Are you planning a trip to the South and wondering what to do in Alabama? We’ve got you covered. Wedged between Mississippi and Georgia, Alabama is a Gulf Coast state rich in history, so prepare to learn something on your visit. And when you’ve properly absorbed your history lesson, choose from a wide variety of stunning terrains for some outdoor relaxation, including white sand beaches, expansive forests and lakes, and Appalachian foothills. Read on to discover some of the best places to visit in Alabama.
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If you’re touring Alabama and trying to please a bunch of different travel personalities, consider heading to Birmingham. The state’s most populous city is situated in north-central Alabama and chock-full of things to do, whether you’re looking for family fun, a dose of history, or some outdoor inspiration.
You can’t mention Birmingham without addressing the important role this city played in the Civil Rights Movement. Visitors can listen to an extensive collection of oral histories at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which also has a rendition of a 1950s segregated city and the real jail cell door behind which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Other sites on the Birmingham Civil Rights Trail include the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Bethel Baptist Church, both of which were bombed during the Civil Rights Movement.
Admirers of well-preserved vintage artifacts will find plenty of treasures in Birmingham, including the 1927 Alabama Theatre, home to a Wurlitzer pipe organ. The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum boasts the largest collection of motorcycles in the United States (and possibly the world) and has around 500 on display at all times. For a breath of fresh air, consider visiting Birmingham’s Railroad Park, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, or even the Birmingham Zoo.
2. Dauphin Island
Island life in Alabama is just a car ride away. Conveniently connected to the mainland by a bridge, Dauphin Island is a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico and one of the best places for a beach vacation in Alabama. The small island has seen a wide variety of residents and visitors throughout its history, from Native Americans who left shell mounds 1,000 years ago to pirates who raided the European settlement in the early 18th century.
Unsurprisingly, Dauphin Island Public Beach is one of the most-visited places on the island. Soft white sands and sparkling gulf waters provide fun for the whole family, and this beach is the only one in the region that welcomes pets. The beach is open year-round, but collects a small entrance fee in the spring and summer to help fund environmental upkeep.
This Alabama island is a haven for animal lovers. The Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary comprises more than 150 acres of woodlands and a popular trail system that takes hikers past a lake, dunes, swamps, and more. The Dauphin Island Sea Lab has educational programs and a popular aquarium that specializes in estuarine organisms. History buffs might consider a visit to Fort Gaines, well-known for its involvement in the American Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay.
3. Cheaha State Park
Situated in east-central Alabama, Cheaha State Park’s rolling terrain features the highest point in the whole state. Surrounded by the lush Talladega National Forest in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, this 2,799-acre park is beloved by locals and tourists alike.
Multiuse trails are open to hikers and bikers, and folks looking to get their heart rate up will enjoy the challenges presented by the steep, rocky terrain. Perseverance rewards hikers with stunning views of waterfalls and sweeping forests. The Fisherman’s Trail circles around the six-acre Cheaha Lake, where visitors can fish, swim, and take out paddleboats.
Other attractions in the park include a designated dog park and two museums – the Walter Farr Native American Museum and the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum.
Cheaha is a great park for a day trip, but its variety of accommodation options also make it one of the most beautiful places in Alabama to spend the night in nature. Campgrounds range from primitive and rustic to recently improved sites with electrical hookups and bathhouse access. Historic cabins and chalets are also available, many with modern amenities. An on-site 30-room hotel features nine pet-friendly rooms, and the Vista Cliffside Restaurant caters to hungry parkgoers Thursday through Friday from March to November and Friday through Monday from December to February.
There are many reasons why Montgomery is a must-see in Alabama. Firstly, it’s the state capital. Secondly, it’s the third-largest city in Alabama in terms of population, and its size is reflected in its diversity of restaurants, museums, and shops. Most importantly, Montgomery became a focal point during the 20th-century Civil Rights Movement, and today multiple sites in the city serve to educate visitors about the ongoing fight for equity and racial justice.
Follow the Civil Rights Trail for some insight into the conflicts that arose here due to segregation and other racist policies. The Civil Rights Memorial Center offers educational activities, exhibits, the Wall of Tolerance, and a sobering granite memorial with the names of those who died during the fight for civil rights between 1954 and 1968. More can’t-miss sites include the Rosa Parks Museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Legacy Museum.
Montgomery is known for its wealth of cultural opportunities. Theater buffs will want to check out the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s calendar, which features six to nine productions a year, usually with three plays by the Bard himself. Other notable sites include the Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, and the W.A. Gayle Planetarium.
5. Bankhead National Forest
Covering more than 181,000 acres in northwest Alabama, the Bankhead National Forest has six recreation areas, each offering a unique experience and a plethora of pastimes. Whether you’re a low-key traveler who wants to soak in the sights and sounds of nature or a seasoned park visitor looking to take home a hunting trophy, Bankhead National Forest has an activity for you.
Park guests who want to spend a day by the water are spoiled for choice. Various lakes and creeks offer ample space for motorized and nonmotorized boating, swimming, and fishing. The forest encompasses the Sipsey Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in the state and one of the top attractions in Alabama for those wishing to get away from city life. The wilderness is home to the Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River; the Sipsey Fork is the only designated National Wild and Scenic River in Alabama.
An abundance of hiking, biking, and horseback-riding trails wind past such scenic sights as waterfalls, gorges, sandstone cliffs, and wildflowers. With so many landscapes to explore, it’s no wonder that many guests choose to camp overnight. Accommodation options include primitive campgrounds and cabins. RV campsites and horse camps are also available.
Situated in the Appalachian region of the northern part of the state is one of Alabama’s biggest cities, second only to Birmingham in population size. Huntsville became Alabama’s first incorporated town in 1811, and the city has been a significant center of industry throughout its history, from cotton and railroad industries in the early 1800s to textiles mills after the Civil War and eventually forays into spaceflight and biotechnology.
One of Huntsville’s claims to fame is its US Space & Rocket Center, the largest spaceflight museum in the world. Here, visitors can view educational exhibits and planetarium shows or step into immersive environments like a flight simulator or the Apollo 11 Virtual Reality experience. The center even offers weekend programs with astronaut training exercises.
Huntsville has museums that cater to almost every interest, but the city’s location in the Appalachian foothills may tempt you to spend much of your trip outdoors. The Huntsville Botanical Garden is a popular spot to explore year-round thanks to its 112 acres and diverse ecosystems. Open March through November, the Harmony Park Safari is a federally licensed nature preserve with free-roaming giraffes, zebras, kangaroos, and more. About five miles northeast of downtown is Monte Sano State Park, which boasts hiking and biking trails, a planetarium, and a Japanese garden.
7. Cathedral Caverns State Park
Who would’ve thought that one of the coolest things to see in Alabama would be underground? Located in northeast Alabama, Cathedral Caverns State Park started out as a tourist attraction called Bat Cave in the 1950s. It reopened as a state park in 2000 after being purchased by the state in 1987. The cave was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1972, and its impressive features draw visitors year-round.
The must-do activity in this park is the guided cave tour, which is around 1.5 miles round trip. The origin of the caverns’ current name becomes apparent as soon as visitors step into the entrance, which measures 126 feet wide and 25 feet high. More staggering statistics await inside, like the 45-foot-tall, 243-foot-wide stalagmite known as Goliath, one of the largest of its kind in the world. The cave maintains a temperature of 60°F year-round, so you can wonder at nature’s fantastic formations in comfort.
The park offers fun above ground, too. Children especially enjoy the gem-mining activity, which involves sifting, washing, and identifying fossils or rough-cut gems from purchased bags of mining dirt. Make the most of the outdoors by following the park’s designated hiking trails, or bring a tent and camp out overnight.
Located in west-central Alabama, Tuscaloosa is known for one big thing: the University of Alabama. The Alabama Crimson Tide football team has numerous rivalries and an extremely dedicated fan base, making Tuscaloosa one of the best cities in Alabama for college football fans. And though many of the most beloved tourist spots revolve around the football team (like the Paul W. Bryant Museum, for example), Tuscaloosa has attractions for just about anyone.
The Black Warrior River runs through the middle of the city, and the Tuscaloosa Riverwalk is a local treasure. The paved trail starts near downtown and measures about 4.5 miles, with the path divided into sections for walkers and bikers. Park areas along the trail offer dog-friendly spaces and picnic spots. For more waterfront views, head north to Lake Tuscaloosa, which is popular with anglers, swimmers, and boaters.
Architecture buffs will want to check out some of Tuscaloosa’s historic buildings. The Jemison-Van de Graaf Mansion, for example, was completed in 1862 as a residence for Senator Robert Jemison Jr. Today that house operates as a museum and gives visitors the chance to observe some magnificent Italianate architecture. The Battle-Friedman House, built in 1835 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has the last documented antebellum garden in Alabama.
9. Little River Canyon National Preserve
In spite of its name, there is nothing little about the Little River Canyon National Preserve. The 15,288-acre preserve is situated in the Southern Appalachians in northeast Alabama, close to the border with Georgia. It is notable for many reasons, including the flow of its river, whose length is located almost entirely atop a mountain. The river’s water quality is remarkable as well. The preserve is also known for its diversity of flora and fauna.
With some 800,000 visitors a year, the Little River Canyon National Preserve is one of the more popular outdoor tourist attractions in Alabama. The park’s popularity is due in large part to the wide variety of activities available. Thrill-seekers can enjoy whitewater rafting on the formidable Little River or tackle sheer sandstone cliffs via rock climbing, bouldering, or rappelling. More low-key options include kayaking, hiking, biking, and horseback riding.
A trip to Little River Canyon National Preserve wouldn’t be complete without some time spent observing the local wildlife. Anglers can take advantage of excellent fly-fishing opportunities in the river, while hunters exercise their patience looking for deer and turkeys. Bird-watchers are in for a treat, too; the preserve is home to 142 species of birds.
10. Lake Martin
Located in Tallapoosa, Elmore, and Coosa counties in east-central Alabama, Lake Martin is one of the largest artificial reservoirs in the United States. Completed in 1926, the reservoir was created when the Martin Dam impounded the Tallapoosa River, resulting in a lake that encompasses more than 40,000 acres and boasts more than 800 miles of shoreline. The Martin Dam continues to generate hydroelectric power to this day.
Lake Martin’s extensive acreage and wooded shoreline has made it a popular vacation spot in Alabama, and it is surrounded by a significant amount of luxury real estate and rental properties as a result. Vacationers can enjoy all the usual water sports and hobbies such as swimming, fishing, boating, and waterskiing. Golf and camping opportunities are also nearby. Various events are scheduled on or near the lake every year, including fishing tournaments, July 4th fireworks, music festivals, and boat parades.
The lake itself is dotted with numerous small islands, many of which are visited by boaters in the summer. Acapulco Rock Island, for example, attracts swimmers who climb to various levels of the rock before jumping into the water. Goat Island is aptly named for its resident goat family, and a favorite with children.
Located on Mobile Bay in east Alabama, Mobile is a coastal community that prides itself on being a melting pot of cultures and traditions. Alabama’s only saltwater port city began its colonial history with a French settlement in 1702. More than a century of turbulent history saw the territory switch ownership from Louisiana to West Florida to Mississippi before Alabama finally received its statehood in 1819.
History buffs seeking Alabama attractions definitely need to make a stop in Mobile. The most popular tourist attraction by far is the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, where guests can get an up-close look at the World War II-era battleship. The park also features an aircraft pavilion and various tanks and artillery. Evidence of Mobile’s time as part of French Louisiana is present via the city’s numerous Cajun and Creole restaurants, as well as sites like the Mobile Carnival Museum, which documents the country’s first Mardi Gras celebration.
Explore Mobile’s relationship with the Gulf at the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico. This immersive facility has more than 90 exhibits that cover topics like ship navigation, marine life, archaeology, weather, and much more. The Exploreum Science Center, another popular educational spot, offers an IMAX theater and interactive exhibits that encourage interest in STEM subjects.
12. Gulf Shores
You may not think of Alabama as a beach vacation destination, but cities like Gulf Shores are working to prove you wrong. In fact, Gulf Shores is a resort city, and tourism is vital to its economy. Gulf Shores is the southernmost community in the state, and its long, hot summers and mild winters welcome travelers year-round.
The city has some of the best beaches in Alabama, and one of the most beloved is Gulf Shores Public Beach. The sand here is white and sugar-soft, with great opportunities for beachcombing. The Gulf of Mexico’s waters are warm and inviting, welcoming swimmers, surfers, parasailers, dolphin cruises, and more. And though the beach’s appeal is undeniable, it remains somewhat of a hidden gem, lacking the crowds that descend on beaches in other states.
There’s even more shoreline at Gulf State Park. The Gulf State Park Pier is a favorite spot for fishing and people-watching. Fish commonly caught along the 1,540-foot-long pier include redfish, Spanish and king mackerel, speckled trout, catfish, sheepshead, croaker, and whiting. For an outing away from the beach, consider the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, a favorite with families and the subject of Animal Planet’s program, “The Little Zoo That Could.”
13. Orange Beach
To the west of Gulf Shores is Orange Beach, another gulf town and the easternmost community on the state’s coastal border. Orange Beach’s proximity to Gulf Shores has led many people to treat the towns interchangeably, and tourists do often tackle both places in one trip. However, Orange Beach has its own distinct personality and enough attractions to be worth a visit in its own right.
Recreation is the name of the game in this waterfront town. The Wharf at Orange Beach has something for everyone and is popular with locals and visitors alike. The wharf’s marina isn’t just a place to dock boats; it’s also a shopping destination and home to several big-time fishing tournaments. An amphitheater attracts major musical acts, while minigolf, a 112-foot Ferris wheel, and a laser light show are sure to entrance children.
The outdoor fun continues at the Orange Beach Waterfront Park. Located on Wolf Bay, this pristine park has paved walking paths, plentiful picnic shelters, and a playground with swings, slides, and climbing structures. The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail system has seven trails scattered among six different ecosystems. The 15-plus miles of trails wind through marshes and swamps, and eagle-eyed visitors might be able to spy deer, bobcats, and alligators.
14. Guntersville Lake
Spanning 61,900 acres and stretching 75 miles, Guntersville Lake is the largest lake in the state. It was created when the Guntersville Dam impounded the Tennessee River in northeast Alabama. Guntersville Lake’s impressive size and 950 miles of shoreline provide ample space for activities both on and off the water.
Guntersville Lake is one of the best places to go in Alabama (if not the whole United States) for bass fishing. This body of water is known nationally for its largemouth bass, but anglers can also find catfish, crappie, bluegill, and sunfish, too. The lake plays host to several fishing tournaments throughout the year. Swimming and boating are some other popular activities on the lake, and both motorized and nonmotorized boats are available for rent.
Though sunbathing on the shore at Lake Guntersville State Park’s beach is a perfectly pleasant pastime, the park boasts many sights to see and things to do. If you venture out here in colder months, for example, you could spot some nesting bald eagles, as this area has one of the largest eagle concentrations in the state. More than 35 miles of trails welcome hikers, bikers, and horseback riders, and a wide variety of lodging options cater to overnight visitors.
15. Florence and Muscle Shoals
Separated by the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama, Florence and Muscle Shoals are two destinations often lumped into one trip, not only because of their proximity but also because their attractions have a lot in common. Florence and Muscle Shoals are home to American icons. These icons take the forms of individuals, architecture, musical movements, and more, but they all share the common characteristic of having left their mark on American history.
North of the river, Florence is the birthplace of W.C. Handy, known as the Father of the Blues. He was born in 1873 in a small cabin in Florence that now serves as a museum and library. Another must-see iconic spot in Florence is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House. One of finest examples of the famous architect’s Usonian house concept, the home was built in 1940 and is available for tours.
If you’ve heard of the Muscle Shoals Sound, you probably know its namesake town, one of the best places to visit in Alabama for music fans. Muscle Shoals is home to the legendary Fame Recording Studios, which are still operating today (and open for tours). This unlikely studio worked with Otis Redding, Etta James, Duane Allman, Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones, and many others in addition to assembling two of the most formidable studio bands in American music history.
No matter which destination you choose, you won’t have to look very far to find exhilarating, educational, and fun things to do in Alabama. It may not be the first state you think of when you hear “beaches,” “mountains,” or even “vacation,” but that just means you can enjoy all of its wonders without the hassle of big crowds. So go ahead and pick Alabama, and you’ll be sure to bring home some great photos, memories, and impressive historical knowledge.