Huntsville is hot. No, it’s a super nova! Known as Space City for its marvelous museum focused on the US space program and associated “space camp’ (more in a future article), Huntsville, in far northern Alabama (close to Tennessee), is a great destination for a family vacation.
When Huntsville was designated the site of a convention I attended, my first reaction was “Why Huntsville?” But Huntsville offers a lot. In 1950 the city was tiny, but then it became the center of rocket development for the US. Engineers poured in, and today the city has the highest number of engineers per capita than anywhere in the US. Forbes lists Huntsville in the top 10 smartest communities in the world. These smart people have been very proactive in converting a sleepy Southern town into a fantastic city.
All the major attractions of cities many times its size are available here, without the traffic jams and relatively little crime. There are beautiful botanical gardens, a rich history that has been exploited by the local tourist authority with an abundance of signage explaining the significance of structures, and a delightful, walkable downtown. The Broadway road shows come here, the Huntsville branch of the University of Alabama — a major research university — sits on a heavily wooded 432 acre campus with over 8,000 students, and there’s an excellent art museum and a brewery converted to artists’ studios.
Greater Huntsville’s population today is about 450,000. It’s Alabama’s second largest metropolitan area and its fastest growing. It’s landlocked, but nearby mountains provide great opportunities for hiking.
You’ll probably want a car (or Uber) to get around. The hotels and restaurants are priced reasonably, or you can get an excellent Airbnb. Because Germans were major contributors to the initial rocket program, delicious German cuisine is abundant. Forget excellent Mexican food in Huntsville, but ethnic favorites like Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese abound, along with plenty of Southern barbecue, grits, fried pickles, and green tomatoes, topped off with a thriving microbrew scene.
I took my first “ghost” tour in Huntsville. These popular tours take you on a historical walk explaining what happened where and with whom. History is laced with tales of the ghosts of these events that still inhabit these places. If you believe in ghosts, it’s very ghoulish. Our tour guide told us right up front that she did not believe in ghosts, but she referred frequently to a ghost specialist who had accompanied her on the tour and would know before being told what happened on a site by the ghosts there. For example, at the site of a battle, he smelled gunpowder.
At the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, congregants chanted to drown out the sound of an illegally stabled mule in its basement during the Civil War. Many of the buildings, occupied by the Confederacy and later by Union forces, played a significant part in the Civil War. Fans will go nuts. Huntsville’s historic buildings are impressive and the architecture of the old homes conjures a more authentic feel than Colonial Williamsburg.
On the historic main square the Harrison Brothers business has been selling hardware since 1879. Today the authentic interior fixtures transport you to those times, while the shopkeepers sell a more modern menagerie of goods.
The First Bank of Alabama, dating from 1835, is on the National Register of Historic Places, as are many of the buildings around. Today it houses an architect’s office, but it looks exactly as you imagine a bank should, with six marble pillars in front and a high entablature.
Away from downtown a major new mixed-use development, MidCity, including residences, shopping, and big entertainment is scheduled to open in 2021, and is bound to make a big splash.
A few miles out of town, at a shopping Mecca known as Unclaimed Baggage, tourists and locals alike flock to scoop up unclaimed airline baggage and their contents. You never know what you’ll find! Because they buy for pennies on the dollar, bargains abound.
Looking for a great place for an inexpensive but exciting family vacation? Consider Huntsville.