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On an Alabama road trip, you can explore historic sites, be inspired by United States civil rights history, and wander through wonderful bookstores for kids and adults. And of course, there’s plenty of great Southern food to enjoy along the way. Check out unique places to visit in the state of Alabama, including places to go in Huntsville, Mobile, and along the Gulf Coast.
My husband and I took an Alabama road trip and enjoyed delicious Southern food while learning inspiring American civil rights history. Read on to learn about my suggestions for a wonderful, educational road trip to Alabama along with other things to do in Alabama.
Civil Rights Unique Places to Visit in Alabama: Birmingham
Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham
Have you heard of the teenagers who marched in Birmingham in 1963 to end segregation? Although police tried to stop the marches by turning fire hoses and police dogs on the kids, the marchers continued. And police arrested hundreds of kids.
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Today, a Birmingham park where the teens marched is an open air civil rights museum that tells their story. At the park, we saw powerful sculptures of the marchers, fire hoses, and police dogs. Plus we learned the history from a free audio tour, available via signs in the park.
Importantly, across the street is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where the teenage marchers gathered. It’s the same site where, several months later, Klan members murdered 4 girls by firebombing the church. Now, the park honors those murdered girls with sculptures. Curiously, while we just stumbled on Kelly Ingram Park, it was a highlight of our Alabama road trip.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
This civil rights museum explains American life under racial segregation and activists’ struggle to overthrow it. Here are my 3 favorite things about it:
The huge variety of exhibits. For example, to tell stories of people protesting segregation, this civil rights museum uses photographs, video interviews, pop music, life-sized reproductions of a segregated school, audio recordings, and real TV news reporting. But I was especially moved by listening to Martin Luther King read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail while standing in the Institute’s life-sized reproduction of a jail cell. In that letter, Dr. King criticized white clergy for telling protesters to “be patient.”
It focuses on ordinary people. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute focuses on ordinary people who did extraordinary things to fight segregation in the 1950s and 60s. Like those 1,000 Birmingham teenagers who are honored in Kelly Ingram Park. Check out the video interview of a bloody Freedom Rider, lying in his hospital bed recovering from injuries by white supremacists, and vowing to continue protesting.
Voices of everyone–even the segregationists. Especially chilling was a video of white 1960s Birmingham political and social leaders, politely justifying segregation. In fact, this Birmingham Civil Rights museum is worth a special stop on an Alabama road trip.
Traveling Mom tip: We were glad we visited the excellent kids’ section of the museum bookstore. I enjoyed a memoir by a teenager who protested segregated buses, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice and Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till, by Till’s cousin.
TravelingMom Tip: One of our favorite things to do when taking a vacation is to hire a photographer for family photos. This is a special gift and souvenir that we cherish. We use Flytographer to book a local photographer located in the area that we're traveling to. Use this link and you will get $25 off your photo session.
McWane Science Center
With four floors of exhibits and the only IMAX theater in Birmingham the McWane Science Center can keep your family busy all day. Be sure to check out the World of Water exhibit and explore the Native American artifacts.
This 122-acre zoo is home to more than 700 animals from 6 continents. With a Children’s Zoo, solar panel project and extensive work in elephant conservation this zoo brings sustainable learning to life.
is ave Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman is one of the don’t-miss things to do in Alabama. Photo credit: Larry Porges for Shutterstock
Ave Maria Grotto
This is a site you need to see. Located in Cullman (50 miles north of Birmingham) on the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey, Ave Maria Grotto draws visitors from all over the world. A Benedictine monk created a 4-acre park of miniature carvings of famous churches and sites worldwide.
Things to Do in Northwest Alabama
When you’re looking for things to do in Alabama don’t overlook the historical treasures of the northwestern corner of the state.
Located just North of the Tennessee River, the only Frank Lloyd Wright designed house in Alabama is found in Florence. It is open for tours. This home is unique because it was designed as a low-cost home for middle income families.
Florence Indian Mound and Museum
This site centers around a 43 foot high burial mound. Over the years, numerous Native American artifacts have been recovered from the area. For kids, the displays are fascinating – fish hooks made out of deer hooves and spears used to hunt for food.
Helen Keller House
Helen Keller’s birthplace, Ivy Green, is located in Tuscumbia. The 640 acre grounds are filled with mementos and objects from the Keller family. The cottage where Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller lived can still be visited today. If you visit during summer months, you’ll be able to see William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker performed on the grounds.
Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard
Located in Tuscumbia, this unique Alabama site has served as a coon dog cemetery since 1937. Unique grave markers abound,
Things to Do in Alabama: Huntsville and Decatur
Huntsville is filled with family-friendly things to do. For outdoor fun, you can explore the hiking trails at Monte Sano State Park, wander through gardens at Huntsville Botanical Garden, and view numerous bird species at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center.
Museums are available for every age range and interest, including military artifacts at the U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum, trains at the Huntsville Depot Museum and the North Alabama Railroad Museum, and the Huntsville Museum of Art.
U.S. Space and Rocket Center
One of the most popular spots to visit in Huntsville is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. It’s a Smithsonian affiliate that offers one of the largest collections of space memorabilia in the world. Take in an astronomy show at the planetarium, view a Saturn V rocket, and see a mock up of the Apollo 11 landing site. Adults and kids alike can participate in Space Camp here!
Read More: The best spots in the country to learn about NASA!
Cathedral Caverns State Park
A short drive southeast of Huntsville will get you to Cathedral Caverns State Park in Woodville. It is home to one of the largest in the world at 243 feet around! Hiking trails wind around the park’s 493 acres. When you dress for this adventure, wear closed toe shoes and bring a sweater. The caves maintain a 60 degree temperature year round.
Unique places to visit in Alabama: Selma & Rural Lowndes County
Pettus Bridge in Selma
The movie Selma inspired my husband and me to visit Selma, Alabama. The movie told the story of civil rights marchers beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge for trying to register to vote. We felt that inspiring history come to life as we walked over the Bridge. Currently, at the foot of the Bridge, there are reminders of the voting rights march. For example, historical markers explain the significance of the Bridge. And plaques honor leaders of the Selma march. Plus, a powerful memorial honors lynching victims.
Traveling Mom tip: The National Voting Rights Museum is open Monday-Thursday, between 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. and only by appointment Friday – Sunday. The Interpretive site is open Monday – Saturday.
Lowndes County Civil Rights Sites
On the road between Selma and Montgomery, we stopped a few places in rural Lowndes County, Alabama:
Voting rights museum: To better understand the 1960s civil rights struggle to register Black voters, we visited the Lowndes Interpretive Center, run by the National Park Service. Using photos, interviews, and even sculpture, the site tells the stories of voting rights activists and the violent reaction they faced.
Memorials to activists: Hayneville, Lowndes County is where voting rights activist Jonathan Daniels was murdered in 1965. Seeing the jail where he’d been held, the courthouse where his murderer was acquitted, and a memorial to him, all helped us grasp this tragic history.
A roadside memorial honoring Viola Liuzzo: This is a woman who was murdered in 1965 for driving voting rights activists to Selma.
Unique Places to Visit in Alabama: Montgomery
Rosa Parks Museum
Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist who fought against segregation. In 1955, Montgomery police arrested her for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. Famously, her arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And the boycott helped spark the national civil rights movement.
This civil rights museum dramatically recreates Rosa Parks’ arrest. A video projected on a life-sized bus helped us visualize the arrest, in real time. And how Rosa Parks used her training in non-violence to peacefully hold her ground. We also enjoyed the introductory video, photos, and artifacts in other exhibits. Plus, the museum is on the spot where Parks was arrested.
Traveling Mom tip: While we didn’t have kids with us, kids would easily understand this civil rights museum. There is even an exhibit geared at younger kids, called the Time Machine.
Civil Rights Memorial Center
In downtown Montgomery, we visited the Southern Poverty Law Center memorial to civil rights martyrs, a sculpture located outside. And adjacent to the sculpture is the Civil Rights Memorial Center. Unlike the outdoor sculpture, the inside of this civil emotionally intense civil rights museum uses video, photos, and text to tell the stories of forty people murdered for racially-motivated reasons between 1955-68.
Freedom Rides Museum
In 1961, an integrated group of clergy and students tried to use segregated public waiting rooms at bus stations in towns across the south. That prompted violent reactions from some white supremacists. The former bus station in downtown Montgomery now houses the Freedom Rides Museum. Although it is just one room, we learned a lot from both the exhibits and the helpful guide. Also, the huge photos and text outside the museum are packed with information.
Legacy Museum & National Memorial for Peace and Justice
These two brand new sites make Montgomery, Alabama a must-visit location for anyone interested in American history.
Legacy Museum: “You are standing on a site where enslaved people were warehoused.” This emotionally gripping museum tells stories of Black people in the U.S. from slavery, to segregation, lynching, and mass incarceration. And it doesn’t sugarcoat. In fact, to help us vividly feel this history, it uses life-sized video, photographs, interactive exhibits, public signs, and even art. For example, one simple but moving exhibit is a collection of glass jars, each filled with dirt. Each jar has the name of a lynching victim, a date – and dirt collected from the murder site. And while this brilliant museum is intense, I think kids over 11 could handle it.
National Memorial for Peace and Justice: The companion site to the Legacy Museum, this is a moving memorial to lynching victims. It’s located in a garden, about a mile from downtown Montgomery. Unlike the Museum’s broader scope, the Memorial focuses on honoring 4400 lynching victims, murdered between 1877-1950.
Read Herring Bookstore
This independent bookstore and publisher in Montgomery specializes in fiction, civil rights, Civil War, and the South. Plus, it hosts speakers. Plus, we tried the couch, once owned by Montgomery civil rights activists Arlam and Johnnie Carr. Bonus: The Read Herring Bookstore is within easy walking distance of nearly every Montgomery site and restaurant mentioned in this post.
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.
This visit to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s church is one of the most inspiring things to do in Montgomery, Alabama. Also located nearby is the Dexter Parsonage Museum.
Things to Do in Alabama: Mobile, Gulf Shores and Fairhope
Here at TravelingMom, we have a deep love for the Gulf Coast of Alabama.
Many folks find themselves in Mobile seeking an affordable cruise port for Carnival Cruises. And there are plenty of things to do in Mobile! The southern city is actually the birthplace of Mardi Gras and the Mobile Carnival Museum is a don’t-miss stop. Take the kids to Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island to watch history interpreters load and shoot the cannon!
The USS Alabama served during World War II. Now she sits in Mobile Bay. You can visit and do a self-guided tour. There is also an overnight option to sleep on original bunks for scout troops and church groups!
Located a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Fairhope offers visitors a variety of things to do. Stroll on Fairhope Pier on Eastern Mobile Bay, plan to visit near the holidays for the Lighting of the Trees, and enjoy some seafood at a local restaurant.
Gulf Shores Alabama
Gulf Shores is perfect for active families who want to hike, bike, swim, and do water sports. Head to State Park in Gulf Shores for miles of coastline for family-fun near Orange Beach, Mobile, and Fairhope. Bonus points for delicious things to eat!
Does an Alabama road trip appeal to you? Tell us about it in the comments.