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from Conquistadors to Astronauts in Alabama

Booming Birmingham

Situated near the center of the state, Birmingham is Alabama’s largest city and is also at the center of its historical, cultural and culinary scenes.

The city has numerous signature attractions for groups, among them the Birmingham Civil Rights District. This area encompasses the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four African-American girls were killed in a racially motivated bombing in 1963, and Kelly Ingram Park, which was a staging area for civil rights protests in the city. The district also includes the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, one of the best civil rights museums in the country.

Beyond the historic sites, though, Birmingham is booming with a variety of new attractions and urban appeal. Last year saw the opening of the Negro Southern League Museum, which is dedicated to the African-American baseball league that was prominent in the South before the sport was integrated.

“It showcases the largest collection of Negro League artifacts in the country, dating back to the late 1890s,” said Sara Hamlin, vice president of tourism for the Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a tribute to the metal and mine workers who formed their own baseball league during those times.”

This winter will bring the debut of an expansion of Kiwanis Centennial Park, home to Birmingham’s famous Vulcan statue.

“The park will complete a $4.66 million expansion, scheduled to open in December,” Hamlin said. “The expansion will reconnect Vulcan Park and Museum to downtown Birmingham, both visually and physically. And there will be a multicolored light show projected onto Vulcan each night to enhance the image of this Birmingham icon.”

Another popular Birmingham attraction, Barber Motorsports Museum, recently debuted a major expansion that gave it an additional 85,000 square feet of space. The museum has the world’s largest collection of vintage and contemporary motorcycles.

Groups will also want to visit the newly reopened Lyric Theatre, a vaudeville theater built in 1914.

“It sat dormant for over 30 years,” Hamlin said. “It opened last year on its 102nd birthday. Groups will enjoy coming to see a show or taking a tour — it’s a beautiful, ornate facility.”

Stargazing in Huntsville

A south-to-north trip in Alabama ends in Huntsville, a city of about 200,000 near the Tennessee border. There is a lot for groups to see and do in this smart, modern, well-educated city. But first and foremost is a visit to the famous U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

“That’s the place you must see — it’s the No. 1 attraction in the state of Alabama,” said Pam Williams, tourism sales manager for the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Group visits can include guided tours, some led by retired NASA employees. Participants see some of the one-of-a-kind artifacts on display, including full-size rockets and vehicles that have flown in space. From there, visitors can choose to take in a show at either the Imax theater or the National Geographic Theater. This is one of only 12 National Geographic theaters in the world, and the movies shown there cannot be viewed by the public anywhere else.

Groups can enjoy lunch in the Mars Grill, plus an optional bus excursion to the nearby NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

“I highly recommend the bus tour experience,” Williams said. “It depends on what is available that day, but typically they see test stands from the very first manned space flight program to the future programs. If available, they can go into the Payloads Operations Facility, which is where all the experiments happening on the International Space Station are operated. So visitors can go in and see the scientists here communicating with astronauts on the space station.”

Beyond the space history, Huntsville offers many other enticing stops for groups. This spring will bring a new visitor center at the Huntsville Botanical Garden.

“It is a gorgeous new addition to the garden,” Williams said. “Think of an old Southern plantation home with big white columns. It includes special event space, expanded dining and a gift shop.”

Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment is a popular destination for meals, shopping and other activities that is in a reclaimed textile mill. Visitors can browse artist studios and sample handmade chocolates and other treats during an afternoon at Lowe Mill.