History suffuses Alabama, a description that could be true of many states. But there are few places where the perception of said history is so emotionally fraught. The Mississippian Native American culture built great mound cities here, and Mobile is dotted with Franco-Caribbean architecture. But for many, the word Alabama is synonymous with the American Civil Rights movement.
Perhaps such a struggle, and all of the nobility and desperation it entailed, was bound for a state like this, with its Gothic plantations, hardscrabble farmland and fiercely local sense of place. From the smallest hunting town to river-bound cities, Alabama is a place all its own, and its character is hard to forget. Some visitors have a hard time looking beyond the state's past, but the troubling elements of that narrative are tied up in a passion that constantly manifests in Alabama's arts, food and culture.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Alabama.
The Sloss Furnaces constitutes one of Birmingham's can't-miss sites. From 1882 to 1971, this was a pig iron–producing blast furnace and a cornerstone of Birmingham's economy. Today, instead of a wasteland it's a National Historic Landmark, a red mass of steel and girders rusted into a Gothic monument to American industry. Quiet pathways pass cobwebbed workshops and production lines that form a photographer's dream playground. A small museum on site explores the furnaces' history.
A maze of moving audio, video and photography exhibits tell the story of racial segregation and the Civil Rights movement, with a focus on activities in and around Birmingham. There's an extensive exhibit on the 16th Street Baptist Church (located across the street), which was bombed in 1963; it's the beginning of the city's Civil Rights Memorial Trail.
Stark and harrowing in its simplicity, this memorial stands in honor of 4400 African American victims of lynching. Great rectangular steel slabs, each the size and shape of a coffin, are inscribed with the name of a county, the dates of every documented lynching incident within that county and the name of the victim. The immensity of the space and the mute testimony of the slabs underlines the ubiquity of racial violence in American history.
Few sites are as iconic to the American Civil Rights movement as the Pettus Bridge. On March 7, 1965, a crowd prepared to march to Montgomery to demonstrate against the murder of a local black activist by police during a demonstration for voting rights. As those activists gathered into a crowd, the news cameras of the media were trained on the bridge and a line of state troopers and their dogs, who proceeded to lay into the nonviolent marchers.
Blankets of white-topped pitcher plants can be found here, a 2100 acre plot of land owned and protected by the non-profit Nature Conservancy. Walk into the pitcher-plant bogs (almost immediately visible once you depart the parking area) and you may notice that the clouds of midges, mosquitoes and flies so common in Southern woodlands and wetlands are mysteriously absent. That's because these insects are busily being digested by a graceful field of wildflowers.
One of the largest and best-preserved sites of the pre-Columbian Mississippian civilization sits outside of modern Moundville, about 17 miles south of Tuscaloosa. Here, on the dark forested banks of the Black Warrior River, rest the grassy remains of a Mississippian mound city and an excellent museum, all managed by Moundville Archaeological Park.
Occupying an exceptionally beautiful stretch of the Southern Appalachians, the Little River flows much of its course over Lookout Mountain, which marks the intersection of Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. The Little River Canyon, filled with dramatic rock formations and river-smoothed bluffs, forms one of the deepest, most intricate gorge systems in the Eastern USA. A wheelchair-accessible boardwalk leads to the Little River Falls, while within the park you can just zen out on the blending of forest, mountain and stream ecosystems.
If you ever entertained dreams of playing Major Tom to someone's ground control, head here. This Smithsonian-affiliated museum boasts one of the world's largest collections of space artifacts, from rockets to shuttle components. There are simulator rides for kids and adults (try the G Force simulator!), and play areas for toddlers. The array of space-related paraphernalia, from lunar landers to rocket components, is mind-boggling. Of particular interest is a working, walk-through replica of the International Space Station.
A 3-mile trail wends through 137 acres of maritime forest, sand dunes and wetlands, marking a small space that's a big deal to the world's bird population. Dauphin Island is the first pit stop for birds returning north from their spring migration from Central and South America. A full 95% of Alabama's bird species have been observed on the island, resting up after the exhausting transcontinental journey. Bird lovers obviously adore this sanctuary, but it's a pristine escape for any nature lover.