On March 25, 1965, thousands stood below the gleaming dome of Alabama’s capitol building in Montgomery and listened as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a soul-stirring speech. It was the conclusion of the final Selma-to-Montgomery March, the traveling peaceful protest that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
This year’s commemoration of the event’s 50th anniversary is a good reason to visit Montgomery, where new restaurants, lounges and a thriving music scene add to the capital city’s deep sense of history and give travelers modern reasons to explore.
A visit to Montgomery should begin with its revitalized downtown. The heart of the city was barely beating only 12 years ago, before both public and private resuscitation efforts paid off, creating a hub of activity that’s brought the city back to life.
Start with a free tour of the Alabama State Capitol building, led by informative and entertaining guides who highlight things you might miss on your own: the dizzying twists and turns of the massive double spiral staircase designed by a former slave; the bronze star on its marble steps identifying where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy; and the spot in front of those same steps, where Civil Rights marchers sent a message to Governor George Wallace and the world.
Next, check out the Rosa Parks Library & Museum honoring the icon who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Her quiet act of defiance sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the modern Civil Rights Movement. A replica of the bus where it all went down invites you to think about the difference one moment can make.
Rosa Parks Library & Museum Photo courtesy of Montgomery Convention & Visitor Bureau
Since history can make you hungry, stop by Scott Street Deli, where a cheery striped awning and the shoulder-length earrings and mischief-laced, mile-wide smile of local character Ham A. Holic greet you. The skilled sandwich maker will build you The Frencheletta, a fat, flavorful mix of mortadella, salami, ham, Swiss, pickles and olive relish barely contained by French bread.
Montgomery’s musical heritage is chronicled at the Hank Williams Museum, a tribute to the crooner whose hits like “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” made him a country music legend. Check out the museum’s huge collection of personal effects like the snappy dresser’s custom suits and boots, sheet music, his Gibson guitar and the sky-blue Cadillac, in the songwriting icon took his final ride. His final resting place, visited by thousands of fans each year, is in nearby Oakwood Cemetery Annex.
Next, if you’re visiting spring through fall, indulge in a late-afternoon cocktail at SandBAR. The outdoor watering hole sits atop a bluff overlooking the Alabama River as it rolls along the edge of downtown.
Snag a booth at Central for an early dinner. Housed in a 1880’s grocery warehouse in the downtown’s entertainment district, holdovers from its industrial days like soaring ceilings and concrete floors are made warm and welcoming by flickering gas lanterns. Chef Leonardo Maurelli’s commitment to seasonal, local ingredients and his Italian-Panamanian heritage combine for a refreshing take on Southern favorites. Dishes like earthy roasted beet salad and black-eyed pea hummus take advantage of Alabama’s agricultural bounty, and in spring and summer, Central’s Friday night dinners feature a menu created on the fly, based on whatever was ripe and ready that afternoon at the city’s downtown urban farm. Don’t miss the hickory duck quarters, crisped in a wood-burning oven and served with sweet potato hash and a drizzle of sugary-stout bourbon syrup. But don’t linger too long over dinner; you’ve got a baseball game to catch.
The Hickory-crisped Duck Quarters at Central Photo by Carter Photography & Design, courtesy of Central
The Montgomery Biscuits AA baseball team came to the city in 2004 and has won many games, a couple league championships and hoards of fans in the decade since. Even if you’re not really into our national pastime, Riverwalk Stadium is worth a visit. Built into an old railway station, it features modern ballpark amenities while retaining a yesteryear charm with exposed beams and original brick. Trains still run on the tracks behind left field, tooting their horns as they chug past games in play. The between-inning antics of the “Biscuit Bunch” include launching hot biscuits into the stands. Reach up, grab one, visit the concession stand to drown it in Montgomery’s own Alaga syrup, and then eat the treat that earned a spot on the Travel Channel’s “top-five ballpark foods” list.
A rousing game and sugar-covered carbs can make you sleepy, but before you head to bed, hit AlleyBAR around the corner and down a nightcap in the frozen shot room. If you’re still up when the clock strikes 12, make your way to Sous La Terre, a dark basement haunt where live blues and jazz spill from its small stage.
Head over to Cafe Louisa in the historic Old Cloverdale neighborhood for a cup of organic joe and a buttery blueberry scone in this tiny spot where writers, artists and other creatives let their thoughts percolate. Get a Red Eye coffee to go for the energy to shop the area.
The works of Alabama artists hang from the walls at Stonehenge Gallery, where bold abstracts, moody photography and light-filled landscapes vie for space.
Ex Voto features the wearable art of local jewelry designer Elizabeth Adams. She repurposes antique lockets, vintage charms and other trinkets to create statement necklaces and bracelets that have made their way onto the red carpet at the Oscars.
Fill your shopping bag with current fashions at Welle Studio, a chic ladies’ boutique that stocks the latest looks. Purchase a flirty skirt by Alabama designer Hunter Bell to take some Southern style home. Or pick up a screen-printed tee made by Montgomery’s Matter Print Shop. The ones emblazoned with “Montgomery, It’s Better Than You Think” are local faves.
Welle Studio Photo by Grace Photography, courtesy of WelleStudio
Head deeper into Cloverdale’s tree-lined streets and delve into the city’s literary legacy with a visit to the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. The golden couple of the Jazz Age met in Montgomery and returned to live in Zelda’s hometown while F. Scott wrote “Tender is the Night.” Their home has been preserved and is filled with family photos, Zelda’s paintings and F. Scott’s letters and inscribed books.
For lunch, sample the fusion cuisine at a brand new Cloverdale eatery, Kudzu Noodle Bar, where classic Asian flavors are given a regional twist with the addition of fried chicken, fried catfish and collards to soupy, spicy noodle bowls and savory steamed buns.
Slurp up your mid-day meal and get across town to the Blount Cultural Park. Roam the fields of this green space modeled on English moors, or lose yourself in a matinee world-class play at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the official state theatre. Each season features Shakespeare’s most famous works as well as more recently penned titles and original productions heavy on sense of place sourced from the theatre’s annual Southern Writers’ Project.
Alabama Shakespeare Festival Photo courtesy of Montgomery Convention & Visitor Bureau
Make your way back to Cloverdale for a cold Alabama craft beer at Pine Bar, a Cheers-like joint where locals gather when the workday is done and meet to get the weekend started.
Then, simply step next door for dinner at A&P Grill. Walls awash in soft neutral tones and tufted cream leather banquettes set the stage for a relaxed fine-dining experience. But the menu is not so sedate; be brave and start with an order of fried chicken skins coated in house-made hot sauce. The heat of these crispy bites is cooled with the herbed, buttermilk dressing for dipping. And then sit back, breathe deep and think about your visit to Montgomery as you wash the entire experience down with a tart Blackberry Bramble.
Delta, American Eagle and U.S. Airways Express serve the Montgomery Regional Airport.
The Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa is conveniently located in the thick of things downtown with comfortable and reasonably priced rooms. The lobby is decked out in Alabama art, and the expansive patio of its Exchange Bar sits on the site and borrows the name of one Montgomery’s original drinking establishments, Freeney’s Bell Tavern.
For a more intimate experience, book a room at Red Bluff Cottage, an inn housed in a replica of a 19th century Victorian residence adjacent to downtown in the Cottage Hill district. A night’s stay includes a gourmet breakfast with specialties like wild rice waffles topped with fresh berries.
Jennifer Stewart Kornegay is a freelance writer based out of Montgomery, Ala. She writes about food and travel and traveling for food.