Sure, go to Huntsville, Alabama for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. Everyone does, for good reason. It’s a fabulous museum, showing off Huntsville as the birthplace of America’s space program. SO much cooler than being the “Watercress Capital of the World,” its claim to fame before rockets came to town.
And after you’ve experienced the simulated lift-off, anti-gravity, and other fun exhibits and discoveries, leave all that behind. Go explore this historic and evolving city. Here are three reasons to go:
#1 Civil War History: Huntsville was the birthplace of six generals, three on each side of the war. It was also an important stop on the crucial Memphis-Charleston Railroad. The city managed to keep a low profile until General Ormsby Mitchel marched his soldiers overnight from the bloody Battle of Shiloh into Huntsville, taking everyone by surprise…and taking the train station, too.
Learn about Huntsville’s role in the Civil War at the Historic Huntsville Depot. For two hours, your guide will explain how Confederate prisoners were held–and treated–during Mitchel’s occupation. See their sketches and messages on the walls of the make-shift prison. The station itself was considered modern, sitting on the longest stretch of railroad in the country at the time. Cotton was easily transported to the Atlantic Ocean–a vast improvement over the previous waterway system.
The Union began occuying Huntsville on April 11, 1862. Unlike other Southern cities, Huntsville was preserved. As Lt. William Lyle wrote, “Huntsville is one of the most beautiful towns in America. There is a great deal of wealth here, the private residences are very elegant and surrounded with fine gardens. The air is so laden with perfume they call it Happy Valley.” There was never intent to destroy it. As a result, beautiful homes were left intact.
The Civil War is seen in the Huntsville public cemetery, too. One of the oldest sections of Maple Hill Cemetery is dedicated to lives lost in the terrible war. Both Union and Confederate soldiers lie buried, although not together. It’s sobering to realize that so many lives were lost.
Downtown, at a corner of the Madison County Courthouse, a statue of a Confederate officer still stands. Erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy, the inscription under the sculpture reads: “In memory of the heroes who fell in defence [sic] of the principles which gave birth to the Confederate cause.”
I must admit, as a Northerner, it’s shocking and sad to see remnants of a war that caused so much hurt and destruction, some of it still not healed. A reminder of the cost of conflict.
#2 Lowe Mill ARTS and Entertainment: A former textile factory, Lowe Mill is the largest privately owned arts facility in the United States. Artists–about 200 of them–work in one of 148 individual studios all week. Every type of art and media is here, from glass to guitars to painting to photography to ceramics to food…you get the idea. Wednesday-Saturday, Lowe Mill is open to the public. Poke around, stop in studios and chat with the artists. Buy directly from them and enjoy your own unique memento of your visit.
The site also sponsors Concerts on the Dock…held at–you guessed it–the loading dock! Artists offer classes and workshops. Yoga at the Mill, anyone? Soap making? Comic book illustration? Swing dance lessons? This is such a cool place, it could be in any big city. But it’s not…it’s in Huntsville, Alabama. And even cooler? The city receives no tax revenue from Lowe Mill.
#3 Grab a Purple Cup and Stroll: This isn’t so much a place as a concept. Borrowed from boozy places like New Orleans and Las Vegas, Huntsville encourages adults to visit its downtown–beverage in a special Solo Cup–Thursday-Sunday. There’s a lively beer scene; pick up “passport” at any of the Rocket City breweries and make your way, getting a stamp as you go and earning a keepsake when you’re done. The purple cups are allowed within the large downtown zone. Visit the shops, galleries, and lovely homes of the first rich folks to build in Huntsville. Grab a map of Historic Huntsville and take a self-guided tour.
My favorite place is Harrison Brothers Hardware. It really was a hardware store when it opened in 1879. When it eventually closed after the last family member died, the Historic Huntsville Foundation took over. Today it’s one of the most beautiful art and gift stores I’ve ever seen…with all the original counters, shelves, displays, and wood floors intact. It’s easy to spend an hour here. With a purple cup, maybe longer.
Go down the steps by the nearby courthouse and pass through Big Spring Park, where John Hunt founded the city. Cross the street and stroll around the Von Braun Center. You know, that German scientist who defected from Nazi Germany and helped launch–and literally–put Americans into space? The Huntsville Museum of Art is there, too. Small, but mighty.
Restaurants galore downtown. Want REAL Southern? Italian? Irish? Pub food? Your purple is cup is welcome, both coming and going. It’s hard to think of a more pleasant way to spend an afternoon or evening.
Ready to visit Huntsville? Make the first stop at the outstanding Visitors Center. The people there are eager to match your interests with what’s in the city and surroundings. Open every day, it’s so good that it’s won awards from Trip Advisor.
More places to go, hither and yon: