One of the southern states of the US and the heart of Dixie itself, Alabama is steeped in culture and history with a particular emphasis on the civil rights movement.
Following World War II, the Cotton State had to free itself of the shackles of tyranny in the form of Jim Crow laws, and also part ways with a largely agriculture-based economy that was faltering. Both of these advances required a long and arduous process that spawned numerous Alabama attractions that can be seen today.
From museums with exhibits pertaining to the heritage of the civil rights movement all the way to industrial monuments telling the story of the onset of the technological era, Alabama will not disappoint any single visitor.
Putting the slave trade outside the law has never really done much in terms of such operations being permanently halted or rejected.
While it may have cut down on the number of slaves being brought in and the legality of such an activity, underhanded and undercover slave smuggling still went on. Ships still came in, hauling their illicit cargo, trading human beings for goods. One such ship was a schooner, Clotilde, that went on about its business as if the slave trade was still legal.
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Africatown is a settlement raised by some of the last slaves that were brought to America on that very ship. Whether there were any other off-records smugglings we’ll never know, but what we do know is that this town is a remnant of an age of illegal slave trade. The 32 now freed people lived on this small patch of land, nurturing their cultural heritage. All that’s left of it today are a few shanty houses and a humble graveyard, but quite a remarkable site to visit if you’re passing through Alabama.
2. Selma’s Voting Rights Museum
Not too far from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, you’ll find the most elaborate collection of documents and artifacts of the voting rights campaign in the 1960s.
Officially known as the National Voting Rights Museum, Selma’s most important location of cultural significance holds testaments to the three protest marches of African-Americans looking to establish equal voting rights for themselves and their families. They were met with the fierce and violent resistance of extremists looking to maintain the status quo in what passed into memory as ‘Bloody Sunday’.
Following this outburst of hatred towards African-Americans, nation-wide outrage towards such mindless violence prompted the president Lyndon B. Johnson to offer federal protection to the protesters, allowing the march to be completed. Protesters symbolically started their walk at Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a judge that also happened to be one of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan leaders, and headed towards the state capital Montgomery on a 54-mile long route.
Both the bridge and the museum are must-see attractions for any history-minded tourist as they tell the story of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
3. Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum
Any motorbike connoisseur worth his salt will revel in the possibility of visiting a monument to bikes such as this one.
We could say that we’re lucky indeed that the former racecar driver and son of a dairy industrialist George Barber decided to start collecting motorcycles. What used to be a private collection hidden away in some moldy warehouse in Birmingham has grown into a full-scale array of over 1,000 motorbikes that we can see today in Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. It’s the largest collection of motorbikes in the entire world! Make sure not to miss this, one of the worldliest Alabama attractions.
You might wonder how a racecar driver got into vintage motorbikes in the first place. The truth is, maintaining and collecting vintage motorcycles is much cheaper and more easily accessible than cars. In spite of that, the Barber Museum also features one of the most extensive collections of Lotus sports cars.
4. McWane Science Center
Thanks to the funding received from McWane Inc, Birmingham saw two of its most prominent research centers combined into one.
Located in what used to be Loveman’s Department Store, McWane Science Center features an interactive science museum, an aquarium, and an IMAX Dome Theater. Visitors can make use of some amazing exhibits that get participants involved in the world of endless possibilities that is science. There’s also a Challenger Learning Center, established in order to commemorate the Space Shuttle Challenger crew.
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The aquarium features a water tank with approximately 50 marine species that dwell in there. The World of Water exhibit has a touch tank where visitors can opt for a more tactile experience of our underwater relatives.
Alabama tourist attractions such as this one usually appeal to the younger crowd, but it goes without saying that even avid paleontologists can find something of interest here. Namely, the Basilosaurus cetoides is the state fossil of Alabama.
5. Montgomery’s Civil Rights Memorial
The capital of Alabama state, Montgomery is a city reflective of its state’s significance in relation to the civil rights movement.
Just across the street from Southern Poverty’s Law Center offices, you’ll find a circular, black granite stone engraved with the names of innocents who have fallen in their fight for equality. Designed by Maya Lin, it invites the visitors to meditate on the inequalities of the past and present alike, and think about what needs to be done for a better future. The face of the monument reads: ‘…until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’. Of course, this is a reference to Martin Luter King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, in which he paraphrases this excerpt from the Bible.
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Not that far from the memorial, you’ll find the steps to Alabama Capitol, the final destination of protesters from Selma and also the church where King was a pastor during the bus boycott.
6. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Part of the Civil Rights District in Birmingham, the Institue is a stout reminder of battles fought to establish equality and integrity for African-Americans in the entire United States.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is located directly across the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the infamous site of 1963 horrific bombing undertaken by Ku Klux Klan members in the midst of Civil Rights Movement period. Four girls died in this act of terrorism, sparking the need for immediate change – there was no more time and no more patience. Besides the institute and the church, Civil Rights District also encompasses Fourth Avenue Business District, Carver Theater and Kelly Ingram Park.
The Institute keeps records and memories of the eye-witness accounts and all other kinds of documents and testimonies from this period. It is a stark reminder that Jim Crow laws are still not that far behind us, which is exactly the kind of experience that the Institute aims to represent.
Now’s the time for a little change of pace. After all the civil rights museums and monuments, a shrine to the sun modeled by the actual landmark found in Wiltshire, England.
If you still haven’t guessed what this is all about, Bamahenge is an imitation of the Stonehenge and quite an accurate one at that. It is yet another brainchild of George Barber, but one he didn’t bring to life. Instead, it was done by Mark Cline who has put a lot of effort into making the exact replica of the prehistoric monument in England. Suffice it to say that he has succeeded, with Bamahange being identical to Stonehenge in both size and the correct alignment during the summer solstice. The ‘standing stones’ are made of fiberglass and Mike was on the verge of calling the structure ‘Fibrehenge’. Luckily, he’s changed his mind.
Visitors can find it in Elberta, Alabama near a lovely pine forest.
8. Mobile Bay
For a more peaceful retreat, head on to the picturesque south of Alabama where you’ll find a shallow inlet of exquisite beauty.
Mobile Bay has an unusual appeal. The inlet is dotted with small towns and historic forts along its winding coastline set against the Gulf of Mexico. Alabama gulf coast is as varied as it gets, with points of interests for all but the pettiest of tourists. Towns like Dauphin Island (named after the actual island it’s on) and its illustrious Fort Gaines tell the story of Alabama’s south and its historical background.
For those more versed in the pursuit of science, the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve will unravel the diversity of life right before your eyes. There is something for you in Mobile Bay even if you don’t plan on spending your vacation learning. Gulf Shores is a typical resort where families and tourists come for a nice, relaxing holiday that you’ll find more about in the next section.
9. Gulf State Park
Recreation areas are fan favorites of travelers looking to have a time of their lives doing outdoor activities or just simply relaxing and shaving the edge off the day (multiple times).
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Gulf State Park is a recreational area just like that. Located in the Gulf Shores resort city, it offers two and a half miles of pure sandy beaches. Parks such as this one provide visitors with one activity after another, way more that can be undertaken during one visit. Camping is a popular manner of experiencing Gulf State Park for either RVs or tents. If you don’t feel like camping, there are cabins for your perusal. With three freshwater lakes, namely Little Lake, Middle Lake, and Lake Shelby, there are plenty of fishing opportunities in both saltwater and freshwater basins. Moreover, if you’d like to grab a surfing board and face the waves head-on, you’re guaranteed to have a blast in the Gulf State Park.
10. Dexter Parsonage Museum
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church provided its clergy with pastorage, much like every other church in the country.
But this one is like no other, as it’s the house where Martin Luter King Jr. stayed with his family from 1954 to 1960. In the period of 1920 to 1992, it housed a total of twelve pastors. The pastorage was renovated in 2003 and turned into a museum for visitors to gaze into the home of Dr. King and his family. Unfortunately, it was also the scene of multiple bombings during the civil rights movement with the goal of maiming and intimidating Dr. King.
Thankfully no one was hurt and he was able to continue his fight for equality. Dexter Parsonage Museum features much of the furniture used by Martin Luter King Jr. and his young family and serves as an important spot on any solemn Alabama travel.
11. Neversink Pit
Any list of attractions in Alabama would be incomplete without at least one entry for daredevils and those seeking serious adventure.
Just outside of Fackler, northern Alabama, you’ll find the most famous sinkhole in the world – Neversink Pit. Quite aptly named, this 162 feet deep hole in the ground attracts skilled climbers and geologists alike. Its unusual depth and unique plant life invite scientists from all over to come and study various forms of life that stem from here. At the top, the pit is 40 feet wide but it spreads further as you venture down the sinkhole, almost doubling in width.
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The first step of the journey requires half an hour hike and then rappeling down the Neversink Pit. While it is as marvelous and breathtaking as it gets, going down this natural hatch requires a permit, so make sure to come prepared.
12. Battleship Memorial Park
While you’re visiting Mobile Bay, make sure to pay a visit to the Battleship Memorial Park as well. This huge war vessel was decommissioned after World War II and was designated for scrapping.
Luckily, funds were raised all over the country with the goal of saving USS Alabama from such an unfortunate faith. Today, it serves as a memorial to all the branches of the US military. With the help of people all over the US, including students who each donated a nickel in return for a free pass at the memorial park, people can today visit this extraordinary monument to firepower and American military tradition. Most sections of the battleship are open to visitors, including captain’s quarters and a mess hall where 2,500 soldiers used to eat together.
It had to be towed through the Panama Canal in order for it to be an attraction that it is today.
13. Rosenbaum House Museum
In Florence, Alabama, travelers from afar come to marvel at the only house in the state designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
It was initially built for Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum in 1939. Wright used materials such as brick, cypress wood, and glass to construct what he called a ‘Usonian’ house, free of all the architectural restrictions of the Old World. He used multiple layers of flat roofs and board walls to create homes that seem natural and befitting to the American spirit. Not only that but the furniture inside the house was also made by Wright.
In 1999, Mildred sold the house to the city of Florence with their promise to restore the home and turn it into a museum. Reconstruction took place, wiring and heating needed to be redone and damage caused by termites needed to be fixed. The original furnishing was put back in the way Wright imagined it, as it can be seen by visitors today.
14. The Sloss Furnaces
Of all the Alabama attractions, the Sloss Furnaces definitely come off as an underdog, with the least investments poured in it these days, yet with more heart and soul than most people imagine.
It is an homage to the industrial revolution of Alabama, a memory of the new, technological age coming to this southeastern state. Several decades ago, you would be greeted by noxious fumes, walls of smoke and sweating workers as they’re trying to reach the daily pig iron production quota. Today, it’s nothing more than old, red brick structures and rusty metal. However, it is another page in the history of Alabama, a more recent one but yet so easily forgotten amidst the Civil Rights Movement. People who’ve built the country also need to be remembered, and not just by artists and musicians who seem to be among rare few that come here to work.
15. Birmingham Museum of Art
Often described as the single best fine art museum in Alabama, Birmingham Museum of Art showcases both contemporary and art of old.
Not only does the museum represent people and cultures from all over the world, but it also has works by some prominent artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Pissaro. There are a lot of decorative arts, artifacts of Southeast Asia cultures and of course beads and headdresses of cultures descended from Africa.
Whether you come to Alabama for its incredible contribution to civil rights or because you’d like to explore its beautiful landscapes, you’ll be more than pleased with the selection of activities to choose from. Alabama’s history is rich and varied, resulting in an overwhelming palette of experiences to have.