Huntsville in Alabama is one of those rare destinations, a true hidden gem that can surprise travellers constantly and on multiple levels, if they ever hear about it and travel there that is. From the origins of the space industry to a vast creative underbelly, Huntsville has a variety of things to see and do to keep every traveller happy, and this is why every traveller has to put it on their radar immediately.
What do you think of when I say Alabama? Stereotypes of banjos and a slow accent? A tiny backwater that is only good for the setting of a good horror movie? That’s okay, you aren’t alone. I normally enjoy a good stereotype, and so does Huntsville in Alabama, if only because the locals love watching peoples faces when they blow those stereotypes out of the water to reveal one of the USA’s best hidden travel gems.
I beg you, please make a duelling banjo joke to a local and let them enjoy your expression as they pull out their 12 doctorates in rocket science and credentials with NASA and hit you round the back of the head with them.
Huntsville in Alabama is one of the smartest cities in the world, with one of the highest concentration of PHDs, Engineers, scientists and academics, mostly working in or around the birthplace of the space industry, NASA, and you can’t talk about Huntsville without talking about space.
Huntsville isn’t named the Rocket City for nothing, and this is heavily apparent in its tourism industry, one of the many reasons I fell in love with the city instantly.
Everywhere you go in Huntsville there is evidence of how much NASA has influenced the city and vice versa. Huntsville was at the very heart of the space race, the rockets that put satellites in orbit and put men on the moon were built and tested here, and it will be at the heart of the next evolution in space tourism as private industries join NASA in putting tourists into orbit.
Huntsville is very proud of it’s space industry heritage, and rightly so, and that is reflected in the sheer amount of terrestrial museums, activities and facilities revolving around space that are aimed at tourists.
The US Space and Rocket Center is perhaps the finest space flight museum in the world, and is a vast complex of buildings that contain the designated national landmark of an actual Saturn V rocket as well as the museum of space flight artifacts and hardware built around it.
This is one of the best tourism facilities in Huntsville, and can easily hold its own alongside the best in the country. The Space and Rocket Center is an ideal day out for any traveller, for entire families or especially space geeks!
I spent the entire day there and believe me when I say I could very easily spend a lot more! If I lived here, which by the way I could easily see myself doing, then I would definitely have one of the lifetime passes.
I loved the tour of the Saturn V hall and could have easily listened to the stories of the NASA docents all day, actual NASA scientists who will happily explain all of the artifacts to you or wax lyrical about their time working on various NASA projects.
And that is not to mention of course the historic rocket and shuttle parks, one of which I could see from my awesome hotel room at the Drury Inn and Suites, the family friendly simulators such as the Hyper Ship and G Force accelerator that turn part of the complex into a theme park for families, and of course the fact that you can even tour a working NASA facility at Marshall Space Flight Center on Redstone Military Base.
And if that isn’t enough to keep the space geek in every traveller happy, (and believe me under any normal circumstance it is), Huntsville has been hiding one of the biggest travel bucket list experiences any traveller can get, because the Rocket City is also the home of Space Camp. That’s right, the actual Space Camp! And it gets even better once you realise that it isn’t just for American school kids and that travellers of any age can come and experience what it is like to go through astronaut training!
Any other city in any other part of the world would be happily resting on its laurels at this point. Any other tourism board would be sitting back and saying their job is done, the space attractions are so awesome they should do their work for them. And they would technically be right of course. Entire tourism industries have been built and maintained on much less.
But not in Huntsville, because it isn’t just the space industry attractions that make this an amazing travel destination, there is so much more for travellers to see, experience and explore too.
Huntsville has a distinct personality that you feel from the second you step off the plane into the airport. A large part of that of course is the space and military influence, but it also has a unique, artistic undertone that infuses the entire city. It is as if there was a direct correlation between all that science and the creativity that has led to so many rocket scientists and engineers down tools and pick up paintbrushes, needle and thread or even musical instruments instead.
In a real life depiction of the TV series Eureka, a small town in North America where all the worlds genius’ have been relocated and sequestered away, everyone you meet in Huntsville seems to have an eccentric secret alter ego. The genuine rocket scientist who works at NASA is often moonlighting as the artist you see painting in their studio. The musician busking in the street is actually an astronaut who got bored one night and learned to play the guitar. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest that the woman busy sculpting a work of art in the local park was also tinkering with a DeLorean in her garage to see if she could go back in time one weekend.
This is the type of town Huntsville is, and it is awesome!
Nowhere epitomizes this creative feeling in Huntsville more than Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment, a reclaimed historic factory building that has been repurposed into almost 150 working studios for a community of artists and creators.
With a unique open door policy, this huge complex allows anyone to wander round and explore the galleries and theatres, as well as enjoying the occasional performance, but it is meeting the artists themselves whilst they are working in their studios that gives you a real sense of the creative passion that flows through the city.
This converted factory really is the epitome of a creative community and welcomes travellers of all ages and persuasions to come and shop and learn about arts and crafts. If you have a craving to buy some art on your travels, or even just to enjoy some, then this is the place to come.
And of course there is always the more formal setting too for art lovers who prefer to take their own time exploring galleries. The Huntsville Museum of Art is a beautiful building that houses some truly spectacular exhibitions, and take my advice, if the weather allows make a little time in the evening to stroll around the outside of the museum over the lake and take in the views, it really is a nice way to spend an evening.
But this artistic side is only one aspect of Huntsville’s creative renaissance. The entire city seems to be changing and growing right before your eyes and emerging from the rocket fuelled fire into a new, gentrified place to be with a renewed sense of creative energy.
This energy isn’t just limited to art either, although that is certainly a part of it as Huntsville itself has become a blank, city wide canvas for street art, statues, murals and sculptures, much of which represents the Rocket City’s eponymous heritage, others are just weird and random, but picturesque nonetheless.
But this creative fervor is also being channeled into repurposing old, abandoned places and using them as pop up cafe’s or coffee shops, or creating new and exciting restaurants and nightspots, revitalising Huntsville’s food and nightlife scene that rivals anything found in Birmingham or neighbouring Atlanta .
The local hotspot that is Campus No. 805 is an old American high school campus that has been repurposed into a vast complex of restaurants and businesses that are perfect for a night out.
Never mind the fact that it still genuinely feels like a high school with its original features and locker filled corridors, travellers can come here to look for the speakeasy bar hidden behind a sliding door of school lockers, try their hand at a random bit of axe throwing or enjoy some amazing food at Earth and Stone Wood Fired Pizza, a former food truck done good that serves up some truly spectacular craft pizza. Try the sweet potato and goat cheese pizza, I know it sounds weird but trust me!
And not only that, but they have teamed up with Yellowhammer Brewing to add a bit of craft beer into the already epic foodie mix. Now I’m not a big drinker by any standards, in fact I generally don’t like alcohol and I am such a lightweight just two Malibu and Coke’s will often be enough to see me stripping off on the table tops, but when NASA Engineers decide to retreat to their respective garages to brew up space themed beers like the T Minus Tangerine Kolsch, then even I will tip my hat to that legendary level of drinking and geeky epicness.
And once you have explored the campus, you can always head over to A.M Booths Lumberyard for the unique Blue Bayou dining experience. And believe me, this is a real experience to be savoured, and not just for the food!
The food is unbelievable, and they are very rightly proud of their chef, but it is the setting itself which makes this experience special.
The owner, who used to be a platinum selling music producer and once had a row with Ice T on stage (I told you everyone here has an epic back story), has bought up a mismatched collection of run down buildings and created an eclectic complex of restaurants and music venues that has become a unique downtown destination – just check out the largest juke box in the world attached to the outside of the owners music studio – and the perfect venue for a night out, but it is the 1920s train carriage converted into a restaurant which is the real highlight.
You are put into a booth just big enough for 6 people and are invited to enjoy each others company as you dine, and for me that experience of true Southern hospitality was as welcome as the truly great food.
And if you need some coffee to perk you up after all those late nights, you can always head down to Honest Coffee Roasters. Honest coffee is an ethically based coffee shop that doesn’t just sell coffee and awesome, healthy, snacks, it is also part of Huntsville’s Clinton Row redevelopment scheme which offers community businesses a reusable space in a disused and run down parking garage, a turn that the coffee shop gives back by collaborating with local businesses to create their own promotional, branded coffees and acai bowls.
But don’t worry, before you go thinking that Alabama has gone all fancy now, fans of good old fashioned southern home cooking won’t be disappointed either.
Huntsville still has some of the best, simple and honest foodie joints around. Traditional breakfast bars with pancakes, chocolate milk and more pan fried chicken and mac and cheese than you can shake a stick at, and good old fashioned BBQ joints with generous portions of pulled pork and spicy sauce! With restaurants like Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ widely recognised and lauded as the best in the world – and no I am not exaggerating, they have the awards to prove it – Huntsville has the right to call itself one of the best, if not most well known, foodie destinations in America’s deep south.
A friend told me she would take it personally if I left Huntsville hungry, and given the combination of good food and southern hospitality, I genuinely don’t think that is possible!
And apart from the obvious draw of all these amazing attractions and things to do, that is perhaps the one thing that I loved the most about my time in Huntsville, the deservedly famous southern hospitality.
I have travelled the world many times over and one thing that I have found that most countries have in common is that most people are generally quite welcoming, but Huntsville takes that to the next level and the people here seem to extract a genuine joy out of making travellers feel welcome and at home.
But Huntsville isn’t just about the city itself. No visit to Alabama would be complete without a visit to the great outdoors too, and Huntsville and Madison county does not disappoint in that regard with a wealth of opportunity to explore North Alabama’s natural resources, from the sheer size and power of the Tennessee river to the mountain trails of Monte Sano Nature preserve.
There are a ton of hiking trails out into the woods surrounding the city, and many of them are easy enough for families or any traveller with a basic level of fitness so don’t require any specialist equipment or strenuous activity.
Bankhead Hikers parking lot at the start of the Monte Sano Nature preserve leading to the Wildflower trailhead is barely a mile long if you don’t want to go too far, so is perfect for working off all those epic breakfasts, and takes in the picturesque Fagan’s Creek and if you look carefully you can even see the destructive path of broken trees where a tornado whipped through. Of course there are many other trails that you can extend your hike with, but you can do as little or as much as you want to.
Just a short drive from Huntsville is the impressive Cathedral Caverns State Park, formerly known as the Bat Cave, which is a name I infinitely prefer and don’t know why the hell they changed it because it completely ruined my whole ‘I’m Batman’ moment!
Given Alabama’s already impressive record of surprising travellers, the Cathedral Cavern doesn’t disappoint either, with one of the largest commercial cave entrances in the world, one of the largest stalagmites in the world and a whole host of mind blowing natural formations from the frozen waterfall to the eponymous rock cathedral itself.
But for those travellers who want to stay a little closer to the cities amenities but still get a bit of fresh air, the family friendly Huntsville Botanical Gardens are a perfect way to explore a bit of manicured nature, especially if you can find all the space and rocket themed garden ornaments and come at the right time to enjoy the Galaxy of Lights. Because after all this is Huntsville, and no matter where you go or what you do you can’t escape the influence of space on the Rocket City, and why would you want to?
Huntsville truly is one of the brightest hidden gems in America’s tourism crown and has a wide variety of experiences for all types of traveller, not to mention some of the best natural wonders in the state! But it is the Rocket City’s links to the space industry which continue to shine most brightly for the traveller looking for the next great adventure, and it is what will make Huntsville the centre of the galaxy for the space tourism industry that is about to explode.
So travel to Huntsville now and see this truly unique city before that happens. Experience the distinctive southern hospitality and the eccentric quirkiness of Huntsville’s culture, and see the past and the future colliding in front of you to create one of the best, bucket list fulfilling and most distinctive travel destinations in the United States.
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This article was written in partnership with the Huntsville and Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.