contemporary works, musicals and, yes, Shakespeare. Adjacent Blount Cultural Park contains the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.

Fans of country music know that Hank Williams’ roots were in Montgomery. Take time to see his statue downtown and visit the Hank Williams Museum.


Up in north Alabama, Huntsville stands as a delightful mix of history, arts and glorious space science.

Space science earned Huntsville its Rocket City nickname. Huntsville played a vital role in America’s exploration of space, detailed on a massive scale at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Alabama’s most visited attraction. Big on the list to see is a Saturn V rocket (one of only three in the world), Rocket Park (which includes a mock-up of the Apollo 11 lunar landing site) and Shuttle Park (America’s most complete collection of launch vehicles).

A more down-to-earth attraction is the Huntsville Botanical Garden, 120 acres of flora, woodland paths, water features, broad meadows and strategically placed sculptures. Pair the botanical garden with Burritt on the Mountain, a historic mansion on Monte Sano Mountain, with its spectacular view of the Tennessee River Valley.

Huntsville offers three adaptive-use restoration projects great for groups. Stovehouse (once a sprawling stove and heater factory) now offers restaurants, shops, entertainment spaces and a multi-brewer beer emporium. Nearby is Campus 805, once a 1950s-era high school now with two breweries, shops and entertainment venues. Even bigger is Lowe Mill ARTS and Entertainment, where more than 200 artists work in many media. The complex once was a textile mill.

For another trip back in time, check out Harrison Brothers Hardware on the courthouse square. It opened in 1897 and now is a heritage project of the Historic Huntsville Foundation.


The waterfront town of Fairhope, population less than 25,000, is somewhere you can turn a tour group loose for individual exploration and just hope they don’t get too absorbed to return on time.

Fairhope is on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, and its compact downtown is a treasure of flowers, bay views, shops, small restaurants and art galleries — especially art galleries. Make a point to look for the Hello Gallery, the Lion’s Share Gallery and the Eastern Shore Art Center (ESAC).

Local artists and art patrons coalesced in the 1950s to form the ESAC. Today, it has a facility with five galleries, two teaching studios and a calendar packed with special exhibitions and programs. One ESAC project is the Fairhope Sculpture Trail, a spread-out collection of art in public spaces. If your timing is good, the ESAC is the starting point of the First Friday ArtWalk for a stroll offering live music, snacks and plenty of art.

Fairhope’s abundance of small restaurants is a major diversion. Among the choices: Dragonfly Food Bar for specialty tacos; Panini Pete’s for perfectly pressed sandwiches and (surprise) beignets; and Master Joe’s Sushi. To slake your thirst, the Fairhope Brewing Company offers you craft beers the locals like.

An almost mandatory destination is the Fairhope Municipal Pier and Park. There has been a pier in this location since 1894. The current version — all 1,448 feet of it — replaced one Hurricane Katrina destroyed in 2005. Stroll the pier, photograph the sailboats, enjoy the sunshine — and make nice memories of Fairhope.


Step back to college days in the joined-at-the-hip cities of Auburn and Opelika  — communities in east-central Alabama that are similar but still different. In a sense, they have two state capitals as bookends. Montgomery is 55 miles southwest, and Atlanta, Georgia, is 105 miles northeast.

The metro area is small enough that a tour can hop around the two cities that almost blend together. Auburn has about 64,000 residents, while Opelika has about 30,000. The 30,000 students at Auburn University spice things up. Auburn is the college town, and Opelika has been described as the hip older sister.

The university, of course, defines the area and delivers facilities, attractions and activities. On the cultural side, consider the Jule Collins Art Museum, with its signature Dale Chihuly chandelier and an ever-changing exhibition calendar. On the culinary side, check out the Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center for delightful dining experiences and a rooftop garden with great views, small bites and cool beverages.

Tour options range substantially. One choice is the John Emerald Distillery (its Hugh Wesley’s Gin uses hand-picked Alabama juniper berries), perhaps complemented by learning about the brewer’s art at Red Clay Brewing (named for the region’s red soil) or the Resting Pulse Brewery, where the owners want visitors to relax and find their “resting pulse.”

For excitement, however, book a visit to the Auburn Raptor Center, where you’ll learn about the university’s War Eagle tradition and other raptors such as hawks, owls and buzzards in hour-long programs.