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Exploring Alabama via Atlas Obscura

Most students leaving campus for spring and summer breaks are bound for the bikini-clad, beer-chugging throngs of the Gulf Coast. But I’ve discovered there are far less hot, smelly and overcrowded destinations to visit in our state and in the South. Thanks to the Atlas Obscura—an online, definitive guide to the world’s most curious roadside attractions—I’ve spent many school breaks exploring amazing, hidden spots all on a few dollars and a couple tanks of gas.

Over spring break, I travelled to Cullman, Alabama to see Ave Maria Grotto—a four-acre, folk art complex with more than 125 miniature replicas of historical and holy landmarks created by a single, hunchbacked monk known as Brother Joseph. Since the Grotto is not very well known, and the weather was bitterly cold, I was the day’s only visitor. Snowflakes began to fall as I was admiring Brother Joseph’s beautiful artwork, adding to the serene, other-worldliness of the scene.

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I also went to Birmingham over winter break to see Vulcan—a bare-bottomed, 56-foot tall statue of the Roman god of fire which towers over the city. Vulcan is the largest cast metal statue ever made in the United States, and originally served as a testament to the Magic City’s renowned steel and iron industry. Visitors take an elevator to the top of the tower for a breathtaking lookout over the cityscape and sunset. Though this attraction is more well known, I was one of only a few other visitors.

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If these experiences sound more appealing to you than tropical tourist traps, check out 36 more “cool and unusual things to do in Alabama” on the Atlas website. Many of them are within a reasonable driving distance from the AUM campus. For each attraction, you’ll find short descriptions and plenty of visitor pictures. Each listing also includes an address for the attraction, special directions for what to expect when you arrive there, and a phone number you can call for more information.

For eight years, the Atlas has been cherry-picking unique and interesting attractions to include in its database; however, it includes tips from anyone, anywhere. Since the Atlas is based in the United States but has entries for numerous countries across the world, it depends on local explorers to inform them of the places they don’t yet know. Think you’ve got a good addition for the list? According to the website, here’s what editors are looking for:

  • Natural wonders
  • Extraordinary collections, libraries, and museums
  • Secret histories (ordinary seeming places with crazy back stories)
  • Places associated with amazing people
  • Catacombs, ossuaries, and unusual crypts or cemeteries
  • Fascinating labs and research facilities
  • Abandoned places, ghost towns, and amazing ruins
  • Mysteriously preserved bodies and dead saints
  • Outsider art, self-built castles, and crazy architecture
  • Unusual places you’ve been to personally

In addition to tips, the Atlas also accepts photography and freelance writing submissions pertaining to attractions they’ve already archived. The submission requirements for each can be found on the website.

The editors of Atlas Obscura aim to provide travelers with a different view of the world. Though they achieve this mostly through archiving attractions, they also do much more: hosting international trips with fascinating, secretive tours; publishing written and visual stories about history, travel and adventure; and sponsoring hometown events to inform and involve the public—four of which will be held in Alabama very soon.

May 6 is “2017 Obscura Day,” and all who know about the Atlas are invited to celebrate. That Saturday, events will be held at the Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery, the Birmingham Oddities shop in Birmingham, the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman and the Mobile Medical Museum in Mobile. You can find out more information about each event on the website.

I plan to be at the Fitzgerald Museum on May 6 and to visit many more Atlas Obscura attractions during summer break. I hope to see you there!

By Rachel Wallace