The birthplace of America’s space program, Huntsville, Alabama has long ranked as one the most educated cities in the country. Due to its long association with NASA, ‘Rocket City’ is the home of the world’s largest space museum, the US Space and Rocket Center. Today, Huntsville is a growing hub for the tech industry, with the likes of Google, Facebook and even the FBI joining the existing scientific community.

But there’s plenty going on outside of space and high-tech. Huntsville has seen a boom in its craft beer scene and has more designated green spaces and hiking trails than ever before. It also happens to be the perfect launching point for North Alabama day trips, all within a short drive of the city.

Mural with blue background that includes the text "welcome to Huntsville." The "I" in Huntsville is a rocket ship.
The sky's the limit for things to do in and around Huntsville, Alabama © Natalie Nicolson / Lonely Planet

Within Rocket City limits

It’s hard to visit Huntsville without checking out the US Space and Rocket Center, the state’s most visited attraction. In 2019, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, this expansive museum is holding daily reenactments of the pivotal event, in addition to its hundreds of space-related artifacts and popular simulators (don’t leave without trying the G Force).

But there’s plenty to enjoy on the more local side of the scene. Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment, a Huntsville institution that was once a cotton mill, is America’s largest private and independently owned arts facility and a growing center for music, art and culture, featuring 148 working studios for over 200 artists and makers, six art galleries, restaurants and a music venue. No matter the time of year, you’ll find something happening here, including artist talks, exhibits, markets, workshops and yoga. During more temperate months in spring and fall, check the calendar for drive-in movie screenings and weekly ‘Concerts on the Dock,’ with special shows like BonnaWHO?, an ‘anti’ music festival featuring 18 acts and a makeshift roller-skating rink. Lowe Mill is also home to Huntsville Comic Con.

For more nightlife, check out the lineup at Stand Up Live, Alabama’s premier comedy club. Since opening in 2017, it’s seen acts from headliners like Tom Segura, Margaret Cho, Hannibal Buress and Craig Robinson.

A man puts a pizza into one of two oblong ovens covered in orange and black ceramic tile.
A man slides a pizza into the oven at Earth & Stone Woodfired Pizza, one of the many dining options at Campus No 805 © Open minded in Alabama /

Opened in 2015, with a name inspired by West Huntsville’s 35805 zip code, Campus No 805 was once known as Stone Middle School. The renovated multipurpose venue now features axe-throwing, art classes, virtual golfing, gaming and ballroom dancing – even a speakeasy. Lockers in the hallway, repurposed bleachers and detention halls can still be seen, an homage to the past.  The best homegrown brews can be found here as well: once you’re on campus, choose among offerings from Yellowhammer Brewing, Straight to Ale, Salty Nut Brewery and Lone Goose Ale. For a bite to eat, grab something at Earth & Stone Woodfired Pizza, inside Yellowhammer Brewery, or check out Bandito Burrito, a Huntsville household name, just across the street. An added boon for beer lovers: Huntsville has OK’d open containers in designated areas, so you can take your beer in a to-go cup with you in places like Campus No 805, downtown and Big Spring Park.

Trickling waterfall runs over limestone rocks.
Monte Sano State Park is a peaceful, pristine woodland © Wirepec / Getty Images

Outdoors in and around Huntsville

North Alabama’s varied natural features – from mountains to swimming holes to shadowy forests – hold many lures for outdoor enthusiasts, most within an hour’s drive of the city.

Monte Sano State Park, inside the city limits of Huntsville, is a popular, 2400-acre park featuring 22 miles of hiking trails, 14 rustic cabins, picnic space, campgrounds and a Japanese Garden, planetarium and outdoor amphitheater. Entry fee is $5 per person.

The ‘Lost Sink Trail’ on Keel Mountain can be found a short distance from the city, just over the hill in Gurley. It’s a 2.8-mile, mostly uphill hike to a waterfall sinkhole that can be spectacular after it rains.

Over the Huntsville Mountains in Owens Cross Roads, Hays Nature Preserve includes miles of serene paved trails near the Flint River, great for walking, running and cycling. Rare birds and herds of deer are frequently spotted, and its natural wood playground makes it a special place for kids too.

About 35 minutes away from Huntsville on US 72 is Cathedral Caverns. The vast entrance to this otherworldly cave clocks in at 126 feet wide and 25 feet high. The 90-minute tours are $18.50 per person and run throughout the day, but it’s best to book ahead.

A waterfall pours down into a limestone gulley in North Alabama. The statue of a Native American woman is just to the side.
Noccalula Falls is best seen after a recent rain © Natalie Nicolson / Lonely Planet

Noccalula Falls in Gadsden is a 90-foot natural wonder, and the surrounding park offers hiking, campgrounds and more. The waterfall is incredible to simply view from above, but the adventurous (and physically able) can climb down rocks and get a look from the caves behind the falls. While it’s an hour and a half from the Huntsville area, the drive – especially the long bridges across the Tennessee River in Guntersville – has its own allure. Consider a detour to Little River Canyon for some stunning warm-up waterfalls, or a swimming hole dip in the summer.

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