10 Reasons to Drive to Huntsville, Alabama and the Shoals

You’re just a short day trip away from Alabama’s largest city and some incredible music history.

Here’s a fun fact about Alabama you probably didn’t know: Birmingham is no longer the largest city in the state. Neither is the state capital, Montgomery. The honor of the most populous city in the Yellow Hammer State goes to Huntsville thanks to a population growth of almost 15% over the past decade. People are moving there because they’ve discovered what a gem this North Alabama town is: a hotbed of arts, science, restaurants, and bars. Add in the musical legacy of their neighbors in the Shoals a little over an hour away, and you’ve got plenty of reasons for a road trip from Nashville. Here’s what you’ll discover in The Rocket City.

U.S. Space & Rocket Center
U.S. Space & Rocket Center

Blast off at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center

Ever since an esteemed group of German rocket scientists chose to relocate to Huntsville after WWII, the city has literally been the propelling force behind NASA’s space program. Wernher von Braun led the team that developed the Saturn V rocket that sent a dozen Americans to the surface of the moon, and decades later Huntsville is the home of the program to create the most powerful rocket ever built for the Artemis program that aims to return to the moon before the end of the decade.

Huntsville’s role in the space race is chronicled at the popular U.S. Space & Rocket Center, which is home to an amazing collection of space history. From life-size models of the International Space Station to a huge Saturn V rocket hanging from the ceiling of the main exhibit building that you can walk underneath, it’s a jaw-dropper of a destination. It’s also the home to Space Camp, which has trained more than a million children in the science of space travel over the past 40 years, including a handful of graduates who have gone on to become actual astronauts.

You can drink in school

Well, it’s not still a school, but Campus 805 was indeed a middle school for decades before developers converted the large campus into an entertainment complex featuring two craft breweries (including one in the old gymnasium), a speakeasy bar hidden behind a sliding row of lockers, restaurants, entertainment venues, and retail shops. It’s even legal to wander the hallways of the building with a beer, so it’s your high school fantasy come true.

Huntsville loves their multi-purpose entertainment venues with plenty of food and drink choices under one roof. Other fun partyplexes include Stovehouse in the refurbed Martin Stove Factory and A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard, which is currently being remodeled, but should return better than ever.

There’s a fantastic arts scene at Lowe Mill

The Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment complex is the largest privately owned arts facility in the region, home to more than 150 working studios where artists create unique works in full view of visitors. Each individual studio has large windows to allow you to watch the magic happen, and if the door is open, you’re welcome to walk in and meet the artists. The facility also features seven gallery spaces, four performance venues plus food and bev options.

Huntsville Havoc
Huntsville Havoc

Huntsville is a sporty kinda town

While college football may be king in Alabama, Huntsville is home to some other surprising sports teams. First and foremost is their minor league baseball team that is an homage to racoons, those irksome nighttime marauders that knock over your garbage cans. That’s right, you can root, root, root for the Rocket City Trash Pandas, or at least buy some of their hilarious creative merch. They also play hockey in Huntsville, contrary to the latitude, and the Huntsville Havoc have actually won a few league championships. If you like watching people drive fast and turn left, head out to the Huntsville Speedway, where the short quarter mile track ensures plenty of turning and lots of action. Rubbin’s just racin’.

Free the Hops
Free the Hops

They’ve finally exited the dark ages of craft brewing in Alabama

Alabama was way behind the rest of the country when it came to beer. Raised on megabrewery light lagers, Alabama was a craft beer desert until a little over a decade ago when a “Free the Hops” effort worked to change state laws. Since then, the floodgates have opened and the taps are flowing at more than a dozen craft breweries in Huntsville. Among the most notable are Yellowhammer Brewing, Straight to Ale Brewing, Innerspace Brewing Co., and Salty Nut Brewery. They’re definitely making up for lost time.

Hit the great outdoors

If you think all of Alabama is as flat as the top of a biscuit, you haven’t visited the northern part of the state which is actually home to some lovely mountains like Monte Sano State Park. Spanish for “mountain of health,” Monte Sano offers sweeping views of Huntsville as well as miles of hiking and biking trails to get your heartrate up. The Madison County Nature Trail atop Green Mountain is free to the public who can enjoy wooded paths and picnics by a secluded 16-acre lake. If you’re a fan of the water, the city has created a paddling trail to point you to the best places to put in your canoe, kayak, or paddleboard, or if you’re more of a passive observer, check out some of the scenic waterfalls around town.

Cotton Row Restaurant
Cotton Row Restaurant

The dining scene will surprise you

They eat well in Huntsville, and you can, too. From fine dining at the venerable modern American favorite Cotton Row to the clubby, pubby vibe at 1892 East, Huntsville boasts some excellent dining options. For a more down-home experience, don’t miss the soul food at G’s Country Kitchen, a strip mall restaurant that proudly declares that it isn’t “fast food.” Toybox Bistro is a self-described “nerd restaurant” that embraces the history that NASA nerds basically built the city. Every nook and cranny is filled with geek-ablia decor, and the menu of craft beer and decadent bar food draws in the crowds.

Taste legendary BBQ in Decatur

If you decide to take a side trip to the four towns that make up the Shoals (Muscle Shoals, Florence, Tuscumbia, and Sheffield), you might want to make a pit stop along the way at one of the most iconic barbecue joints in the South. The history of most barbecue is, shall we say, smoky and hazy, so it’s rare when you can point to the definite originator of a particular dish. Big Bob Gibson invented a tangy mayo-based barbecue sauce now known as “Alabama White Sauce” back in the first quarter of the 20th century, and a fourth generation of the family restaurant still smokes chickens and dunks them in that delicious dip to create a dish that has been copied all around the world.

FAME Recording Studios & Publishing Co.
FAME Recording Studios & Publishing Co.

The Shoals is a national musical treasure

When Lynyrd Skynyrd famously sang “Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers” in their Southern rock anthem “Sweet Home Alabama,” they were talking about the legendary backing band of musicians who played on scores of hits from the ‘60s through the ‘80s. The rhythm section played on or produced albums from an eclectic range of musical acts from The Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan to Paul Simon to Aretha Franklin. Tour the studios they recorded in at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals or Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, (which is actually in Sheffield). Discover even more acclaimed performers from the region at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia.

You can visit some famous homes in the Shoals

The Swampers weren’t the first famous musicians to call the Shoals home. W.C. Handy is known as “the father of the blues,” and the log cabin where he was born has been moved from deep in the woods to closer to downtown Florence so that more visitors could tour the museum and see the collection of memorabilia from his life. Florence stages an annual music festival in Handy’s honor, drawing dozens of blues performers to the area each summer. Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, and her birth home is preserved as a museum where you can see the water pump where she first made the connection to communicate with her teacher Anne Sullivan, a scene famously recreated in the movie, “The Miracle Worker.” While the residents of The Rosenbaum House weren’t nationally famous, the home’s architect sure was. Frank Lloyd Wright designed this example of the Usonian style of architecture for the Rosenbaum family of Florence, one of his few projects outside of the Midwest or New York. You can still tour the home and the accompanying museum.

Chris Chamberlain is a food, drink, and travel writer based out of Nashville, where he has lived his entire life -- except for four years in California where he studied liberal arts at Stanford University and learned how to manipulate chopsticks. He is a regular contributor to the Nashville Scene, Nashville Lifestyles, Local Palate, Edible, FoodRepublic.com, and Conde Nast Traveler. He likes beer, bourbon, and bacon but isn’t fanatical about any of them.