Nature AND Nurture: Our Ultimate Alabama Escape

Jul 26, 2019

It so happens that the things most of us take nourishment from—a generous helping of something authentically amazing, a serenity-inducing escape into nature, an epic set of soul-stirring music, a thought-provoking dose of creative genius—are the hallmarks of an Alabama getaway. The state has all of them in abundance—overabundance, really—with great new options perpetually coming online. And there’s no better time than this fall to experience the combined effects.

On the other hand, if you wanted to do a deep dive into any one of the areas above, you easily could. In foodie ops alone, you’d have enough material for a lifetime of itineraries—let alone a single trip. So if that’s how you roll, consider each individual section of our story a guide unto itself. But for our money, the best kind of Alabama idyll blends elements of all.

Read on to start charting your own course through Sweet Home Alabama.

Amazing eats

Food may just top football as the great gathering force in Alabama (and the two often go hand in hand at tailgates around the state each fall weekend). While the locations and the napkin materials may change—from the finest linens to a roll of paper towels—the amazingness of the offerings remains a constant. Alabamians and their visitors come ready to eat, and favorite dishes that get passed around the state all tend to be inspired by the same key ingredients.

That’s because Farm to Table is no passing trend here—it’s a centuries-old tradition for Alabamians. The farmland that blankets the state yields bumper crops of squash, tomatoes, field peas, corn, and okra that make their way to menus from high to low.

One of the first and best places you should enjoy this bounty is a meat-and three joint (think cafeteria-style steam tables full of meats and accompaniments—the “three” referring to the number of sides you’re allowed). You’ll find options all over the state, from unvarnished icons that proudly haven’t changed their look in decades (try the Lion’s Den near Gadsden, Birmingham’s Niki’s West, or Zack’s in Dothan) to James Beard Foundation-nominated spots like Johnny’s in the Birmingham suburbs, where chef Tim Hontzas puts a Greek-flavored spin on classic meat-and-three dishes.

In fact, Alabama is home to an amazing number of James Beard Foundation favorites, most notably chef Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham. After nearly a decade of yearly nominations, Highlands recently won the organization’s highest honor: Outstanding Restaurant of the year, thanks to exquisite Southern ingredients prepared with a classical French technique. The menu changes according to the harvest, but you must start with the ever-present stone ground baked grits and save room at the end for coconut cake—the restaurant’s pastry chef, Dolester Miles, was also the Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2018. But if you can’t score a reservation here, try your luck next door at chef Stitt’s sister spot, Chez Fon Fon, a slightly more casual French bistro, where you can try your hand at boule (a French yard game similar to bowling) out back between courses.

Barbecue may just vie with the meat-and-three as the ultimate Southern go-to. Enthusiasts know you can map the South by the color of its sauce—in Alabama, you'll likely find mayo-based white sauce, though tomato-based and vinegar-tinged options make regular appearances, too. Each city will stake its claim to the state’s best, so you’re left with little choice but to investigate as many of these claims as possible. A good starting list: Archibald’s in Tuscaloosa, Big Bob Gibson in Decatur and Lannie’s in Selma. If you’re new to the ‘cue, ask for a plate of chopped pork or chicken slathered in sauce, with baked beans, stewed greens, and mac and cheese (oh, and those paper towels we mentioned earlier).

Inspired by these classic traditions, the next generation of Alabama tastemakers includes yet another Beard nominee—David Bancroft—who helms top spots Bow & Arrow and Acre in Auburn, where two constants on the otherwise ever-changing menus are humanely-raised meats and fresh catches from the Alabama Gulf Coast. Locally-sourced heritage crops are a given, too.

Music to your ears

Alabama’s musical roots run at least as deep as the ones in its fields. Hugely influential talents were sparked here, with reverberations felt way beyond state lines. WC Handy, known as the Father of the Blues, was born in Alabama, as was country music star Hank Williams. Current acts from St Paul and the Broken Bones to Jason Isbell to Brittany Howard and her former Alabama Shakes have called the state home.

See today’s talent perform in spots like Huntsville’s Von Braun Center, soon to open as a state-of-the-art new music venue. Or Birmingham’s Lyric Theatre, a recently remodeled Vaudeville-era theater. And just around the corner, you’ll find the Carver Theatre, a historic spot that once served as the city’s sole African-American movie theater during segregation—and that now houses live performances, plus the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.

Then there’s the tiny cluster of recording studios in northwestern Alabama that had an outsized influence on the last half-century’s worth of music. Every act from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones to Paul Simon has recorded in Muscle Shoals, as you’ll discover when you tour the hallowed halls of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and the Fame Recording Studios (the former celebrating a 50th anniversary this year). Pay further homage at the nearby Alabama Music Hall of Fame, where you’ll spot Elvis’ original contract and Alabama’s tour bus, among other amazing pieces of memorabilia.

Glorious nature

Alabama’s favorite fall colors may be those adorning its football teams, but the shades you’ll see outside the stadiums outdo anything else. Occupying the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains means rolling carpets of color along the state’s hiking trails and gorges—plus plenty of caves. For all three features in one, head to Little River Canyon National Preserve in northeast Alabama off highway 176.

Of course, this is just one of Alabama’s most famous canyons. Another—Dismals Canyon in the northwest part of the state—is home to something you’ll find in only a few places on earth: the glowworm-like bioluminescent Dismalites worth visiting on a night tour of the canyon walls. By day, explore the canyon’s mossy walking trails, caves, gorges, natural bridges, and waterfalls.

If blue is more your color, head to the Alabama Gulf Coast, where turquoise waters lap sugar-fine sand along a bike path-laced shoreline. With the summer crowds gone, and its renovations completed, the Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel makes for the perfect fall retreat. It sits inside a 6,000-acre nature preserve, across from miles of walking and biking trails that wind through gorgeous coastal wetlands.   

 The liberal arts

You can’t consider the nation’s literary history without factoring in the tiny southwest Alabama town of Monroeville, childhood home to both Harper Lee and Truman Capote. The two were once close friends, even appearing as thinly disguised characters in each other’s work. You’ll find signs that mark the places where their childhood homes once stood, as well as a self-guided tour of the spots that inspired Lee’s fictional Maycomb.

But Alabama’s arts scene is hardly stuck in the past: Newcomers include Auburn’s beautiful Gogue Performing Arts Center, built for fans of dance, theater, jazz and more. Alabama native Jason Isbell and his band will kick off the inaugural concert this August.

Another of the state’s shining performance halls, the Alys Stephens Center in Birmingham, not only hosts A-list speakers (think David Sedaris and Samin Nosrat), but is also collaborating with the University of Alabama at Birmingham to create an Arts in Medicine program (from storytelling to theater to music and dance) that taps into the healing power of art.

The nearby Sloss National Historic Landmark may look like an interesting industrial park—it was once the world’s largest producer of crude iron—the space now hosts live music performances, culinary festivals, and a formidable metal arts program that teaches cast iron sculpture making. Tour the museum and grounds, then summon your inner maker and take a class.

Speaking of makers, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Natalie Chanin, one of the hottest names on the sustainable fashion scene. Her brand, Alabama Chanin, has its factory and café in Florence, where you can go Tuesdays-Saturdays to shop her collection (a line largely inspired by regional craft traditions) take the occasional workshop (check the website for scheduling) and grab a local snack. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better dose of that Sweet Home Alabama feeling under one roof.

Stop dreaming and start planning your escape to Sweet Home Alabama at Alabama.Travel.

This year, Travelzoo is falling for the South. Check out our picks for the best eye-popping autumn colors, entertaining festivals, charming small towns and mouth-watering foodie finds.

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