With an unfortunate stereotype fuelled reputation to contend with and a history intertwined with the civil rights movement, visitors to Alabama tend to arrive with a lot of preconceptions. These preconceptions are quickly dispelled in a wave of southern hospitality, seriously good, home cooked food and iconic once in a lifetime experiences you would never have imagined before arriving, leaving travellers with a sense of wanderment at a state that is so much more than it first appears.
You can’t visit Alabama without coming to terms with its past, something that still fuels a lot of stereotypes today, and that is something that Alabama itself is very open about. Emotionally frought and frank discussions about its history of slavery and racism can be had in places like Africatown, home to descendents of slaves on the Clotilde, the last slave ship to arrive in America, but at the same time there is a strong sense of pride in Alabamas pivotal place in the heart of the civil rights movement that was founded here. There are monuments and museums that celebrate Rosa Parks courageous act and Martin Luther King Jrs life in Montgomery, as well as Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, a former protest headquarters turned museum. This honest and open reflection on the past is a tribute to Alabamas progressive present and future, and could probably teach newer generations a lot about the horrors of segregation that they seem to have forgotten. But as important as its history is, it is not all that Alabama has to offer visitors.
From the southern beaches of the Gulf shore to hiking adventures in the Appalachian mountains and everything in between, Alabama has a culture rich in music, the legendary Nat King Cole and Hank Williams were born here and Aretha Franklin left a legacy of blues that rings out along the gospel that still rings out from every church, and a culture of jaw dropping, southern hospitality filled foodie heaven BBQ and fresh seafood from local fishing villages. The history itself goes far beyond the civil rights movement, and Alabama can legitimately lay claim to being perhaps the single most artistic and scientifically progressive region in the US thanks to the city of Huntsville, where every local bartender is a good contender to be the next Picasso, every other house has an ex rocket scientist highly likely to be converting a Delorean into a real time machine in the garage and NASA itself was born (Don’t listen to the lies Cape Canaveral will tell you!)
Culture and Etiquette.
Alabama is famous for its southern hospitality, and any traveller to the state will feel this in extremis. Being welcomed in Alabama is akin to being asked to join someones family, and they do not take no for an answer! This is seen most easily through their food. There are three main meals in the southern states, breakfast, dinner and supper, and you will be fed the heartiest king sized portions along with a hearty jug of sweet tea that everyone always seems to have on hand.
Despite this gregarious and friendly nature Alabama is a very conservative state, so mind your P’s and your Qs now! I’m serious. Impropriety is just not acceptable here. Everyone, especially elders, are called sir and ma’am, there are more pleases and thank yous in every sentence that there are verbs and nouns, casual swearing and profanities are just not accepted at all and everyone like to dress relatively smart whenever they can. Especially on a Sunday.
What You Need To Know.
Citizens of 35 countries – including the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and most Western European countries – can enter under the Visa Waiver Program if visiting the United States for a period of less than ninety days by getting an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). This is a straightforward process – simply go to the ESTA website, fill in your info and wait. It is often done within 24 hours but it is safe to leave at least 72 hours before you fly. For everyone else you will need to apply for a non immigrant visitor visa, the details of which vary from country to country and can change so it is always best to check on your own government website.
The US Customs and Border Protection programme Global Entry gets pre-approved travellers through border control faster at some US airports. British citizens can register for a background check here. If you pass the background checks, you’ll be invited to apply for Global Entry.
All travellers are strongly recommended to be up to date on their routine vaccinations including MMR, diptheria – pertusis – tetanus and varicella (chicken pox) by the Centre of Disease Control and the NHS Fit For Travel website. There are currently no other recommendations for leisure travel in the US.
Please note recommendations on the Covid19 Vaccination change regularly. Please check with a qualified health professional for up to date guidelines.
If you need emergency treatment in the US, dial 911 and emergency services will treat you and bill you later. Keep all reciepts for your travel insurance company and make sure you get good, comprehensive travel insurance.
Common over the counter medicine in the UK, Europe and other parts of the world are heavily restricted from being brought into the US, please check the US government website for up to date advice. UK prescriptions are also not valid in the US. If you need a script for regular medication you would need to have a prescription from a US provider once you arrive.
Crime and Safety.
America is not crime free but with few exceptions it is also not as dangerous as the media make out. Crime statistics show very clearly that whilst crime does happen, it is relatively rare. Plan carefully, take reasonable common sense precautions for keeping yourself safe and reducing risk and take care of your possessions and generally speaking you should have have few problems.
The US is expensive no matter where you go and there is just no getting round that fact. You will not get by on an extreme budget in the US and a mid range budget will get you a basic but good level of accomodation, transport and activities. On average, depending on what you do, where you go and what your comfort levels of accomodation are you will be looking at between £80 to £150 GBP per day on a mid range budget, not including transport costs.
When To Go.
Located in Americas south, Alabama has a humid, subtropical climate. That means hot, sticky summers, mild winters and glorious sunshine most of the year round. The best time to visit are the shoulder seasons of Spring and Autumn because of the milder but still warm temperatures, less humidity and avoidance of the price hikes in the peak summer season. They are also the best times for the majority of Albama’s festivals and events.
Places To See.
US Space and Rocket Centre.
The US Space and Rocket Centre (USSRC) is an absolute must see, bucket list item for all space geeks and NASA fans! A Smithsonian Affilliate and the official visitor centre for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, it is the ultimate museum of space memorabilia and pays homage to the men and women who gave birth to the US Space programme. One of the many highlights is the designated national landmark of an actual Saturn V rocket and the many artefacts that have actually left orbit, but the exhibits that are designed to give people a vague idea of what it was like to be an astronaut in the early days of space exploration really make the experience special, and the many docents who roam the museum giving talks are actually ex NASA scientists who can really bring the exhibits to life! This museum is absolute iconic for so many reasons and isn’t just a must see for Alabama, but any visit to the US!
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Located on the corner of Birmingham’s 6 block wide Civil Rights District which also includes Kelly Ingram Park, the Carver theatre and other monuments to the movement and Alabama’s history, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has a variety of exhibits that give an interesting, sometimes emotional and often thought provoking look at the events of the Civil Rights Movement from the 60s through to today.
Weeks Bay National Estaurine Research Reserve.
This attraction may be a bit of a mouthful but is an amazing facility that gives guided tours of the diverse natural habitats of Mobile Bay, a stunning stretch of coast overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and not too far from Orange Beach. For those interested in conservation and natural habitats, this reserve has over 6000 acres of forested wetlands and is home to a wide variety of wildlife and birds, all of which are viewable on the many self guiding nature trails.
Lowe Mill Arts And Entertainment.
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 Huntsville and Alabama as a whole. 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.
Birmingham Museum Of Art.
For art lovers, or any traveller who just fancies adding a bit of culture to their sightseeing, the Birmingham Museum of Art is considered to be the finest art museum in Alabama. Featuring extensive permanent collections of international and local folk and fine art as well as a few ancient pieces, the largest collections are of European Art including works by Van Rijn and others, and of course there are numerous temporary exhibits.
Huntsville Museum Of Art.
Not to be outdone, the Huntsville Museum of Art is a beautiful building that houses some truly spectacular exhibitions, including the permanent silver menagerie by Buccellati and the Ponchin Legacy. The museum also offers art classes if you plan on spending a bit of time in Huntsville, and let’s face it why wouldn’t you? 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 picturesque lake and take in the views, it really is a nice way to spend an evening.
Cheaha State Park.
Alabamas oldest state park is the perfect destination to hike and explore the inner countryside and hill country of Alabama, including its highest peak, Cheaha mountain. There are of course numerous hiking and walking trails filled with clearings, waterfalls and amazing picnic spots, and many of the longer trails also cross into the neighbouring Talladega National Forest. There are plenty of adventure activities on offer here including biking, ATVing, and more, and there are RV and camping spots available as well as cabins to hire out, but they aren’t cheap at around $150 usd per night.
Huntsville Botanical Gardens.
The family friendly Huntsville Botanical Gardens is the 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!
This huge state park has long stretches of white sandy beach and trails through the park with nature walks, animal encounters and guides all available from the on site Nature Centre. Exploring the natural envioronment is reason enough to come here, and there is even a campsite for travellers on a relative budget who want to stay a while (or those travelling the US in RVs), but it also makes an ideal recreational day out too with water sports facilities and a golf course
Cathedral Caverns State Park.
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.
USS Alabama Memorial Park.
This impressive memorial site in Mobile is the actual working battleship the USS Alabama, decommisioned at the end of the second world war. The site allows tours to certain sections of the ship including the bridge and the turrets, and lets you imagine what life would have been like aboard the ship fighting Nazi’s over 60 years ago! The site also includes an impressive B52 Bomber and an actual submarine, the USS Drum! As well as other military memorabilia from WWII and other conflicts. If you can try and visit on one of the days where the living history crew are there. These are historical reenactors who bring the ship to life with briefings and stories from the original crew.
Things To Do.
Go To Adult Space Camp!
Did you ever dream of being an Astronaut? Ever want to go to space camp as a kid but didn’t get the chance? Well now you can! NASA’s Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama is the ultimate bucket list experience for all independent backpackers and gap year travellers! It’s not just for kids anymore, you can have a go on the multi axis trainer and anti gravity chair, practice your EVA and learn all the skills needed to become an astronaut! Now you can have this iconic experience for yourself, train to be an astronaut and get yourself ready for the birth of space tourism!
Follow The Alabama Civil Rights Trail.
There are dozens of museums, historical sites and locations throughout Alabama where you can learn about the civil rights movement and see first hand where iconic moments in history happened. You can pick and choose which ones interest you the most or follow the official trail on the Alabama Civil Rights Trail app, but either way spending time learning about or paying homage to the events and people that shaped the civil rights movement is a must do in the city where it was born.
Enjoy The Trails On Hays Nature Preserve.
The trails in Hays Nature Preserve wind through ten miles of vast, undeveloped parkland in Huntsville that encompass open countryside, huge forests and even wetlands. The paths are ideal for walking and are not considered difficult, and there are picnic areas and facilities available too so are ideal for families/ There are even stables and bike rentals available for those who want a little more adventure in their experience.
Get Your Geek On!
Huntsville is the Geek Mecca of the world! It is nerd heaven and for anyone who loves geek culture, comic books, dungeons and dragons, or even has a simple nostalgia for all things 80s (and for anyone of a certain age, who doesn’t? It was clearly the best decade ever!) Huntsville has your back! Go for lunch at Toybox Bistro and surround yourself with your favourite toys from the 80s as you have one of their awesomely oversized and delicious hot dogs, head to Lowe Mill and pick up some retro geek culture art or merch, go and chat to actual rocket scientists and collect the docent cards at the Space and Rocket Museum! Hell, you can even train to be an actual astronaut at Space Camp!
Travel Back In Time At The Arcades!
If all that Geekiness isn’t enough for you then head back to your childhood when you pumped endless coins into the arcade machines trying to beat TMNT or the Simpsons by heading to Pint’s and Pixels in Huntsville!
Grab A Bite To Eat!
Alabama has some of the most delicious home cooked, southern BBQ, grilled, and fried dishes in the entire US, and you cannot beat the explosion of taste combined with good old fashioned Southern hospitality as you pull up a stool or a chair! Tender BBQ, Fried Green Tomatoes, cheesy grits, biscuits and gravy, the cuisine of Alabama may not have a world renowned reputation like Mexico or Singapore, but when it is this good, and it is served up with this much hospitality, who cares?
Hike The Madison County Nature Trail.
Alabama has some truly special national parks and hiking trails, but this 72 acre park situated on top of Green Mountain is one of the best. The scenery is just breathtaking and the hikes aren’t too difficult for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness.