Are you ready to learn the truth about the most misunderstood state in the US? This Alabama road trip itinerary will open your eyes, melt your heart and, quite possibly, change your life.
Too much to promise for a simple driving itinerary? Allow me to explain…
See also 101 interesting facts about Alabama
Your Perfect Alabama Road Trip Itinerary
Disclosure – This project took place through a partnership with Alabama Tourism Department and America As You Like It. As ever, as always, we kept the right to write what we like. There’s really no point otherwise! Also, we use some affiliate links. That means that if you book or buy through some of these links then we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. We still only recommend products and services we use ourselves. Again, no point otherwise!
Alabama Road Trip Map
White sands at sunset, dolphins in waves.
Space rocket launches and cavernous caves.
Mountains with lookouts, long trails of tears.
Carnival, Mardi Gras, parties with cheers.
Writerly stories that reach through the age.
From Gatsby to Mockingbird, turning the page.
Then footsteps and missteps, bombing and rage.
Non-violence. A bus stop. A change?
Drive Alabama, a culture exchange.
Alabama’s beautiful beaches…
Why you should visit Alabama
Alabama isn’t one of those states that people know well. Even among friends and fellow travel writers, I heard question after incredulous question. Why are you going to Alabama? What is there to do in Alabama? And even, more than once, is it worth going to Alabama?!
Well, where should I start? With the white sand beaches, award-wining eco credentials and dolphins dipping at sunset? The rust and russet rolling peaks of the Appalachian mountains? The heartbreaking and heart-fixing stories of the civil rights movement through household names like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King?
Perhaps we’ll curl up with a good book? Choose from Truman Capote, Fiztgerald and Gatsby and Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Or party all year in Mobile, home to the oldest Mardi Gras in America.
Would the world’s biggest space museum blast your interest? Or how about some shrimp & grits, ribs in smoky barbecue sauce and a slice of pecan pie?
Yes, this Alabama road trip will sweep you through the Yellowhammer State in either seven, ten or fourteen days. But leave your prejudices at home.
Above all else, Alabama invites you to explore with an open mind.
Feeling overwhelmed with your travel plans? Check out our Travel Toolbox © and Road Trip Planner & Toolkit ©. They contain all the resources you need to get everything done, easily and with a side of sass.
Waking up excited every day!
How to use this Alabama road trip itinerary
There are many ways, obviously, to plan a road trip through Alabama but the highlights remain the same. This loop runs from New Orleans to New Orleans but other good ideas for Alabama road trips involve either driving in a loop from Atlanta, Georgia, or driving south to north from New Orleans to Tennessee. For international visitors, it’s easier to fly into one of the other states and then cross the state line.
7, 10 or 14 Nights in Alabama?
If you stay one night in each of the main places here, that makes a 7 day Alabama road trip itinerary. However, to do it this way, you have to move and pack fast. I would strongly recommend expanding it to make a 10 day road trip itinerary, and I’ve indicated in each section where and why you should spend extra time in a place. To craft a full 14 day or two week Alabama road trip itinerary, I would take your time with this one, then stop off in Monroeville for the night and make excursions to Selma and the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Muscle Shoals too.
Facing the Past
A road trip through Alabama brings up some big topics amid the great hospitality and sense of joy and fun, which is why it’s such a powerful thing to do. Alabama is not alone with this, at all, but the iconic moments relating to genocide, slavery, racism and colonialism that took place here leave Alabama with a unique historical footprint. It’s hard to serve the topics well within the framework of a travel itinerary, so please rest assured that I will be back with more in-depth articles and context through individual articles later.
Sorting out Logistics
Each section has an introduction as to why you should visit that part of Alabama followed by a fact box that details things like drive times, where to stay, where to sleep and so on. If ever you get lost, head to the table of contents or Alabama road trip map here.
And don’t forget the Road Trip Planner & Toolkit© to help you plan an amazing trip!
Alabama’s beautiful beaches…
Alabama Itinerary Overview
Here are the key stops on a 7 day Alabama road trip itinerary. The pace is pretty full on, so if you can, I’d suggest you extend this to either 10 days or two weeks to really make the most of things. I’ve added in where and how I would make those changes in the sections below.
- New Orleans
- Appalachian Mountains
- Gulf Shores
- New Orleans
Carnival in Mobile: the longest running one in the US
The first thing to know about Mobile is how to pronounce it. Mo-beeeeel. Not Mo-baisle as in crocodile.
With that out of the way, you’re ready to enjoy one of the most colourful cities in the world: Mobile.
Often described as New Orleans’ little sister, on account of its wrought iron railings and love for carnival, Mobile, while smaller, actually came first. Named the capital of French Louisiana in 1702, a full fifteen years before New Orleans came into being, today’s Mobile oozes charm and speakeasy atmosphere on Dauphin Street, a mix of theatre, restaurants and bars beneath wrought iron railings and pastel painted facades.
Honestly, I’d recommend a visit for that street alone but Mobile has other tricks up its golden beaded sleeve.
Exploring a submarine in Alabama…
HIstory in Mobile
The History Museum of Mobile gives a good introduction to the state’s history, including the often overlooked Native American struggles, along with some harrowing depictions of the realities of the slave trade. The sections are short but powerful and manageable for young children.
Just a short drive from speakeasy Downtown, you’ll find a mighty contrast at the Battleship Memorial Park. Enthusiasts could spend an entire day here, exploring the depths of a retired submarine, staring at the wings of a B-52 and then scaling the ladders of the Battleship USS Alabama. Retired service personnel offer anecdotes about living on top of a nuclear warhead deep below the sea for 90 days at a time and the entire setup gives an insight into the reality behind the most powerful military in the world.
Carnival in Mobile
Finally, we can’t talk about Mobile without talking about Carnival and the mystic societies. To say that Mardi Gras here is a big deal is to massively underplay the concept of big deals. It’s huge. Ginormous. Gigantic. Heck, someone throw a thesaurus over here fast, we need to talk about Carnival in Mobile!
It’s the longest running Mardi Gras in America, and if you can’t make the real deal in Spring, don’t despair. The Carnival museum will welcome you with fire breathing dragon floats, jewel-studded dresses that need ball bearings to help them travel along the floor, dinner pieces that would rival royalty and a glimpse into a secret world of striped pyjamas, kings, queens and the Excelsior band.
On Dauphin Street in Mobile…
Practical Tips for Mobile
Dauphin Street is a fun street to walk along and, with the right shoes, it’s possible to walk from there to the history museum and carnival museum. In fact, the walk is half the fun.
For the Battleship Memorial Park, however, you will need to drive. Parking on site is easy once you get there. Enjoy!
Why is Alabama called the Yellowhammer State?
First of all, let me spare you some embarrassment. Yellowhammer is nothing to do with industry or communism. It’s the name of a bird. Legend has it that a group of soldiers from Huntsville wore yellow trimmed clothes during the Civil War. They were nicknamed the yellowhammers and soon the term referred to anyone from Alabama. The yellowhammer now is the official state bird.
It’s just over two hours from New Orleans to Mobile on straight, main roads.
Where to Stay
- Mobile’s Riverview Plaza lives a short and colourful walk from both the atmospheric part of Downtown and the museum district. It pierces the sky like a magnified needle, offering great sunrise views across the industrial side of Mobile and its waterway. Both self-parking and valet parking are available but don’t worry too much about breakfast. It’s only a short walk to the inimitable Mo’Bay Beignets.
How many Nights
We squeezed by with one night but to really enjoy and appreciate the museums, it would be a gift to have more time. Probably one and a half days here is ample, which my involve two nights depending on what time you need to arrive and leave.
Where to Eat
- Wintzell’s Oyster House – a no frills, welcoming oyster bar with fried green tomatoes, crab claw baskets and award-winning seafood gumbo.
- Mo’Bay Beignets – Mobile’s favourite coffee bar, bright and white Mo’Bay serves sugar dusted beignets with signature hot sauces that include butterscotch, cinnamon and gingerbread.
- Roosters – casual spot for South American inspired food. Worth a visit to see the size of the hot sauce counter!
- Noble South – highly recommended gourmet spot for Southern food like Shrimp & Grits
- The Mobile Carnival Museum – glittering gowns, dinner invitations, floats and mystic history.
- USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park – clamber among a real submarine, battleship and fighter planes and start to understand the might of America’s military.
- Dauphin Street – atmospheric architecture and ambiance.
- The History Museum of Mobile and Fort Conde – a walk through how we got to where we are.
- Beignets at Mo’Bay Beignets – sugar dusted tradition.
- I’d really recommend taking a tour around the Carnival Museum if possible. It’s such a huge part of life here that it’s good to be able to ask questions and dig a little deeper into the culture and tradition surrounding these magnificent parties.
Montgomery. Cruel history and inspiring history all in one city.
Montgomery. It’s probably not a name that many people know, yet a few square miles in this state capital contain name upon name that all the world knows. Martin Luther King. Rosa Parks. Gatsby and his greatness.
What’s even more remarkable is how close together these places are. And that they represent but a drop in the wider Montgomery ocean.
Historic Hot Dogs
Start with a slice of history by walking in the footsteps of Elvis, Martin Luther King and all the governors of Alabama at the historic, humble… Chris’ Hot Dogs store. Founded in 1917, this low-lit, low nonsense eatery serves up a vintage idea of America, through hot dogs and hot sauce, snug booths and retro fonts and the mountains and mountains of napkins. (Trust me, you’ll need them all…)
From there, it’s a sprint up the hill to the Dexter Avenue Memorial Church, a red brick building overshadowed at first, by the view up the hill of the white dome and columns of Alabama’s State Capitol Building.
And here’s where we need a quick trip to the history books.
What You Need to Know About Alabama’s State Capitol Building
In 1861, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the first president of the Confederacy on the very steps of the capitol building. For us non-Americans, the Confederates were the side that fought against Abraham Lincoln’s northern Union states. Some say it was a fight against overtaxation and northern tyranny. More say it was a fight to keep slavery as the bedrock of the economy.
Fast forward to 1955 and a time when Alabama was among one of the most segregated states in America. A 42 year old woman, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat for a white man, resulting in arrest, protests, the Montgomery bus boycott and the rise to prominence of a truly great spokesman, one Martin Luther King.
He was also a preacher at the Dexter Avenue Memorial Church.
Martin Luther King’s Church
Today, the place has a modified name. The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church. Painted footprints mark the spot outside, symbolising the thousands who marched from Selma to Montgomery to campaign for fair voting rights. At the time, Governor George Wallace refused to accept the petition, vowing to extend segregation forever. At the 50 year anniversary, led by then President Barack Obama, Martin Luther King’s daughter walked up the steps to the Capitol and was received by the governor with tears and open arms. The original governor, Wallace, attended the church to beg forgiveness.
Wanda, a force of nature and our guide to the church, greets us there and invites us to stand on the tarmac. To walk in the footsteps of giants. And it’s from this point on that my professional interest melts into a blend of personal hope and shame.
African-American history is so brutal, so recent and so far from over. Yet progress came through campaign after campaign of powerful non-violence. And information in Montgomery arrives with a tsunami of human connection, hope and warm southern hospitality. It’s jarring and blurring and, for me, I would say, life changing. Forgive me, dear readers, for not expanding fully here. I need another article to do the subject justice. Subscribe or simply come back and watch this space.
That the church sits so close to the main government building seems a strange quirk of fate. So, too, the proximity of the Rosa Parks Museum near the stop where she boarded and the Freedom Riders Museum, in the original bus station attacked by a mob.
Hanging out with the costumes from the Great Gatsby at the Fitz Museum in Montgomery
Another side of Montgomery
Away from the concrete and columns of Downtown Montgomery, the Cloverdale neighbourhood houses gardens galore. In one picturesque spot lives the Fitz Museum, marking the home of Zelda and F. Scott. Fitzgerald who lived here for a stint between 1931 and 1932.
It’s also guest house, with period Zelda and Scott suites upstairs, while manuscripts, photographs, cigarette holders and perfume bottles fill the rooms on the ground floor.
Further out again, surrounded by greenery, you’ll find the Alabama Shakespeare Festival housed in the Carolyn Blount Theatre. We caught a child-friendly performance of Cinderella but the theatre hosts a wide range of performances throughout the rest of the year.
Practical Tips for Montgomery
Bring plenty of tissues! Honestly, the stories and emotions that surround the monuments and people you will meet need time and space to sink in and breathe.
Beyond that, the Capitol Building, Chris’ Hot Dogs, and Dexter Avenue Church are in easy walking distance of one another. So, too are the Rosa Parks Museum and Freedom Riders Museum.
You will need to drive out to both the Fitz Museum and Alabama Shakespeare Festival so leave yourself plenty of time for those.
Oh, yes. And accept the mountains of napkins you will be given at Chris’s Hot Dogs. Believe me.
From Mobile to Montgomery, it’s a straightforward 2.5 hours on the road.
Where to Stay
- Springhill Suites in Downtown Montgomery may win the prize for being the hotel I have spent the least actual time in, with our late night and early start. As with the other Springhill Suites, you’ll find parking, a grab and go breakfast buffet, shared laundry facilities and a convenient location.
HOW many Nights
Definitely more than one! Montgomery is a powerful, powerful place with many stories to tell. I believe you’d benefit from more time to put things into context and reflect, spacing out the time in each place mentioned. You could also consider visiting the new Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Incarceration and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This came highly recommended for adults but with question marks about its suitability for very young children.
Where to Eat
- Chris’s Hot Dogs – founded in 1917, this is the oldest family run restaurant in Alabama and has dished up hot dogs to Martin Luther King, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and every Alabama governor since it opened.
- Dreamland BBQ – this Alabama franchise began life in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1958, after Big Daddy Bishop received a visitation from God. Try out their signature BBQ sauce and hickory-fired ribs.
- The Alabama State Capitol Building – where so many poignant events took place.
- The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church – where Dr Martin Luther King Jr preached, just steps from the State Capitol Building.
- The Rosa Parks Museum and the section of road where she was arrested.
- The Freedom Riders Museum – in the bus station where people continued non violent protest against segregation.
- The Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum – former home to the author of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott. Fitzgerald.
- The Alabama Shakespeare Festival – impressive and active theatre amid great greenery and grounds
- Check out the events schedule at the Freedom Riders Museum. People who took part in the civil rights struggle at the time sometimes attend to speak about their experiences.
Why is Alabama called the heart of dixie?
So, there are a few layers to this. Alabama sits at the heart of a number of southern States who go (or used to go) by the name of Dixie. This dates back to the time when Louisiana printed bank notes with the French word for ten: dix. Dix (pronounced deece) became dixie as a general term for the southern states and an active PR campaign in the 1940s and 50s sought to make it Alabama’s official nickname.
So, what’s the problem? Well, those southern States largely formed the Confederacy, the losing side of the American Civil War, and the side that fought to continue the slave trade. Plus, the term Dixie was made popular through blackface minstrel shows.
As a result, it’s a term that some feel evokes a romantic idea of an era in which racism and slavery were celebrated.
Not everyone feels this way but it’s good to be aware of the controversy before you go.
Walking in Little River Canyon in the Appalachian Mountains
The Appalachian Mountains
Nothing takes you right back to the present like nature. And somehow, she also manages to spirt you to the past and future as well.
The Appalachian Mountains may start life as far north as Newfoundland in Canada, but they tumble into Alabama with a soothing rise and fall that undulates with deep green in the summer and orange needled tapestries in autumn.
The Trail of Tears
But for all the beauty, there’s heartache to find here too. Look out for a series of landmarks that commemorate the lives lost between 1830 – 1850 when the US government forcibly removed Native Americans from Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee to land west of the Mississippi in Oklahoma. Thousands died through starvation and exposure along the route which the Cherokee refer to as “the trail of tears.”
Little River Canyon National Preserve sits on the aptly named Lookout Mountain near the quirky town of Fort Payne and DeSoto State Park. It’s so hard to imagine today, but in 1838, US soldiers and local militia rounded up approximately 1100 Cherokee men, women and children, placed them in stockades and then marched them for 798 miles without adequate food and supplies.
Look out for the small plaques which invite you to reflect on this history.
Hiking & Driving Little River Canyon
In today’s world, though, friendly Park Rangers and a well stocked visitor’s centre make it an easy outdoor space to explore. Walking trails pass by landmarks like Little River Falls and, if you have the nerve, the skill and the right weather conditions, you can take to the rapids yourself.
A beautiful drive wiggles and weaves along the rim of the canyon, or so I’m reliably told. We arrived amid the twilight mist so rather than elegant hiking and staring out to the flame edged horizon, I yelped in and out of the car at each lookout point in a race against the darkness clouding the sky. Crow point overlook. Wolf creek overlook. I stood on each point in the shadows, wondering what lay below. Go, voyage during daylight and let me know what I missed!
Cathedral Caverns: one of the biggest cave systems in the world
Under normal circumstances, I’m not much of a cave person. Too many bad experiences with too much darkness and too many banged heads (or is that one head banged several times – Ed?)
But Cathedral Caverns really did live up to its name. It’s cavernous, possibly the third largest cave of its kind in the world, and the melting, melding display of stalactites and stalagmites in one section of the cavern really does resemble a cathedral (and in another beautiful moment, our tour guide was called Kavan. Seriously. Say it out loud…)
And for the first time in forever, as they say in Disney, it recalibrated my discomfort with darkness. Forty minutes into the cavern on well lit pathways and our Kavan switched off the lights. Complete, total darkness. Darkness I’ve not found anywhere else. At first fear, panic, dizziness, and a primitive need to protect baby Lab. Then, a kind of peace, a requirement to relinquish control, to stand in the moment, to trust a virtual stranger that everything would be fine.
When studded fairy lights punctured the darkness, the display was honestly magical.
Practical Tips for Exploring the Appalachian Mountains in Alabama
First of all, check out hiking checklist here.
Second of all, make a stop into one of the visitor centres or arrange to meet up with a Park Ranger. These are American parks so, in general, paths are well maintained and well signposted but they can still be dangerous.
Never assume that it’s safe to swim or dive in the water and learn about what to do if you see a bear.
You’ll find the small towns, like Mentone and Fort Payne, reasonably well stocked and beautifully quirky places to visit but if you need any specialist equipment or medication, make sure you have it before you set off.
In Little River Canyon, the walk past Little River Falls and back in a loop is easily manageable with young children. Enjoy!
Montgomery to Fort Payne is three hours but this can easily be longer. In good weather, you’ll likely want to stop and take photos through the scenic drive in Talladega National Forest. In bad weather, visibility will be lower and you’ll need to go slow on the fairly winding roads.
Where to Stay
- Winston Place B&B looks like a museum from Gone with the Wind, set in an antebellum neoclassical mansion in the small town of Mentone. It’s no surprise that it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, with its white columns, spacious verandah and grand lawn out front. Inside, rooms keep the historic ambiance, with fireplaces, floral furniture, lace edged tablecloths and more. Yet you get all the modern comforts you’d expect, plus access to a washing machine. Breakfast is a full southern experience, with everything from pancakes to grits with fresh coffee.
How many nights
If the weather is good and you love to hike, then you could spend days on end here. If you would just like a taste of the place and are likely to hit bad weather, then one night will work nicely.
Where to Eat
- Vintage 1889 in Fort Payne – lunch on raspberry chicken and flatbread tomato pie in this quirky 125 year old historic Big Mill. Kids will love the life size fire engine that sticks out of the wall. Adults will love the antique trinkets, posters and memorabilia.
- Elevation Bistro in Mentone – chic and candlelit, Elevation Bistro serves top quality fare with locally sourced ingredients taking on far off dishes like French onion soup and sundried tomato and mozzarella balls.
- Hiking through forests and waterfalls in Little River Canyon.
- Touring one of the largest underground cave systems in the world at Cathedral Caverns State Park.
- Pausing at the Trail of Tears in remembrance of the Native Americans forced from this land.
- Driving along the edge of a canyon and perching on rocky outcrops on part of the Lookout Mountain Parkway.
Look out for Park Rangers in the beautiful State Parks. They are on duty to help out and are incredibly knowledgable about the local area. Look out for Kaleb, in particular, say hi from this article and check that he took the chair back to Winston Place B&B. He’ll know what it means ;-)
Looking at rockets in the Huntsville Space Center
Huntsville: Rocket City
Rocket City wants you to have a blast. Yes, it’s the city of dad jokes and home to the largest space museum on earth. If driving along Clinton Avenue and seeing the tip of a 36 storey Saturn V moon rocket rising into the sky like a spire doesn’t shiver your space timbers, then it’s quite possible that you have timbers that cannot be shivered.
As the site of America’s first ever satellite launch, Huntsville has quite the reputation as the tech powerhouse of Alabama. The city itself is expanding faster than expected and you’ll find over 100 different languages and dialects within the city limits.
Yet Huntsville also has time to slow down and play. Its 112 acres of Botanical Gardens offer nature’s answer to tech: transformed over Christmas into a Galaxy of Lights.
And if you haven’t yet had your fill of neoclassical southern mansions yet, then a ride through Huntsville’s historical district will give another glimpse into the architecture of another age.
Most of all, though, make sure you leave enough time to fully explore the space museum. Even if a tip like that is not really rocket science (boom!) it is out of this world (double boom!)
Practical Tips for Huntsville
Around a third of the exhibits at the space museum are outside, and some of the rides will be awkward if you’re wearing a skirt. Plan for that with your packing and when you get dressed in the morning!
From Mentone in the Appalachian Mountains to Huntsville is around one hour and a half, one of the shortest drives on this trip.
Where to Stay
- The Springhill Suites from Marriott in Downtown Huntsville form a convenient base for catching your breath in between the Space Center and the next stop in Birmingham. Parking is on site, breakfast is a quick grab and go and you’ll find a self-operated laundry to catch up with what you need to do on your road trip.
How many nights
Space enthusiasts should leave a whole day to explore US Space and Rocket Center, meaning that you need two nights if you want to see anything else.
Where to Eat
- Rhythm on Monroe – a fun place to pick up a Honky Tonk Whiskey Woman cocktail, some stylish shrimp & grits or biscuits and gravy and a grilled cheese sandwich for the little ones.
- Stovehouse – a former factory now converted into a cool urban leisure area, with outdoor dining from a range of eateries, a children’s play area and music drifting into the night. Follow the sign that says no firearms and only moderate, not excessive, horsejackery.
- The US Space and Rocket Center with its moondust, real relics, interactive exhibits and gravity defying rides.
- Historic Huntsville – stroll or drive through this beautiful neighbourhood of period properties or else attend an event run by the Historic Huntsville Foundation.
- Huntsville Botanical Gardens – 112 acres of earth education and greenery. We were in town for the festive extravaganza, the Galaxy of Lights night show.
- Leave yourself plenty of time for the US Space and Rocket Center. It’s the largest place of its kind on earth, and you’ll need at least half a day if not more.
Pit Stop in Decatur: Natural History and Big Bob’s BBQ
For another taste of life in Albama, make a stop in Decatur, just south of Huntsville.
A Local Landmark: Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ
Where to Eat: Big Bob’s
Big Bob Gibson’s is the only name in town, with a big smokehouse out back ready to barbecue just about any kind of meat. We arrived at lunchtime, amid a working, check-shirted crowd, with barely a table free.
Big Bob’s is famous for a number of things, most notably their white barbecue sauce, a mayonnaise based tangy sauce with paprika, mustard and a dash of garlic.
What to See: Alabama’s Biodiversity
The Cook Museum of Natural Science is an absolute must see for the kids but if you’re new to Alabama, I’d recommend a visit for adults as well. Through fresh and imaginative interactive exhibits, you can not only get up to speed with tides, gemstones and the latest on the solar system, but you get an appreciation of Alabama’s biodiversity as well.
For, somewhat surprisingly, Alabama is America’s Amazon, an area with more species than anywhere else in the country.
Get up close with turtles and alligators, learn more about Alabama’s complex cave systems and stand eye to eye with the local black bears (yes, bears!)
Finally, leave inspired by both the story and the mission of the place. The Cook began life as a collection of bugs in a pest control company. The owner used his collection to train new recruits. Over time, staff brought their children to see the collections and from there, the spark of an idea for a museum was born.
The museum has an ethos as well: life is amazing. The first gallery prompts you to “look closer” and it’s another way for Alabama to invite you to think a little deeper, reach higher and get more out of each and every single day.
Don’t miss the pecan pie at Big Bob’s.
Birmingham by name, Birmingham by nature. Unlike so many cities in the world, Birmingham was built by design and built without basing itself around a river. Instead, in the mid 19th century, a group of industrialists decided to create an industrial city in the middle of Alabama, using the railroad instead of the waterways to connect it to the world. And so they did.
The Vulcan Centre, high on a vertiginous plain that overlooks the city, offers an appropriately severe introduction to the city. First, there is the giant himself, Vulcan. Bare bottomed and wielding tools that use fire to bend metal, his presence is a cross between a threat and a welcome to residents and visitors alike.
Then, there is the Vulcan Center, an introduction to the place as much as the man, charting the arrival of workers, from the recently emancipated plantation workers to Italian and Jewish immigrants desperate to start a new life. The museum covers the construction of this behemoth sculpture (the foot stands taller than a man) and the uniting force of Baseball.
But it is for civil rights that most people know the name Birmingham, Alabama, and not, it is fair to say, for all the best reasons.
Birmingham Civil Rights Monuments
Clustered together, just half a mile from the historic Tutwiler hotel, lie a trinity of core Civil Rights landmarks. The erudite Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the evocative Kelly Ingram Park and the heartbreaking story of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
It was within these walls on 15th September 1963 when four girls were preparing for Sunday school, that Ku Klux Klan terrorists bombed the church and stole their lives. The scripture they were studying at the time was this:
“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Matthew 5:44.
PRACTICAL TIPS FOR BIRMINGHAM
In practical terms, Birmingham is an emotionally tough though important place to visit. The three core places are close together so it is just about possible to visit all three in one morning, as we did, but I would recommend you leave yourself more time.
The tour through the 16th Street Baptist church is incredibly powerful and it feels rude to rush it. The BCRI is self-guided and the amount of time you will need depends on how much of the history you already know.
While in theory, you can walk around the Kelly Ingram park in minutes, the reality is that I needed time with those sculptures to try to sift through my heavy thoughts and emotions. It’s not a place to rush through, any more than a war or holocaust memorial.
On that note, look out for graphic depictions of lynchings in the BCRI and a graphic description of the bombing in the 16th Street Baptist Church. It’s a personal parental choice but I feel that both could be absolutely terrifying for very young children. I distracted Rosa through the audiovisual parts so that she has an overview of that history but doesn’t suffer from nightmares from something she cannot unsee.
As with so many parts of this Alabama road trip itinerary, I will be writing more about these topics in separate articles. Stay tuned and watch this space.
It’s another short drive of only around 90 minutes from Huntsville to Birmingham, a little longer if you take the detour to Decatur.
Where to Stay
- A designated National Historic Landmark, the grand Tutwiler Hotel is now owned and run as part of the Hampton Inn & Suites under the Hilton umbrella. It’s only a 4 minute drive from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and has valet parking on site. It also has a waffle maker on the breakfast buffet options…
How many nights
One is possible, two is ideal, since you won’t want to rush through the 16th Street Baptist Church and BCRI.
Where to Eat
- Blueprint on 3rd – absolutely gorgeous Brasserie with historical Sloss Furnaces as a backdrop, industrial Art Deco decor and a fabulous fresh cocktail list.
- Pizitz Food Hall – something of a local landmark within reach of the BCRI with black and white floor tiles and a range of modern global food stalls.
- The Vulcan Statue that towers over the city and the museum that tells its story.
- The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute – an interpretive museum and research centre.
- Kelly Ingram Park – an outdoor park on the Civil Rights Trail with emotive sculptures.
- 16th Street Baptist Church – the site of an attack by the KKK which killed four young girls at Sunday school.
Try to time your visit to the Vulcan Center to align with sunset. It’s mesmerising to watch all the lights flicker into life across this impressive industrial city.
Monroe County Museum in Alabama
Monroeville and the Mockingbird
Between Birmingham and the coast lies a beautiful small town that seems somehow familiar. The layout of the streets. The shape of the courthouse. The song of the mockingbird?
Could this, could this just be Maycomb, Alabama, the fictional town from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird?
Why yes, Miss Maudie, it is.
Welcome to Monroeville, a small village and home to childhood friends Harper Lee and Truman Capote. And you can visit Monroe County Museum to learn more about them both.
The museum itself contains Capote’s blue glass souvenirs and crazy quilt coat, as well as a 1930s lawyer’s office, a home for Atticus Finch. But it’s the courtroom that stands out, as the original inspiration for both the book and the 1962 movie with Gregory Peck.
Practical Tips for Visiting Monroeville
The museum is small and you can easily zip in and out in between Birmingham and Gulf Shores on this Alabama Road Trip itinerary. But I really wish we’d stayed at least overnight.
Monroeville Main Street oozes with small town southern charm and you can follow a Mockingbird trail to piece together the likely Boo Radley house and school.
It’s a great place to visit with young children to introduce the concept of the justice system and with older ones to help them gain a deeper appreciation of the Mockingbird text.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach bring a sense of lightness and hope to this Alabama Road Trip itinerary. Not just becuase days seem better at the beach and sunshine makes everyone feel better.
But because the place has managed to turn an environmental disaster into a success.
From Oil Disaster to Eco Success
In 2010, the largest marine oil spill in history took place as Deepwater Horizon slicked five million barrels of oil along the Gulf Coast after 11 people lost their lives on the rig. Traced back to reckless conduct on behalf of BP, the courts ordered the company to pay compensation to the tune of around 20 billion dollars.
When a slice of those funds arrived in Gulf Shores, a decision had to be made. Rebuild as normal? Or use the funds to truly rebuild better?
Landmark eco Development
Gulf Shores decided to be bold and the result is one of the most genuinely eco-friendly resorts in the world. The Lodge by Hilton may not look as eco-pretty as you might expect but the credentials are sound. LEED Gold, SITES Platinum and FORTIFIED Commercial TM certification put the paperwork in order, making it the first building in the world to achieve that status.
Beyond that, the resort generates 110% of its electricity, meaning that it sells some back to the grid. It reuses water from air conditioning units, installed solar panels for power, made its windows bird strike friendly and developed amber lights that don’t disturb turtles. And more. The ins and outs of how this has been achieved deserves an article in its own right and believe me, I’ll be writing more about this.
Looking at Lake Shelby
Eco Pretty Eagle Cottages
And if you do want eco pretty, then Gulf Shores has that for you as well. We stayed in the stunning Eagle Cottages in Gulf State Park, overlooking the lapping shores of Lake Shelby. You’ll still see high rises if you lean forward and crane your neck. But sit back or cycle along the path and you could be miles from anywhere.
Eagle Cottages also have sustainability at the forefront of their mission, partnering with National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World initiative when it was in operation. From the cottages, you can attend lectures in the Learning Center and join a sustainability tour, as well as the more conventional hiking trips to learn about local plants and berries and track down bald eagles nesting.
Family friendly nature activities in Gulf State Park
Practical Tips for Visiting Gulf Shores and Orange Beach
When we visited in December, it was easy to get around and warm enough to eat outside or stroll around on the dunes without jackets. However, no one was in the sea and you wouldn’t want to lie around sunbathing.
On the flip side, apparently when the sunshine comes, so do the crowds and then you need to plan a little more strategically.
The Wharf in Orange Beach is a good place for restaurants and shops, while Gulf State Park is a great place to connect with nature.
From Birmingham to Gulf Shores is five hours on the road, longer if you take the detour to Monroeville for To Kill a Mockingbird. The drive is beautiful by day but tougher going by night, with risks of deer collisions as well. Consider yourself advised!
Where to Stay
- The gorgeous Eagle Cottages in Gulf State Park. These stand-alone villas have views across the water, bicycles to ride around the park and a delicious welcoming basket of cheese, cured meats and honey. They’re part of a bigger eco project in Gulf Shores and provide a sense of getting away from it all. More about them later!
How many nights
With white sand beaches and the lapping shores of Lake Shelby from Eagle Cottages, you could easily spend a week here to relax and recharge. Sit on the verandah for bird watching. Cycle through Gulf Shores State Park. Scrunch your toes on the sand and swim if it’s warm enough… But if you only have time for one night, then don’t skip this place. Head there and embrace the time you have!
Where to Eat
- Villaggio Grille on The Wharf in Orange Beach brings a quality touch to modern dining, with a range of Italian dishes.
- Foodcraft at The Lodge in Gulf State Park features traditional American dishes like shrimp & grits with locally sourced ingredients and a calming sea and sand view.
- The white sand, sea views and dolphins at sunset.
- Lake Shelby views from Eagle Cottages.
- Bald eagles nesting in Gulf State Park.
- Forward thinking eco credentials.
- Leisure activities at The Wharf, Orange Beach.
- Take a nature trail from Eagle Cottages and look out for nesting bald eagles.
Self-drive and DIY or use a tour operator?
To be honest, either would work when planning a road trip through Alabama. The roads are easy, the language is easy, the booking systems are easy. You can definitely plan the components by yourself based on this itinerary and take care of the whole thing.
That said, tour operators do offer certain advantages. First of all, they can access cheaper deals, particularly with flights and car hire. And second of all, they keep up to date with the travel news while you are away.
For this trip, America As You Like It managed to find cheaper flights and car hire than I did (and I am a pro at finding deals after a decade of professional travel.) They also followed the changes in Covid restrictions while we were away, which was a huge relief and freed me up from spending hours squinting at my phone and making sure that I was up to date.
So, particularly in Covid times, I would recommend using a tour operator. Check out the Alabama itineraries from America As You Like It here.
Top: Shrimp & Grits. Bottom: Biscuits & Gravy
What to Eat in Alabama
An entire article awaits, but for now, here are the highlights:
- Shrimp & grits
- Beignets in Mobile
- White BBQ Sauce at Big Bob Gibson’s Barbecue
- Biscuits and gravy
- Fried green tomatoes
- Make your own waffles at a breakfast station
- Chicory coffee
- Moon pies
Meeting Dorothy from the Freedom Riders Museum. People risked their lives to make travel through Alabama safe… Her message now is to come!
When to Visit Alabama
There’s never a bad time to visit Alabama but as the state has different regions (the tech north, cotton middle and swampy south) the best time of year depends on what you want to do. To help get your bearings, Alabama borders Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi. The highest point is Cheaha Mountain in Cheaha State Park.
The beaches in the south are hottest (and busiest) during June to September but pleasant to visit in December, though outdoor pools and a swim in the sea is pretty much out. The Appalachian mountains can be enjoyed year round with few extremes, but check the details if you wish to go rafting or spot certain wildlife. Lookout mountain looks stunning with autumn foliage.
For the civil rights sightseeing, both spring and autumn work well and winter is possible with a warm coat, hat and gloves.
Flights to Alabama
Alabama has a number of airports but the big international hubs lie just outside the state. We travelled in and out of New Orleans (MSY), driving a loop through the state of Alabama. You can follow the same approach from Atlanta, Georgia (ATL) or Nashville, Tennessee (BNA.)
A fun route for an Alabama Road Trip looks to be from New Orleans to Nashville or vice versa. However, bear in mind that you will have to pay a supplementary fee if you do not return your hire car to the same place you picked it up.
I’d always recommend looking for flights and routes on Skyscanner and also checking with a tour operator as they can sometimes access deals that consumers can’t. In our case, we used America As You Like It as a partner of this project.
Safety while Driving in Alabama
It’s pretty safe to drive in Alabama. Roads are in excellent condition, well signposted and with frequent fuel stations and rest breaks. Parking is easy since most places have their own car parks and even the winding roads in the mountains are missing some of the tight and fright-filled hairpin turns you’ll find in older European villages.
You do have to be careful driving at night away from the main roads, though, as deer can cause considerable damage on impact. We were generally advised to drive by day for this reason. Plus, it’s more fun to see the landscapes change as you drive on by.
Is Alabama safe for people of colour?
Given Alabama’s prominent and painful very recent past, I was asked this question several times both before I set off and while we were on the road. Since the three of us all have pale skin, we can’t answer that question from a personal perspective.
But I did ask people we met along the way, which obviously is a limited sample. Everyone I spoke to, whether Black or White, seemed horrified by the question and confident that people of colour would receive just as warm a welcome as those with white skin.
No one said it was perfect, though. “No different to anywhere else in America,” was the general gist. “We can do better,” was the other.
To get some modern context, Alabama’s population currently stands at around 74% White & 24% Black, with the remaining 1-2% consisting of American Indian and Asian according to the 2010 Alabama census.
If you are worried about this, it may be worth you reading this article from the Yellowhammer news.
You can wear almost anything you like in Alabama…
What to Wear in Alabama
In general, Alabama has a fairly relaxed dress code for its residents and visitors, unless you’re talking about Mardi Gras when costumes matter a lot. The weather varies enormously, though, both throughout the year and throughout the state.
The south is sticky and tropical for most of the year, cooling off a little in December – February. Whereas, Birmingham and further north can get bitingly cold in winter, as can the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains. But you won’t find yourself hemmed in with snow as in Alaska.
Overall, I’d recommend packing a pair of long jeans and trousers, a combination of long and short sleeved tops, a sweater, blazer or jacket, hiking shoes and going out shoes and one or two dresses if that’s your thing.
What to Pack for Alabama
Whenever you travel anywhere, check out our Travel Toolbox© and ultimate travel packing list. And for an Alabama Road Trip, of course it makes sense to consult our list of road trip essentials here. Beyond that, I’ll highlight the following:
- Reusable water bottle and travel cutlery to cut down on plastic.
- A travel adapter like this if your appliances are not from the US.
- Sat Nav or an in car phone holder if you plan on using your phone for navigation.
- Some plastic bags for rubbish.
- Some road trip snacks (although food is very easy to come by on the road.)
- Comfy shoes for making the most of the important museums, trails and Downtown areas.
- An open mind. Cheesy but true ;-)
- And, erm, stretchy waistbands. Food is tasty, plentiful and not all that light!
More on Travel in the United States
We love a good road trip through America. It’s such a fascinating country to drive through with so many different landscapes, stories, peoples and cultures.
Check out our American road trip itineraries:
- Your two week road trip from New Orleans
- A fly-drive itinerary for the west coast in Florida
- Driving Massachusetts: road trips from Boston
- Your perfect road trip through Alabama
Read more about Alabama here:
- Meet the real Maycomb from Harper Lee’s Mockingbird
- 101 Interesting facts about Alabama
- The beach in Alabama that is changing the world. Seriously.
And our useful prep guides here:
- The Travel Toolbox ©
- The international travel checklist you can print and download
- Your printable road trip checklist PDF
- Our Road Trip Planner & Toolkit ©