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Making Memories in Alabama

From top to bottom, Alabama offers one-of-a-kind experiences for tour groups.

Traveling from Huntsville in the northern part of the state to Mobile on the Gulf Coast, visitors encounter a series of unique sites where they can make memories in various ways. From exploring the area’s history of space exploration to immersing themselves in civil rights heritage and getting an in-depth look at coastal ecology, groups that follow this route through Alabama will find fun at attractions both old and new.

Stargazing in Huntsville

A great north-to-south trip in Alabama starts in Huntsville, a city of about 400,000. There is a lot for groups to see and do in this smart, modern, well-educated city. But first and foremost is a visit to the famous U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

“That’s the thing you must see — it’s the No. 1 attraction in the state of Alabama,” said Pam Williams, tourism sales manager for the Huntsville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They have a program for adults called Constellation — it’s kind of an ultimate field-trip experience for adults.”

The Constellation program includes a guided tour during which groups see some of the one-of-a-kind artifacts on display, including full-size rockets and vehicles that have actually flown in space. From there, visitors can choose to take in a show in either the Imax theater or the National Geographic Theater. This is one of only 12 National Geographic theaters in the world, and the movies shown there can’t be seen by the public anywhere else.

Constellation tours include lunch and an optional bus excursion to the nearby NASA Space Flight Center.

“I highly recommend that experience,” Williams said. “It depends on what is available that day, but typically, they see historic test sites from the very first manned space flight program. Sometimes they can go into the Payloads Operations Facility. Huntsville is where all of the experiments happening on the International Space Station are operated from. So visitors can go in and see the scientists here communicating with astronauts on the space station.”

Beyond space history, Huntsville offers a number of other enticing stops for groups. The Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment District is a popular destination for meals, shopping and other activities; it is located in a reclaimed textile mill. Visitors can browse artist studios and sample handmade chocolates and other treats during an afternoon there.

The coming spring will also bring a new visitor center at the Huntsville Botanical Garden.

“It will be a gorgeous new addition to the garden,” Williams said. “Think of an old Southern plantation home with big, white columns. It will include special-event space, expanded dining and a gift shop.”

Booming Birmingham

Situated near the center of the state, Birmingham is Alabama’s largest city and is also at the center of its history, cultural and culinary scenes.

The city has numerous signature attractions for groups, including the Birmingham Civil Rights District. This area encompasses the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four African-American girls were killed in a racist bombing in 1963, as well as Kelly Ingram Park, which was a staging area for civil rights protests in the city. The district also includes the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which is recognized as one of the best civil rights museums in the country.

Beyond the historic sites, Birmingham is booming with a variety of new attractions and urban appeal.

“One of our new attractions is the Lyric Theatre, a vaudeville theater built in 1914,” said Sara Hamlin, vice president of tourism for the Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It sat dormant for over 30 years. It opened in January on its 102nd birthday. Groups will enjoy coming to see a show or taking a tour — it’s a beautiful, ornate facility.”

Another attraction that opened in the year is the Negro Southern League Museum, which is dedicated to the African-American baseball league that was prominent in the South before the sport was integrated.

“It showcases the largest collection of Negro League artifacts in the country, dating back to the late 1890s,” Hamlin said. “It’s a tribute to the metal and mine workers who formed their own baseball league during those times.”

Another popular Birmingham attraction, the Barber Motorsports Museum, is set to open a major expansion this winter that will give it an additional 85,000 square feet of space. The museum has the world’s largest collection of vintage and contemporary motorcycles.

Groups that visit Birmingham should take some time to enjoy its nationally recognized culinary scene.

“Opening this winter in a historic old department store known as the Pizitz will be the Pizitz Food Hall,” Hamlin said. “They will have 13 food halls, two restaurants and a bar. Groups can experience everything from Latin street food to Israeli cuisine.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.