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Why you should visit Huntsville, Alabama

The peaks and foothills surrounding Huntsville give hikers superlative views of the city and beyond. Photo courtesy Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau

Few Alabamians would call Huntsville a hidden gem. After all, it recently became the most populous city in the state. The outside world has taken notice of Rocket City, too. Last year, U.S. News & World Report named Huntsville the best place to live in the U.S. in 2022-23, thanks to a booming job market and its housing value, among other factors. 

But what exactly does Huntsville—home to more than 216,000 people—have to offer visitors?

It’s surrounded by mountain ridges and dotted with sprawling green spaces. World-class arts and entertainment venues lure creatives of all types, and its scientific achievements changed the world. Just as notable are the type of laid-back vibes that inspire visitors to check local real estate listings.

In other words, there’s a little something for everyone in northern Alabama’s hottest city. Here's why you should visit.

Take a hike, and so much more

As the forest trail gently ascends, traffic noise fades to nothing, replaced by the rustle of wind in the foliage overhead.

Farther ahead, trees give way to rocky promontories with sweeping views of the valley below. Nearby, other routes lead through old-growth forests and past wet-weather waterfalls. 

Pausing on his return trek, Kansas native Douglas Doonan says easy access to nature has been one of the best parts about his move to Huntsville nearly a decade ago. “I’ve always found the mountains to be enchanting, and you have all of that right here around Huntsville,” he adds. 

This particular oasis—the 1,086-acre Blevins Gap Nature Preserve less than 10 miles southeast of downtown—is just the beginning. Nestled into the Tennessee Valley and the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the rivers and ridges surrounding Rocket City are an outdoor lover’s dream. 

For the quickest getaway, locals head to the Monte Sano Nature Preserve, among the largest urban preserves in the nation and a 2-mile drive from downtown. There, 25 miles of hiking and biking trails link up with 2 other trail systems on the mountain. Like Blevins Gap, the preserve is part of the 9,000 acres under the stewardship of the Land Trust of North Alabama.

Those who prefer a boat to a boot also have a wealth of options among Huntsville’s many navigable waterways. Kayak or float fish the lower reaches of the Flint River to the east. Stand-up paddleboard in the calm waters surrounding Hobbs Island just downstream of the bustling Ditto Landing marina.

Or head west and boat through the tupelo swamps and glassy backwaters of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, keeping a lookout for sandhill cranes and their endangered whooping brethren.

In the back room of Trailhead Incorporated bike shop, owner Tommy Reagh tunes up a skinny-tired road bike. Out front, bikes of all kinds—and their accoutrements—are for sale. And rentals, temporarily stymied by COVID-related supply issues, are set to resume soon. 

Among the most popular destinations for the city’s 2-wheeling tribe are the Chapman, Wade, and Monte Sano mountains, Reagh says. “There’s a pretty strong cycling community here, too.”

You may also like: How many of Alabama’s 7 natural wonders have you seen?

Find your inner artist

Crowds relaxing on the grass at Lowe Mill

The sun sets behind the stage at Lowe Mill in Huntsville before one of the venue’s seasonal musical performances. Photo by Jessica Fender

Visible through a window, master puppeteer Anne Sue Courtney brings a cloth figure dyed with red clay to life with a few deft manipulations. All around her, marionettes dangle and shadow puppets hide behind backlit screens in the cabinet of curiosities that is her Squeaking Tribe Studio. 

Seen through another window, ceramicist Guadalupe Robinson carves flower motifs into leather-hard clay pots, pausing for a moment as her green parrot, Margarita, alights on her shoulder. 

Another opening frames jewelry designer Paige Seegmiller, whose nimble fingers join together parts of bold, dangling earrings inside Sunshine Studio’s kaleidoscope of colors. 

A mural of a box of crayons on the Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment Complex facade

Factory-turned-force in Huntsville's creative community, the Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment complex houses the shops and studios of 161 artists and craftspeople. Photo by Jessica Fender

Every window along the wide industrial halls of the historic Lowe Mill compound just outside downtown is a portal into an artist’s world, and every open studio door an invitation to enter and chat. “It’s a fantastic place for curious people,” says Eric Schultz, media coordinator for the arts complex. 

Hannah March Sanders sitting in an art gallery with her work

Artist Hannah March Sanders’ vibrant works in crocheted, upcycled fabric wow visitors in one of Lowe Mill’s airy gallery spaces. Photo by Jessica Fender

With its on-site theater; 7 indie food purveyors; musical performances; open-air markets; and 160-plus painters, weavers, welders, and sculptors, it’s easy to see how this sprawling compound set in 2 historic buildings gained a reputation as the heart of Huntsville’s creative scene. 

But it’s far from the only artistic flourish in a city best known for its logical, left-brained pursuits. The well-curated Huntsville Museum of Art (adults, $12) boasts a permanent collection of more than 3,000 works and a full roster of camps, classes, and workshops for some hands-on fun. 

Dustin Timbrook mural of koi

Downtown Huntsville has dozens of larger-than-life paintings, like this mural of epic koi painted by Dustin Timbrook, along its Secret Art Trail. Photo by Jessica Fender

Or take to the streets on downtown’s Secret Art Trail, much of which falls within the Quigley Entertainment District. Visitors can grab a cup of drip coffee at roastery Kaffeeklatsch—or something stronger at one of the many bars in the area—and discover the murals around Big Spring Park and the Clinton Row Color Walk. 

Big Spring International Park

Named for the city's original water source, Big Spring International Park anchors Huntsville's strollable downtown. Photo courtesy Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau

Huntsville’s music scene burst onto the national stage last year when its state-of-the-art 8,000-seat Orion Amphitheater began welcoming blockbuster acts such as Stevie Nicks and Dave Matthews Band, as well as a healthy schedule of local events. On recent weekend evenings, even the smaller venues were hopping.

In the intimate basement digs of Catacomb 435, visitors can sway to music and sip artisanal cocktails. At the newly revamped Lumberyard, a plastic-cup crowd gathers for a ’90s mixtape tribute band in an epic back courtyard. 

And as the sun sets behind Lowe Mill, families spread blankets and camping chairs across the broad lawn, awaiting the quirky stylings of singer-songwriter-comedian Aunt Sofonda. 

Get your geek on

Visitors at U.S. Space & Rocket Center

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center traces Huntsville’s contributions to the Space Race, including the Apollo 16 command module that traveled to the moon and back. Photo courtesy Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau

It’s one thing to spot the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s iconic 363-foot-tall model Saturn V rocket from the highway—a distant reminder that Huntsville helped propel humankind to the moon. 

It’s quite another to round a corner into one of the grand halls at the center (adults, $30) and see Saturn V’s 5 behemoth rocket engines. 

Huntsville, given its science and engineering legacy, is the place to geek out up close.

The Space Center’s 25-acre campus just west of the city center is home to the legendary Space Camp, several larger-than-life models and prototypes of NASA-built rockets, and enough artifacts related to everything from the Apollo program to the International Space Station to keep even the most avid aficionado busy all day. 

Add to that experiential highlights like a newly revamped planetarium, flight simulators, and aquatic virtual reality exercises, and you might need to make a weekend of it. 

On a recent afternoon, volunteer docent Phil Kitchens talked about his experience working at the Marshall Space Flight Center during the American space program’s earliest days. Beside him stood the Apollo 16 command module, its bottom charred and pocked from reentry into Earth’s atmosphere on its return from the moon.

“To have a chance to help send humans from Earth to another body in the universe? There weren’t words then, and there still aren’t for me,” says the former chemical engineer and librarian, now retired. 

But don’t let Rocket City’s name fool you. Enthusiasts of all stripes will find their people here, including those who prefer their “sci” with a little “fi.”

You may also like: 6 Alabama science centers that make learning a blast

A drink topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup at Dragon Forge Cafe

Huntsville’s Dragon’s Forge Café sates sugar cravings and gives nerds of all stripes the chance to live out their sci-fi and Comic-Con fantasies. Photo by Jessica Fender

At Dragon Forge Café, swords and maps of imagined worlds hang on mock-stone castle walls. A 4-foot-tall plastic dragon—Draco—stands sentry by a window. Aside from serving whimsical coffee drinks and house-made fare, this bastion of all things fantasy hosts tea service and Dungeons & Dragons nights. 

An area with cozy seating at Ravenwood Meadery

Ravenwood Meadery serves up gothic vibes, witchy baubles, and small-batch meads. Photo courtesy Roo Kline/Ravenwood Meadery

Next door, the Comic-Con vibes live on at Ravenwood Meadery, where proprietor Roo Kline sells witchy baubles, drinking vessels made of horn, and Norse decor. 

Elsewhere, Vertical House Records slings destination-worthy vinyl and old-school hi-fi gear. Half a dozen pinball parlors and arcades vie for quarters, including downtown’s Pints and Pixels, which features more than 40 vintage machines.

"Space is Our Place" Mural

On the side of the trendy Campus 805 in West Huntsville, the Space is Our Place mural by Jahni the Artist honors both Huntsville’s space legacy and its future. Photo by Jessica Fender

And beer nerds won’t want to miss Yellowhammer Brewing and Straight to Ale, located in a former middle school reimagined as the Campus 805 entertainment complex. The latter features a speakeasy taproom hidden behind a bank of lockers. 

Voluntarily hanging out at school? What could be geekier?

Where to stay in Huntsville, Alabama

Guest room at 106 Jefferson

The boutique hotel 106 Jefferson gives visitors a chic home base from which to explore the city and the best views in town from its rooftop bar. Photo courtesy 106 Jefferson Huntsville, Curio Collection by Hilton

The upscale 106 Jefferson is more than just an address, though this AAA Four Diamond property’s prime downtown location is one of its many draws. Huntsville’s first boutique hotel recently opened with chic mid-mod interiors, plush rooms with Irish linens, and exceptional service. Bonus: Its popular rooftop bar, Baker & Abel, has some of the best views of the city. Rates start at $158.

Travel pro and guide author Jessica Fender liked Huntsville so much that she, too, was tempted to move there.

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AAA travel alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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