In the northwest corner of Alabama lies the historic city of Florence. It’s part of a region known as The Shoals – four close-knit cities incorporating Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals. It may be world’s away from its Tuscan counterpart, but make no mistake, Florence, Alabama has its own unique brand of southern charm.
Florence is the perfect place to kick back and relax after touring the cities of Birmingham and Huntsville. It’s a city with vast Native American heritage and deep musical roots. Many visitors to Florence enjoy its abundant outdoor pursuits, but there’s also several historical museums, local breweries and independent shops to entertain and entice travellers.
I grew up in Alabama and really enjoy traveling all over the state and its cities. Florence is certainly one worth visiting. I’m sure you will like my list of the best things to do in Florence, Alabama.
1. Visit the Birthplace of Helen Keller
Helen Keller lost her vision and hearing at a young age through scarlet fever, but incredibly, she still learned to read and speak. Her home ‘Ivy Green’ is located in Tuscumbia, across the Tennessee River.
I suggest taking a guided tour of her family homestead, visit the famous well-pump where she learned over 600 words in under a year.
During the summer months visitors can see the play ‘The Miracle Worker’ re-enacted in the grounds of ‘Ivy Green’, and an annual festival is held in the city to commemorate her achievements in educating and improving situations for deaf and blind people worldwide.
2. Walnut Street Historic District
If you want to understand the architectural and economic history of Florence, venture to Walnut Street Historic District. The district dates back to the 1870s, the date of the oldest property, however during the 1880s and 1890s, after the Civil War, Florence began to experience an economic boom. Newcomers began to build new homes in areas around Walnut Street.
The original properties represent either Victorian and Classic Revival designs, and later homes are two-story brick Georgian-style houses and California-style bungalows. I recommend taking an evening stroll throughout the historic district. It’s truly magical, with old gaslight-style lamp posts which give off an old-world atmospheric glow.
3. McFarland Park
McFarland Park, on the shores of the Tennessee River, is the perfect place for a family picnic or leisurely days out. Archaic people lived in the area from around 8,000 B.C. surviving on freshwater mussels from the water. The banks and parklands also been the dwelling place of Euchee, Shawnee, Cherokee and Chickasaw Indians.
Follow in their footsteps to Cypress Creek, visit the lighthouse, dine in the floating restaurant, or soak up the sun on the man-made beach. There’s also plenty of outdoor pursuits to get stuck into if you’re feeling more energetic.
You can improve your swing at the golf driving range, sail on the river, play baseball, or enjoy a spot of fishing from the pier.
4. Singin’ River Brewing Company
If you want to mingle with locals and enjoy a craft beer or two, I suggest visiting the Singin’ River Brewing Company. The founders, Rob and Michelle, encourage a family atmosphere with twinkling fairy lights, comfy seats and long wooden tables where you can chat and swap stories with old friends and new.
They offer brewery tours and tasty brewed beer which can’t be found elsewhere.
If you visit during weekdays there’s Hops and Hymns evenings, live music and fun BBQ gatherings to enjoy. Munch on steak and ribs while sampling the full, smoky taste of a Swamper beer, or a glass of smooth as silk Handy’s Gold.
5. FAME Studios
FAME Studios were founded by Billy Sherrill, Tom Stafford and Rick Hall in 1959, however it in was the mid-1960s that the studios, housed in a former tobacco warehouse, really began to prosper.With legendary artists such as Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Rolling Stones and Percy Sledge recording at the studios, it soon became one of the hottest music spots in the Alabama.
It was one of the only music studios at the time which invited all races to record in a safe place in perfect harmony. Nashville producers would drive their talent two hours south to Muscle Shoals, hearing of its reputation and welcoming atmosphere. By the 1990s, everyone who was everyone in blues, soul, R&B and country music had recorded at the Muscle Shoals FAME studios, or had some involvement with their founders.
Today, visitors can take a tour of the famous studios which nurtured so much talent, or if you are a budding artist yourself, you can record alongside award-winning sound engineers, musicians and songwriters.
6. Florence Indian Mound and Museum
If you’re fascinated by Alabama’s Native American history, your first stop should be Florence Indian Mound and Museum. Follow in the footsteps of Indian chiefs and climb the mound while listening to the gentle flow of Singin’ River.
The museum hosts a rare collection of pipes, soapstone carvings and woven textiles, plus an array of spears, fish hooks and clay pots which were used for everyday hunting and cooking. Before you leave, stroll to Tom’s Wall, built in memory of his great-great grandmother, a Yuchi Indian woman who endured hard times during the Trail of Tears. Every stone he laid along the wall represents each footstep she took to freedom.
If you want to visit the museum, I recommend the Florence Multi-Attraction Pass, which gives you admission to the museum as well as other top attractions in Northern Alabama.
7. Pope’s Tavern
Popes Tavern hosts a wealth of history, from originally serving as an inn and stagecoach stop, to being converted into a hospital during the American Civil War.
The hospital is well-known for helping to heal soldiers from both Union and Confederate armies. Pope’s Tavern Museum houses a plethora of antiques, plus a range of interesting Civil War artefacts.
If you’re a fan of American military history, Pope’s Tavern is a must visit.
8. Forks of Cypress
Forks of Cypress was once the site of an Alabama cotton plantation. It was established in 1818, by Irish-born James Jackson, a keen horse-breeder, textile magnate and one of the founding fathers of Florence.
The lavish colonnade-style plantation house was constructed by African-Americans in slavery who were brought to the property via the nearby ‘Ghost Bridge’. In 1966, the house was struck by lightning, and today, only 24 brick columns remain on the foundations.
The columns are open to the public just a few times a year, so I suggest to check if your trip corresponds with these dates.
Also on Alabama: 30 Amazing Hidden Gems in Alabama
9. W.C. Handy’s House
Fans of Rhythm and Blues should not pass up a trip to W.C. Handy’s House in Florence. This understated wooden cabin was once home to William Christopher Handy, Father of the Blues. Today, it showcases a collection of his memorabilia, his famous piano and hand-written music scores.
Handy would travel throughout the Mississippi Delta to gain inspiration for his unique sound. You can join him on his journey to cotton plantations and inns and follow him to Memphis Tennessee where he played music in clubs along Beale Street.
Get into the mood prior to your visit by listening to some of his greatest hits – St. Louis Blues, Memphis Blues and Beale Street Blues.
10. Wheeler Lake Cruise
Sit back, relax and spend a few hours drifting by scenic bluffs and coves of Wheeler Lake. Take a picnic, stop for lunch at a grill restaurant, or equip yourself with a pair of binoculars for a spot of wildlife and bird-watching.
Longer cruises transport you through the lock to Wheeler Dam – a hydroelectric dam which dates to the 1930s. Bring a camera, beers from the local brewery in Florence, and settle in for a spectacular sunset.
11. Clay Bisque Studios
Instead of purchasing a souvenir of your stay in Florence, why not make one instead! Clay Bisque Studios are a family-friendly, paint your own pottery studio in the city, where you can spend a creative morning or afternoon decorating your own vase, plate or pot.
You pick your pottery, paint colours and then get to work. Staff will then fire your work in their kiln and you can collect it a few days later. I think it’s a great place to enjoy a birthday party, family day out or couples workshop. You could even make some new friends in the process.
12. Tennessee Valley Museum of Art
Get to know the minds of regional artists, both past and present at Tennessee Valley Museum of Art. The museum has four exhibition galleries, displaying myriad artworks by Alabama and south-eastern artists.
From ancient Chickasaw Indian beaded caps to boulders bearing images and symbols from prehistoric dwellers, there’s plenty of awe-inspiring art to discover.
13. Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum House
I highly recommend taking a tour of the only Frank Lloyd Wright designed property in Alabama. The Rosenbaum’s former home is a superb example of the architect’s Usonian house – a stylish, moderately priced property for the middle classes.
It was one of the first examples of this design and is one of just 26 pre-World War II Usonian houses. The museum also displays some of Lloyd Wright’s original designer furniture.
14. Wilson Lake & Wilson Dam
Just a few miles north of Florence lies picturesque Wilson Lake. It covers over 15,500 acres and travels for 15 miles towards Wheeler Dam. If you’re into fishing, this is the place to be.
It is is filled with large and smallmouth bass and catfish. The lake is also a reservoir and home to impressive Wilson Dam, named after former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Completed in 1925, the dam, which hosts a net generating capacity of 663 megawatts of electricity per day, spans Tennessee River and is a National Historical Landmark.
Related reading: 15 Best Lakes in Alabama
15. Key Cave National Wildlife Refuge
Get back to nature with croplands, rolling grasslands and wildlife at Key Cave National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge lies on the banks of Pickwick Lake and is home to numerous underground cave networks.
Land was once used for cotton farming, but most was earmarked for crop production which includes wheat, corn and soybeans. It’s the only known location of the Alabama cavefish and even has a colony dedicated to the endangered grey bat.
Avid bird and wildlife watchers may also get the opportunity to see short-eared owls, Northern harriers, white-tailed deer and eastern bluebirds, so I suggest bringing your camera.