State Spotlight: The Best of Alabama

RewardExpert analyzes all 460 towns and cities in Alabama to determine which destinations are must-sees for those traveling through the Heart of Dixie

RewardExpert

Sweet Home Alabama! Known as the Heart of Dixie, Alabama is a wonderful vacation destination; travelers of all stripes will find there is no lack of things to do. The state has a rich history, plenty of outdoor activities, and endless opportunities for relaxation, such as golfing, walking, touring wineries, or seeing live music.

Alabama presents travelers with a unique opportunity to visit a state that’s history is vital to the country’s current landscape. In just a few days, travelers can experience historical museums, Civil War reenactments, or important historic sites from the Civil Rights movement.

Alabama has a flourishing outdoor and recreational scene. Travelers looking to hike, mountain bike, walk, cycle, or rock climb will not be disappointed.

However, for those not familiar with Alabama, it might be difficult to know where to visit. That’s why RewardExpert collected and analyzed data about the state’s 460 cities and towns. We examined 27 different indicators across four dimensions – 1) Outdoor Activities, 2) History, 3) Food, and 4) Relaxation – to determine which of Alabama’s cities and towns are must-sees. Luckily for you, the state’s geography allows travelers to see everything within a short period of time; one of the many reasons to visit Alabama this year.

Alabama’s Biggest Cities

RewardExpert determined a ranking of the best big cities in Alabama. These are the top 5 of the 9 cities in Alabama with populations greater than 50,000 people

icon1Birmingham

For those looking to see Alabama, Birmingham is a wonderful place to start. You can fly into Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport to begin your journey. Birmingham is the biggest city in Alabama by population, which is one of the reasons why there are so many things to do. According to our data, there are a whopping 38 music venues and performing arts centers in the city. The city and the state are world-renowned for their country, blues, bluegrass, and Americana music. Check out the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. In the Heart of Dixie, experiencing the music scene is a must!
The city is also surrounded by 10 golf courses and 6 wineries. Visit the Bryant Vineyard for a tasting and a tour. Furthermore, of the 100 dishes the Alabama Tourism Department said were must-eat dishes in Alabama, 18 of them can be found in Birmingham. For those looking for an educational experience, the city is home to five key sites in the Civil Rights Movement. Visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which is one of the finest museums in the country on civil rights history.

icon2Mobile

Mobile, Alabama is in the Gulf Region of Alabama, which offers some of the state’s top tourist destinations. Mobile and its surrounding area is a must-visit for travelers going to Alabama because it has everything: delicious southern food, rocking country music, a rich history, and a beautiful coastal landscape. What more can you ask for? You could kayak or canoe on the Mobile-Tensaw River through Sunshine Canoes. Mobile has 21 music venues, three golf courses, and a winery. For music, visit the Alabama Music Box, which features live music every weekend. After just a few days, you’ll be hollering the chorus of Sweet Home Alabama like you’ve lived there all your life.

icon3Huntsville

You can begin your trip to Alabama by flying into the Huntsville International Airport or by car. From Birmingham, Huntsville is an hour and a half north by car. It is the fourth largest city in the state by population, and should not be overlooked as a travel destination due to the large amount of things you can do there. A whopping 15 of the 100 must-eat dishes call Huntsville their home, so there’ll be no shortage of fantastic southern cooking if you go. Huntsville has 17 music venues and 10 golf courses, which make a wonderful opportunity to really experience all Alabama has to offer. Huntsville also sits directly in between Guntersville Lake and Wheeler Lake while north of the Tennessee River, which means there’s tons of outdoor activities abound. From fishing to boating to hunting to ATVing, there’ll be no shortage of fun things to do. Go rafting down Flint River through the Flint River Conservation or check out some music at Black Water Hattie’s.

icon4Montgomery

Montgomery is the state capital and is next destination on our journey through Alabama. For those who love history, Montgomery is a must-visit. The city was pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil War, which means there’s plenty of museums, sites, and reenactments. Visit the Rosa Parks Museum and the Civil Rights Memorial Center. Of the 100 must-eat dishes in Alabama, you can eat 12 of them in Montgomery. For fried chicken, go to Martin’s. There are six golf courses and three wineries nearby, which means if relaxing is your goal, you’ll have no problem living slow while visiting Montgomery. Speaking of living slow; take a cruise on the Harriott II, a 19th century riverboat that’s docked in downtown Montgomery.

icon5Tuscaloosa

Tuscaloosa is just an hour west of Birmingham. The city has so much to offer, from music venues to wineries to wonderful opportunities to hike and camp. Try a red wine and eat some good food at the Vizzini Farms Winery! Check out a few of the performances at the BAMA Theater or Druid City Music Hall. Don’t forget to take a cruise down the Black Warrior River on the BAMA Belle, a modern day replica of the grand paddlewheel riverboats of the early 1900s. Furthermore, Tuscaloosa is home to the University of Alabama, meaning visitors can enjoy the college town atmosphere and all its amenities.

Alabama’s Midsized Towns

RewardExpert determined a ranking of the best mid-sized cities in Alabama. These are the top 5 of the 52 cities in Alabama with populations greater than 10,000 people, but less than 50,000.

icon1Anniston

Anniston is an hour and a half drive east of Birmingham and on the edge of the Talladega National Forest. There are four golf courses in Anniston, two Civil War historical sites, and three music venues. Anniston is home to the Berman Museum of World History, which displays weaponry from the Civil War. Mountain bikers can ride the Chehea Mountain Express, a 10-mile trail in Chehea State Park. Those travelers looking for a hike, should check out the Nobbin Creek Trail through Talladega National Forest. It’s a perfect day hike for the whole family as it’s six miles out-and-back. For those feeling adventurous, the hike can be a 31 mile trek by linking the trail with five others in the park. End the day by listening to some sweet rock at the Smoking Moose Saloon.

icon2Fort Payne

A little more than an hour east of Huntsville, Fort Payne is a must-visit for those looking for outdoor adventure. The city has many fishing, camping, hiking, and rock climbing opportunities. Travelers should hike into the Little River Canyon, one of the deepest canyons east of the Mississippi River. You must venture to DeSoto State Park if you’re a waterfall lover; the park has three of them! There’s also a family friendly three-mile hike through the park. For those looking for a dark and wet adventure through a cave, check out Manitou Cave through True Adventure Sports. Don’t forget a helmet! True Adventure Sports also offers opportunities for rock climbing for those looking to get vertical.

icon3Fairhope

Fairhope is just over an hour from Mobile, but it’s well worth the trip. Fairhope sits on the coast of Mobile Bay, which feeds into the Gulf Coast, so there are many boating, canoeing, and swimming opportunities. Take a guided trip while on horseback at Oak Hollow Farm. For travelers looking to go a little faster, there are many wonderful cycling routes around Fairhope. There’s a 41-mile-loop from Fairhope Pier to Weeks Bay. Visit the Weeks Bay Interpretive Center. They house displays of coastal topics with habitat models and historical features. Observe wildlife native to Alabama by walking on elevated boardwalks through swampland, or take a boatride on a pontoon boat for a swamp tour. Furthermore there are four music venues home to the city. Lastly, four of the dishes in Alabama’s top 100 are located in Fairhope. Swing by Big Daddy’s Grill for the Big Daddy Burger.

icon4Cullman

Cullman is a smaller town in the state, but if you’re looking for authentic southern food and music, do not miss it. The town has two music venues and a wonderful restaurant scene. This is your chance to get real authentic southern cooking. Go to Johnny’s BBQ and order the BBQ pork plate - you won’t be leaving hungry! Swing by Berkeley Bob’s Coffee House, a 1960s-style California coffee shop that celebrates nature, coffee, and art. Visit Hurricane Creek Park to experience 500-foot deep gorges, cliffs, and waterfalls. The town is also near the Bankhead National Forest, which presents wonderful chances to hike and camp. If that’s not enough adventure for you, Skydive Alabama is home to Cullman.

icon5Selma

Selma is an hour west of Montgomery by car and is a must-see for those who are looking to learn more about our nation’s history. There are a total of nine museums and historical sites about the Civil Rights Movement and Civil War, which is more than any other city in the state, which is remarkable considering the city’s population size. Visit the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was the beginning of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. Visit the Edmund Pettus Bridge and learn more about the movement at the Selma Interpretive Center.

Alabama’s Off-the-Beaten Path Towns

RewardExpert determined a ranking of the best small towns in Alabama. These are the top 5 of the 399 cities in Alabama with populations less than 10,000 people.

icon1Orange Beach

Orange Beach is directly situated on the Gulf of Mexico. There are so many outdoor activities to do around the town since the gulf is on one side and the Gulf State Park is on the other. Watch the sunset with Captain Barry and his crew aboard the Daedalus. See exotic fish and forgotten shipwrecks by snorkelling or scuba diving. Furthermore, Orange Beach has a lively nightlife scene. There are 13 music venues in the town, which means it’s a wonderful destination for an active and fun vacation. Check out Live Bait at The Wharf where you can see “Jimmy Buffet” style music and enjoy being near the water. For those looking for some history, check out the “Damn the Torpedos!” Civil War trail; a coastal trail with interpretive signage from the Civil War that stretches from Gulf Shores to Mobile.

icon2Gulf Shores

Gulf Shores is near Orange Beach but is worth a visit of its own. Gulf Shores played an important role in the Civil War, which means there are many sites, museums, and reenactments of the battles in the town. There are also many beaches, boating opportunities, tours, and music venues. You could see the coast and Alabama from the air by riding in a hot air balloon with Gulf View Balloon. For travelers looking to stay on the ground, hike the Pine Beach Trail through Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge. You could also hunt for shells while walking along 32 miles of Gulf Shores’ beaches. Grab some food and drinks at The Hangout, which features live music almost every night of the week.

icon3Tuskegee

Tuskegee sits on the edge of the Tuskegee National Forest and is about an hour and half drive from Montgomery. For travelers looking to hike, camp, or naturewatch, this beautiful place is well-worth the trip. Hunters should visit the Master Rack Lodge, which has been featured in many hunting magazines. Go to the Kellogg Hotel for their weekly jazz concert on Fridays. While you’re there, try the sweet potato souffle, which was named one of Alabama’s 100 must-eat dishes. Visit and take a tour of Booker T. Washington’s home. Take a hike through Tuskegee National Forest on the 16 mile Bold Destiny/Bedford Cash Memorial Trail.

icon4Cherokee

Cherokee is an off-the-beaten-path town in Alabama with an incredible amount of outdoorsy opportunities. The town is in the Northeastern part of Alabama and south of the Tennessee River. For travelers looking to camp, hike, and be in nature, be sure to visit Cherokee. Check out the Cherokee Rock “Village”. In the Cherokee County Park, there’s a stone village made up of ancient boulders. For those looking to rock climb, you can do that at the same park. Visit the Bear Creek Watershed for some wonderful fishing and watersports activities.

icon5Wetumpka

Wetumpka is fifth on our list of small town. Wetumpka sits along the Cossa River, which is one of the reasons why it’s renowned for it’s whitewater sports. The town hosts the annual Cossa River Whitewater Festival. Along the river, there are many wonderful nature parks to walk and hike through. Also, 80 million years ago, a meteorite hit what is now nearby downtown Wetumpka and left the Wetumpka meteor crater. The impact crater is 5 miles wide.

Explore the map to check out our top cities

Best Cities by Category

History

Best Cities for History
1 Montgomery
2 Selma
3 Birmingham
4 Gulf Shores
5 Huntsville

Relaxation

Best Cities for Relaxation
1 Birmingham
2 Montgomery
3 Huntsville
4 Gulf Shores
5 Anniston

Food

Best cities for food
1 Birmingham
2 Huntsville
3 Mobile
4 Montgomery
5 Scottsboro

Music

Best cities for music
1 Birmingham
2 Mobile
3 Huntsville
4 Montgomery
5 Orange Beach

Expert Insights

RewardExpert spoke with Leslie Walker, Convention Sales Manager at the Huntsville-Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau, for her insights on traveling in Alabama.

Leslie Walker

Convention Sales Manager,
Huntsville-Madison County
Convention & Visitors Bureau

1. What makes Alabama a unique travel destination?

I believe what most surprises travelers about Alabama is, well, everything! Yes, we have spots that are rural and quaint, but are home to some of the most beautiful hiking and outdoor recreation you’ll find anywhere. Just an hour’s drive away, you can find yourself in a place that helped put man on the Moon and is now on the forefront of NASA’s mission to Mars.

2. What trends have you noticed surrounding travel in Alabama? Which cities and towns are the most popular? What activities do travelers gravitate towards?

Like many destinations, we have found that travel has been trending toward educational and immersive experiences. If you want to completely decompress and relax on the beach, we’ve got you covered. If you want to grab the kids and jump on a roller coaster, we have that, too. And if you want to explore this country’s past, train for the future, or learn a new artistic skill; those we do especially well.

3. How do the regions within Alabama differ in regard to what they offer travelers? How do the North, Central, Southern, and Gulf regions differ from each other?

On the Gulf and in the south, we’re blessed with sugar white beaches, the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Museum, beautiful public gardens, amazing dining (seafood and otherwise), as well as rich history in Mobile; the birthplace of Mardi Gras in America. In the central part of the state, the struggles of our civil rights history are preserved and shared through opportunities likes our Civil Rights Trail and Birmingham is beginning to receive its due as a true foodie destination. And, I think people are sometimes shocked to find that one of the world’s ten largest Shakespeare festivals is held in Alabama. In the north, you’ll find the state’s #1 tourist attraction, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, the official welcome center for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the home of Space Camp. On the flipside of all that science, in Huntsville you can also visit the nation’s largest privately owned arts facility, Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment, or take a short drive to Muscle Shoals to jam out with our long and storied music culture.

4. What are restaurants, hotels, businesses, museums in Alabama doing to cater to travelers from out-of-town? Has this changed over time?

Alabama has always been a destination for those looking to head south for warmer weather and beautiful beaches. Also, Space Camp has been a getaway for the science-minded and out of this world dreamers since the 1980s, but now other parts of our culture are starting to be fully realized and appreciated. Alabama restaurants are known to serve up some of the best downhome cooking you could imagine, but now their diversity has expanded and world-class chef’s representing just about any cuisine you could imagine are creating “food magic” all across the state. The craft beer industry is booming! Hotels and event facilities, new attractions and museums are coming online every day. My hope is that, as much as folks are intrigued to visit the big destinations and all those have to offer, they too will realize the “road less travelled” can make all the difference and begin to further explore the lesser-known, unique spots that are more numerous and diverse than you might think.

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Methodology

methodology

To help travelers discover which U.S. cities and towns are the best to visit in Alabama in 2017, RewardExpert compared all 460 Alabama cities and towns across four key dimensions: 1) History, 2) Food, 3) Outdoor Adventure, and 4) Recreation and relaxation.

We first identified 27 relevant metrics, which are listed below with their corresponding weights. Each metric was given a value between 0 and 100, wherein 100 represents the most favorable conditions for travel and 0 the least.

Finally, we calculated the overall score for each city using the weighted average across all metrics and ranked the cities accordingly.

Indicators

Outdoor Adventure - 50 Points

  • Number of Canoeing/Kayaking/Whitewater Rafting Opportunities: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Number of Sailing/Boating Opportunities: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Number of Scuba Diving Opportunities: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Number of Rock Climbing Opportunities: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Number of River Cruises: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Number of Eco Tours: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Horseback Riding Opportunities: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Number of Skydiving/Hot Air Balloon/Air Riding Opportunities: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Car Racing Opportunities: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • ATV Opportunities: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Cycling/Mountain Biking Trails: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Off Road Cycling Trails: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Off Road Mountain Biking: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Miles of Hiking/Backpacking: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Miles of Walking Trails: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Caving Opportunities: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Bird Watching/Wild Life/Safari Opportunities: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Hunting/Target Shooting Opportunities: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Camping Opportunities: Full Weight (2.5%)
  • Fishing Opportunities: Full Weight (2.5%)

Food - 10 Points

  • Number of top 100 restaurants in each city: Full Weight (10.0%)

History - 15 Points

  • Number of Civil War historical sites/museums/points of interests: Full Weight (7.5%)
  • Number of Civil Rights Movement historical sites/museums/points of interests: Full Weight (7.5%)

Recreation & Relaxation - 25 Points

  • Number of Golf Courses: Full Weight (6.25%)
  • Number of Gardens: Full Weight (6.25%)
  • Number of Wineries: Full Weight (6.25%)
  • Number of Music Venues: Full Weight (6.25%)

Sources: Alabama Tourism Department, Trust For the Public Land, Dropzone.com, Golflink.com, MuseumsUSA, hikingproject.com, indieonthemove.com, Yelp, U.S. Census Bureau