Alabama's capital is ready for its close-Up.
You must work a bit to get to Alabama’s capital. Although it’s about halfway between Atlanta and Mobile (via I–85), it’s not really on the way to anywhere else. However, it’s well worth your time to make this trek, which has become a pilgrimage of sorts for those interested in The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, which have brought some 400,000 visitors to Montgomery in their first year. Once you arrive, you’ll find a city that’s not quite reached its pinnacle but is certainly becoming a destination to be reckoned with. Few cities have done a better job of laying out the stakes of the Civil Rights movement than Montgomery, which is both acknowledging and reckoning with its role in both the slave trade and era of slavery that followed. After all, this is where the Civil Rights movement was born, where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, and where the Equal Justice Initiative, one of the country’s most successful legal aid organizations, is currently succeeding in its mission in the courts and beyond. With good food, fun bars, and plenty of other activities, you’ll be able to occupy yourself easily for three very packed days.
If you are planning a long weekend, try to arrive early enough on Friday or Saturday to do a little touring, ideally by late morning. A fitting place to begin your Montgomery visit is the King Memorial Baptist Church on Dexter Avenue, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was pastor during the Montgomery bus boycott. The church is within easy walking distance of all the downtown hotels. You can tour the church and also the Parsonage Museum on South Jackson Avenue, a few blocks away, where the King family lived during their time in Montgomery. If you are short on time, book a timed tour in advance (the last Friday tour is at 3 p.m.), but walk-ins are accommodated if there is any room on day tours offered; allow an hour for the church, two if you visit the parsonage. Nearby, on Washington Avenue, is the Maya Lin–designed Civil Rights Memorial that sits in front of the Civil Rights Memorial Center. If you have time, definitely go inside to see the exhibits, the Wall of Justice, and to watch the short film on the Civil Rights Movement. Set aside an hour for this visit.
By this time, you may be ready for a break. Take it at Chris’ Hot Dogs, which has been selling hot dogs, hamburgers, chili, chicken salad, and other delicious staples since 1917 at its location on Dexter Avenue. You will not be disappointed if you get the chili sauce on your hot dog. If coffee is more your thing (or if you just aren’t hungry), then you’ll find Prevail Union, a modern cafe in the Kress building, also on Dexter Avenue.
If you still have time and the literary inclinations, you may wish to make the pilgrimage to the Cloverdale neighborhood to see the historic Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum (just be aware the museum is open only from Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.). Zelda was born in Montgomery in 1900 (her childhood friend Tallulah Bankhead was born there in 1902), and she and Scott came back to Montgomery to live for about six months from 1931 to 1932 in this house, when he was writing Tender Is the Night, and Zelda began work on her only published novel, Save Me the Waltz. On display are some of Zelda’s paintings, Scott’s books, various possessions, and even clothing. Plan on an hour for this museum.
If you aren’t a fan of the Fitzgeralds, then you may prefer spending some time strolling shopping in Cloverdale, which is home to several locally-owned shops, galleries, restaurants, and other businesses along East Fairview Avenue. But the area’s large, historic homes may be familiar to you if you’ve seen the movie Big Fish, which was filmed here in 2003. You can also take a break at Cafe Louisa, a bakery that also serves great coffee.
Montgomery doesn’t roll up the sidewalks at night. In fact, downtown is home to many popular bars and restaurants, including Montgomery’s only production brewery, Common Bond. You can have a pint or a flight, and if you’re hungry bring over something from Bibb Street Pizza Company next door. If you’re looking for a more formal dinner, then downtown has many other choices, including Wintzell’s Oyster House, a branch of the Mobile original, and Central, one of the city’s most popular upscale restaurants, which specializes in steaks, chicken, and fish from its wood-fired oven. If you’re not ready to call it a night, Aviator Bar, also downtown, is a local favorite.
These are the institutions that have been a driving force in Montgomery’s growth as a tourist destination. The museum is busy enough that you’ll need a timed ticket, and you may want to go early because the museum can be very busy, especially on weekends. The Legacy Museum should be in Montgomery because Alabama had one of the largest populations of slaves before the Civil War, and the city itself had a thriving slave market not far from the location of the museum, which is housed in a former slave warehouse. The Atlantic slave trade and enduring damage wrought by slavery is what the museum is all about. Exhibits focus specifically on lynching, racial segregation (“Jim Crow”) laws, and mass incarceration, the three primary successors to slavery in the United States. Make sure you have enough time, because it takes a while to digest all there is to see and read here, and it’s well worth every moment you spend. You’ll need at least two hours to do justice to this museum, but you could easily spend more time here.
After the museum, you’ll need a break to decompress and unwind. You can sit in the adjacent cafe, which shares space with a wonderful bookstore, or you can head out to lunch somewhere like Martin’s (and if you are looking for delicious fried chicken, this is definitely your spot). Fried chicken is not the only thing on the menu, but it’s one of the best. Unfortunately, it’s not open on Saturday. If you brought or rented a car and don’t mind driving a bit, Southern Comfort in Hope Hull (out near the airport) is a popular spot for barbecue and other Southern comfort foods (including its own pretty good fried chicken), and it’s open every day.
When you’re ready, head back downtown and visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which documents and memorializes the thousands of lynchings that occurred since the Civil War through 1950 (more than 4,400). Each county where the Equal Justice Initiative has documented a lynching gets a steel plaque, where names and dates are recorded. Across the street is a new center that will offer educational programs on most days. The memorial, set on six acres, demands a slow pace, which is fitting for the subject matter. You may find yourself just wanting to sit on a bench and collect your thoughts. It won’t be an easy afternoon, but it’s another moving experience. A slow walk through the memorial takes at least an hour or 90 minutes. Afterward, you may want to cool off with a beer at Common Bond before returning to your hotel to clean up for the evening.
Have dinner at Vintage Year in the Cloverdale neighborhood, a favorite special-occasion spot in Montgomery that began as a wine shop. The wine list has been given an Award of Excellence by Wine Spectator, while the restaurant’s food has been recognized by the James Beard Society. You’ll need reservations. Tuesdays are burger nights, and on Sundays, the restaurant is only open for brunch. After dinner, if you aren’t ready for bed, head over to Leroy, also in Cloverdale. It may look like a dive, but you’ll find a surprisingly long list of craft cocktails and 18 beers on tap. If you are looking for a little Williamsburg, Brooklyn-atmosphere in Montgomery, you’ll find it here.
You aren’t done with Montgomery yet. Your final day can go in any number of directions, but especially if it’s Sunday, you won’t want to miss the chance to have a good Southern breakfast.
If you can manage to get up early (and even if you can’t), head over to Cahawba House to fortify yourself for the day. Breakfast is served from 6:30 to 10:30 am. If you’re looking for some delicious biscuits and gravy, grits, cinnamon beignets, locally made jams and jellies, or Conecuh sausages, you may find yourself standing in a long line to order at the counter. It’s definitely worth the wait, but go early if you want to eat quick and get a table. If you can’t manage or don’t do breakfast, Cahawba House also serves lunch until 2 p.m. Just beware that it’s closed on Saturday.
Just around the corner is the NewSouth Bookstore, an excellent source for anything related to Southern history or literature. The final don’t-miss attraction in Montgomery is the Rosa Parks Museum, which offers a look at the beginning of the Civil Rights era. The museum is not just about Ms. Parks but rather all the people and events associated with the year-long Montgomery bus boycott that lasted from December 1955 to December 1956. If you have time, it’s a short walk over to the Freedom Rides Museum, in Montgomery’s former Greyhound bus station. These museums are worth at least an hour. After all the museums, you’ll still have a full half-day to explore Montgomery, and there are many other options depending on your interests.
If your interests are primarily in the Civil Rights era, once you have hit the Montgomery highlights of the Civil Rights Trail, you may want to explore further. Selma is about an hour west of Montgomery. The National Voting Rights Museum and Institute is here, as is the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after the Confederate general and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. For history buffs, there’s the Museum of Alabama, which covers the history of the state in some detail. It’s near the Alabama State Capitol (the building is open weekdays and Saturdays, and there are regularly scheduled guided tours on Saturdays). You may especially want to visit the Goat Hill Museum Store inside the Capitol building. Baseball fans: If you are visiting between April and August, there’s a pretty good chance the Montgomery Biscuits will be playing during your visit. The games are held in the Montgomery Riverwalk Stadium. Admirer of Hank Williams? The native son is memorialized in the Hank Williams Museum in downtown Montgomery. And if you are looking for culture, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival offers live theater performances, both locally developed and touring productions, year-round (Shakespeare performances are usually in March and April) in a theater in Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park.
Whatever you do, try to find time to get out to Capitol Oyster Bar. It’s decidedly off the beaten path but has a scenic, riverfront location and is a wonderful destination for fresh fried seafood at lunch and dinner, open Wednesday through Sunday. On Sundays, you’ll almost always find some kind of blues performance around 5 p.m., which typically has a cover charge (though you can eat inside without paying the cover).
Both American and Delta together offer four daily flights to Montgomery Regional Airport (MGM): American via Charlotte and Dallas, Delta via Atlanta. Depending on your starting point, it might be easier to fly into Atlanta and drive 160 miles (two and half to three hours depending on traffic). Although you can get by without a car if you are staying downtown, you may want transportation to explore the region further, especially if you wish to visit Birmingham or Selma. Or if it’s really hot and you just don’t want to walk far, there’s a charge to park at most downtown hotels, but public garages are typically much cheaper. Uber is available and usually cheaper than a taxi.
WHEN TO GO
Montgomery has viciously hot summers, so keep that head in mind when planning a trip, though Alabama can have nice winters, with mostly cold nights and cool days. To maximize your time and opportunities for good food, remember that some of the city’s best local breakfast and lunch spots are closed on Saturdays.
WHERE TO STAY
Downtown Montgomery has several good hotels, and this is the easiest place to base yourself for a long or short stay. If you’re looking for modern comforts, you can choose from a Doubletree, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn & Suites, and Renaissance. Several other hotels are in development. If you are looking for atmosphere, look no further than the Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in the Cloverdale neighborhood, which operates two AirBnB units upstairs.