The easy going city of Huntsville in Northern Alabama makes a great starting point for a road trip through the Deep South of the USA. Known as “The Rocket City” there’s a contrast between high tech connections to the US Space Programme and the low rise Downtown area, that gives the city a small-town feel. Among the top things to do in Huntsville is the US Space and Rocket Center, with the world class Huntsville Botanical Garden, art galleries and heritage attractions to enjoy, not to mention a vibrant and varied food scene.
The weather in Huntsville becomes hot and humid in summer, causing a retreat to the air conditioning, so I’d recommend a visit in the spring or autumn, for warm and sunny sightseeing weather. Huntsville is also an easy city to get around on foot or by bike, although you’ll get the most from your stay if you have a car.
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What are the top attractions to visit in Huntsville?
While Huntsville has plenty to keep you busy for a few days, I visited as part of my Alabama road trip, with just time to taste what the city has to offer. If your time is limited as mine was, these would be my top 5 places to visit in Huntsville Alabama:
- US Space and Rocket Center – the largest space attraction in the world
- Huntsville Botanic Garden – 112 acres of gorgeous gardens and floral displays.
- Alabama Constitution Hall Village – a heritage site where Alabama’s constitution was signed.
- Twickenham Neighbourhood – walk or drive to see the historic antebellum houses.
- Big Spring Park and the Huntsville Art Museum – with lawns and water features fed by the Big Spring at the centre of the city.
1 US Space and Rocket Center
As the birthplace of America’s Space Programme, Huntsville goes by the nickname of The Rocket City, so the US Space & Rocket Center is one of the Huntsville attractions you won’t want to miss. Set on a huge campus on the edge of town, it’s the largest space attraction in the world and I recommend you set aside half a day to visit at a leisurely pace.
Outdoors you can see the Space Shuttle, Saturn 1 and Apollo rockets close up, while the Saturn V hall displays the Apollo 12 lunar module and sections of the enormous Saturn V rocket. It’s over 50 years since men first stood on the moon and the original space suits are on show, as well as the tiny trailer where the astronauts had to quarantine once they returned to earth.
I also enjoyed walking through a mock up of the Space Station to find out how present day astronauts eat, sleep and even go to the loo!
If you have time, you may want to book one of the exciting experiences on offer, such as the Sea TREK underwater walking, Virtual Reality snorkeling or Space Shuttle simulators. The US Space and Rocket Center also runs an amazing Space Camp programme with residential courses for children and adults, to inspire the astronauts of the future.
2 Huntsville Botanical Garden
The Huntsville Botanical Garden covers 112 acres and is run mainly by volunteers, with numerous seasonal borders and displays within the garden. With so much to see, you’ll want to allocate a few hours, download a map and check before you visit which parts of the garden will be blooming. There’s a whole calendar of events, with festivals taking place throughout the year, such as the Scarecrow Trails in October or the Galaxy of Lights in November / December.
I visited in June and loved the Damson aquatic garden with a Japanese style pavilion reflecting in the water-lily filled pools and the Daylily garden which was a sunset of yellow, orange and pink. Wandering around the lake I admired the fountains and stopped at the garden railway, modelled on a European village with miniature plants.
Don’t miss the enchanting butterfly house where colourful creatures dart around you, dipping in pools and resting momentarily on the flowers and leaves. Families will want to spend time in the 2 acre children’s garden, with wading pools, dinosaur bones, and fairytale creatures to spark the imagination.
3 Alabama Constitution Hall Park
In the oldest part of downtown Huntsville, step back in time to the summer of 1819 when delegates gathered in the large cabinetmaker’s workshop to agree the Alabama state constitution. During their meeting among the carpentry tools and miniature furniture samples, it was agreed that Alabama would become the 22nd state to join the Union of the United States.
At Alabama Constitution Hall Park, eight wooden buildings have been reconstructed around the open courtyard on their original sites to show Alabama’s early life. Inside each of the houses of the postmaster, cabinet maker, printer and blacksmith are the tools of their trade, set up to show you how things might have looked when they were working here.
You can wander freely around the courtyard to see the houses from the outside, visit the shop and cafe and also take a guided tour to see the furnishings showing life inside the houses. As part of the same family of museums, you may also like to visit the Earlyworks children’s museum and the Huntsville depot and museum which I’ve mentioned later in this article.
4 Big Spring Park
Big Spring Park is both a modern day public space and a historic site for the city of Huntsville. The limestone spring bubbling with clear water was the reason that the first settler, John Hunt, built his cabin here in 1805, forming the heart of the new town of Huntsville. The park has been developed into a 12.5 acre public space, landscaped with a shallow lake, lawns and trees, that is often used for pubic events and festivals.
At the heart of this larger area of the park sits the Huntsville Art Museum and you can admire the cherry trees, red Japanese bridge and fog bell that have been donated to the city. The smaller section of the park across the road has a water feature that’s fed from the original spring, flowing from the limestone rock. Both areas of the park, are fun places to wander or have a picnic, and you can stop for lunch at Pane e Vino for casual dining of pizza and pasta on the terrace overlooking the park.
5 Huntsville Museum of Art
While you’re in Big Spring Park, it’s well worth visiting the excellent Huntsville Museum of Art, which has a beautiful setting and is just the right size with small but well curated collections. There are seven different galleries with a focus on 19th and 20th century American art and regular temporary exhibitions.
Among the permanent collections I enjoyed the beautiful landscapes of the French father and son artists from the early 20th century in the Ponchin legacy, and the craftsmanship of the Buccellati silver menagerie with figures of animals using semi-precious stones and silver. There’s a gallery of colourful American Studio Glass and the Sellars collection of art by American Women as well as a number of changing exhibitions on show.
6 Twickenham historic neighbourhood
For elegant Antebellum mansions that seem to epitomise the Deep South, take a walking or driving tour around the Twickenham Historic District of Huntsville. The name given to this style of Antebellum architecture refers to the old houses and mansions built before the civil war of the 1860s since Ante = before and Bellum = war.
Within the Twickenham historic district you’ll find the oldest houses concentrated in just a few blocks, so it’s an easy place to admire these historic mansion. To understand more of the history of each house, pick up a leaflet at the Huntsville Convention & Visitor Bureau or read the signs that are placed by the sidewalk in front of each house.
While no-one minds you taking photos, the houses are mostly privately owned so you do need to respect the privacy of the owners and admire from a distance. However, one of the mansions that you can visit is the Weeden House Museum and Garden which I’ve mentioned later in this article.
For more information there’s a free online audio tours at Huntsvillehistorytours.org and the visitor bureau runs free walking tours around the historic districts in the spring and autumn. Other historic neighbourhoods to visit if you have time are the Old Town neighbourhood built at the turn of the 19th century and the Five Points Historic District.
Things to do in Huntsville – Downtown
Once you’ve covered my recommendations for the top 5 things to do in Huntsville, there’s still lots more to see. Let’s take a look at the places to visit in Huntsville within the central Downtown area, that you could easily cover on foot or by bike.
7 Weeden House Museum and Garden
Within the historic Twickenham District, one of the few old houses open to visit is the Weeden House Museum and Garden. Built in 1819, this is Alabama’s oldest house open to the public and it was bought by Dr William Weeden in 1845 and owned by his family until the 1950s.
Dr William Weeden’s daughter, Maria Howard Weeden became a well known artist, celebrated for her poetry and paintings, especially the portraits of African-American residents of Huntsville in the late 20th century, which are on display.
During the civil war, the house was used as living quarters for Federal officers and was also home to US Supreme Court Justice John McKinley. Weeden House is furnished in late 19th century style and may only be visited in a guided tour, so check the website for opening and tour times before you visit.
8 Earlyworks Museum Complex
Part of the family of museums together with Alabama Constitution Hall Park and the Huntsville Depot Museum, the Earlyworks children’s museum offers a hands on experience, designed to be enjoyed by children up to the age of 10.
Highlights include the Talking Tree that will explain the stories of Alabama’s past, and the 46ft keelboat to climb on board and experience river travel in the 19th century. Kids can dress up, run the general store or play at being a homesteader. This is a play-centred museum aimed at younger children, while those aged 10+ will probably prefer either of the other attractions.
9 Huntsville Depot Museum
At the Huntsville Depot and Museum, the focus is on the history of trains and transportation, as the depot was an active passenger station until 1968. This family friendly museum will suit children over 10, who can climb aboard the locomotive to be a conductor or jump into the driving seat of a vintage fire truck.
Guided tours are available of the historic depot which served as a hospital and living quarters for Union soldiers and there’s a model train showing Huntsville in the Civil War era. The grounds of the Huntsville Depot also host the Whistlestop Weekend and Rocket City BBQ, a 2 day community festival dedicated to BBQ competitions and live music.
10 Street art in Huntsville
Wandering around Big Spring Park I came upon a huge Koi mural, on the side of a building at the intersection of Spring St SW and Spragins St SW. The mural was created by local creative firm Red Brick Strategies and on reading about it later I discovered that there’s a point marked RB on the street corner where you can get a 3D effect.
Just around the corner facing the watercourse of Big Spring Park is the “Welcome to Huntsville” rocket mural which makes a fun selfie. Around town there are a few other spots to find murals such as the Clinton Row Color Walk where an alley between Clinton Avenue East and Holmes Avenue Northwest has been covered with murals by local artists.
There are more murals at Lowe Mill, Stovehouse and numerous other locations around the Downtown. Follow the Spaces Sculpture trail of public artworks through their free app or find out where the murals are located on the Huntsville Tourism website.
Cosmic Christ – Eggbeater Jesus in Huntsville
One piece of artwork that has a place in the heart of Huntsville is the large scale mosaic of Cosmic Christ on the front of the First Baptist Church, affectionately known as “Eggbeater Jesus”. The mosaic of Jesus with arms outstretched, surrounded by the rings of the cosmos was dedicated in 1974 and originally made up of 1.4 million glass mosaic tiles.
Inspiration for the mural is said to have come from the Apollo Space Programme but over the years many of the mosaics had fallen off the wall, so it had to go through a major repair with Italian artisans painstakingly replacing the mosaics over a number of years.
11 Harrison Brothers Hardware
Close to the Alabama Constitution Hall Park and Big Spring Park, it’s worth seeking out Harrison Brothers Hardware. The store was in the same family for over 100 years, but is now run by a foundation, in recognition of the historic and cultural importance of the building that retains the old counters, shelves and cash registers.
These days it’s less of a place to buy hammer and nails and more of a place to stock up on authentic Huntsville souvenirs. At Harrison Brothers they pride themselves on selling ‘American made’ and you’ll find plenty of mementos of your visit to Rocket City, from local crafts to homeware and toys.
Harrison Brothers Hardware is located on the historic Courthouse Square and I enjoyed walking around the square to look at the older buildings, many of which have their own story to tell. The centre of the square is occupied by the modern Madison County Courthouse building, which was built in the 1960s on the site occupied by a number of older courthouse buildings dating back to the 1800s.
However the buildings that surround the courthouse are older, including the First National Bank built in Greek revival style and the attractive 19th century brick buildings that now house businesses and restaurants.
12 Huntsville Visitor Centre
Before we leave the Downtown area of Huntsville, I’d recommend a stop at the Huntsville Visitor Centre (500 Church Street NW, Suite One, Huntsville Al) where there are lots of knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff to help you make the most of your stay in the Huntsville area. In addition to picking up some leaflets on places to go in Huntsville, there are a few interesting exhibits and some fun selfie opportunities like the astronaut that I was photographed with.
Things to do in Huntsville – around town
Because the oldest areas in Downtown Huntsville are built on limestone with underlying caves, the structures tend to be quite low rise, giving the city a small town feel. A short drive from the Downtown, within the city of Huntsville there are more places of interest, although you’ll probably need to a hire a car to reach them easily.
13 Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment
Lowe Mill has been converted from a historic textile mill, now an arts and entertainment centre, housing over 200 working artists. The complex includes studios, shops and cafes, with exhibition spaces open to the public and art classes available.
Lowe Mill is often used as a venue for performance and live music in the area around the distinctive water tower. Musicians play from the raised walkway that runs along the front of the building and you can hang out on your deck chair with a picnic or buy food from the vendors in the complex.
I enjoyed a quick stop at Piper and Leaf where they sell artizan tea blends and photographed some of the colourful murals outside. Lowe Mill in is west Huntsville and there’s plenty of free parking on site.
14 Bridge Street Town Centre
Bridge Street Town Centre is a shopping centre but much more, located in the same area as the US Space and Rocket Center and Huntsville Botanic Garden. You’ll find 70 upscale shops and restaurants, making this a fun place to come and eat in the evenings, as I did when I tried out Connors steak and seafood restaurant.
The outdoor shopping mall is built around a 5 acre lake, where you can go jogging or follow the walking trail, with regular events such as yoga and markets held on the grass. Amenities at Bridge Street Town Centre include the Hyatt Place Hotel and a 14 screen cinema. The live music at weekends and relaxed outdoor ambiance make this a fun place to hang out if you want shopping with a bit more atmosphere thrown in.
15 US Veterans Memorial Museum
The US Veterans Memorial Museum celebrates the accomplishments of American servicemen and women, with a collection of memorabilia, artifacts, and military equipment from the American Revolutionary War to present day. Outside are 30 historic military vehicles, boats and airplanes including a Ford Pygmy, the oldest surviving jeep used in the Second World War.
In addition to understanding recent conflicts, there are exhibits from the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War of 1861-1865 which shaped America today. The museum is located on the south side of Huntsville and it’s easiest to reach by car, with plenty of parking available.
At a separate location in the Downtown area, you can also see the Huntsville Madison County Veterans Memorial Park, with an outdoor memorial to commemorate all those who have served in the Armed Forces, set in an open park with further memorials and points of interest.
16 Live music and festivals
Northern Alabama has long attracted world-class musicians to its recording studios in nearby Muscle Shoals and Huntsville continues in this rich tradition with plenty of opportunities to enjoy live music. Rather than mention one off events, I’ll give you a rundown of the main venues, so that you can check what’s on when you visit.
Mid City and the Huntsville Amphitheater – The Mid City district is under development on the west side of Huntsville and will combine places to live, work and play, with the Huntsville Amphitheater at its heart. A new Aloft Hotel and Hotel Indigo are planned to open here in 2023 and a few shops and restaurants are already open. The best place to get a taste of the Mid City district is at The Camp, a cool outdoor venue that offers food trucks, a Sunday farmer’s market, community events and live music, so check the website for what’s on when you visit.
On an ambitious scale, the Huntsville Amphitheater is an 8,000 seat outdoor music venue that is planned to open in 2022 and has the space to attract leading names in the music world. The project is led by Ben Lovett of Mumford and Sons and aims to create a community hub, with a vibrant food offering and year round events, in addition to hosting major musical acts in concert.
Live Music around Huntsville
Stovehouse – Located around the grounds of an old stove factory, Stovehouse is a campus that encompasses business units, shopping, dining, entertainment and live music. In the food and leisure garden you can bring your deck chair or sit at a table and grab a cocktail or beer from one of the stands while listening to live music on most evenings. Check the website for what’s on when you visit.
There are many more individual bars, restaurants and venues around Huntsville that host live music, so check out the Huntsville Music website for a full listing of what’s on throughout the year.
If your tastes are more for classical music and ballet, you’ll want to check out what’s on at the Von Braun Centre, overlooking the lake at Big Spring Park. This concert venue and events space is home to the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra and the Huntsville Ballet company as well as hosting many musical, conference and trade events.
Festivals in Huntsville
Festivals in Huntsville that you may want to check out when you visit include;
- Panoply – a 3 day arts festival in April with live music, arts demonstrations and creative activities.
- Whistlestop Weekend – is a celebration of BBQ with food stands, BBQ competitions and live music.
- Rocket City Brewfest – the city’s weekend beer festival bringing together local breweries, brewpubs and beer lovers with lots of beer tasting.
- Crush food and wine festival – takes place in the September in Big Spring Park with food vendors and wine tasting.
- Monte Sano Arts festival – brings together top artists in Monte Sano State Park for a weekend in September, where you can view and buy art pieces, with food vendors and live music.
What are the best outdoor activities in Huntsville?
If you want to relax and connect with nature, there are plenty of outdoor activities in Huntsville that are just a short drive from the city centre.
17 Monte Sano State Park
Monte Sano State Park is just a short drive from Downtown Huntsville, with wooded slopes and great views from the high ground overlooking the city. The name means “Mountain of Health” since Huntsville residents were attracted since the late 19th century to build rustic cottages here, drawn by the nature mineral springs and cooler air.
With over 2000 acres of park, the area is popular for the hiking trails and mountain biking trails, especially in the spring when the azaleas are in bloom or the autumn when the trees turn to red and gold. There are campgrounds and cabins to rent within the park, which is also home to the Von Braun Planetarium, with astronomical shows and star gazing every Saturday night.
18 Burritt on the Mountain
On the slopes of Monte Sano Mountain, with views over the city of Huntsville is Burritt on the mountain, which provides a relaxing escape from city life. The 167 acre site was purchased by William Henry Burritt, a homeopathic doctor who built this house as a retirement home to take advantage of the cooler air and woodland setting on the mountain. Visitors can walk around his elegant house, which is furnished as it would have looked in the 1930s when he lived there.
Also within the park are authentic log cabins and wooden houses that have been relocated to make a historic village, showing what life would have been like in the 19th and 20th century. You can meet the goats on the farm, attend folk school to learn handicrafts and chat to history interpreters dressed in period costume. It’s also worth checking the calendar for the regular concerts held here throughout the summer season, with a backdrop of the stars and city lights of Huntsville.
19 Country parks around Huntsville
Madison County Nature Trail – To the south east of Huntsville on the high ground of Green Mountain, the Madison County Nature Trail is a 72 acre park, that offers a cool escape from the city. The trees reflect on the tranquil waters of Sky Lake, around which runs a 1.5 mile walking trail, with azaleas and dogwoods in spring and golden leaves in autumn. There’s an old covered bridge at one end of the lake, with picnic tables, restroom and parking area, offering a place to enjoy the peace of a natural woodland setting.
Hays Nature Preserve – Also to the south-east of Huntsville is the Hays Nature Preserve, with 10 miles of hiking and biking trails that follow the course of the Flint River. The oxbow lakes and wetland area make this an ideal area for bird spotting and the preserve is part of the North Alabama Birding Trail. There’s a large wooden playground for the kids, with picnic areas, restrooms and parking, making this a good place to relax with the family.
For more information on hiking trails and nature reserves around Huntsville, check out the Alabama Land Trust Website.
20 Take a day trip to Muscle Shoals
Just over an hour’s drive from Huntsville, so easily doable as a day trip, is Muscle Shoals, which many people visit on a musical themed road trip of the Southern States. The four cities of Muscle Shoals, Florence, Tuscumbia and Sheffield straddle the Tennessee river, but they merge together and are collectively known as “The Shoals”
Music lovers may have watched The Muscle Shoals documentary (2013) which celebrates the Fame Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, and the legendary artists who recorded there. You can visit both recording studios, hear their stories and soak up some of the musical history made by artists like The Rolling Stone, Aretha Franklin and Cher.
Other things to see in the area include the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Rosenbaum House and the Helen Keller Birthplace of Ivy Green. The downtown area of Florence has a pleasant centre of boutiques, restaurants and galleries and I can recommend the Gunrunner Boutique Hotel, with individual suites themed for legends of the music industry. For authentic Southern Fried chicken, stop at Champy’s Fried Chicken which often hosts live music in the evenings.
Where to eat in Huntsville
Huntsville has a great food scene and here are some of the restaurants I tried in Huntsville and can personally recommend. For more on all the delicious food I ate on this trip, check out my article on the food of Alabama.
The Blue Plate Cafe | This traditional diner offers the full Southern Breakfast experience, of bacon, eggs, cheesy grits, biscuit and gravy washed down by bottomless coffee. It attracts all the locals who relish their childhood favourites of fried chicken, collard greens and a slice of pie.
Pane e Vino | An Italian inspired restaurant with outdoor terrace at the Huntsville Museum of art in Big Spring Park. The restaurant is owned by leading local chef Jame Boyce and offers relaxed dining with pizza, salads and pasta dishes.
Connors Steak & Seafood: In the Bridge Street Town Centre neighbourhood, serving steak and seafood with bags of Southern flair. I enjoyed the Cajun Red Grouper mesquite grilled with couscous and collard greens and Voodoo Shrimp in spicy remoulade sauce.
Where to stay in Huntsville, Alabama
I stayed at the modern Huntsville Marriott hotel, with a view towards the adjoining Rocket Center, so I woke up with a view of the Saturn 1 and Saturn V. My spacious room was designed in contemporary style, with a large walk in bathroom and a picture of some far off galaxy above the bed. The hotel is located a little outside the downtown area, a short walk to the Rocket Center and a great base to use for visiting Huntsville.
Map of things to do in Huntsville
Check out all the places we’ve mentioned on this handy map of the best things to do in Huntsville, Alabama.
Plan your visit to Huntsville Alabama
Plan your visit to Huntsville on the Alabama Tourism website and book your trip with America as you like it who offer bespoke self guided tours of Alabama and the USA. America As You Like It can recreate my trip with a 9 night holiday from just £1,310 per person (based on 2 people sharing) including return international flights on American Airlines, car hire and hotel stays. For more information contact 020 8742 8299, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.americaasyoulikeit.com
Getting around Huntsville
Getting around Huntsville: Most visitors will find it most convenient to have a car to visit all the places mentioned and there is also a Blue Bikes scheme allowing you to rent bikes in the Downtown area.
Getting to Huntsville: It’s easy to fly into Huntsville Airport from numerous US destinations and if coming from the UK you can connect via Charlotte (as I did), or fly direct to Atlanta, Nashville or other US airport hubs. Driving time from Atlanta Airport to Huntsville is 190 miles / 3 hrs 40 mins and from Nashville Airport is 110 miles / 2 hrs.
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