Nicknamed "The Rocket City," Huntsville, Ala., is home to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, as well as the U.S. Space and Rocket Center museum and its world-famous youth space camp.
But this northern Alabama metropolis, tucked into the Tennessee River valley, offers far more than out-of-this-world exploration. Visitors can discover everything from drive-thru safaris to botanical gardens to art collections.
A SKYROCKETING CITY
*With a population of more than 441,000 people, Huntsville, which became the first incorporated town in Alabama in 1811, is the fastest-growing metro area in the state. It's most famous for its connection to NASA and the discontinued Apollo space program. It is also home to a wealth of cultural amenities and remains at the center of U.S. rocket-propulsion research.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
*WhistleStop Weekend, held the first weekend of May, is a two-day festival on the grounds of the Huntsville Depot that offers live entertainment, a children's play zone and professional and amateur barbecue cooking competitions.
*Tickets range from $5 for a single day youth pass to $35 for a weekend adult pass, and all proceeds go toward supporting the EarlyWorks Children's Museum. (Historic Huntsville Depot, 320 Church St.; 256-564-8100; rocketcitybbq.com)
SURF AND TURF
*Connors, open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, boasts the best steak and seafood in Huntsville and has been voted one of the most romantic restaurants in Alabama. Its robust menu, with dishes that range from $12 to $35, offers a variety of seafood, including crab and lobster, as well as sandwiches, burgers and pasta options. A popular eatery, reservations are recommended. (345 The Bridge St.; 256-327-8425; connorsrestaurant.com)
*The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is the largest spaceflight museum in the world. For decades, people have traveled from all over to see its large rocket and space hardware collection, which is valued in the tens of millions of dollars. Exhibits range from black holes to Earth's atmosphere and are sure to captivate all members of the family. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $16 for ages 5-12, $24 for ages 13 and up, and free for ages 4 and under. (1 Tranquility Base; 256-837-3400; rocketcenter.com)
*Huntsville birthed the rockets that first put the U.S. satellite into orbit and sent men to the moon. The city is also the birthplace of Jimmy Wales, one of the co-founders of Wikipedia, the online nonprofit encyclopedia.