Two years ago, on a whim, we headed down to the Shoals for a weekend getaway with my cousins, something that was an annual family ritual before everyone started having kids. We kicked it by the lake, explored downtown Florence, checked out the local brewery and did a little shopping, but ultimately we missed out on a lot of the area by not indulging in any of the studio tours.
So this time, we were there for the music—and we were all in.
I started hearing a lot about the Shoals when we first moved back to the Nashville area nearly seven years ago, and the more ingrained I became in the music industry from a journalist standpoint, the more regularly I started meeting songwriters who were headed down to North Alabama on the regular to record their albums.
From what many locals shared, the Shoals really rose to prominence once more after the documentary Muscle Shoals debuted in 2013 and catapulted the region to international fame. Those who were involved with the creation of a litany of hits in the popular genre of the age weren’t surprised by the newfound attention but happily welcome it. Now, Muscle Shoals and Florence are seeing a tourism boom among travelers our age (and plenty of others); we saw DINKs and Millennials, families with small kids and Baby Boomers, among other music lovers, throughout our long weekend there.
But let’s clarify something upfront: What confused me on my inaugural visit was the distinction between “the Shoals,” the four cities comprising the area, and the town of “Muscle Shoals,” which is just one of the four and probably the most well-known on a national scale. Florence is the biggest, population-wise, with Sheffield and Tuscumbia rounding out the quartet.
And while we were there for the music, sure, I must add that Shoals’ charm extends far beyond its rhythmic past. Florence has a bustling college campus, as well as a major river that divides it from the other three, and the whole area is surrounded by greenery with lakes and waterfalls galore.
Plotting a trip to North Alabama? Here’s how to plan a weekend in Muscle Shoals, Florence and beyond, no matter how you like to travel.
Get your groove on with these studio tours
The last time we missed out on the musical side of the Shoals, which is so crucial to understanding its core identity. That said, check scheduled tours before you go, as they vary and run at odd times, and in many cases, you can’t just “drop in” because all of them are, indeed, working studios.
Our first musical stop was at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio—0r 3614 Jackson Highway as many in-the-know call it—which is so small we almost drove right past it. Lovingly restored to its raw, 70s glory, the studio features instruments, original recordings and some of the essential sorcery of the “Swampers,” the rhythm section behind the scenes that created hits for Cher, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, The Staple Singers, Rod Stewart and many more musical icons. Hearing the tracks while standing in the actual space they were created is something truly special.
Next, we headed to the riverfront for Cypress Moon Studios, a fitting follow-up to our first stop as it later became the home of Muscle Shoals Sound in 1978, turning the former Naval Reserve complex on the Tennessee River into a fairly massive and custom-built recording studio with unique acoustic characteristics that define, once again, some thoroughly memorable music in the canon of American music: Bob Dylan, The Commodores, Alabama, Steve Winwood, Dire Straits, Joe Cocker, Jimmy Buffett and the Oak Ridge Boys, among others.
For 27 years, music pulsed through the studio almost around the clock. Then, the Swampers sold it because, at their core, they were musicians and missed the part of the business where they practiced their craft, and in 2005, Tonya S. Holly acquired the building and it became Cypress Moon Studios. Since then, it’s been used for dual purposes: as both a film production company and recording studio. In 2015, a tornado caused extensive damage to the building, but it’s been mostly repaired and turned into a working history museum.
It was at Cypress Moon where we also learned the origins of the term “Singin’ River.” Before the TVA installed the Wilson Dam for hydroelectric power—along with many others on rivers throughout the South—the region was populated by Native Americans whose stories of the river running low and singing across the rocks (and mussels) inspired the nickname.
We ended the trio of studio tours comprising our musical master’s at the famed FAME Music, where most say that the genesis of the Shoals Sound originated. The four musicians that started Muscle Shoals Sound Studio began their careers here, and just about every R&B or blues rock artist known to man has cut tracks in this very studio; plus, it’s also got that family feel as the widowed wife of Rick Hall, the legendary owner behind FAME who died earlier this year at 85, personally tells the tale of the studio’s backstory to visitors.
The setup is disarmingly simple and hit on a theme we saw at all of the studios in the Florence and Muscle Shoals region: no frills, no ego, no pretension, no changes—an almost purposeful homage to the fact that each building itself doesn’t necessarily matter as much as the vibe of the South, the art of the engineers, the drive of the producers and the professional skill set of the musicians that have passed through their doors.
On our way to our next stop, we swung by the Alabama Music Hall of Fame for a quick drop-in, but honestly, a music buff could easily spend an afternoon absorbing the history contained within these walls. The museum also has dedicated a significant portion of its offerings to children’s activities, with programs for all grade levels available while visiting.
For those for whom the studio tours aren’t enough of a musical deep-dive, the W. C. Handy Birthplace is located in Florence and now run by Handy’s own descendants. His connection to the musical genre called “ragtime,” a precursor to the blues, ties into Memphis—remember the line “W.C. Handy, won’t you look down over me?” in “Walking in Memphis?”—and virtually all American music that has come since. The arc of history for soul music in this country is intrinsically connected to W. C. Handy, so if you’ve never heard of him, take a look at the Smithsonian collection and listen for clues in the music.
Stroll down Court Street
Court Street is Florence’s main drag, and the best place in the Shoals to do a little window-shopping (or some serious damage on your credit card if you’re so inclined). It’s also just around the corner from the iconic Shoals Theatre, which has been a community mainstay since 1948, first as a movie theater and now as an entertainment venue that puts on Broadway shows as well as concerts from big names like Jason Isbell.
Sample Florence’s culinary delights
Most of the best restaurants in the area are located along or just off of Florence’s main street. On both visits, we had a meal at Odette, an elevated restaurant that features locally-sourced ingredients, house-made condiments and a mighty fine bourbon selection. This time, we also grabbed a bite one morning at the collegiate favorite Rivertown Coffee Co., known for its dreamy (and filling) breakfast burritos, and a boozy brunch at Big Bad Breakfast, complete with mimosas and breakfast beers, on the other.
For dinners, a trio of hot dogs with craft brews sourced from across North Alabama at Wildwood Tavern is a can’t-miss, while carry-out from Yumm Thai Sushi and Beyond was the perfect antidote for our desire to stay in on the final night.
Sip on the local libations
The Shoals boasts but one craft brewery, Singin’ River Brewing Co., and boy is it bustling. This was our second trip to Singin’ River, started by husband-and-wife team Michelle and Rob Jones, and in the two years since our inaugural visit, not only have they expanded their offerings with an attached events venue that allows for concerts, special events like weddings and a weekly farmers’ market in the summer, but they’ve also upped their beer game, adding several new brews to the taps.
If you want to try out even more North Alabama beers—and there are many, particularly clustered around the Huntsville area—we stumbled upon Southern Package in Sheffield, which has one of the most impressive assortments of craft beer I’ve found in the South, in bottles, cans and in growlers. You better believe the trunk of my Jeep was riding low on our drive back to Tennessee!
Take a trip back in time
If you’re anything like me, you devoured everything about Helen Keller as a kid, but I didn’t recall that she was born in Tuscumbia until our first visit to town, during which it was glaringly obvious (ha).
I can’t tell you how many times I watched The Miracle Worker, both the movie and the stage production, as a kid, and it was beyond cool to stand in the very room where Anne Sullivan first came to town as a 19 year old to teach Helen how to function despite her disabilities, as well as see the water spout where words first took on meaning in Helen’s mind.
Ivy Green belonged to the Keller family since well before Helen entered the world in 1880. She was born with both her vision and her hearing, but lost it at around 18 months old when she fell ill with what present day medical professionals think was likely meningitis. When Helen was of school age, her parents took her to see Alexander Graham Bell, who referred them to an institute for the blind in Massachusetts where Anne Sullivan had been a student. Anne with her no-nonsense attitude (and own visual limitations) packed up her life and was sent on a train down to Alabama, where she immediately went to work reforming Helen’s behavioral issues. We even got to see the dining room where the infamous food fight went down!
Exploring Ivy Green and getting a tour from one of the docents made me want to read more of what Helen wrote in later life, as many of the things I remember of her were from her childhood and not necessarily her later years as an author and activist. She traveled all over the world, despite her physical limitations, campaigning for just about every cause out there and wrote a dozen books and countless articles along the way; the Helen Keller Birthplace serves as a tribute to the 87 fruitful years she lived, even though she left Ivy Green to move north with Anne just before her eighth birthday. The majority of the house, from the furniture to the floors, is still original, and as an old-home owner myself, I particularly loved that aspect of the tour.
Six miles over the river in Florence, another kind of icon left his mark. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House was built in 1939 as a wedding gift to a young couple and stayed in the family until the 1990s when they tried to sell it—only there wasn’t a market for midcentury modern homes at the time so instead they donated it to the city. How wild is that? This home wouldn’t have lasted an hour on the market today!
Our house is filled with MCM furniture, yet despite out love for the era, this was my first Lloyd Wright-designed house to tour. I love how he constructed all his furniture to fit the space and utilized the hot new materials of the day (concrete and plywood). An aspiring woodworker and talented craftsman, SVV was particularly inspired by the visual lines, built-ins and attention to detail for how the furniture would mesh with the construction.
Dive into the outdoor opportunities
On our first visit, we stumbled upon McFarland Park, one of the city’s more underutilized green spaces that flanks the Tennessee River. It’s got boat ramps and fishing piers galore, not to mention an ample park for lapping up the Southern weather and enjoying the riverfront breeze. There are also 60 campsites that we spotted plenty of RVers making use of.
On this visit, we headed back down to the park for the views, but also to the marina for lunch at River Bottom Grille, which offers up one of the best meals we found in Florence (and a pretty impressive roster of North Alabama beers to boot). Plus, the setting simply can’t be beat!
Another favorite watering hole is Spring Park in Tuscumbia, a tall manmade waterfall alongside a pond with plenty of ducks and geese milling about.
Down the road about 45 minutes, there’s Dismals Canyon, as well as easy access to the North Alabama Waterfall Trail, which is definitely on our list for next time.
But perhaps my favorite outdoor space is the Old Railroad Bridge Co., which has been turned into a nature trail and walkway through the efforts of a non-profit group of historical preservationists. Aside from the sweeping views of the river and damn, the train trestle is also the site of yoga classes a couple days a week and is equally popular among runners and those out on a fitness walk.
Stop by the UNA Campus
Just a couple blocks north of downtown is an enclave of 7,500 undergrads enrolled at University of North Alabama, first established in 1830, and yet Florence hardly fills like a college town. On both our visits, school was in session, but UNA students must stick close to campus as we didn’t see many around town, other than working shifts as servers in the local bars and restaurants.
Not only is it a gorgeous space to just walk around and explore on a warm fall afternoon, it’s also got a pair of resident lions!
Explore Florence’s fashion scene
If you’ve never been to North Alabama, it might shock you to learn that there’s a burgeoning fashion scene in the Shoals, and yet those in the industry are very much aware that a lot of the top design talent of the past few years has been plucked from Florence. Famously home to Louisiana-born designer Billy Reid—whose flagship store is right on Court Street and who hosts the hottest ticket in town, Shindig, each August—Florence also lays claim to Alabama Chanin, whose factory is in the industrial district about 10 minutes north of downtown.
It’s also got the School of Making where aspiring seamstresses and designers can take classes and learn the skills of the trade—or simply pay a fee to use the equipment and purchase materials—and of course the showroom where you can pick up your own Alabama Chanin garb. We, however, were there for one purpose: brunch. On top of weekend brunch, the Factory at Alabama Chanin serves lunch in its cafe on weekdays, and the menu changes every single day. How’s that for a one-stop shop?
Get cozy at the GunRunner Boutique Hotel
One big change from our last visit to Florence is that it now offers accommodations in not one but two boutique hotels. After seeing the GunRunner Hotel online, I knew that’s where we’d be staying as it’s totally our vibe: an Airbnb-style property (as in a hands-off, no-staff-lurking-around-the-corner kind of place) with a dark, swanky, sexy vibe.
With 10 uniquely-designed suites, each one its own theme that ties into the Shoals, and a massive lobby area with a lounge and bar, the hotel features the lux accoutrements and post-industrial aesthetic that we both trend toward. Plus, the bar, situated right in the center of all the rooms, is open each day starting at 3pm, so we literally didn’t have to stumble far for a cocktail!
Once again, Alabama surprised and delighted us both with her unique array of offerings. As an adult exploring my metaphorical backyard—the Shoals is just two hours from where I grew up, after all—it’s a bit humbling to know that so many greats launched their careers in this cozy corridor of North Alabama and that there are far more reasons to be proud of my region than even I knew.
This post was sponsored by the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association. All opinions are my own.