Why 2021 Is Wetumpka's Year to Shine
The classic Alabama small town will soon get its time in the national spotlight—and a boost in tourism—thanks to a transformation by HGTV's Home Town Takeover. Here's what to see and do during a visit.
You may recognize the town of Wetumpka, Alabama, even if you've never visited: The fictitious town of Ashton in the popular 2003 movie Big Fish was mainly set in Wetumpka, about 15 miles north of Montgomery. Seventeen years later, camera crews were back, as the city of about 8,000 was chosen (out of more than 2,600 towns!) for HGTV's Home Town Takeover, debuting in 2021. The star power and expertise of the show's Erin and Ben Napier, combined with local efforts to revitalize downtown including the formation of Main Street Wetumpka in 2016, have really brought the town into its own. "We are over the moon excited to share with the rest of the world what makes [this part] of Alabama so special," shares Shellie Whitfield, executive director of the Wetumpka Area Chamber of Commerce. Here's why her hometown is worth adding to your travel plans this year—and look for the show to air late spring or early summer.
What to Do
Naturally, downtown Wetumpka will be a major draw thanks to the show. "Erin and Ben have been incredibly gracious in preparing us for the significant amount of foot traffic we can expect to come our way," shares Jenny Stubbs, executive director with Main Street Wetumpka, who adds that they're working on installing signs at locations where Big Fish, Home Town Takeover, The Rosa Parks Story, The Grass Harp and others were filmed. "We're excited and hopeful it will help our small businesses and give us more opportunity to further improve and cultivate our spaces."
Among those small businesses are many creative galleries, art studios and museums. Marcia Weber Art Objects features more than 1,000 works of original art, specializing in contemporary folk pieces. Kelly Fitzpatrick Memorial Gallery, displaced by a tornado in 2019, reopens its new location this spring. Florida artist Don Sawyer also recently opened a studio downtown, and Big Fish Art Studio is located in the iconic house from the movie.
In spring, Main Street plays host to Coosapalooza Brewfest, which celebrates dozens of craft breweries and local food vendors. During Tulotoma Art Festival in April, downtown overflows with artists and visitors who come to watch a live steampunk art sculpture competition. Plan a trip in summer to catch the River and Blues Music and Arts Festival, held along the banks of the Coosa River. Wetumpka is also launching a community market the first Thursday of the month, April through November, this year, and will host art walks in the historic business district the first Friday of the same months.
The town also has a big recreation scene. For the past two years, it has helped to host the Great Alabama 650, the world's longest annual paddle race. If you're not into extreme sports, you can rent a kayak or canoe for a more leisurely paddling experience from Coosa River Adventures, which also offers guided tours and stand-up paddleboards. A variety of trails in the area — including Wetumpka Riverwalk, Swayback Bridge Trail and Bartram Trail — offer scenic paths for walking, biking, or running.
What to Eat
Our Place Cafe's delectable crab cakes with dill sauce are known for miles around and listed as one of Alabama's 100 Dishes to Eat. The restaurant itself, a favorite among locals for special occasions and date nights, is cozy and welcoming, with a menu heavy on seafood. Craving something more casual? Get in line at Grumpy Dog, a family-friendly joint, for the Frito Bandito topped with cheese sauce, chili, Fritos, and jalapenos. Another favorite in Wetumpka is Must Stop Cafe, whose name says it all. A classic Southern meat-and-three with the best sweet tea, this no-frills spot serves dishes like fried chicken, beef tips and country-fried steak, plus daily homemade desserts (the buttermilk pie earns rave reviews). When summer heat sets in, cool down with a treat from Frios Gourmet Popsicles, which has 10 locations in Alabama including one in Wetumpka, or a milkshake made with an entire slice of pie at River Perk coffee shop.
Where to Stay
Wetumpka currently has three hotels, including Wind Creek Casino & Hotel and two select-service properties. There are a few Airbnb rentals in the area and on nearby Jordan Lake (with more coming soon, says Whitfield). Or, head into Montgomery, a short drive away, to stay at Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa, a luxury property with a resort-style rooftop pool. Prattville is also less than 30 minutes away and has a new Tru by Hilton.