Original capital of the Confederate States of America, and now the state capital of Alabama, Montgomery (pop. 205,764) is among the more engaging destinations in the Deep South. Not surprisingly, much of what there is to see has to do with the Civil War, which officially started here when Jefferson Davis gave the order to fire on Fort Sumter. Montgomery survived the war more or less unscathed and is now a very pleasant little city with lovely houses lining leafy streets and an above-average range of restaurants, thanks to the presence of politicos and the nearly 6,000 students at Alabama State College.
Montgomery’s landmark is the circa-1851 Alabama State Capitol (334/242-3935, closed Sun., free), which served as the Confederate capitol for four months in 1861 and is still in use. A bronze star on the west portico marks the spot where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as President of the Confederate States of America on February 18, 1861. Twin cantilevered spiral staircases surrounded by historical murals climb the three-story domed rotunda. Moved to a site across the street from the capitol in 1921, the White House of the Confederacy is where Jeff Davis and family lived before moving from Montgomery to Richmond. Yet more Confederate memorabilia is on display next door at the Museum of Alabama (334/242-4364, closed Sun., free), which has displays tracing Alabama history from Creek Indian and pioneer times up through today.
A single block west of the state capitol complex—mind-bogglingly close, considering the historically huge gulf between whites and blacks in Alabama—stands the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church & Parsonage, a simple brick building where Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor from 1954 to 1960. One of the key landmarks of the civil rights movement, it was here that supporters rallied around Rosa Parks in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956, eventually leading to an end to official segregation. You can visit and tour the Parsonage (309 South Jackson St., 334/261-3270), where King and his family lived during the Montgomery years. Right downtown, a small museum (252 Montgomery St., 334/241-8615, closed Sun., $7.50) dedicated to Rosa Parks and the bus boycott is open in the new Troy University library, next to the site of the bus stop where Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat for a white passenger, sparking the struggle.
Right around the corner from the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, Montgomery’s most powerful site may be the Civil Rights Memorial (400 Washington Ave., closed Sun., $2), two blocks west of the state capitol at the entrance to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Designed by Vietnam Veterans Memorial architect Maya Lin, the monument consists of a circular black granite table inscribed with the names of 40 people killed in the struggle for civil rights. A brief description of how and when they died radiates like the hands of a clock from a central water source, which flows gently over the edges of the stone. Behind the table, a waterfall tumbles over a marble wall inscribed with Martin Luther King’s favorite biblical passage, which says that we will not be satisfied “until Justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The building behind the Civil Rights Memorial houses the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, a nationally important force for fighting all forms of racial and religious hatred. Along with numerous legal battles, the center has targeted racism on the Internet via its website, www.tolerance.org.
Montgomery also has sights to see that have nothing at all to do with the Civil War or the civil rights movement. The first of these is the Hank Williams Memorial, marking his final resting place on the northeast side of downtown in Oakwood Cemetery Annex (1304 Upper Wetumptka Rd.). Hank Williams was an Alabama native, and singer and writer of such enduring classics as “Your Cheating Heart,” “Jambalaya,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and “Lost Highway.” Williams’s last concert in Montgomery took place on December 28, 1952, three days before his death; he died in the back of his Cadillac while en route from Knoxville, Tennessee, to a scheduled New Year’s Day concert in Canton, Ohio. His song, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” was rising up the charts at the time of his demise. His grave is on the east side of the central circle. Back downtown, his baby blue 1952 Cadillac convertible is one of the prime exhibits inside the Hank Williams Museum (118 Commerce St., 334/262-3600, daily, $10), across from City Hall.
Another notable local was Zelda Fitzgerald, who was born and raised in Montgomery and later lived here with her husband F. Scott while he wrote Tender Is the Night during the winter of 1931-1932. The house they shared, south of downtown, has been converted into apartments, one of which (Apt. B, on the ground floor) is now a small museum (919 Felder Ave., 334/264-4222, Wed.-Fri. 10am-2pm, Sat.-Sun. 1pm-5pm, $8) that details their lives and works through videos and memorabilia—press clippings, twin typewriters, first editions, photographs, and more. It’s the only museum dedicated to either of them, anywhere.
At the east end of downtown, there’s a clutch of very good “authentic Southern” restaurants within a short walk of the state capitol, including the cacophonously huge, and hugely popular, cafeteria-style Farmers Market Cafe (315 N. McDonough St., 334/262-1970 or 334/262-9163). Another great, traditional Deep South place is on the south side of town: Martin’s Restaurant (1796 Carter Hill Rd., 334/265-1767, closed Sat.), southeast of the Alabama State University campus, gets votes for making the “World’s Best Fried Chicken,” and they also bake some pretty fine pies. Montgomery even has great fast food: Chris’ Hot Dogs (138 Dexter Ave., 334/265-6850, closed Sun.), located three blocks west of Dr. King’s church, is famous across the state for its spicy chili dogs and crispy fries. If you’ve got a hankering for juicy ribs and a slice of banana cream pie, visit Dreamland BBQ (101 Tallappoosa St., 334/273-7427), between the ballpark and the Hank Williams Museum.
Places to stay in Montgomery include the usual national chains, plus two good choices in downtown: a comfy Hampton Inn (100 Commerce St., 334/265-1010, around $120 and up), in a restored older building, and the luxurious Renaissance (201 Tallapoosa St., 334/481-5000, $160 and up). For more peace, quiet, and comfort, consider a night at the Lattice Inn (1414 South Hull St., 334/263-1414), Montgomery’s nicest B&B.