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The countdown is on. 3… 2… 1…
A deep rumble shakes the floor and walls as the rocket engine blazes to life. I’m watching an old video of an F-1 engine test at nearby NASA Marshall, standing in a simulator at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center near a full-scale Saturn V rocket – like the one that took astronauts to the moon. Where can you have an experience like this?
The town is Huntsville, Alabama.
Also known as Rocket City, USA.
Also known as the home to Space Camp.
In short, Huntsville is a space nerd’s dream destination – and I got to experience it first-hand!
Based on my five-day trip in October 2018, I’ve boiled down my recommendations a V&V classic three-day itinerary, as in here’s how to spend 3 days in Huntsville. Whether you’re hanging out as a parent of a child attending Space Camp, or an adult who attended Space Camp yourself and you want to see what the town has to offer, I’ve got you covered.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the ᏣᎳᎫᏪᏘᏱ Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee, East), Chikashsha I̠yaakni’ (Chickasaw), S’atsoyaha (Yuchi), and Shawandasse Tula (Shawanwaki/Shawnee) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Why Visit Huntsville?
Huntsville is a small town in northern Alabama that might seem rural or quaint. To be honest, it is – and so much more. Huntsville is home to some of the smartest aerospace engineers in the world over the past six decades of NASA’s presence here.
Huntsville has classic Southern charm and good ol’ Southern cooking but plenty of high-tech thrills and experiences that interest travelers across the spectrum. In Huntsville, you might rub elbows with rocket scientists at the pinball bar or do a historic walking or street art tour with NASA engineers. The guy who retired from NASA might lead your tour and show you the exact pieces of the Saturn V he helped design – or his son might be jamming on a street corner during a music festival.
Unlike how reaching the moon once seemed, nothing is impossible in Huntsville!
The Best Things to Do in Huntsville, Alabama
I love to start these itineraries by sharing what I consider to be the best attractions in any given place. These might not show up in every guidebook (or they might, if you have a good guidebook!) but having experienced them myself, I’m confident they’re worth your time during a short trip to spend 3 days in Huntsville.
It’s pretty much impossible to mention Huntsville without talking about Space Camp. It’s the biggest attraction in Rocket City! I already wrote about what Space Camp is like based on my experience, so here are just a few basics:
- Space Camp is offered for cadets from age 9 to 99+! Yes, there’s an Adult Space Camp, and yes, you can go!
- Space Camp typically runs 3-6 days and topics/experiences vary based on your age and length of camp.
- Prices range from $549 to $2099 – again depending on age and length.
If Space Camp is what draws you to Huntsville, that’s totally cool – just don’t miss out on the chance to explore everything else the city has to offer!
U.S. Space & Rocket Center
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is the official visitor center for NASA Marshall (details below) – and it’s actually attached to Space Camp! It’s perfect for families of all ages, and there are exhibits and galleries that help you learn about NASA’s history, current work, and future.
The highlight by far is the Saturn V Hall, where you can walk underneath a real Saturn V rocket. Be sure to book a tour with a NASA Emeritus. These folks are usually retired NASA or NASA-contractor engineers (like Boeing, Lockheed) and can add a very personal layer to your experience of the history in this massive exhibit.
If you really want to visit NASA Marshall, it is possible! Tours are offered once daily from the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. The tour is basically a bus tour of some of the most important and public-facing parts of NASA Marshall – including historic engine test stands and the International Space Station command center.
During my trip, I had a chance to go behind-the-scenes at Marshall and see a few extra parts of the facility. I put together a post about visiting NASA Marshall to share those experiences.
Lowe Mill Arts
While it might seem like everyone in Huntsville is all science! science! science!, there’s a strong arts culture here too! The best place to see that is at Lowe Mill Arts, a former textile factory turned arts enclave. Here you can browse dozens (maybe hundreds?) of artist studios and galleries using every medium imaginable.
It’s easy to spend a whole morning here, so start with a stop at Piper & Leaf for one of their delicious blends. Then, if you get lost, you’ll have something to enjoy until you find your way back.
Space tip: Look for space-themed art throughout Lowe Mill. Lots of artists use space as their inspiration or subject.
Huntsville Botanical Gardens
With a mild appreciation for the outdoors, I find botanical gardens fascinating. The Huntsville Botanical Gardens is 112 acres with a variety of manicured and designed gardens to explore. I especially loved the exhibit on Mythical Beasts (they were all over the gardens!) and the butterfly pavilion.
Space tip: Keep an eye out for rockets – there are some all over in the Botanical Gardens (especially the kids garden).
For a town of just 200,000, how big can downtown Huntsville be? Well, it’s not big by size – but it’s jam-packed with things to do! Some of the fun stuff I enjoyed (and recommend) include:
- Take a walk in Big Spring International Park – this is especially nice at sunset or in the evening
- Admire art with a visit to the Huntsville Art Museum or by doing the Purple Cup Secret Art Walk to see street art
- Learn the history of Huntsville (besides rockets) with a walking tour through Twickenham Historic District
- Try and earn a high score at Pints & Pixels, a pinball bar that also has Han Solo in Carbonite on display
- Savor classic Southern food (fried green tomatoes! shrimp and grits!) at restaurants like Commerce Kitchen and Cotton Row
You could very easily spend an afternoon (or the whole day) in downtown Huntsville alone, so plan accordingly!
Space tip: Try to spot rockets and other space elements in the street art around town. You might even see some local astronauts depicted!
A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard
If you have an evening where you’re bored (which, tbh, I’m not sure is possible during a short trip to Huntsville!), spend the night at A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard. Don’t worry – it’s not an actual lumberyard!
A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard is a massive multi-use space that includes a restaurant, a train car restaurant, two bars (the Kiln and the Taproom), open spaces, a banquet hall, and heck – there’s even a recording studio! After a dinner aboard Blue Bayou, a throwback to 1920s train travel, owner Doug Smith gave us a tour that included a living history lesson. This funky southern space dates back to 1895, but the vibe is so interesting you’ll love it.
Monte Sano State Park
If you want a dose of the outdoors, Monte Sano State Park is the best place to go. Sitting atop Burritt Mountain, there are miles of hiking and cycling trails, a living history museum (Burritt on the Mountain), and the Von Braun Astronomy Society. At the latter, you can watch a planetarium show or see the night sky through the observatory when there’s a star party. All in, there’s plenty of space to get fresh air here!
Space tip: The VBAS site lists all upcoming events if you want to see the stars from Huntsville’s best spot.
Land Trust of Northern Alabama
Another great place to enjoy the great outdoors is the Land Trust of Northern Alabama. This green space is home to more than 25 miles of trails that will give you a real sense of southern Appalachia. During certain parts of the year, you can admire waterfalls or explore caves on various trails.
If you’re looking for a half-day trip outside Huntsville, my top recommendation is Cathedral Caverns State Park. This massive natural cave formation was opened to the public in the mid-20th Century – but human history in the cave dates back millennia.
To visit, it’s a 35-minute drive from Huntsville. You can then book a guided tour of the caves – this is the best way to see them so you can learn the history and admire the formations.
3 Days in Huntsville: A Suggested Itinerary
I’ll be honest, this isn’t exactly what I did on my trip – I was in Huntsville for five days, not three. However, based on my experiences and what I loved, I’m confident you could jam-pack an itinerary for 3 days in Huntsville and still have a great time. Okay, let’s put it all together.
A 3-Day Huntsville Itinerary Summary:
|U.S. Space & Rocket Center, NASA Marshall, Pints & Pixels,
Purple Cup Secret Art Walk
|Lowe Mill Arts, Huntsville Botanical Garden, Huntsville Art Museum,
Twickenham Historic District, A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard
|Land Trust of Northern Alabama, Monte Sano State Park,
Burritt on the Mountain, VBAS, Cathedral Caverns
Let’s dive in for more details!
Day 1: Space, Space, Baby!
Even if you’re not attending Space Camp, you gotta do at least some space in Rocket City!
Start the morning by fueling up for a day in space with a classic American diner breakfast: Blue Plate Cafe is the place to go! The rest of the morning is for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, including lunch in the Mars Grill. Hop on the NASA Marshall Bus Tour (which usually leaves around 1:30pm) for the afternoon.
In the evening, head to Pints & Pixels for dinner. Sometimes, they have classic NASA mission-inspired pinball machines out (think Apollo 11 or 13 pinball!) and the rest of the games are a great way to pass the evening. Depending on the time, you could also do the Purple Cup Secret Art Walk before or after dinner to see some Huntsville street art.
Day 2: Exploring Downtown Huntsville
Get the day off to a great start with a cuppa from Proper Tea and an hour strolling the stalls at Lowe Mill Arts. After that, you could head to the Huntsville Botanical Gardens if there’s time.
Grab lunch at Commerce Kitchen (pictured above) then head back out for the afternoon. You could choose to head to the Huntsville Art Museum when it opens (10am most days) or book a walking tour in Twickenham Historic District.
Spend the evening at A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard – book the Blue Bayou experience, then spend the evening at one of the venues bars (I loved the Kiln).
Day 3: The Great Outdoors
Start with a hearty breakfast at Honest Coffee Roasters – their açai bowl and coffee combo is perfect adventure fuel. This final day has some options depending on when you need to set out from Huntsville for home.
You could spend the morning (or afternoon) in the Land Trust of Northern Alabama and/or Monte Sano State Park. Whether you opt for a walk on the trails or stepping back in history at Burritt on the Mountain or VBAS, there are plenty of ways to get some fresh air.
Alternatively, head out to Cathedral Caverns. Guided tours are at 10am, 12pm, 2pm, and 4pm daily. This is a great way to spend part of the day – and get a sense for what life might be like in a Mars colony (underground).
If you’re staying one more night, here’s one last tip: head to Campus 805 for dinner and drinks. This is another super-fun multi-use space with a pizza place, ice creamery, craft brewery, and even axe throwing!
With that, you’re all set! I hope you have an amazing trip for 3 days in Huntsville!
Have other questions about visiting Huntsville or attending Space Camp? Let me know in the comments!
This post was produced in partnership with Huntsville-Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau. There were so. any amazing partners that made this trip possible, including many I didn’t get to mention (Drury Inn & Suites, Toybox Bistro, and so many more). Special thinks to Leslie Walker for putting together this trip. Everything included was at my own discretion.