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Touching down in Rocket City

  • photo
    Cameron Cox, 13, and Kaitlin Touzeau, 13, both of Pickens, S. C. put together a support structure during Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center Thursday, May 31, 2012 in Huntsville, Ala. (The Huntsville Times/Eric Schultz)
    Eric Schultz/ The Huntsville Times

To find fun in Huntsville, just look to the skies.

Rocket City is known for its history of exploration and massive collection of space equipment, but the air is also filled with meandering butterflies and delicious smoked barbecue.

So go for a garden walk or a (simulated) space walk, dig into some comfort food with the local bigwigs or learn to play a giant musical instrument.

Between a wealth of annual festivals and the constantly changing world of galactic exploration, Huntsville will pull you back into its orbit again and again.

— Compiled by staff writer Steve Hardy

Best thing to do:

Fly me to the moon

• Get up close and personal with the largest collection of Army and space rockets in the country at Rocket Park in the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, open seven days a week 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

• Check out the Apollo 16 capsule as well as a 363-foot-long Saturn V rocket, the same kind astronauts used to travel to the moon.

• Learn about the future of space exploration and see plans for the Space Launch Systems rockets that NASA will begin launching in 2017 and crew exploration vehicles that astronauts will use to explore alien lands.

• Enroll in Space Camp year round to try on a space suit and ride a simulator to find out what it’s like to take a space walk or experience gravity on the moon.

Source: Tim Hall, U.S. Space and Rocket Center

Unique feature

Three for the price of one

• The EarlyWorks Museum Complex is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Located at 109 Gates Ave.

• Alabama Constitution Village transports visitors all the way back to 1819, when delegates gathered to organize Alabama as the 22nd state.

• The Children’s History Museum is the largest hands-on museum in the South. Trees talk, giant instruments are for the playing, and Kidstruction Zone is available for aspiring architects.

• Hunstville Historic Depot gives visitors a chance to experience a railroad in the 1800s.

Source: Earlyworks website

Best-Kept Secret

Box tease — Get some butterfly kisses

• Step into the Huntsville Botanical Garden, where at least 2,000 swallowtail, monarch and other local butterflies fly in an open, 9,000-square-foot enclosure filled with foliage of Northern Alabama.

• Check out a variety of specialized gardens from the shady fern glade to the bright nature trail blooming with azaleas, rhododendrons and other local flowers. The Four Seasons rotating garden features different plants throughout the year to ensure that the garden is always in bloom.

• Visit the Master Gardeners of North Alabama’s vegetable garden and pick up tips for growing your own crops, or come out on a Thursday evening for a gourmet dinner starring locally-grown produce.

Source: Paula Steigerwald, Huntsville Botanical Garden

Local festivals:

Box tease: From bonsai to barbecue

• Join partiers at WhistleStop Weekend, held in May at the Historic Huntsville Depot, to sample regional barbecue and help pick the winner of the chicken wing competition.

• For athletes, WhistleStop offers the Alabama Corn Hole Championship, so get a partner, buy some bean bags, and start practicing your lob.

• The Panoply Arts Festival in April attracts artists who work in media from glass to clay to bonsai. Swing by to see who will win the coveted “best in show” prize, or support your favorite artist by picking up a new piece for your home.

• Don’t miss the Global Village at Panoply, where North Alabamans from all different national backgrounds teach kids about their families’ cultures with art, music and even martial arts demonstrations.

Sources: Panoply, WhistleStop

Best place to eat

Smoked meats and hot air

• Try a northern Alabama specialty, barbecued chicken with white sauce, at Gibson’s Bar-B-Q (3319 Memorial Parkway, open Monday-Saturday 6:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sundays 7 a.m.-2 p.m.), made with salad dressing and miracle whip.

• Rub shoulders with local politicians at breakfast over homemade biscuits and gravy. Just ask your waitress to point you toward the affectionately-named “liars’ table.”

• Cap off a hickory-smoked dinner with fresh coconut cream pie, voted the best dessert in Huntsville.

Source: Paula Mabry, Gibson’s Bar-B-Q

So long, Twickenham

• Population: 180,105 in 2010

• Biggest employer: The U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal

• Number of miles from downtown Chattanooga: 102

• Landmarks: Big Spring International Park, mock Saturn V rocket off Highway 565

• Founded: As Twickenham — Dec. 23, 1805. Incorporated as Huntsville — Dec. 9, 1811

• Historic Info: Huntsville changed its name in the shadow of the War of 1812 because Twickenham sounded too British. In 1950 rocket scientists led by Wernher von Braun set up in the city and formed the precursor to NASA.

• Most famous residents: Rocket scientists Wernher von Braun and Tim Pickens, Braves pitcher Craig Kimbrel, Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia

• Traditions: The town’s military background translates into huge support of the armed forces, including a new veterans memorial and big crowds at the annual Veterans Day Parade.

Source: Charles Winters, Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau