Alabama is right at the heart of the Deep South, bordered by Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi, and the scenery is surprisingly varied. The central part of the state is flat, with a covering of rich fertile topsoil that spans its entire width. This made it perfect for growing cotton and, in the early 19th century, huge plantations sprung up, with thousands of slaves toiling in the fields. This area is still known as the Black Belt, not because of the people who worked here, but because of the color of the soil. These days cotton production has moved elsewhere and the huge antebellum mansions stand crumbling from neglect.
The northern part of the state is mountainous, on the edge of the Appalachians, with the Tennessee River cutting through in a large valley, supplied by creeks, streams, and lakes. In the south, the land is covered in humid subtropical forests which give way to the Mobile-Tensaw delta and low-lying alligator-infested swamps. The port of Mobile, on the Gulf of Mexico, was the first capital of colonial French Louisiana, and east of here are excellent beaches with long stretches of pristine white sand.
Most people arrive at Birmingham–Shuttlesworth International Airport and it’s only half an hour to downtown. The city was once known as the Magic City as all the raw materials for steel manufacture were found here and heavy industry thrived. These days that’s all in the past, but some of this heritage has been turned into tourist attractions. Red Mountain Park was where iron ore was mined and the whole area has been turned into a green adventure space and a trail for hikers and bikers will eventually extend all the way to downtown. Sloss Furnaces, right in the heart of the city, is an item of industrial beauty, its huge metal rusted towers visible for miles. A guided tour gives you a sense of what life was like for workers during its 90 years of operation.
The city played a major role in civil rights and was nicknamed Bombingham because of hundreds of Ku Klux Klan bombings from the ’50s to the ’60s. Thankfully that’s a thing long gone and today a part of downtown has been designated as the Civil Rights Cultural District and all the major are accessible on foot. Start at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for an overview, visit the 16th Baptist Church, and take the Freedom Walkthrough Kelly Adams Park, just opposite.
Just 20 miles outside the town is the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum which has the world’s largest motorcycle collection. There’s a rotating display of around 700 bikes, chosen from their collection of over 1,400. It’s beautifully laid out and most have been restored to factory condition. If bikes hold no interest there’s also an extensive collection of Lotus cars, plus other rare vehicles.
The state capital and second-largest city in Alabama, on the banks of the Alabama River, Montgomery is dominated by the Greek revival white Capitol building, at the top of Dexter Avenue, once the seat of Confederate. Just one block away is the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King got his first job as a preacher and stayed. You can see the modest pulpit where he preached and can sit at his desk in the study.