The top 25 downtowns in North Alabama for heritage tourism

Itinerary ideas for heritage travelers and history fans visiting north Alabama

There are at least 60 historic downtowns found in the northern half of Alabama. For this article, I take a look at the ones found in the part of the state north of Birmingham. The rankings are just for fun and based on personal opinion only.

While ranking the historic downtowns, the factors that are most important to me include:

  • Visual appeal of streetscapes
  • Nostalgic charm
  • How well an old main street or public square has been preserved or restored
  • Having a large numbers of eye-catching historic structures within a compact radius
  • Having other things to do so a visit can be appealing in ways other than those related to historic places

Most of the finest downtown historic buildings in this part of the country were built during the boom years of the 1880s. Very few commercial buildings are older than that, and those that are older, and are still standing, are usually impressive in age only. Alternately, the top-ranked cities have historic residential areas within walking distance of their downtowns where a good number of grand old houses from the 1810s to 1850s are found. Older is almost always better when it comes to the houses.

It adds to the magic if a historic downtown is currently a crowd-pleasing destination for a broad audience because of a vibrant entertainment district or high-quality attractions.

Read on to find out which cities top the rankings, plus ...

  • Where to find 200-year-old houses just a block or two from the heart of some of the historic downtowns
  • Which cities have courthouse squares that appear about the same as they did 100 years ago
  • Besides historic buildings, what other things make some old downtowns more fun to visit

First, let’s take a look at the top 10.


1. Downtown Huntsville

Photo: Linda Bayer, Huntsville Planning Commission, 1979, National Register of Historic Places Southside Square application

Downtown Huntsville tops the list of north Alabama historic downtowns thanks to its big public square and its large number of early-to-middle 19th-century houses and churches. Two incredible, mostly-residential historic districts are found within easy walking distance.

Must-see places include the c. 1835 First National Bank building on West Side Square and the adjacent descent to the spring at Big Spring Park, the group of buildings from 104 to 128 South Side Square, the North Side Square Italianates (105 to 113 Northside Square) and East Side Square’s Schiffman Building.

A walk along the Lincoln Street, Williams Avenue and Franklin Street portions of the tree-filled Twickenham Historic District — where a large concentration of 170- to 210-year old houses are found — is also a must-see for heritage tourists. Great historic downtown commercial streetscapes are also plentiful to the north of the public square on Washington, Jefferson and Clinton Streets.

It’s certainly a big bonus to find the Constitution Hall Park, the EarlyWorks Children’s Museum, the Huntsville Museum of Art and the Big Spring Park lake all within walking distance.

With its beautiful historic streetscapes and its big quantity of very old, well-preserved structures, downtown Huntsville has very high sidewalk tour potential.

For more about one of Alabama’s oldest cities, see my articles featuring downtown Huntsville:

Huntsville historic places part 1

Huntsville historic places part 2: Twickenham Historic District

Summertime in beautiful historic downtown Huntsville

2. Downtown Florence

Photo: Gene A. Ford, 1994, National Register of Historic Places

Florence is the county seat of Lauderdale County and the largest city in the northwest corner of Alabama. The Downtown Florence Historic District is essential for heritage travelers, but the city also has six other nationally registered historic districts and about a dozen individually listed structures, one of them being the c. 1940 Frank Lloyd Wright designed Rosenbaum House.

The historic downtown’s main street is North Court Street. A nice inventory of 100- to 140-year old commercial buildings are found along the vibrant street and two of the streets that intersect with it, Mobile Street and Tennessee Street.

Within easy walking distance of the heart of downtown, heritage tourists will not want to miss the c. 1824 Presbyterian Church, the c. 1913 U.S. Post Office/federal courthouse and the c. 1948 Shoals Theatre, all near the corner of East Mobile Street and North Seminary Street.

The downtown features a rising entertainment scene with six or seven restaurants found in historic buildings. Coffee shops and taverns stay busy aided by the fact that the University of North Alabama is only about three blocks to the north.

Must-see historic landmarks on the university campus include the c. 1855 Courtview (now known as Rogers Hall), the c. 1855 Wesleyan Hall, the c. 1843 Irvine Place (now known as Coby Hall).

The c. 1925 Wilson Dam, the first dam built along the mighty Tennessee River is another historic site worth visiting. It’s about 3 miles from the historic downtown. 

3. Downtown Athens


Photo: Sam Buchanan, Alabama Historical Commission, 1982, National Register of Historic Places

Like #1 Huntsville, the Athens historic downtown has a big courthouse square and some grand pre-Civil War houses within walking distance. The historic buildings of Athens State University are also nearby.

The Athens Courthouse Square Commercial Historic District includes mostly buildings built between the late 1880s and the early 1940s. A well-preserved c. 1836 church building that was remodeled in 1900, and the gothic 1895 Presbyterian Church are found on the square. Of course, the c. 1919 Limestone County Courthouse is a primary focal point of the downtown.

 

Having a true public square complete with a 100-year old courthouse helps put Athens near the top of the rankings as does the dozen houses that are over 160 years old within a few blocks. A pair of those houses are approaching 200 years of age. There are more than 100 other houses that are over 110 years old within two large residential historic districts that are adjacent to the square.

Like the other downtowns in the top 3, the sidewalk tour potential is good, especially when there are blooms in the summer or fall colors in October and early November.

4. Downtown Anniston

On the east side of the state, Anniston looks and feels larger than its current population of 22,000 would lead you to believe. It did once serve a much larger population. Between the 1910s and the 1960s, it grew to be the fifth largest metropolitan area in the state due in part to the impact of the adjacent Fort McClellan, which has been closed since the 1990s.

Anniston’s main historic commercial strip, found along Noble Street between 9th and 15th Street, is home to some of Alabama’s fanciest remaining historic commercial structures, most of which are 3-stories high. The c. 1900 Calhoun County Courthouse is on 11th, a block west of Noble.

The lovely Tyler Hill Residential Historic District and the East Anniston Residential Historic District are within a mile of Noble Street, but perhaps a little too spread out, and too hilly, for most people to consider striking out on a walking sidewalk tour, or even a bicycle tour.

Downtown Anniston makes my top-4 due to its large quantity of well-preserved historic places and visually appealing streetscapes scattered around a large area.

For more information and photos, see Exploring Anniston’s surprisingly large inventory of historic places.

5. Downtown Tuscumbia

Photo: Eleanor Holder, 1972, National Register of Historic Places

Helen Keller’s hometown features the 600-plus structure Tuscumbia Historic District. Shown above is the c. 1840s Commercial Row, part of that district, as it appeared in 1972. Most of the structures in the district are one-story houses built in the early 20th century, but a good number of early- to mid-19th century homes are scattered about. Keller's c. 1820 birthplace is located in the area.

Other heritage highlights in the small city include the plain 2-story c. 1825 Morgan-Donilan Building on East Fifth Street — the oldest remaining commercial building in Alabama —  the c. 1888 train depot and the c. 1852 St. John’s Episcopal Church.

There’s a large number of very old houses still standing in Tuscumbia including 14 that were built in the 1820s and 13 that were built from the 1830s to the 1850s. Most are bungalows and cottages, but a few are more interesting 175- to 200-year old 2-story houses. 

The 1880s county courthouse is among the most-interesting historic buildings in this downtown. Featuring a big clock tower, it was rebuilt after a fire gutted it in 1908, gaining its white columns at that time. 

The c. 1835 Belle Mont Mansion, which is owned by the Alabama Historical Commission is about 6 miles south of the historic downtown.

6. Downtown Gadsden

Photo: Linda Nelson, Alabama Historical Commission, 1997, National Register of Historic Places

Similar to Anniston, Gadsden's historic downtown seems large for a city of only 34,000 people. Like Anniston, the city has experienced notable population decline since the mid-20th century. But in Gadsden’s case, it was due to loss of manufacturing rather than a military base.

Anyhow, the big downtown found along Broad Street, Chesnut Street and Locust Street that once served as the heart of a city with a population of over 50,000 features a pleasing mixture of small and large commercial buildings — perfect for those who love historic streetscapes. The larger buildings are from the 1920s and 1930s era.

Heritage tourists will also want to see the historic bridges at the Coosa River, the Methodist Church at the corner of Chesnut and 5th, and the cluster of fine historic homes near the corner of Chesnut and South 8th Street.

Lots of photos are found on my article, Gadsden Alabama’s enduring historic downtown.

See also, Where to enjoy some waterside fun on your next trip to Gadsden.

7. Downtown Cullman

Photo: Tom Morris, Alabama Historical Commission, 1984, National Register of Historic Places

Two residential historic districts are located adjacent to the Cullman Downtown Commercial Historic District, making it relatively easy to see the best historic structures from the sidewalks or while riding a bicycle. The city’s German heritage and prominent Catholic presence make it unique among north Alabama places.

My favorite things in downtown Cullman include the streetscapes of 1st Avenue, the c. 1916 Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church and the large number of big houses that retain their 1870s to 1910s appearances.

For more information and dozens of photos, see Exploring Cullman: One of north Alabama’s most unique Southern outings.

See also, Gallery: Ave Maria Grotto and St. Bernard Abbey.

8. Downtown Decatur

Photo: Lee Sentell, Decatur Daily, 1979, National Register of Historic Places

Upper Alabama’s second largest city for many decades, Decatur is another city near the banks of the Tennessee River. An old railroad bridge, Alabama’s oldest remaining bank building and the remarkable marquee at the Princess Theatre are among the most-interesting historic places. The c. 1905 Southern Railway Depot has been restored, and now serves as a museum.

Two large residential historic districts and three striking historic churches are within bicycling distance of the two main historic streets, and some very nice streetscapes can be found in each one. Check out my article, Don’t dodge Decatur’s historic downtown.

9. Downtown Guntersville

Downtown Guntersville doesn’t have a big residential historic district filled with early 19th-century houses like most of the cities above. It doesn’t have as many fancy old commercial buildings as Anniston or Florence. But its setting along the Tennessee River’s largest lake make it a wonderful place to visit no matter your primary reason for enjoying historic downtowns. The shopping and entertainment scene is vibrant for a small city, so combining those with a heritage-themed trip makes for a great itinerary.

Gunter Avenue, where the main historic commercial strip is found, is home to a colorful combination of mostly 2-story buildings. A sidewalk tour that takes you past the best streetscapes is easy. The 400 block across from the c. 1963 Marshall County Courthouse is one of my favorites. 

Since the city harbor is only a few hundred yards from Gunter Avenue, it’s the easiest historic downtown in this list to get to if you’re traveling by yacht.

 

Take a closer look: Mountain-lake setting heightens the wow factor of Guntersville’s historic downtown.

10. Downtown Sheffield


Photo: David B. Schneider, 2008, National Register of Historic Places

All heritage travel visitors to the quad-city/Shoals area should consider a stop at the Sheffield Downtown Commercial District. Only 1.5 miles from the Helen Keller birthplace, 1.5 miles from the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and 4 miles from the #2 ranked Florence downtown, Sheffield’s downtown offers some great streetscapes with many well-preserved 2- and 3-story buildings.

Highlights include the c. 1928 Ritz Theater and its connected buildings, the c. 1908 Sheffield Hardware Co. building, the c. 1888 Montgomery Block and c. 1888 Blake Building. There are also a good number of interesting houses nearby.

North Montgomery Avenue is the main historic street. If you travel out of the historic commercial area to the north, toward the Tennessee River, the c. 1928 city hall greets you as you enter a residential area with plenty of striking 95 to 135 year old houses to see. A c. 1892 school building is found nearby on 6th Avenue.

A pair of beautiful historic churches, including the  c. 1915 Victorian Gothic Methodist church serve as a gateway to an area with some of the most-interesting houses. The jaw-dropping c. 1890 Chambers-Nathan Home is less than a half mile north of that spot. 

11. Downtown Scottsboro

The true courthouse square and the streetscapes it provides gives downtown Scottsboro a slim edge over numbers 12-15. The city draws a lot of tourists due to its location near Lake Guntersville, so its easy to find other things to do during a visit.

See also, Encounter history in downtown Scottsboro.

12. Downtown Fort Payne

When I think of downtown Fort Payne, I think about the nostalgic streetscapes and how Lookout Mountain stands guard over the city. A pair of interesting 1880s buildings, a unique train station and two tree-filled parks give you good reasons for spending time in the old part of town.

The residential historic district is an easy walk from the city’s main street, Gault Avenue.

For more information and several photos, see Fort Payne’s historic places provide plenty of glimpses into the past.

13. Downtown Springville

As you can see in the photos found in my article, Enjoying Springville’s one-of-a-kind downtown, you’ll find a village-like main-street scene that is the most likely one in the region to appear as is it did 100 years ago. A sidewalk tour makes it easy to see almost every historic structure. There are shops and restaurants to enjoy, and a park with a lake can help make any visit fun. On second thought, I’m thinking this downtown is too fun not to make the top 10.

14. Downtown Oxford

Another village-like setting is found in this neat and clean historic downtown. Church steeples and large historic homes surround the eye-catching commercial area.


Over 25 photos are found here: Don’t bypass Oxford’s wonderful historic downtown.

15. Downtown Oneonta

First Street in the county seat of Blount County features a fun, colorful entertainment district. It was bustling with retail activity during my 2020 visit. The historic streetscapes on 1st and 2nd are great, and a sidewalk tour is easy. There are three covered bridges within 10 miles of the downtown giving heritage tourists something else to look forward to.

See these articles:

I didn’t know what I was missing in Oneonta

Small, large and extra large: Blount County’s covered bridges

16. Downtown Jasper


Photo: Pamela King, Alabama Historical Commission, 2003, National Register of Historic Places

Jasper’s public square is a long rectangle with the most attractive streetscapes found on 19th Street. Other highlights include the large c.1910 King and Warren Commercial Building and the beax arts neoclassical c. 1921 Methodist church on the left side of the Walker County Courthouse, and the classical-revival c. 1910s Mason Lodge found just northwest of the square.

The c. 1936 stone-clad courthouse itself is an interesting structure. Modern buildings found on the east and north of the square keep this from being a fully historic courthouse square. 

The c. 1917 post office building, remodeled in the 1970s and now serving as city hall, is found a block west of the square. 

17. Downtown Jacksonville

Only 12 miles from #4 Anniston, the Jacksonville public square has a small park in its center rather than a courthouse. There are several 19th century structures within walking distance including two churches and some 1850s houses. A couple of miles north of the small downtown, Jacksonville State University also has some historic buildings that heritage travelers will want to see.

Being home to a university, the Chief Ladiga Trail and Choccolocco Mountain, there are more things to do here when you’re not visiting historic sites than in most cities of this size. For more information and 30 photos, see my article Jacksonville is a college town with plenty of historic places to enjoy.

18. Downtown Madison

As Huntsville’s largest suburb, Madison has a population of over 54,000, but its tiny downtown still has a good deal of historic village magic. The charming little Main Street has at least one pre-Civil War commercial building. There are some mid- and late-19th-century houses nearby. 

It shares the same other-things-to-do advantages as Huntsville, and is closer to the Huntsville International Airport than Huntsville.

19. Downtown Hartselle

The covered sidewalks on Main Street have the look and feel of 1,000-ft. long porches. Fifty-two of the buildings that make up the nationally listed Hartselle Downtown Commercial Historic District were built between 1910 and 1920. The colorful variety of one- and two-story buildings is striking. A walking tour should include the side-by-side c. 1917 passenger and freight train depots.

Only 12 miles from #8 Decatur’s historic downtown, and about 20 miles from #7 Cullman, it would be easy to combine visits to one of those on a trip to Hartselle.

20. Downtown Ashville

The heart of this St. Clair County town features an old white courthouse surrounded by small historic commercial buildings on two sides. Historic-places enthusiasts will find that the five 19th-century houses found within walking distance make Ashville worth exploring.


See the article, Downtown Ashville: More than a fare share of stately historic places.

21. Downtown Piedmont

In Calhoun County, about 20 miles north of #4 Anniston, and 11 miles from #18 Jacksonville, downtown Piedmont is neat and clean with some nice streetscapes. You’ll see mostly red brick buildings and some interesting ornamentation.

A restaurant, a coffee shop and an adult trike shop attract many visitors who are in town to enjoy the Chief Ladiga Trail. The c. 1868 train depot, the c. 1940 post office and the c. 1891 First Presbyterian Church are found in the heart of the city. Other historic church buildings are within walking distance.

See Piedmont’s historic downtown in pictures.

22. Downtown Boaz

The Boaz downtown has a handsome combination of one- and two-story buildings. Some still have their 1890s-1920s appearance. The streetscapes are improving thanks to ongoing revitalization efforts. The 1980s-era covered sidewalks have been removed. Murals have been painted. Everything has been spruced up.

Just 16 miles from #9 Gunterville above, I expect the Boaz Main Street to become a fun destination — much like #16 Oneonta has become — in the near future as businesses other than antique shops, salons and boutiques move in.

Historic buildings on the Snead State Community College campus are only about 0.2 miles to the west of Main Street.

See also, Gallery: Boaz’s historic downtown in 2021.

23. Downtown Moulton

This city’s courthouse square features the handsome 1930s limestone veneer Lawrence County Courthouse. The surrounding commercial buildings in the Moulton Courthouse Square Historic District are mostly plain, with more one-stories than two-stories. A large number of the buildings were built in the 1940s but a few of them are as old as 110 years. A three-story c. 1911 courthouse annex was remodeled in the 1950s.

That true courthouse square gives downtown Moulton a slight edge over the other downtowns that should be considered for this ranking.

24. Downtown Fayette

Thanks to the setting surrounding the county courthouse, I put Fayette in this spot.

25. Downtown Attalla

Let’s go with Attalla to round out the top 25 due to it’s location near to I-59 and Gadsden. It would be easy for me to place it in the top 20 because I am more familiar with it than I am with some of the remaining downtowns.

For a dozen photos see my article, A visit to the Attalla Downtown Historic District.


Summary

Tourists who find encounters with historic places to be thought-provoking, awe-inspiring, or otherwise meaningful, will find magic in any historic downtown. Most of the cities listed above have downtown commercial districts and nearby residential districts that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Of course, many other downtowns in north Alabama, such as Albertville, Centre, Stevenson and Collinsville would have a strong argument for making the top 25. Those would certainly make the top 35 as would Haleyville, Pell City, Leeds, Russellville, Courtland and Winfield.