Standing under one of 3 remaining Saturn Five rockets in the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama would have been worth the trip, even if that were all Huntsville (The Rocket City) had to offer. But, Huntsville has much more to offer.
Table of contents: ()
- The Rocket City
- Space Stuff
- Out of Town
- Food and Drink
- Arts and Entertainment
- Where to Stay
The Rocket City
I was a space geek as a kid. To be fair, I was launched a little over 3 years after Sputnik and we were all a little space crazy in the 1960s. I had books on spacecraft and remember being glued to the TV during the Apollo missions. Getting a small peek into what it would be like to attend Space Camp made me feel like I was 12 again (which is how old I was when Space Camp opened).
U.S. Space & Rocket Center
On the morning of the second day, we visited the U.S. Space & Rocket Center where we had a guided tour given by Alex McCool who was instrumental in the design of the propulsion systems for the very Saturn V rocket that dominates one of the large display areas. This is the sort of city where your neighbor, the guy in front of you in the line at Starbucks, your Little League coach, and yes your docent, may be a rocket scientist. Don’t do what we did and rush through the museum. Space geeks should plan on a few hours, and leave some time just for the gift shop.
In the area outside I was busy trying to recognize all the of the full-size rockets or rocket models they had on display. The Saturn V, Mercury-Redstone and Space Shuttle scale model were unmistakable, but I had to ask about some of the more obscure rockets. They also have a few carnival-type rides like the Space Shot freefall tower and the G-Force Accelerator (spinning thingy).
We had, as mentioned above a brief intro to Space Camp. We rode the 1/6 Gravity Simulator where you bound along the surface of “the moon”. The Multi-Axis Trainer spins you in 3 different ways at once but didn’t make anyone in our group sick, although you might think it would. Space Camp runs programs for kids, adults, and families. I learned they also run programs for kids with disabilities which were covered in part in the movie A Smile as Big as the Moon.
Twickenham Historic District
We started our tour of Huntsville with a walking tour of the Twickenham Historic District which is one of the largest collections of antebellum homes in the South. The city was captured by Union troops during the Civil War without a battle when a telegraph operator (a Mr. Larkin from Philadelphia) who was a Union sympathizer failed to pass along word of their approach. One attraction in the neighborhood is the 1819 Weeden House Museum which was the home of local artist and poet Maria Howard Weeden. Our guide also pointed out the “spite” house, which was built just tall enough to wreck the view from the house of a rival businessman.
We walked from there to the city hall in downtown. On the way, we passed by the spot where Alabama’s constitution was signed at what is now Constitution Village. Only a few feet away are the footprints of astronaut Alan Shepard, America’s first astronaut (assuming we don’t count some chimps and monkeys).
We happened to run into actress Tallulah Bankhead on the street near City Hall. Bankhead was one of the city’s most famous relatives, although she was perhaps better known for her outrageous personality than her acting skill. It was doubly strange to run into her given that:
1) She died in 1968
2) She bore a strong resemblance to someone who works at the tourism board
Harrison Brothers Hardware
We made a quick stop at Harrison Brothers Hardware which opened in 1897. These days you can find more souvenirs there than 10 penny nails. If you look carefully outside the store you will find one of the 12 brass ducks from the Lucky Duck Scavenger Hunt. The visitor center has a small prize for the first 300 visitors to find all 12. They are spread out over a 3,000 step (2.5 miles) walk. You can pick up a brochure for the walk at the visitor center or at local stores like Harrison Brothers.
We made a brief stop at the Veteran’s Memorial. I appreciated the signs on the path between the memorial and the highway that showed members of the armed forces from every era in American History. I need to go back to that park when I have more time.
Huntsville Depot Museum
We ate a catered lunch at Huntsville Depot Museum before exploring the historic buildings. The old depot was used for a brief time in the Civil War to hold prisoners. Check out the graffiti written by prisoners on the walls of the upper stories.
Out of Town
Huntsville Botanical Gardens
Our next stop in our whirlwind tour was the beautiful Huntsville Botanical Gardens. The gardens were probably my second favorite site after the space center. There is a wonderful event center that is under construction, a butterfly house, and a great activity area for kids.
In the winter, the garden is decorated for the Galaxy of Lights extravaganza. Large animated light displays are placed along the park’s roads and visitors drive (or walk on special walking nights) through these displays. The Galaxy of Lights is created by some of the army of volunteers that work on the gardens. Leader of the Galaxy of Lights’s “Galaxy Guys” (and girls), Bob Hovde, led us on a special preview of this year’s lights display that evening.
We made a quick stop at Three Caves which is on the land of the Land Trust of North Alabama. The caves are leftover from an old limestone quarry. It is no longer safe to enter the caves but the area is used for summer concerts because the cool air flowing out of the caves provides natural air conditioning. The area also has an abundance of hiking trails but our itinerary was too packed for hiking any of them.
Burritt on the Mountain
On the second day, we visited Burritt on the Mountain which contains the mansion of an idiosyncratic local doctor which became the city’s first museum. Also on the grounds are an event center and a wonderful historic park filled with old log cabins and similar buildings which had been collected from all over the region. The area was filled with children the day we were there as they run programs for local schools.
Food and Drink
New Market Barbecue
Our catered lunch at the depot on the day was provided by New Market Barbecue from the nearby town of New Market with some good down-home BBQ. They had what I think of as a traditional red BBQ sauce as well as white sauce and a vinegar-based sauce. Our yummy desserts came from Grille29.
Campus No. 805
The first night we ended up at Campus No. 805 which is a former high school and middle school which has been converted into bars, breweries, a park, and an event space. The fermentation tanks for the Straight to Ale brewery are in the old gym with the basketball hoops and scoreboard still present. Lockers are still in the hallways. It looks like some old principal’s worst nightmare.
We ate at Yellowhammer Brewing (reviews) / Earth and Stone Wood-Fired Pizza. These would appear to be one business but Alabama law, we were told, does not allow a brewery to sell food (for no reason I could imagine) so they are two related businesses that share a common space. Of course, I also could not understand why breweries were not legal until 2009.
The beer drinkers in the group (not me) enjoyed the beer samples from Yellowhammer while we all enjoyed the pizza. I had, and very much enjoyed, the only sweet potato and goat cheese pizza I have ever had. My other favorite was the meat lovers pizza which co-owner Stan Stinson and Tina Ford created to overcome the false impression that they just had vegetarian options in the days when they ran the business out of a mobile pizza oven. The pizza oven that Stinson and Ford used was manufactured by Forno Bravo, which happens to be from my hometown of Salinas, California.
Pints and Pixels
The second night we ate at Pints and Pixels (reviews) above U.G. White Mercantile where we had chili, sliders and other bar food. It was simple but good. We were presented with a small cup of tokens for the classic arcade games that fill the establishment. I learned that I am no better, but maybe no worse, at Joust and Spy Hunter than I was in the 1980s.
Arts and Entertainment
Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment
Huntsville is not just about science. We visited the Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment center where an old textile mill has been turned into spaces for artists and other crafters. I particularly enjoyed some of the paintings and stained glass. One shop had maps of places that do not exist, but that did not stop people from looking at them and saying, “oh yes, I’ve been there”. Piper & Leaf has a popular tea shop in the complex and Suzy’s Pops a popular ice pop shop.
Voices of Our Times Lecture Series
We made a visit after hours to the Huntsville Museum of Art for one of their lecture series Voices of Our Times Lecture Series. We happened to be there to hear journalist Carl Bernstein. We did not have a chance to visit the museum’s exhibits.
A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard
Our Huntsville journey ended with a drink at A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard (reviews) which is one of the coolest eclectic entertainment establishments I have ever seen. It is a collection of stages and bars and a restaurant set in an old lumberyard and decorated with what its owner calls a “whimsical collection of funky treasures”. They put on special events like a rubber duck float race down the street outside or human foosball in the spacious interior. It is nicknamed Huntsville’s Backyard and I want one just like it for my hometown.
Where to Stay
I was visiting Huntsville as a guest of the Visitor’s Bureau as a pre-trip for the TBEX (Travel Blog Exchange) conference to be held there in May 2017. We stayed at the spacious Embassy Suites (the nicest Embassy Suites I have ever seen) near the Von Braun Center where the conference will be held. The Von Braun Center is named for German scientist Wernher von Braun who invented the V-2 rockets used by Hitler’s Germany but later was the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket that so captured my imagination as a child. Von Braun and his team came to Huntsville in 1950.
Two days was just barely long enough to do a sampling of the many things that Huntsville has to offer. Huntsville is worth a visit and may change the way you think about Alabama.
See all my photos from Huntsville
Listen to Travel to the Tennessee Valley (Tennessee, Alabama) – Episode 464 which includes Huntsville