If you, like my husband and I, had never considered Montgomery, Alabama as a riveting weekend getaway from Atlanta, then you, like us, will surely experience the same surprise and delight that we did after a 36 hour whirlwind in this unassuming, storied Southern capital city.
What makes the selection of things to do in Montgomery, AL so remarkable, we found, is the way in which it offers up its past, present, and future all at once, insisting that you can’t have one without the other–for better or for worse.
It’s a city steeped in the painful legacies of slavery, racial segregation, and the often violent struggle for civil rights, a place attempting to juggle what it means to have a Confederate monument on its state capitol grounds a mile from the new, renowned Memorial for Peace and Justice. It’s a place, too, where you’ll likely find yourself experiencing a range of emotions, from grief and shame to curiosity and pride.
At the end of our packed weekend, we left with the intent to come back again, and soon. If you’re planning a trip of your own, be mindful that many of the city’s best sites and museums are closed on Sundays, so front-loading your weekend is advised.
Civil Rights & History
Experience the Civil War and Civil Rights at Court Square
The signature intersection of Montgomery’s downtown historic district, this felt like the right place to start our day. You are quite literally at the crossroads of the city’s historic epochs, with the State Capitol looming up the hill on Dexter Avenue and the entertainment district and riverfront down Commerce Street in the opposite direction.
The focal point is the gorgeous but haunting Court Square fountain, fed by an artesian well, built on the former site central to the city’s slave trade. On one side of Court Square roundabout you’ll see the bus stop where Rosa Parks boarded the vehicle that would “transport her name into history.”
On the other side sits the Winter Building, where the telegram giving orders to fire on Fort Sumter, igniting the Civil War, was sent.
Feel the Sting of Slavery at The Legacy Museum
If you go anywhere in Montgomery, one of the two hands-down, must-see sites is The Legacy Museum. It’s located where a former warehouse used as a holding cell for enslaved individuals once stood.
Interactive exhibits–featuring media that range from sculptures and videography to jars of soil collected from lynching sites–guide visitors through our nation’s history of racial inequality, beginning with the Domestic Slave Trade and journeying to the modern day mass incarceration and police violence epidemics. Prepare to be moved, humbled, challenged, engaged, and, ultimately, motivated to seek “real solutions to contemporary problems.”
Find Hope for the Future at National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Located approximately a mile south of the museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a 15 minute walk or short drive (or short shuttle ride, now available through the Museum) away. The Memorial pays tribute to those who have suffered and perished from racial terror, offering visitors time and space for contemplation, reflection, and meaningful recognition of the historic realities of racial inequality.
In addition to striking sculptures and spatial design elements, the 800 suspended steel monuments, representing each American county in which a lynching occurred, contextualize and attempt to quantify the magnitude of this epoch of domestic terrorism.
Both the memorial and museum are crucial, incredible opportunities to reflect, learn, and respond to the darkest contours of our country’s past and present–we can’t recommend them enough. The bookstore and cafe offer great space to reflect, debrief, and shop for educational resources about the subjects explored at both sites.
A note about logistics: The museum and memorial have different hours of operation, different physical locations, and different tickets. You can easily do both in the same day with a combination ticket. Children six and under are admitted for free.
Discover Dr King at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church
When you visit the Dexter Avenue church, you will likely be greeted with a warm hug from one of the guides. It’s more than just hospitality–it’s the welcoming atmosphere of this place of spiritual and historic significance.
A site of civic engagement and activism since its founding in 1879, the national historic landmark is perhaps best known as the church led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from 1954-1960, where he directed the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956.
You’ll see the pulpit he stood at within a sanctuary that has retained most of its original features, including its gorgeous stained glass windows and wooden pews. Guided and walk-in tours are available, and be sure to check out the Dexter Parsonage Museum to complete the experience.
See the Bus That Changed a Generation at the Rosa Parks Museum
Explore the life and legacy of Rosa Parks and her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott at this small but impactful museum located on Troy University’s campus (and the site of her arrest). After an introduction from a museum docent, visitors complete a self-guided journey through the city’s history of segregation, Parks’ arrest, and the formation and success of the boycott.
In a collection that includes an actual bus from the 1955 Montgomery fleet, you’ll see history come to life and feel inspired by the movement shepherded by everyday citizens committed to racial equality and human dignity.
While the First White House of the Confederacy and the Freedom Rides Museum are closed on Sunday, we still made quick stops at both destinations on our way out of the city. The Freedom Rides Museum features an exterior exhibition that will quickly educate you on the movement and its remarkable leaders and participants, including Congressman John Lewis.
Take an Extra Day to See What We Missed
You might also want to stop at the First White House of the Confederacy. It was the Executive Residence of President Jefferson Davis and family while the capitol of the Confederacy was in Montgomery.
Art and Culture
Peruse the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum
Whether you’ve only read The Great Gatsby or have devoured the entire Fitzgerald oeuvre, you are sure to be captivated by a stop at “the Fitz,” the country’s only museum devoted to the lives of Scott and Zelda. The famous Jazz Age couple resided here from 1931-1932 with their daughter, Scottie, and Zelda was a Montgomery native.
The first floor of the house features archival collections that include letters, drafts, publications, personal effects, artwork, and even articles of clothing. It’s a riveting experience for visitors, especially literature lovers, and you’ll leave with a greater appreciation of both writers–their struggles and their triumphs.
See below for info about the museum’s Airbnb
Step Back in Time With Storybooth – Kress on Dexter
A temporary installation produced by Atlanta’s dashboard and Montgomery Builds, Storybooth is located on the first floor of Kress on Dexter, behind Prevail Union Coffee. The Montgomery community is invited to simply step into the booth, pick up the phone, and record a story to contribute to the community’s “collective narrative.”
Visitors can pick up a set of headphones and listen to recorded stories on the tablets stationed nearby (and anyone can listen to them online here).
Take an Extra Day to See What We Missed
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the Hank Williams Museum
Play Ball at a Montgomery Biscuits Game
The team with arguably the best team name in minor league baseball, you can’t help but smile at a Montgomery Biscuits game, in large part because of the smiling biscuit mascot–complete with a square of butter for a tongue (yes, we totally bought a ball cap to bring home and wear proudly in the ATL).
A Biscuits game offers a fun, laid back outing for all ages (kids will love the little train ride that goes around the outfield, parallel to an actual train track). Check out this Bitter Southerner article to learn more about how the Biscuits and Riverwalk Stadium have contributed to the revitalization of Downtown Montgomery.
Catch the Water Scene at Riverfront Park
Located just a few blocks from Court Square, Riverfront Park is home to riverboat rides, a splash pad, amphitheater concerts, Riverwalk Stadium, and much more.
While we didn’t have time to fit a ride on the Harriet II into our itinerary, it’s an iconic way to experience Montgomery. Attendees can choose from themed cruises, including Sunday Blues, Saturday Getaways, and Friday night dinner.
Take an Extra Day to See What We Missed
Food and Drink
Grab a Cup of Joe at Prevail Union Coffee
Located on Dexter Avenue in the restored, mixed-use Kress on Dexter development (once the home of the S. H. Kress & Co. department store), Prevail Union served us as a great midday and Sunday morning caffeine fix. Voted Alabama’s best coffee shop by Food & Wine, you won’t be disappointed by the socially-conscious beverages these friendly baristas are serving at their counter. Comfortable furniture abounds, and an urban pocket park is available next door.
Dine With the Locals at Derk’s Filet & Vine
Located in the historic Old Cloverdale neighborhood, Derk’s was the perfect spot for a comforting Southern meat and two lunch, but keep in mind that the business offers so much more. Stop by to peruse an extensive wine and craft beer selection, gourmet groceries, and deli. This is definitely a “where the locals go” spot, meaning you’ll also get an authentic taste of Montgomery.
Find Delicious Quick Eats at Vintage Cafe
Just across the street from Filet & Vine sits Vintage Cafe, housed within a renovated Regions Bank building (the drive-thru still functions, though now for coffee instead of ATM transactions). Stop by here for a casual breakfast or lunch (we indulged in smoothies and breakfast biscuits). For a more upscale dinner experience, head across the street to Vintage Year, owned by the same hospitality group.
Sip and Stay a While at Top-rated Central
Sandwiched between The Legacy Museum and Riverwalk Stadium, Central is the top-rated restaurant in Montgomery, and for good reason. We enjoyed dinner and cocktails here after catching a Montgomery Biscuits game.
The menu is chock full of creative interpretations of Southern classics, and views of the open kitchen will keep you entertained while enjoying your drink. Snack on the fett sow fries for an appetizer, then sink your teeth into the hefty 1895 pork chop for your main.
If you can fit them in, we also recommend stopping at Cahawba House for a biscuit (the Southern biscuit comes with bacon, a fried green tomato, and pimento cheese) and Goat Haus Biergarten for a pint enjoyed inside a gorgeous Victorian home overlooking the city.
Take an Extra Day to See What We Missed
Lay Your Head on a Pillow at the Fitzgerald Airbnb
Now at the top of our personal list of “Coolest Airbnbs Ever,” this is an amazing place to stay to fulfill your “Night at the Museum” bucket list fantasy.
Our lodgings, located just above the museum collections (more about that above) in a house that sits on a quiet street in Old Cloverdale, were spacious and wonderfully charming.
Two bedrooms with a queen and two twin beds, respectively, can easily accommodate four guests, all of whom can spread out in the living room, dining room, and sun porch. The space is filled with small, thoughtful touches–books about or by the Fitzgeralds, throw pillows featuring famous quotes from their published work, and even a functioning record player and record collection.
One night is too short a stay to enjoy this spot to its fullest, we learned, so treat yourself to at least two nights.
Other Lodging Options (if you Must)
Continue the Conversation Back in Atlanta
For Atlantans visiting Montgomery, the great news is that you can continue the conversation and learning back home.
We recommend visiting (or revisiting) the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, The King Center, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the AIDS Memorial Quilt Visitors Center, and the Atlanta History Center (to name just a few) to expand your understanding and appreciation of the history and legacy of the American Civil Rights movement and the contemporary global human rights movement.
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Disclosure: Thank you to Montgomery for hosting us. Opinions here are all our own.