Near the geographical center of north Alabama, Athens has charm to spare in its neat and colorful historic downtown and adjacent historic districts.
Dozens of historic sites are easy to find and in clear view from the sidewalks. The streets are bicycle-friendly, especially on Sunday. Use the map links and information below to plan a walking or bicycle tour of the four nationally registered historic districts found in downtown Athens.
Invent a game to make a visit to a historic district fun for everyone
Want to add some fun to a historic-places sidewalk tour?
How about a game where you guess whether a house is pre-Civil War or from the Reconstruction era? The city does have a large number of each along with an interesting Civil War history.
Or, maybe guess the age of buildings, identify architectural style or tree species. Or choose which structures are more likely to be haunted. Certainly, there’s no shortage of houses and commercial buildings that look the part.
Remember, while visiting historic districts, to respect the homeowners’ privacy when applicable.
Enjoy a sidewalk tour of the Athens Courthouse Square Commercial Historic District
One of most beautiful courthouses in the state is found at the heart of downtown Athens. Anytime you find yourself there, take some time to ponder the Limestone County Courthouse’s connection to 16th-century northern Italy. The design of the c. 1919 Neo-Classical-style building, with matching porticoes on all four sides and a big central dome, was inspired by the Villa La Rotonda near Vacenza in northern Italy.
A walking tour of the square allows you to enjoy some of the best streetscapes in north Alabama. The courthouse is surrounding by colorful historic buildings filled with a variety of businesses. There are several boutiques, five restaurants, a tavern and a coffee shop in the downtown area, so there’s a lot to enjoy while taking in the history and nostalgia.
Pictured above, from top left:
- At the corner of Market and North Marion, two 1900-1905 buildings help provide one of the city's most attractive streetscapes.
- Across the street at the same corner, the c. 1895 two-story red building features its original Romanesque Revival architectural styling.
- The c. 1896 brick building at the corner of Market and Jefferson began as a furniture store. U.G. White Mercantile moved to the location in 1937. Bursting at the seams with nostalgia, go there for unique gifts, candy, souvenirs and more. See ugwhite.com. Don’t miss the murals in Merchant’s Alley on the right side of the building at 106 N. Jefferson Street.
- A look at S. Marion Street from the east side of the courthouse.
- On the courthouse’s west side, the statue of Judge James Horton gazes out at the grand Gothic Revival-style Presbyterian Church.
The Athens Courthouse Square Commercial Historic District was registered with the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Here’s a few other streetscapes from the district:
Pictured, from top left:
- A look at Market Street from the north side of the courthouse.
- A sidewalk scene from 218 Market Street W., looking east.
- Constructed in 1911, the beautiful corner building at 201-203 Market Street W. had some modifications in the 1970s.
- The c. 1917 Limestone Drugs building got its current stone veneer exterior in 1945.
More historic streetscapes are found a block beyond the actual square in all directions. Some of the best are on Washington Street on each side of the railroad track which is a block east of the square. The c. 1907 railroad depot is found there at 102 W. Washington:
If those streetscapes get you in a nostalgic state-of-mind, these places just outside the square will have you drifting back to the 50s and 60s:
Pictured, from top left:
- Built in 1929, the building where you find the Riff Raff Home Decor store today was originally a bus station. Back then, U.S. Hwy. 72 and U.S. Hwy. 31 intersected at this spot, 110 E. Washington.
- Three blocks to the west, the Kreme Delite at 401 W. Washington, hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1951. Think soft-serve cones and banana splits.
- A great spot for selfies, the restored Gulf station located at 100-125 East Street is now home to Keep Athens-Limestone Beautiful. That’s between Big Spring Park and the university. Don’t miss the old Gulf sign out on the corner of East and Hobbs.
Sunday morning traffic is very light in the downtown area. Saturdays are pretty busy. On weekdays, when the courthouse and the large number of law firms and other offices are open, the downtown area gets very busy.
Get a close look at early 19th-century houses
It’s a little rare to find a large concentration of 1820-to-1850-era houses still standing in the Deep South, especially in towns where a good deal of Civil War activity took place. In north Alabama, only clusters found in Huntsville, Florence and Tuscumbia can rival what you find in Athens.
These five very old houses are within a half mile of the courthouse square:
Shown, from top left:
- The c. 1830s George S. Houston House located at 100 N. Houston Street has been known as the Houston Memorial Library since 1938.
- One of the oldest remaining structures in Athens, the Vasser-Lovvorn House located at 301 E. Washington Street was built in 1824. The Greek-Revival portico with the tall Tuscan columns was added later.
- The c. 1840 Robert Donnell House, or Pleasant Hill as shown on its historic marker, has been part of a school campus since the 1930s. See for yourself at 601 S. Clinton Street.
It’s currently a museum and event venue. See donnellhouse.net.
- Originally a Federal-style structure, the c. 1826 Beaty-Mason House, located at 211 S. Beaty Street, underwent a couple of mid-19th century modifications to get its current Roman- and Greek-style details.
- Located at 202 S. Beaty Street the yellow c. 1855 Sloss-Pettus-Cook House is now part of the Athens State University campus.
Savor the style: Columns are fitting for a place called Athens
Perhaps the most famous columns in the world are those at the Parthenon and other 2,000-plus-year-old Acropolis structures that overlook the ancient city of Athens, Greece. And, it’s no mistake that columns are everywhere in Alabama’s Athens.
Those five houses above are among the best older historic buildings in north Alabama with columns, and there are quite a few others scattered around town. In addition, you’ll find government buildings, churches and university facilities featuring columns inspired by those commonly found in ancient Greece and Italy:
Pictured, from top left:
- The courthouse from its east side.
- The c. 1933 Old Athens Main Post Office — now used as county government offices — features Doric columns. It was individually listed in the National Registry in 1982.
- If you’re enjoying a walking tour, the church at 400 W. Washington Street is halfway between the courthouse and the Houston Memorial Library.
- The c. 1925 First Methodist Church at 208 W. Hobbs Street. is the only nonresidential structure included in the George S. Houston Historic District.
- Athens City Hall, located at 200 W. Hobbs Street, must have been styled to blend in with the other columned, yellow brick buildings.
- The columns of Founders Hall, the main building of Athens State University, date back to the 1840s. Plan to spend some time enjoying its large tree-filled front yard. There are two other historic university buildings with big columns just a few yards away. Most the new buildings on campus also have similar columns.
You don’t have to be a student of architectural style to enjoy a city with a lot of old columns. Several other streetscapes with columns can be seen in residential areas, especially along the S. Clinton Street portion of the Robert Beaty Historic District on the southeast side of downtown:
Pictures, from top left:
- The c. 1860 Westmoreland-Hatchett House, 517 S. Clinton Street, got its full-width portico with columns in the early 1900s.
- The c. 1890s house located at 411 S. Clinton Street, with its fluted columns, hasn’t changed much in its first 130 years.
- Originally built as a much smaller house in the 1830s, the Richardson-Gordon House at 401 S. Clinton Street got its columns and second story when it was remodeled in the 1840s.
- The Corinthian columns were added in 1915 to the white c. 1901 Sanders-Gish House at 201 S. Beaty Street. The red brick house next door was built in the 1920s.
Wander into the residential areas for more charming historic streetscapes
There are a good deal of other beautiful historic houses in the two residential historic districts.
To the north and northwest side of courthouse square, it’s easy to walk or bike deep into the George S. Houston Historic District and on the southeast side, you’ll find the Robert Beaty Historic District. Both are near the heart of town, as is the Athens State College Historic District. Some sights from each are shown above.
Suggestion: Park at Big Spring Park for a sidewalk or bicycle tour that combines the Athens State College Historic District on the northeast side and the Robert Beaty Historic District on the southeast side. Park on the west side of the square for a tour combining the Athens Courthouse Square Commercial Historic District with the George S. Houston Historic District.
Learn about Alabama’s oldest institution of higher learning while visiting the Athens State College Historic District
Above, from top left:
- Founders’s Hall, c. 1842. The third floor was added in 1892, and three wings were added between 1845 and 1907.
- McCandless Hall, c. 1914, located to the right of Founder’s Hall.
- Brown Hall, c. 1912, located behind Founder’s Hall.
- President’s House. Also known as The Bullington House, it was acquired by the university relatively recently, and appears to be from the 1890s to 1910s era.
What is now Athens State University has a fascinating history. The Athens Female College was chartered in 1843. It moved into its new facility, Founder’s Hall, a few months later. A couple decades earlier, the Athens Female Academy was established where the old heart of today’s university is found. See athens.edu.
The Athens State College Historic District was listed with the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
While you’re on that side of the downtown, be sure to enjoy the large tree-filled front lawn of Founder’s Hall. Nearby, Vinyl Revival and the c. 1928 freight depot — now Alabama Veteran’s Museum — are found on Pryor Street, the street on the north side of the small university:
It’s easy to plan a trip combining the best of Athens with some of the other great historic places in north central Alabama. Downtown Athens is only 25 miles from Huntsville’s historic downtown, and only 15 miles from Decatur’s. The historic village of Mooresville, and historic downtowns in Hartselle and Madison are also close. See these articles for more history themed trip ideas: