Known as “Rocket City” for the integral role it played in helping to launch the Space Race in the mid-20th century, Huntsville, Alabama, has been attracting the top minds in space and rocket science for decades. The small—but growing—city in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains is home to (and possibly best known for) NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, and Space Camp. However, according to The Scout Guide Huntsville Editor Dawn Pumpelly, there is plenty to stimulate both the right and left side of the brain in her city, which is why she’s so proud to call Huntsville home. Whether you are visiting the city for the first time, are a newcomer, or are a longtime resident hosting out-of-town guests, here she provides an itinerary for a crowd-pleasing family trip that checks every box: educational, inspiring, and full of hidden gems.
How to Do Huntsville’s Rocket Science Scene Right: “The very first thing you have to do when you come to Huntsville is visit the U.S. Space & Rocket Center,” says Dawn. “The Space industry is what put Huntsville on the map, and USSRC shares that history.”
In the park surrounding the building, you can wander among 27 missiles and rockets. Inside, visit one of the largest collections of rockets and space memorabilia on display anywhere in the world and enjoy the new Intuitive Planetarium, an 8K Digital Planetarium and Digital Dome Experience—the only one of its kind in the Southeast. Dawn’s family loves the simulators, especially the Space Shot. This simulates a rocket launch, moving 140 feet straight up into the air in just two and a half seconds. “You get a great view of the entire area—if you can keep your eyes open,” says Dawn.
Space Camp is another big draw for visitors to Huntsville. However, according to Dawn, not many people know that Space Camp for families is an option. That means all of you can shack up in the Camp’s famous pod-like habitats, just like what you would live in on Mars. During camp, you and your family will launch on a simulated mission to the International Space Station, train like astronauts, and build your own rocket. There’s also the opportunity to have lunch with a real astronaut (pro tip: Dawn recommends indulging in the astronaut ice cream).
How to Make the Most of Huntsville’s Music and Arts Scene: When you’ve had your fill of space and rocket science, Dawn recommends visiting her favorite hidden gem in Huntsville to listen and let loose with some live music, Tangled String Studios (2211 Seminole Drive). This acoustic guitar and mandolin shop is run by a former NASA engineer. If you’re lucky enough to be in town during one of the studio’s concerts, don’t miss it. “Because the shop makes instruments for some of the most well-known performing artists in Nashville, they are able to bring in a rotating lineup of world-class talent to play intimate shows in the Live Room,” says Dawn. The Live Room only seats about 100 people, so the experience is up close and personal, and the acoustics are fantastic. Make sure to bring your own wine and snacks to round out the evening.
Incidentally, Dawn’s favorite local snack can be found just two doors down from Tangled String Studios, at Pizzelle’s Confections (2211 Seminole Drive, #4A). Owned by two sisters, this shop sells handmade artisan chocolates and truffles (Dawn’s favorite truffle is “nutty by nature”), homemade candy bars, and custom cakes. For the perfect accompaniment to your truffles, pick up a bottle of red wine at Church Street Wine Shop (501 Church Street). While you’re there, Dawn recommends ordering some tapas and enjoying a wine tasting. If you prefer tea to wine, pop into local favorite Piper and Leaf Artisan Tea Co. (2211 Seminole Drive Southwest) for a soothing cup of tea after a show—they’re open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
When Dawn has out-of-town visitors, she always takes them to Lowe Mill (2211 Seminole Drive), the largest privately owned art space in the country. Housed in a 171,1000 square-foot former mill that a private investor purchased and transformed into studios for local artists, Lowe Mill is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday. On those days, visitors can walk through the 250 studio spaces, chat with artists and makers, and purchase art and wares. “They have everything from stained glass art to cigar box guitars, plus a few little food spots and live music on the dock on Friday nights in the spring and fall,” says Dawn. “It’s really a treasure.” Be sure to visit Vertical House Records while you’re there, one of Dawn’s favorites.
Where to Dine: For breakfast, you won’t regret driving a few minutes outside of town to get a cinnamon roll at Hamley Bake Shoppe (12023 Highway 231 431 North, Meridianville, Alabama). “Order a pan in advance—it’s the perfect local gift for a hostess,” says Dawn.
Dawn recommends treating yourself to a traditional Southern lunch at Lyn’s Gracious Goodness (2306 Whitesburg Drive). This mother-daughter-run lunch spot and catering company has a must-try chicken salad, delicious deviled eggs, and mint sweet tea worth splurging on. “Lyn and her daughter LeeLee are the perfect Southern ladies,” says Dawn. “If you pop in, be sure to tell them I say hey!”
For a casual, intimate lunch or dinner experience, Dawn recommends Domaine South (103 North Side Square), where the motto is, “Life should be delicious.” Come as you are and expect fantastic wine and chef-prepared sandwiches, entrees, charcuterie boards, and desserts. Just be sure to call ahead for a reservation.
Church Street Purveyor (201 Jefferson Street North) is the place to go for a drink and stay for supper. Every detail at this place sets the ambience, from a cocktail menu presented in a vintage book to the stained glass windows. Dawn recommends the tuna tacos (order them in lettuce wraps for a healthier option, she says), drunken guacamole, and the “Rosie the Riveter” seasonal cocktail, made with sparkling wine.
Where to Shop: After all that space and art exploration, a little retail therapy is in order. Dawn recommends a stroll along Clinton Avenue in downtown Huntsville for some browsing. Elitaire Boutique (114 Clinton Avenue East) has a wonderful collection of women’s styles with the option to call ahead for an appointment with personal stylist and owner, Kayla Adams. And Dawn says a Clinton Avenue shopping experience can’t be complete without a visit to Roosevelt & Co. (114 Clinton Ave. Suite 102), which offers the best selection and styles in men’s clothing in town.
If interiors are more your thing, then wander over to Brooks and Collier (813 Meridian Street), Golden Griffin (104 Longwood Drive Southeast), and The Topiary Tree (1801 University Drive Northwest). “Between these three spots, all within a few miles of each other, I would be shocked if there was something on your wish list you couldn’t find,” says Dawn.
Last but not least, Dawn says the kids (and husband) will enjoy a trip to MidCity (5901 University Drive), which is currently under construction as one of the country’s 12 largest real estate developments. Right now, it features Top Golf, REI, Highpoint Climbing and Fitness, and Dave and Busters, and more retailers and restaurants will be coming soon.
Where to Stay: The Westin Hunstville (6800 Governors West Northwest) is located very close to the Space & Rocket Center at the Bridge Street Town Centre, an open-air mall with restaurants, major retailers, and a carousel. The AC Hotel Downtown (435 Willams Avenue Southwest) is adjacent to Big Spring International Park (200 Church Street) and many of the shops and restaurants Dawn recommends. And while it’ll be a while before it is open, Dawn is already looking forward to the Curio hotel, which will be located in an historic building in downtown Huntsville—another reason to come back for a visit!
This article was updated on February 21, 2020.