“Sweet Home Alabama” is more than just a song.
That’s what nine tour operators and travel planner readers of The Group Travel Leader discovered during a five-day familiarization tour of the state hosted by the Alabama Tourism Department. This tour introduced them to people and places that changed the world, from civil rights heroes in Birmingham to recording artists in Muscle Shoals and rocket scientists in Huntsville. Along the way, they discovered the state’s natural beauty, art and notable historic places.
Follow along on this itinerary to begin planning an Alabama exploration for your travelers.
• Arrival in Birmingham
• Protective Stadium Tour
• Birmingham Driving Tour
• Tour and Dinner at Vulcan Park and Museum
Travel planners began their trip by arriving in Birmingham by air, car and train. After gathering at the Hilton Birmingham at UAB, the group ventured out to explore the city. Their first stop was at the brand-new Protective Stadium, home of the University of Alabama Blazers football team, for a reception and tour. Next, an “experience giver,” Alabama’s term for a step-on guide, led the group on a driving tour to see some of the city’s highlights. The tour ended at Vulcan Park and Museum, where travel planners enjoyed amazing sunset views of the city, as well as a museum tour and a delicious dinner catered by a local chef.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham played its first home game at the new $175 million Protective Stadium in October. The FAM group got a behind-the-scenes tour of the stadium, including a look inside locker rooms and a walk on the field, just weeks before opening day. The stadium will also play host to the opening and closing ceremonies of the World Games, which are coming to Birmingham in 2022.
Vulcan Park and Museum
In 1904, the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce created a 56-foot-tall cast-iron statue of Vulcan to highlight the area’s heritage in the iron and steel industry. Today, that statue stands on a 125-foot pedestal in a hilltop park overlooking the city. The group visited the park at sunset for beautiful views of the monument and the city below and enjoyed a museum tour showcasing the city’s history. They also had a delicious catered dinner at the museum.
• Breakfast and Tour at 16th Street Baptist Church
• Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
• Kelly Ingram Park
• Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame
• Lunch at Pizitz Food Hall
• Depart for Muscle Shoals
• Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
• Dinner at Ricatoni’s
The second day of the trip started with a treat: a catered breakfast at 16th Street Baptist Church, one of Birmingham’s most important civil rights landmarks. Next, a Black historian led the group on a tour of the church, as well as tours of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park, which was the site of highly publicized demonstrations during the civil rights movement. Next, the group got a quick preopening tour of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and enjoyed lunch at Pizitz Food Hall, a market in a historic retail building. From there, the group left Birmingham and headed to Muscle Shoals, where they toured the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and then proceeded to their accommodations at the luxurious Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa.
16th Street Baptist Church
In 1963, the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church killed four Black girls and became a flashpoint in the civil rights movement. Today, the church is still home to an active congregation, as well as a museum detailing the attack and the events it set in motion. The tour group enjoyed an exclusive catered breakfast in the church basement, followed by a tour of the historic sanctuary that highlighted its art and architecture in addition to its civil rights history.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
So many important events in the civil rights movement took place in Birmingham that the city constructed the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute right across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church. With interactive displays and historic artifacts, the museum helps visitors understand the injustices of segregation and the heroic efforts of those who worked to end it. Highlights include a Freedom Rides bus and the jail cell from which Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
Kelly Ingram Park
During the civil rights movement, powerful protests took place in Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church. Today, the park is home to a number of sculptures that depict the brutality of opposition to the civil rights movement and the overcoming spirit of those who persisted in the cause. The group toured the park, and they had a chance encounter with Sarah Collins Rudolph, a survivor of the 1963 church bombing.
Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame
Built in 1935, the Carver Theater was at the center of Black entertainment in Birmingham for much of the 20th century. Fresh off a renovation, the 471-seat theater continues to offer performances. Beginning this spring, it will also be home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, which will showcase Alabama musicians who made important contributions to the evolution of jazz. The group got a behind-the-scenes tour of the theater and a sneak peek at some of the museum exhibit areas.
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
In 1969, a quartet of talented session musicians known as the Swampers left their positions at a nearby studio and started the Muscle Shoals Sounds Studio in an unassuming roadside building in Sheffield. High-profile artists from around the world, including Cher, The Rolling Stones and Lynard Skynard, recorded more than 75 gold albums there over nine years. Today, visitors can tour the studio, which is set up almost exactly as it was during the Swampers’ heyday.
• FAME Studios
• Alabama Music Hall of Fame
• Lunch at Odette
• Depart for Huntsville
• U.S. Space and Rocket Center
• Huntsville Botanical Garden
• Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment
• Dinner at Rhythm on Monroe
The third day brought more music history, first at FAME Studios and then at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. The group enjoyed lunch at the charming Odette in downtown Florence before departing for Huntsville. Upon arrival there, they toured the iconic U.S. Space and Rocket Center, then proceeded to visit the Huntsville Botanical Garden and the Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment complex. To end the day, Huntsville treated the group to a spectacular sunset reception on the rooftop at downtown restaurant Rhythm on Monroe, followed by dinner in the main dining room. Guests overnighted at the Drury Inn and Suites.
The original Muscle Shoals recording studio, first called Florence Alabama Music Enterprise, is now better known as FAME Studios. Opened in 1962, this studio put Muscle Shoals on the map and was the site of seminal recordings by artists such as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Allman Brothers Band and many more. Today, groups can tour the working studios to see how music is recorded there and hear the stories of legends who created hits in those rooms.
Alabama Music Hall of Fame
The Alabama Music Hall of Fame pays homage not just to the Muscle Shoals sound but also to the wide range of artists, songwriters and producers who have ties to the state. Among the many inductees are Hank Williams, Nat King Cole and Lionel Richie. The museum has instruments, stage costumes and other artifacts from dozens of Alabama music legends. Visitors can walk through a tour bus used by the country band Alabama or record their own versions of popular songs in the on-site studio.
U.S. Space and Rocket Center
Much of the rocket science that led to the success of America’s space program was done by Werner Von Braun and a team of engineers in Huntsville. Today, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center helps visitors understand the scale of this program and the objects they created. The centerpiece of the museum is a Saturn V rocket that was used for testing the systems that would send astronauts to the moon. Groups can participate in interactive elements of the center’s popular Space Camp program.
Huntsville Botanical Garden
Not far from the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville Botanical Garden is a 112-acre jewel. Displays throughout the garden change with the seasons, and there are a variety of special exhibits and events throughout the year. A conservatory also serves as a butterfly garden during warm-weather months. The FAM group learned about the garden’s Galaxy of Lights, a holiday program rated among the top group travel events in North America, and enjoyed some free time to explore the garden.
Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment
A cotton and textile mill built in 1900 now serves as Huntsville’s hub for all things artistic. Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment is home to more than 200 artist studios and galleries. Visitors can browse the galleries, meet the artists, watch them work and buy pieces from them directly. In addition to the studios, there are a number of restaurants on-site, as well as a specialty tea shop, a brewery, a distillery, a chocolatier and other food vendors.
• Historic Huntsville Driving Tour
• Huntsville Museum of Art
• Tour and Lunch at Burritt on the Mountain
• Depart for DeKalb County
• Little River Canyon National Preserve
• Dinner and Campfire at DeSoto State Park
The fourth morning of the FAM began with a driving tour that included the gorgeous homes of Huntsville’s Twickenham Historic District and ended with a shopping and refreshment stop at Harrison Brothers Hardware, a general store and gift shop. Next, the group explored the galleries at the Huntsville Museum of Art before ascending to Burritt on the Mountain, a house museum and historic village on a peak just outside town. From there, the group departed Huntsville for DeKalb County and Lookout Mountain, where the visitors were amazed by the waterfalls and scenery of Little River Canyon National Preserve. Next, they checked into the lodge at DeSoto State Park, where they enjoyed a delicious Southern dinner, followed by a campfire experience with s’mores and live music by a local performer.
Historic Huntsville Driving Tour
Huntsville has a rich and varied history, and the FAM group spent some time getting to know more about it on a driving tour with an entertaining Huntsville experience giver. Along the way, they saw the site where Alabama’s constitution was signed, the historic depot where Civil War soldiers were held as prisoners of war and dozens of beautiful homes, some dating to the 1820s, in the Twickenham Historic District. The tour ended with a visit to Harrison Brothers Hardware, an 1879 store on the downtown square that is now a charming gift shop.
Huntsville Museum of Art
For more than 52 years, the Huntsville Museum of Art has been the city’s repository for fine artworks. The museum has more than 3,000 works in its collection and showcases them in its 75,000 square feet of gallery space. Many of the museum’s exhibits are themed and change throughout the year. Whenever they visit, though, groups can explore a gallery of recently purchased artworks and admire pieces of innovative American studio glass.
Burritt on the Mountain
In 1938, an eccentric doctor named William Burritt built a self-designed mansion on 167 acres atop Round Top Mountain overlooking Huntsville. Today the home is open as a museum that showcases Burritt’s unique design sensibilities and the stories of his life there. Today, 12 acres surrounding the home serve as a historic park, which includes a village of cabins and other structures from the early 1800s. The FAM group explored the village and enjoyed a basket lunch in the replica 1800s Rosenwald School House.
Little River Canyon National Preserve
After driving into remote DeKalb county, the group spent an afternoon exploring the natural beauty of the Little River Canyon National Preserve. At more than 15,000 acres, the preserve protects a river canyon atop Lookout Mountain. Among the highlights is DeSoto Falls, a 45-foot waterfall nestled inside a canyon that is 550 feet deep in some places. A tour of the preserve included plenty of opportunities to stroll through the forest and admire the other waterfalls and rock formations.
• DeSoto State Park
• Depart for Home
On the final day of the tour, the group enjoyed another delicious meal at the DeSoto State Park Lodge, then explored the park and points of interest in nearby communities. Then, they began the drive back to Birmingham to begin their trips home, with memories of Sweet Home Alabama fresh in their minds.
For more information contact:
Alabama Tourism Department