If you dreamed of being an astronaut when you were growing up, then Huntsville, AL is already on your list of must-see destinations. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is the top paid attraction in Alabama, but there are other reasons to visit this bustling city. Visitors will find much to entertain themselves in art galleries, museums, gardens, and parks. Glittering shopping centers provide a vast array of tempting merchandise, and world-class entertainers are brought to the city year after year. Because of the space industry and numerous engineering companies associated with it, Huntsville is a very cosmopolitan environment made up of many international citizens. As a result, dining options are varied and plentiful.
U.S. Space and Rocket Center
Let’s just start with the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. It is wildly popular, it is superbly done, and it is truly representative of the whole city. From the interactive games to the rides to the IMAX theater and the hundreds of displays, the Space Center never fails to enlighten and impress visitors who come through the doors. From the youngest to the very oldest, there is something to learn, to remember or to experience. Bus tours are available to the Marshall Space Flight Center and back. Students can spend a week on the grounds attending one of the many Space Camps held throughout the year. The gigantic Davidson Center for Space Exploration is breathtaking and showcases an authentic Saturn V rocket, one of only three in the world.
Don’t go to Huntsville without spending time at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.
Huntsville Museum of Art
The Huntsville Museum of Art, located at 300 Church Street South, overlooks the lake at Big Spring Park. The museum started in a much smaller location at the Von Braun Civic Center, but through diligent efforts, it was moved to its present location in 1998. One of the most popular displays currently is Buccellati: A Silver Menagerie in the Grisham Gallery. The collection began with donations from Betty Grisham and has expanded to an impressive degree.
Of interest to parents and grandparents is the “What’s Up, Doc?” traveling animation show from the Smithsonian that will be in the museum from October 2016 to January 2017. It is sure to delight children of all ages. One of the museum’s big holiday fundraisers is ice skating in the park, which is on each year from the week before Thanksgiving until the end of December. It coincides with Tinsel Trail which happens in Big Spring Park.
Travel writers and bloggers coming for TBEX in May of 2017 may take advantage of an event at the museum the day before the Expo opens.
After feasting on the visual art throughout the galleries, you may want to sample the culinary artistry on the first floor at a mouthwatering Italian restaurant called Pane e Vino. Made-to-order paninis, pizzas, salads, pastas, calzones, desserts, and drinks are on the menu. Many will be happy to see that it is a “gluten-free gourmand destination.”
Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment
Located in an old cotton mill at 2211 Seminole Drive and encompassing more than 171,000 square feet (15886.42 square meters), Lowe Mill is now home to dozens of artists and craftsmen who have their studios and display their work in painting, glass, ceramics, textiles, jewelry and many other media. They host public hours on Wednesday through Sunday. It is fun for the whole family to come and watch and perhaps to purchase something special to take home.
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Huntsville Botanical Gardens, public parks and Southern Adventures
Spread out over 112 beautifully-landscaped acres (45.3 hectares), the Huntsville Botanical Gardens features a nature center, a butterfly house, a dogwood trail, an herb garden and thousands of other plants and trees. In the summertime, Wacky Wednesdays are hosted for children with garden-themed arts and crafts. A Scarecrow Trail draws visitors in the fall, a huge spring plant sale is held in April and the biggest event of the year is the annual Galaxy of Lights.
A huge expansion project is underway right now with plans for completion in March of 2017. It will house a large Visitors Center and 3 new wedding rental venues.
A whimsical cafe, the Garden of Eat'n, is located near the gift shop offering a variety of sandwiches, soups and salads.
If you are still craving more outdoor activities, Huntsville provides a number of public parks. Big Spring Park is located in a major hub of activity. Monte Sano State Park is in the eastern part of Monte Sano Mountain and has hiking and biking trails as well as camping facilities.
Hays Nature Preserve combined with the Goldman Schiffman Wildlife Sanctuary has over 10 miles of trails and plenty of nature on display. There’s a large playground, and this is a relaxing place to get away from the city, take a picnic, and even ride horses.
Southern Adventures at 2150 Leeman Ferry Circle, is both a water park and an amusement park. From bumper cars to putt-putt with thrilling water slides in between, this is a popular year-round source of entertainment for families.
8 Museums for Young and Old
If indoor activities are more your style, Huntsville offers 8 museums in addition to the Museum of Art. Be sure to check the websites for detailed information on hours and admission prices, but to get your thinking and planning started, here is a list: Huntsville Depot and Museum, Veterans Memorial Museum, Burritt Museum and Park, EarlyWorks Children’s Museum, Humphreys-Rodgers House, Alabama Constitution Village, North Alabama Railroad Museum and the Weeden House Museum. The Huntsville Depot, EarlyWorks and Alabama Constitution Village are often grouped together in terms of pricing and publicity. Combined, they make up the largest, hands-on museum complex in the South.
Von Braun Center and Merrimack Hall
Whether you are in the mood for a hockey game, a rodeo, a concert, the circus, a gala, a Broadway play or an industry expo, the Von Braun Center keeps a full calendar of events. I even saw Elvis Presley there in a performance a year or so before he died!! It is a first-class event venue named for Wernher Von Braun, who was almost singlehandedly responsible for bringing the space industry boom to Huntsville, AL. He was a German aerospace engineer who is credited for inventing the Saturn V for the United States.
Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center on Triana Boulevard also keeps an impressive calendar of events. Coming on August 8, 2016 is the Rocket Chef Competition, pitting area chefs against each other in Huntsville’s version of the Food Networks “Chopped”, proceeds will benefit the Food Bank of North Alabama.
Visitors who are also shopaholics should have no fear. Huntsville has plenty of boutique shops scattered throughout the city. The two huge meccas, however, are Parkway Place Mall and Bridge Street Town Centre. Parkway Place Mall has over 80 retail stores and restaurants. It is located on Memorial Parkway and is under one roof. Bridge Street’s stores are reached by walking outdoors from the perimeter parking lots. It is very upscale with a lake, a carousel, Monaco Pictures movie theater and the Westin Hotel.
Dining choices galore
Southerners LOVE to eat. Yes, they enjoy art, culture, nature, history and shopping, but all of that has to be wrapped around breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and sweet tea. Visitors to Huntsville might find themselves savoring the food most of all.
Naturally, the most popular chains inhabit high traffic areas, but it’s not hard to find the extra-special locations that the locals appreciate and anticipate. Huntsville boasts its share of great chefs. Chef James Boyce owns Cotton Row and Commerce Kitchen, both in the same block of downtown and Pane e Vino at the Museum of Art. Chef Steven Bunner and his friend Mike Burleson own 1892 East located in the Historic Five Points area. Chef Bunner offers a lot of vegetarian selections, and 1892 East has a wonderful neighborhood atmosphere. In The Village of Providence, you’ll find Grille 29 and be able to sample the culinary skills of Executive Chef Cara Thompson. Chef Thompson won the highly competitive “Chopped” showdown on the Food Network in 2013. She is a native of Huntsville and is bringing some creative and delicious dishes to the diners at Grille 29.
Terranova Restaurant is a popular Italian eatery on Highway 72. The foccacia bread starts your tastebuds singing from the very beginning.
Blue Plate Cafe is a Southern comfort food style cafe of meat, vegetables and cornbread, and Gibson’s Barbecue on the Parkway has been in business for more than a half a century.
If you’re willing to drive just a few miles to neighboring Madison, you can sample possibly the world’s best hushpuppies at Old Greenbrier BBQ on Highway 20. The name says barbecue, but the star menu items are fried catfish and hushpuppies.
Main Street Cafe in Madison is great for ladies to “do lunch.” It sits beside the railroad tracks and has amazing chicken salad, strawberry pretzel salad and quiches.
The Rocket City has more than just spaceships
Yes, Huntsville, AL — known as The Rocket City — has its share of space-themed attractions, but there is far more to the city for visitors to savor. Eat, shop, or hike your way through it. Or maybe stop and learn at one of the museums. If you live out of town, check the calendar of events at any of the locations named previously and plan your trip to coincide with something that has been on your bucket list for a long time. While the rest of the country may be struggling economically, you will see a thriving environment in Huntsville. You may even decide to stay for a LONG time.
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