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From Birmingham & Beyond
Northern Alabama offers a complete look at Dixie. Larger cities, friendly small towns, open spaces, and Appalachians; music, motorsports, and museums; the birthplace of favorite sons and daughters like W.C. Handy, Helen Keller, and Jesse Owens; and from the Civil War to civil rights, from old trails to new paths, plenty of history.
Make your own by touring around northern Alabama and experiencing all there is to offer! We’ve created a big loop tour with several segments you can check out and enjoy.
We’ll begin in Alabama’s largest city, Birmingham. The city has about 215,000 residents but the metro is over 1.1 million people – about a quarter of the entire state’s population. The city actually didn’t exist until after the Civil War; it was created in 1871 when several farm towns merged. The city was founded with visions of becoming an industrial power, and it did indeed become one. Iron, steel, railroads and mining all became powerful drivers for the city’s growth and, though the economy has diversified since towards banking, telecommunications, and medical care the original industries continue to play a role and have certainly shaped the city’s history.
Atop Red Mountain in Birmingham, Vulcan Park & Museum salutes the Roman god of fire and forge with the world’s largest cast iron statue in a beautiful park overlooking downtown Birmingham. Visible for miles around, the statue – named Vulcan – was completed in 1904 in order to salute the city’s roots in iron and steel. Vulcan was first used to showcase Birmingham at the St. Louis World’s Fair. After getting the noticed – along with an award at the Fair – a three-decade stint on the Alabama State Fairgrounds followed (on the way back, Vulcan’s original spear was lost and he was used for thirty years as an ad prop, holding items in advertisements from Coca-Cola bottles to Heinz pickles to ice cream cones). Finally, as part of a WPA Depression-era park project in 1936 Vulcan’s 56-foot frame was placed atop at 126-foot pedestal on Red Mountain.
Also armed with a new spear, he’s been towering over the city ever since, minus restorations and such. Vulcan served as a beacon for local streetcar travelers and long-distance travelers between northern cities and Florida, who used adjacent U.S. 31 to head south before the Interstates came along – and the statue is still a key landmark for Birmingham. You can climb the steps – or take an elevator – most of the way up the pedestal to get an impressive view of the city surroundings, including downtown. At the bottom, the Museum provides a comprehensive look not only at the statue, but of Birmingham’s industrial and social past. A former mine lies under the mountain and you can see remnants of the entrance below the museum.
Vulcan Park sits within Red Mountain Park, which at over 1,100 acres is larger than New York’s Central Park. Relatively new, the park is opening up new activities and attractions, including over 12 miles of biking and hiking trails, Remy’s Dog Park and Kaul Adventure Tower, an 80-foot climbing tower that includes climbing and rappelling lanes as well as a zip line.
Birmingham is home to UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which has about 18,000 students on a large campus on the south end of downtown, as well as a large medical campus. The UAB Blazers have enjoyed some good success in NCAA Division I college basketball; they play at Bartow Arena on the northwest side of campus. For football, they play in the “Old Grey Lady”, Legion Field Stadium. Legion opened way back in 1927 and, along with UAB, hosted home games of the Alabama Crimson Tide for years. The annual Birmingham Bowl (named the PapaJohns.com Bowl and BBVA Compass Bowl in the past) takes place in early January each year.
But UAB isn’t the only game in town for colleges: Samford University adds 4,800 students in suburban Homewood, tucked into the hills five miles south of downtown Birmingham on a beautiful campus featuring architecture based on colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. The student body of 4,800 follows their Samford Bulldogs in the Southern Conference of NCAA Division I across 17 sports. West of downtown lies the campus of Birmingham-Southern College, a highly-ranked liberal arts college with about 1,400 students; their Panthers play in NCAA Division III… so there’s a wide variety for both collegiate education and college sports in Birmingham.
Within a few miles of these campuses (campii??) lies downtown Birmingham. The skyline features four of the state’s seven tallest buildings, capped by the Wells Fargo Tower. At 454 feet tall and 34 stories, it’s the second tallest in the state (the tallest is down in Mobile). The skyline is nicely visible from the outfield during a game at Regions Field, home to the Birmingham Barons, a AA-affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Across the street, the Good People Brewing Company brews five hometown beers year ‘round and other seasonals… their beer is only distributed in Alabama and Tennessee at the time of this writing, but it’s been some of the highest-rated microbrews in the South. And it can’t get any fresher than at a Barons game, with the stadium right across 14th Street.
Birmingham was a major center of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The epicenter is now a six-block area on the northwest edge of downtown known as the Birmingham Civil Rights District. It includes the Carver Theatre, which opened in 1935 and was one of the few theatres at the time where African-Americans could go to enjoy first-run movies. Today, it is a performing arts center and also home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, which includes exhibits and even personal effects of some inductees, which include Ella Fitzgerald, W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and many more.
Nearby, a must-see is Kelly Ingram Park, which covers one city block and decades of civil rights history. The “Freedom Walk” features statues, sculptures, plaques, and more that vividly illustrate the events that took place. Across 16th Street is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum chronicling the events and struggles, which opened in 1993. Directly across the street is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, built in 1911 and named a National Historic Landmark in 2006. The church was a rallying point for the 1960s civil rights movement and a gathering place for its leaders. A 1963 bombing at the church that killed four young girls created international headlines and influenced the movement and civil rights legislation. The whole area is a powerful place to visit.
Just outside of downtown, another National Historic Landmark reflects Birmingham’s history with industry. Sloss Furnaces have an almost post-apocalyptic feel, having operated as a pig iron-producing blast furnace from 1882 all the way until 1971 when competition and environmental laws shut it down. Well-preserved, it’s now a museum that features an immense, rusting blast furnace that used to heat pig iron to red-hot levels; slag buckets; a boiler shed; mazes of pipes, and more. People usually can’t wander around and explore abandoned factories without worry of arrest, lockjaw, or dog attacks; since this is a National Historic Landmark, feel free!
The Birmingham Zoo is also a great place to spend a chunk of the day, with over 800 animals to see from six continents. For art from many continents, the Birmingham Museum of Art offers eclectic variations, including the largest collection of Asian art in the Southeast, Wedgewood pottery on display, and selections from local and regional artists. Five blocks south is the McWane Science Center, an interactive museum heavy on the kids’ attractions with four floors of exhibits and an impressive aquarium, along with an IMAX Theater. Nearby you can catch a show at the classic Alabama Theatre, the “Showplace of the South.” Opened in 1927, the theatre was recently renovated and continues to host concerts, movies, pageants, and even some Mickey Mouse Club events (literally).
Just east of the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport you’ll find the Southern Museum of Flight, which features over 75 aircraft in indoor and outdoor displays, full-size dioramas of iconic aviation heroes like the Wright Brothers and the Alabama-based Tuskegee Airmen, as well as the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame. Motorsports and motorcycle fans will thoroughly enjoy Barber Motorsports Park & Museum. The grounds cover more than a square mile; multi-purpose racing facilities are capped with a 15-turn, 2.38-mile asphalt track that has hosted the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car, AMA Superbike Championship, and the IndyCar Series. The Vintage Motorsport Museum is loaded with a dizzying array of motorcycles (over 1,200 and claiming to be the world’s largest collection) along with a variety of race cars including an impressive Lotus collection.
From downtown – or any point in Birmingham – get to I-20/59 westbound. If you’re on the south side (by the zoo or Hoover, for example), use I-459 west.
Both roads meet in Bessemer is one of Birmingham’s larger suburbs, originally built around iron smelting and mining. Mines still produce coal in and around the city, which is tucked into the western end of the Jones Valley – the same linear valley that makes up much of Birmingham’s south side and south suburbs. Bessemer draws shoppers with new developments, as well as fun-seekers who hit Splash Adventure Water Park for waterslides, a lazy river, adventure courses, and more. Bessemer’s Historic Downtown reflects on its days when it was Alabama’s second-largest city (before Birmingham even existed) and the Bessemer Hall of History Museum chronicles this history with artifacts, photographs, and documents inside the city’s former Alabama Great Southern Railroad Depot. The Best Western PLUS Bessemer Hotel & Suites is located right along I-20/59 within minutes of Alabama Splash Adventure and the historic downtown.
From Bessemer and the Birmingham area, let’s head southwest on I-20/59 through the forested countryside of western Alabama. Just inside Tuscaloosa County approaching the town of Vance, you’ll find the headquarters are factory for Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, which includes with the Mercedes-Benz Visitor Center & Museum. The manufacturing plant is also on-site and can be toured. Please note that the Visitor Center, Museum, and Plant Tours are closed for renovations but will re-open in spring of 2015.
I-20 & 59 reach Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama and the signature phrase “Roll Tide!” (you’ll see and hear that a lot…) Tuscaloosa was Alabama’s state capital from 1826 to 1846 and continues to dominate Western Alabama as a center of culture and the economy in this part of the state. With about 95,000 residents, Tuscaloosa is Alabama’s fifth largest city.
The Best Western Park Plaza Motor Inn is right at I-20/59 and U.S. 82 on the south side of town. You can head into Tuscaloosa via either U.S. 82/McFarland Boulevard, which directly access the University campus, or I-359, which spurs off I-20/59 straight into downtown. University Avenue is a key east-west street, joining downtown with campus. Along the way or within a few blocks you’ll find much of Tuscaloosa’s sights and activities. Downtown features lively bars, restaurants, and shops, buoyed by the college population.
The Bama Theatre on 6th & Greensboro showcases both studio and independent movies as well as local art and performances, much as it has since 1938. The architectural style varies across the interior and exterior of the building, drumming up interest from architecture enthusiasts. The classic Roman style of the Tuscaloosa Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse adds a majestic feel along University Avenue; inside are murals and other artwork depicting Alabama history from many perspectives. More whimsical and a hit with kids is the Children's Hands-On Museum of Tuscaloosa, with plenty of interactive exhibits.
The University of Alabama campus lies just east of downtown, also along University Avenue. The two are connected by “The Strip”, an eclectic blend of shops and residences. One signature structure on campus is Denny Chimes, a 115-foot bell tower named after a former president of the University – whose name also adorns Bryant-Denny Stadium, another signature structure that hosts Crimson Tide football and over 100,000 enthusiastic – and often jubilant – fans who are accustomed to national championships through the years (they’ll be happy to remind you which years they took place, just ask).
The stadium went up in 1929 – with a few additions over the years, of course – and is one of the shrines to college football nationwide. The oldest building on campus dates back one hundred years further – the Gorgas House Museum started as a guest house and dining hall, was one of the few buildings on campus that survived the Civil War, and today houses a ton of great information about the university and its history. Other museums on campus include the Alabama Museum of Natural History and the Paul W. (“Bear”) Bryant Museum, which focuses on “Bama’s” varsity sports teams.
Just north of Tuscaloosa across the Black Widow River via U.S. 43 is Northport, home to its own small historic district as well as many art galleries. Kentuck Festival of the Arts happens here every year and draws thousands from all over. The festival originates at the Kentuck Arts & Craft Center, which showcases this regional style of art and their artists all year long. The Best Western Catalina Inn is on the north side of town, right along U.S. 43 & 82 for easy access.
For our Tour, we head north from Tuscaloosa and Northport on U.S. 43, winding through the woods and farms of western Alabama. Continue north on AL Highway 13 north through Eldredge and past U.S. 78 (which will be I-22 soon) to U.S. 278. At this point, you may have seen enough man-made bridges, so how about checking out the longest natural bridge in the country east of the Rockies? Cut west on U.S. 278 for about ½ mile near Haleyville and you’ll find it in Natural Bridge Park. Nestled in some beautiful woods with exposed rock formations and visible fossil prints, the park offers nature trails and picnicking as well as the opportunity to view and walk around 60 feet beneath this 148-foot long sandstone bridge. The arc of the bridge, along with some offshoots in the midst of the woods, makes for a vibrant and changing scene through various times of the year.
From the Park, head back to AL Highway 13 and continue north though Haleyville and Phil Campbell, which is the only town in Alabama with a first and last name and one of only three in the country (the others are Carol Stream, Illinois and Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, in case you were curious). After U.S. 43 re-joins, we head north into Russellville, a town of about 10,000 and home to the Best Western PLUS Russellville Hotel & Suites, which provides easy access to points all over northwest Alabama. Russellville grew up along the old Jackson Military Road, which connected Jackson, Mississippi with Nashville, Tennessee. Parts of U.S. 43 are actually right on the old Jackson Military Road, which was laid out in the 1820s. Laid out in 1949 and still going is the King Drive-In, one of the few surviving in Alabama and one of the few in the country that still shows first-run movies; it’s located right along U.S. 43.
Past Russellville, U.S. 43 is a four-lane highway that brings you into the “Shoals Metro”, which consists of cities and towns like Sheffield, Tuscumbia, Muscle Shoals, and on the north end of the Tennessee River, Florence. So what are the “Shoals” are named for? That’s unclear… legends include the bend of the Tennessee River looking from above like a man’s arm flexing a “muscle”, that navigating upstream in the river was difficult and requiring extra “muscle”, or that the bend of the river was a gathering place for mussels and the spelling changed over time. Ask locally to see what answers you get!
One of Alabama’s most famous daughters is Helen Keller, who was born in Tuscumbia in 1880. Helen Keller’s Birthplace (named Ivy Green), sits northwest of downtown on 640 acres. Ivy Green was built in 1820 by Keller’s grandparents; she was born in the cottage next to the main house, which is now a museum filled with mementos and gifts she received during her travels, as well as her collection of Braille books and original Braille typewriter. The gracious grounds around the house bask in the shadows of large trees, and outdoor performances of “The Miracle Worker” take place on weekends in early summer.
Across the street, the Tennessee Valley Art Museum includes an exhibition of the Martin Petroglyph; the boulder upon which ancient residents of the area left their marks weighs 3,000 pounds. The annual Helen Keller Festival takes place in late June a little further south in Spring Park. Spring Park is a favorite destination all year ‘round; the centerpiece is a fountain with 51 jets that shoot water up to 150 feet in the air. Downtown Tuscumbia has several streets lined with boutique shops, and the Cullen County Courthouse features both a Greek column design and a dome that marks the center of town for miles.
Also in Tuscumbia, their Historic Railway Depot opened as a museum 2013, using a new roundhouse to complement the fully-restored train station that dates back to 1888. Train simulators, memorabilia, and even telegraph demonstrations are featured. It’s located just west of the main downtown area, about ½ mile south of Ivy Green.
From Tuscumbia, use U.S. 72 or 6th Street east to U.S. 43 north, which brings you into Muscle Shoals. The sign entering town proudly proclaims the city as “Birthplace of the Muscle Shoals Sound”; two studios here are bathed in rich musical history: FAME Studios opened in 1959 on Avalon Avenue next to U.S. 43/72 and continues to have artists in for regular sessions. Some of the most popular country and R&B songs released in the 1960s and 1970s were recorded here, as well as many popular songs since. Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, the Allman Brothers, Carrie Underwood, and many, many more. In adjacent Sheffield, the studios of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio at 3614 Jackson Highway was an epicenter for artists from the late 1960s through the late 1970s, many of whom played with session players known as “The Swampers,” who backed the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, and the Staple Singers.
The Rolling Stones recorded “Brown Sugar” and several other songs for the Sticky Fingers album in Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, as did The Black Keys for their Grammy-winning Brothers album nearly forty years later. In Lynyrd Skynyrd’s iconic song “Sweet Home Alabama” – also the official state song – you’ll hear the line where they salute The Swampers (as in “they pick me up when I’m feelin’ blue”). Muscle Shoals Sound Studio has a newer, active facility on Alabama Avenue; all are open for tours; call for available times and more info. They have preserved much of the original equipment in the FAME studios and the studio at 3614 Jackson Highway, and fans of the “Muscle Shoals sound” of music definitely need to experience these studios.
Over the Tennessee River – which is pretty wide at this point – lies Florence, home to the University of North Alabama. The city, perched on hills above the river, has its own significant contributions to the region’s rich musical history, often proclaiming the city as the “Birthplace of the Blues.” W.C. Handy, considered by many as the “Father of the Blues,” was born in Florence in 1873. The log cabin where he was born and raised is just west of downtown Florence and is open as a museum. Just down the street in a nice residential neighborhood, Frank Lloyd Wright fans can check out his only architectural project in Alabama: the Rosenbaum House.
Built in 1940, the house is a primary example of Wright’s Usonian concept. It remained the Rosenbaum’s home until 1999, when the house was donated to the city and became open for tours. Downtown Florence lies between the Tennessee River and the UNA campus right along U.S. 43 and U.S. 72. The main street is populated with lively shops and restaurants. The Pope’s Tavern Museum is a former stagecoach stop and – as you might guess – tavern. It’s one of the oldest buildings in Florence, sitting on the military road that connected to the Natchez Trace. It also served as a hospital during the Civil War; one hundred years later after being a private residence for a while, the city purchased it and turned it into a museum. Plenty of antiques and artifacts are on display, and it serves as the focal point for the city’s annual Frontier Day celebration. An engineering marvel harnessing the Tennessee River is Wilson Lock & Dam, which rises 137 feet and spans 4,451 feet. There are several areas to view the dam; if your timing is right, you could see a boat or ship going through the locks.
From Florence, make the beeline east on U.S. 72 across the rolling hills, cotton fields, and occasional hugs of the Tennessee River’s offshoots to Athens, a city of 21,000 along U.S. 31 and I-65. At this point, we’re directly north of Birmingham again! Athens is home to Athens State University, which traces its origins back to 1822, making it the oldest college in Alabama. The Altar of the New Testament in Founders Hall features a unique tulipwood carving which depicts characters and verses from the New Testament.
Nearby on Pryor Street, the Alabama Veterans Museum & Archives features a large exhibit center, guided tours provided by local veterans, and a gift shop, all located in the old freight rail depot in town. Athens came into existence a year before Alabama became a state, and the central part of town is filled with antebellum-era homes. The city grew up on cotton and railroads and suffered mightily during a violent occupation during the Civil War. The twentieth century added power – literally.
Athens was the first city to get electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1934, and forty years later it became home to the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant, the largest of its kind in the world when it opened. Today, Athens benefits from the aerospace activities centered in its next-door neighbor down U.S. 72. That would be Huntsville; that city, along with plenty of other great places to check out, are next on the second half of our Alabama North Tour!