12 Best Things to Do in Decatur, Alabama

Decatur, a town of about 55,000 residents, offers a mix of historic experiences honoring its past along with an abundance of new shops, restaurants, and entertainment options.

Busy street
Photo: Jonte Swoope

Less than 30 minutes from Huntsville, the city of Decatur, Alabama, is located along the Tennessee River in an area that was originally a river crossing for settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains. Incorporated as a town in 1820, it became the eastern terminus of the first railroad line west of the Appalachian Mountains, which enabled the city to grow rapidly. After being mostly burned to the ground during the Civil War, it rebuilt and rose into a buzzing city in the roaring '20s. Now, as nearby Huntsville has continued to grow, so, too, has Decatur, a town of about 55,000 residents that offers a mix of historic experiences honoring its past along with an abundance of new shops, restaurants, and entertainment options. Here's what to add to your list on a visit to Decatur, Alabama.

What to Do

Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts has humble beginnings: It started out as a livery stable in 1887. Over the past century, it's been a silent film and vaudeville playhouse, and art deco theater, and, following a huge renovation in the late 1970s, a performing arts center. Today, you can catch a concert, an orchestra performance, short films, local plays, and more at this Decatur icon.

People outside the movie theater
Princess Theater. Courtesy Decatur Morgan County Tourism

Locomotive lovers should plan to stop into Decatur's Historic Depot & Railroad Museum. Built in 1905 by the Southern Railway as a passenger depot, the depot has been fully restored and houses rare model trains, along with a theater room that shows railroad videos (and the Decatur Police Department!). Tours take place five times daily on weekdays. You can also watch modern trains go buy from the viewing platform and picnic area.

Building exterior
Decatur Train Depot. Courtesy Decatur Morgan County Tourism

In downtown Decatur, check out the Cook Museum of Natural Science. The national recognized museum first opened in 1980 and was reinvented and reopened in summer 2019. Kids and adults will enjoy exploring various hands-on exhibits, including a gallery of bees, turtles, alligators and snakes, a recreated Alabama cave, insect galleries, a 15,000-gallon aquarium, and more.

Young girl at the aquarium
Cook Museum. Courtesy Decatur Morgan County Tourism

The 700-plus-acre Point Mallard Park is open 365 days a year and offers many ways for the whole family to enjoy nature. Cool off in the waterpark, play 18 holes on the golf course, stay in the campground, explore hiking and biking trails, practice your swing in batting cages, or enjoy a picnic in the pavilions.

People enjoy the pool
Point Mallard Park. Courtesy Decatur Morgan County Tourism

Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie built what would become the Carnegie Visual Arts Center in 1904 as one of more than 2,500 libraries he funded throughout the nation. It served as Decatur's public library until 1973 before being transformed into the center it is today in 2003. Visit its Daikin America Education Center to learn about and create art, check out rotating art exhibits or attend the annual Mardi Gras-themed Carnegie Carnival in February.

Women look at art on display
Carnegie Visual Arts Center. Courtesy Decatur Morgan County Tourism

Where to Shop

You don't need to have a rodeo in your future to enjoy perusing Absaroka, a Western wear shop with unique finds for men, women, and children. You'll find one-of-a-kind upcycled vintage Wrangler jeans here, along with lots of hats, accessories, and a selection of home décor like handmade wooden bowls.

Woman shopping
Absaroka. Courtesy Decatur Morgan County Tourism

The women behind Threaded welcome women of all ages and phases of life into their beautiful boutique, offering a selection of affordable, flattering clothing to inspire confidence, along with jewelry, shoes, leather goods, candles, and skin care.

Store interior
Threaded. Courtesy Decatur Morgan County Tourism

Check out Bank Street Art & Antiques, located in a three-story historic building in downtown Decatur, to score treasures from a variety of local antique dealers, along with artists and artisans. Just down the street, 810 Antiques is filled with unique furniture and pieces from years gone by.

2 women inside the store
Bank Street Art and Antiques. Courtesy Decatur Morgan County Tourism

Where to Eat and Drink

No trip to Decatur is complete without a meal at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, founded in the city in 1925 and recognized as one of the oldest barbecue restaurants in the United States. Along with its delicious smoked meats, be sure to try its tangy, peppery white barbecue sauce, a North Alabama tradition, at either of its two locations in town. The sauce is especially good smothering the hickory-smoked chickens.

a sign glows outside the restaurant
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q. Courtesy Decatur Morgan County Tourism

Named after a sweet French bulldog, Tess' Place is a cute dessert shop downtown offering delectable flavors of ice cream (think honey roasted peanut butter, brown butter bourbon truffle, and peach rainbow sherbet), along with colorful shaved ice and almost-too-pretty-to-drink gourmet sodas. Naturally, it's dog friendly so you can pick up a "pup cup" for your furry friend in tow.

Ice cream sundae
Tess' Place. Courtesy Decatur Morgan County Tourism

Going through chemotherapy for colon cancer helped Trey Atwood to realize that life is short, and he wanted to do something big. So he launched Decatur's first brewery, Cross-Eyed Owl Brewing, along with his wife, Erin. Visit the downtown taproom where you can sample beers like One Shoe Brown Porter and Lechuza Mexican Lager, and enjoy games and a beer garden. Kids and pets are welcome in the garden, and food trucks frequently stop by to provide sustenance.

Woman pours beer on tap
Cross-Eyed Owl Brewing. Courtesy Decatur Morgan County Tourism

For a fine dining experience, head to Simp McGhee's on Bank Street. The Cajun-inspired restaurant is named after a legendary riverboat captain in Decatur who was infamous for his curious antics, including reportedly drinking in bars with his pet pig. There's nothing curious about the menu here, though. Come hungry to enjoy everything from crawfish eggrolls and seafood gumbo to lobster ravioli, perfectly cooked steaks, and exceptional Gulf shrimp and fish.

Cajun food
Simp McGhee's. Courtesy Decatur Morgan County Tourism
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