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12 Top-Rated Small Towns in Alabama

Written by Anietra Hamper
Jun 18, 2019

Alabama is rich in Southern culture, from music and barbecue to historic sites and architecture. While the notable cities of Huntsville, Birmingham, Mobile, and Montgomery, and the coastal towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are great places to visit, Alabama has a trove of small towns that uncover an even deeper foundation of the things that make the state unique.

Stop into the tiny music studio in Muscle Shoals that started the careers of dozens of famous musicians. Soak in the view from the most picturesque mountaintop in the state, or walk through a town that emerged from four historic mills. All of these Alabama experiences are found in the small towns and villages that you may not otherwise select from a quick look at a map.

Whether you are looking for a family destination or a romantic getaway, pack your bags and explore the state with our list of the best small towns in Alabama.

1. Guntersville

Fog on Lake Guntersville

If your trip takes you to northern Alabama, a stop in the town of Guntersville is in order to embrace some of the most symbolic pieces of Americana, like cowboys and bald eagles. The town is notable for its ties to the famous American cowboy Will Rogers. It got its name from Rogers' great-grandson, John Gunter who is a native of the area.

Guntersville is also known for the many bald eagles in the area during the winter due to its location along the migration path. The best place to see them is in Lake Guntersville State Park. For several weekends in January and February, you can join in the public events at the park to see the eagles in their natural habitat and attend eagle awareness programs.

The 6,000-acre park is great to visit anytime of the year and has a lodge and dining on-site if you want to make an outdoors weekend out of it. Guntersville is best experienced on foot, walking the park and the natural areas. Another must-see in town is the Guntersville Museum and Cultural Center with exhibits for bird lovers on the native species and items related to the steamboats and race boats that played a role in the area's historic river life.

2. Fairhope

Aerial view of Fairhope Municipal Pier

Including Fairhope on this list is appropriate, since the town was founded in 1894 by a few colonists who stumbled on the high bluff while searching for their own piece of paradise. The town of Fairhope and the eastern shore still has the same quaintness that it did in the late 19th century, only today the small settlement has turn into a collection of artists, craftsmen, and retirees looking for a quiet place to call home. This is also a wonderful place for a romantic getaway. You are certain to stumble on an arts and crafts festival as you make your way through the waterfront town to take in the bistros and boutiques.

History buffs will enjoy the Fairhope Museum of History, which highlights the area's origins and features the town's old jail. Artists can visit the Eastern Shore Arts Center to see and buy works from local artists. If you need to balance small-town charm with big-city luxury, you can visit the spa and stay at The Grand Hotel Golf Resort & Spa, Autograph Collection near Fairhope, which is one of the top hotels in the world.

3. Muscle Shoals

FAME Studio | Ralph Daily / photo modified

Music lovers will never forget a visit to the small town of Muscle Shoals. It is hard to believe that so many famous musicians got their start in the small recording studios in this town. Plan your visit around stops at the FAME Studio and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, where artists like Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Percy Sledge, and dozens more artists have their musical roots.

Your musical visit can extend to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame to see stage costumes of artists like Hank Williams and the gold records of acclaimed musicians. The Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa is the most centrally located lodging, so you can easily get to all of the attractions.

4. Fort Payne

Beautiful waterfall in Little River Canyon

The small town of Fort Payne was once a Cherokee Nation village and is now the largest town along the Lookout Mountain Parkway in Alabama. This northeastern Alabama town is one of the most picturesque spots in the entire state and home to the members of the band, Alabama.

The panoramic views are especially stunning in the fall, when the leaves change color. There is natural beauty emanating from the protected forests in the area and the Little River Canyon, a waterway confined to the top of the mountain. Spend a day looking at the waterfalls or test your adventure level with white-water kayaking.

Fort Payne is rich in history, so there are other attractions to visit like the Fort Payne Opera House, restored to its 1889 elegance and open for performances, and the Fort Payne Depot Museum, which was a stop on the railroad line in the 1800s and is built out of pink sandstone. You can take a glass-blowing class at the Orbix Hot Glass Studio for some hands-on activity.

5. Monroeville

Old Courthouse Museum | U.S. Department of Agriculture / photo modified

If you have read the book To Kill A Mockingbird, Monroeville should be on your small town must-visit list in Alabama. It was the inspiration for the famous novel by author Nelle Harper Lee, a native of Monroeville. During your visit to Monroeville stop by the courthouse and see the actual courtroom made famous by the book. There are even local spring theater performances of To Kill A Mockingbird that you can watch in the amphitheater behind the courthouse.

Be sure to visit the Old Courthouse Museum, which showcases more artifacts about Harper Lee's personal and professional life. As you stroll through town take a close look at the landscape and see how many of the 25 artistically designed birdhouses you can find along the Birdhouse Trail.

6. Decatur

Wooden footbridge in the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

Tucked in the middle of the Tennessee River Valley is the town of Decatur, often referred to as "the river city" because of its proximity to the water and the vast amount of outdoor recreation available. Your visit to Decatur should include a stop at Point Mallard Park, a family water park with the first wave pool in the United States. There are water slides, a lazy river, and a sandy beach on Flint Creek, which flows into the Tennessee River.

Take time to visit the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, which is located next to the water park and has 35,000 acres of natural wildlife and habitat.

Decatur has several museums to visit, including the Cook's Natural Science Museum, an interactive museum that explores the natural sciences like rocks, bugs, and wildlife in the region. If you take some time to walk through the Albany Historic District in Decatur, you will see many late-19th-century and early-20th-century homes with exquisite architecture all in one place. The district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

7. Cullman

Old water mill in Cullman

The town of Cullman has an interesting blend of German, Native American, and Civil War cultural elements to it. For a baseline understanding of Cullman visit the Cullmann County Museum, which is designed as a replica home of the town's founder Colonel Johann Cullmann. It displays artifacts about the town's origins and the thousands of German immigrants who originally settled here.

The downtown area of Cullman is made up of three districts, each with their own appeal: the Downtown District, the Betz Addition Historic District, and Die Duetsche Kolonie Von Nord Alabama District. Walk through the neighborhoods and experience the cultural influence on modern-day Alabama. The Cullman Railroad Depot is another fun stop in Cullman. It is a restored landmark in the town and sits on a quiet public park.

8. Florence

Wilson Park fountain

In northwest Alabama sits the town of Florence, which is on the river with a number of small attractions to experience, including one of the nation's oldest soda fountains. Start on Court Street, in the center of town, and have a bite to eat at one of the restaurants that now inhabit the renovated historic buildings. Enjoy the small stores and boutiques.

Even if you are not in the market for buying new clothes you should stop into the Billy Reid store. The store is the flagship of fashion designer Billy Reid, who is famous for men's and women's clothing. The store is also a vintage bookstore.

Close to downtown is the University of North Alabama, where you can walk the campus or take a stroll to Wilson Park, a great public park near the water. The W.C. Handy Home Museum and Library is a must-visit for music lovers. You can see antique musical instruments and mementoes from the Father of Blues who was a Florence native.

Before you head out of town, stop at Trowbridge's Ice Cream and Sandwich Bar for an ice-cream sundae as you sit at the counter. It is one of the oldest soda shops in the south.

9. Mentone

DeSoto State Park in autumn

Just on the northeast Alabama/Georgia border is the small mountaintop town of Mentone, which has one of the best scenic views in the state. Stroll through the antique shops in the old downtown village or just go for a scenic drive, making your way to the DeSoto State Park. You can hike, camp, and rent cabins if you want to extend your stay in the pristine environment.

As you walk through the old town, look for the Hitching Post, which was a general store in the 1800s and now houses a collection of small shops. Keep an eye out for local farmers markets, which are popular pastimes for locals. And, be sure to find the Wildflower Café and Country Store. The café is inside an 1887 home, where you can catch a jazz performance, buy flowers, and enjoy a cup of coffee.

10. Marion

Perry Lakes Park | Nikky / photo modified

Located in Alabama's Black Belt region, Marion is a historic town with lots of military history to uncover. It is home to the Marion Military Museum, the Marion Military Institute (at one time an all-male facility), and Judson College (originally the Judson Female Institute in 1838).

Marion is a great spot for bird-watchers at Perry Lakes Park and Barton's Beach Cahaba River Preserve. There are several scenic paths in the parks and a 100-foot birding observation tower to give you the best view of the wildlife in the park.

Not far from Marion, you can detour to see a working plantation at the Moore-Webb-Holmes Plantation. Just seven miles down the road, it is worth a visit to see how the sixth-generation owners work the 80-acre plantation producing organic food.

11. Athens

Limestone County Courthouse in Athens

As one of the oldest cities in Alabama Athens is a treasure because of the authentically Southern culture that thrives here. It is home to the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention and the Athens Storytelling Festival which both draw thousands of visitors to the downtown streets each year.

The rest of the year, you can walk through the campus of Athens State University and the downtown area, which has many unique restaurants for foodies.

Close to downtown is the Houston Memorial Library and Museum, the restored home of former Alabama Governor George Houston. A fun stop in town is the old U.G. White Mercantile Store, which sells everything from antiques to modern-day goods. It was once a general store in 1917, and walking through it feels like you are in another century.

12. Valley

The town of Valley is special because it is actually made up of four separate mill towns. The towns of Langdale, Fairfax, Shawmut, and Riverview were all once thriving mill villages. The town is also unique because it is a national recreational trail that leads you past a collection of village life and abandoned relics of the booming mill days of yesteryear.

The Chattahoochee Valley Railroad Trail is one of the best ways to explore the area. You can park near Valley City Hall and catch the trail there by foot or on bike. It will take you through the mill areas and past the Fairfax Train Depot, ending near the Chattahoochee River. There are cafes to enjoy when you need to take a break.

More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com

Planning Your Trip to Alabama: Getting a sense of the layout of Alabama is essential as you begin planning your trip. Our article on the top attractions in Alabama describes popular destinations, and you can find the best spots to relax by the sea with our article on Alabama's best beaches. If you want to visit one of the state's coastal cities, see our page on the top things to do in Mobile.

Where to Stay: It is easy to find the kind of lodging that complements your visit to Alabama. There are top-rated resorts with spas, golf, and beach access throughout the state, and there are chain hotels in nearly every city. If you are after a more rustic lodging experience, you might try camping at one of the Alabama State Parks like Gulf State Park in the Gulf Shores region.

Historical Alabama: You will find an abundance of military, Civil War, and Civil Rights history in almost any city that you visit in Alabama. If you have a particular interest in the historical side of the state, you may want to start in Montgomery or Birmingham. Be sure to review our other Alabama city guides to find out about some of the additional historical places to visit.

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