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Four Hours in Huntsville

Alabama’s ‘Rocket City’ is quickly climbing on a success trajectory in other areas, too

Huntsville, Alabama is a city on the move. One of Alabama’s largest cities, it is often recognized for the US Space and Rocket Center and the area’s vast contributions to space exploration. But there’s more going on here besides rocket science. Economic development is impressive with new jobs and industry coming to the region from companies like Lockheed Martin, GE Aviation, Facebook, and Google.

Low income taxes and living costs below the national average help it to attract a talented and engaged population, and U.S. News and World Report named Huntsville the #1 most affordable city in the country. Within the next few years, it is expected to eclipse Birmingham to become Alabama’s largest city. Huntsville is prepared and has created a for neighborhood redevelopment and economic growth to support the high quality of life for which the region is becoming known.

Downtown Huntsville is anchored by Big Spring International Park, an enviable outdoor gathering space with beautiful fountains and walking paths, which draws people to live and work in its urban core. Also downtown is the Von Braun Center, which hosts popular concerts, events, and conventions year-round. In fact, tourism represents a growing sector for the city with 3.7 million visitors in 2019 representing a $1.6 billion economic impact for the region, according to the convention and visitors bureau.

Interestingly, one of the biggest demographics for conference events is the defense contractor industry, and despite COVID-19 setbacks, the city is bullish on the future with many events across different industries postponed until next year. Now more than ever, the city is becoming increasingly popular for road trip visitors looking for family-friendly entertainment.

For business travelers and visitors without a car, there’s a public transit system, ridesharing and taxi services, and the bike-sharing program Downtown BlueBikes. Huntsville is worth several days of exploring, but for a business traveler that is short on time, here’s how to wisely spend four hours out and about in this friendly, Southern city. Mix and match your favorite activities, or choose one and save the rest for your next visit.

Big Spring International Park and Downtown Core

Start your day strolling the walking paths and bridges of Big Spring International Park, which is the city’s birthplace as it was the location of John Hunt’s log cabin. The park is a central gathering place for locals and is filled with fountains and landmark signs telling a bit of the city’s past.

Huntsville is home to 26 miles of walking and biking trails, but its downtown is a pleasant stroll through local shops and restaurants with plentiful outdoor patio dining. Architecture buffs will savor the Old Town Historic District in the downtown area for its homes that date back two centuries. The Twickenham Historic District’s more than 65 antebellum homes are part of the largest group of pre-Civil War homes in the state.

Museums Galore

The Huntsville Museum of Art is located on Big Spring International Park with 13 galleries and 3,000 pieces on permanent exhibit. Families will love the EarlyWorks Children’s Museum, which is the largest, hands-on history museum in the south and also located downtown. Both are big draws to the city center and complement each other well.

The SPACES Sculpture Trail features outdoor art that you can explore via an app with many pieces located in the city center. There’s also the Purple Cup Secret Art Trail in the downtown entertainment district with plenty of outdoor art to explore as you visit the area’s bars and shops.

It comes as no surprise that there is so much creativity in Huntsville thanks to the Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment area, which features working studios for artists as well as galleries and a theater. This is the largest privately owned arts facility in the south.

On the edge of the downtown core is the Historic Huntsville Depot where train fans of all ages will find plenty to keep them entertained; there’s even some Civil War graffiti on display. History buffs will enjoy a visit to the Alabama Constitution Hall Historic Park & Museum downtown where the state’s first constitution was signed in 1819. It’s a “living museum” where visitors can experience what life was like in the early 1800s.

Huntsville Botanical Gardens

These beautiful grounds feature 112 acres of gardens and woodland paths. The nation’s largest open-air seasonal butterfly house is also located here. The best time to visit is during the holidays when the “galaxy of lights” is in place. These animated light displays and holiday scenes (including Santa Claus riding a rocket) are a fun way to celebrate the season. While the gardens are not located downtown, they are close to the US Space and Rocket Center making a visit to both a great option. The botanical gardens are the third most-visited paid attraction in the state of Alabama.

US Space and Rocket Center

No doubt, the US Space and Rocket Center is the most visited paid attraction in the city and the state, and it is home to the world-famous Space Camp for budding young astronauts. Huntsville is considered to be the birthplace of the US space program since scientists and engineers living here developed the rockets that took America to the moon.

There are 27 missiles and rockets on display, and it is home to the only fully-stacked Space Transportation System (with the familiar orbiter, solid rocket boosters, main engine nozzles, and external tank) in the world. Visitors can also walk below and around a suspended rocket (one of only three on the planet) plus visit a life-size exhibit of the International Space Station. You could easily spend a whole day here, but just a couple of hours is better than nothing.

Downtown Craft Beer Trail and Campus No. 805

Local ale and tasty food can easily cap off an afternoon of exploration. The downtown visitor’s center produces a fun craft beer trail map and card that guides you through many of the city’s breweries. If you get a stamp at each one, there’s a souvenir to take home from your visit to Huntsville. Many are within walking distance of each other, while some are an easy bike or Uber/Lyft ride away. Campus No. 805 is a great destination for dining and drinking because it houses three breweries in the same building that was once a middle school.

Huntsville provides the cultural sites of a big city with all the charms of a small one; these days, that is exactly what fits the bill. See you in Huntsville!