It’s well on its way to becoming the biggest city in Alabama in the next five years, with its population having grown exponentially over the last 15. Google and Facebook will soon have facilities in the area. The FBI has long had a presence in Huntsville, and a second headquarters will open, ushering in up to 5,000 agents and their families. NASA operates every space experiment from the Marshall Space Flight Center on the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal. Thousands of students travel from all over the world each year to attend Space Camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. With innovative restaurants, beautiful parks, statehood history, and arts and culture, Huntsville is a growing, shining star among the many NTA-member student-friendly destinations.
And I was able to see it for myself in March with my mom, Mimi.
The Huntsville Museum of Art is a striking structure settled at the water’s edge in the city’s Big Spring Park. It’s a quiet place to stroll from room to room; each one is a different color and displays works from a variety of artists in both permanent and traveling exhibits.
It’s home to more than 3,200 objects, and all are incorporated into the museum’s main focus of 19th- and 20th-century American art with an emphasis on the Southeast. The museum’s youth section, named The Stender Family Interactive Education Galleries, is centered on immersive exhibits, like “A Walk Through Time,” where visitors tunnel through the world’s contributions to the evolution of art.
The museum has offered hands-on art classes for more than 40 years to both adults and youth. Workshops slated this year for high schoolers include ceramics, calligraphy, watercolor, and creating stained glass suncatchers. For younger groups, programs focus on drawing and mixed media, and studies of color, texture, and lines. They can participate in a half-day art camp offered during spring break as well as other thematic tours. Students can also get into the museum for a deeply discounted $5.
As I panned over paintings of blue hydrangeas and hay bales and landscapes, I wondered how these concepts became the vivid creations that hung on the museum walls in sleek black frames. We were able to take a peek into that process at Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment.
The large warehouse (once a cotton and textile mill) is home to 150 art studios and more than 200 artists from every discipline. In rooms encircled by exposed brick and soaring windows, artists were doing their thing—from painting on canvas and creating jewelry to quiltmaking. If the artists’ doors were open, we could walk in and browse, ask questions, and watch them create.
Hungry visitors can grab some specialty crepes, pizza, and popsicles. Many events, workshops, and classes are offered year-round at the venue, which is the largest privately owned arts facility in the South, y’all.
And, lastly, those aforementioned Brussels sprouts were also, well, art.
“Huntsville is the birthplace of the U.S. Space Program. Even if you’re not excited about space, it’s exciting from an historical standpoint,” said Pam Williams, tourism sales manager with the Huntsville CVB.
We stayed just across the road from the NTA-member U.S. Space & Rocket Center, and the view of an illuminated space shuttle and rocket only heightened our anticipation to get inside the state-of-the-art attraction. There, we met Sara Vowell, assistant director of sales and outreach, who warmly welcomed us to Space Camp, which brings in 40,000 kids each year from 82 different countries. They participate in simulated missions to learn how to be an astronaut—among other occupations—during the week-long camp.
“They’re given different roles—like a commander, a scientist, a pilot—and they learn to work together and train for their mission all week, but they really learn about jobs in STEM careers,” Vowell said.
Camps are open to kids ages 9 to 18, and the curricula are tailored to age groups. With so many hands-on activities that make students work together, the camps are very effective in team-building.
They increase self-esteem, too. Vowell said she hears from many parents who had observed their children’s struggles with fitting in, and after attending Space Camp, those kids feel as though they belong somewhere. Students can also attend Aviation Challenge Camp as well as Space Camp Robotics.
As we toured the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, we strolled beneath a fully restored Saturn V, an enormous authentic test rocket, and saw many interactive exhibits, a museum, a newly added planetarium, and the National Geographic Theater. Discounted tickets are available for school groups that visit the center, Vowell said.
As we viewed exciting and one-of-a-kind exhibitions, like the Apollo 16 command module, I watched my mom making connections. She’s often discussed her memories of seeing footage of the first moon landing on television and her knowledge of early missions that took off (literally) during her childhood. Not only did we see authentic displays that shed light on the past, but we also closely observed what’s happening currently in space exploration—and what’s to come.
From there, she and I hopped on the bus to tour the Marshall Space Flight Center on the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal. The flight center’s 1,100-acre grounds are home to NASA’s Payload Operations and Integration Center, where we peered through glass at the important people who communicate with other very important people on the International Space Station. The tours take off from the Space & Rocket Center once a day, seven days a week (weather permitting), and special group arrangements can be made.
When we first drove into town along Church Street, the green and yellow building to the left of the railroad tracks was an eye-catcher; it was the Huntsville Depot. Constructed in 1860, it’s the only antebellum depot standing in Alabama (and one of the oldest in the U.S.).
The Depot harbors rich stories of Union takeovers and served as a Confederate prison, and much of its history is literally written on the walls. Troops who stayed there wrote and drew images that remain, which are equally beguiling and haunting. The Depot offers student programs, including a Civil War encampment with costumed interpreters telling the life stories of soldiers during that time. Other programs focus on medicine, women’s roles, and more in-depth lessons on the positions of trains and depots during the war.
On our last day, we headed to the popular attraction in the sky, Burritt on the Mountain. The property overlooks Huntsville—and our mountaintop view was extraordinary.
The grounds are expansive and inviting, and we stepped inside the beautiful mansion built by Dr. William Burritt in the mid-1930s. The physician was way ahead of his time, living in frugality and designing his house to be green and environmentally sound. He salvaged materials from other buildings and mixed Federal, Art Deco, and Greek Revival styles to construct his retirement home in an X-shape, which was the best way to let in breezes and sunlight to naturally cool and heat. There is also a rental facility on the property that is utilized for field trips during rainy weather.
It was quite a surprise to find an adjoining historical park, which featured several original structures where an assortment of student programming is offered.
“I truly believe we are filling in the gaps that are left open in education now,” Chief Programs Officer Tammy Cooney said. “The great thing about museum education is we get the freedom to do that.”
One of our most captivating finds in the park was the school constructed as part of The Rosenwald Plan, which combined the efforts of Booker T. Washington and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to build rural schools for African-American children from 1913 to 1937. The program funded 5,358 buildings across 15 Southern states—and I don’t remember a thing about it from my own education. Perhaps that’s what Tammy meant by filling in the gaps.
The tour was a sobering experience, as it detailed how the school served as one of very few safe places for black children to receive an education during that time. The attraction offers several programs that highlight the lives of rural Alabama schoolchildren in 1918 and includes grade-appropriate lessons and a craft. Student experiences can be customized and can go as in-depth as leaders desire.
While Huntsville’s population is on the rise, so are the options for its many, many visitors. There will be 11 new hotels opening over the next two years, music venues and restaurants are being built or expanded, and festivals and other events come to life year-round in Big Spring Park in the heart of the city.
New is good, but I discovered quickly that Huntsville finds value in what was there first. Columns from the original courthouse now stand in the Huntsville Botanical Garden. Original homes and sites are now museums. Space shuttles are now roadside beacons.
“We have a strong revitalization effort without destroying things,” Williams said.
And that’s why Huntsville is growing.
Other very cool attractions
- Grille 29
- Huntsville Botanical Garden
- The Earlyworks Children’s Museum
- The Alabama Constitution Hall Park & Museum
- The Twickenham driving tour
- Straight to Ale restaurant at Campus 805
- Blue Plate Café
Photos by Kendall Fletcher unless noted otherwise.