This Alabama small town bursts with eclectic personality garnered from its illustrious history and its flourishing cultural revival.
Situated on the celebrated Tennessee River—often called the Singing River—Florence, Alabama, exudes a quaint, unassuming feel despite its well-established prominence rooted in the arts—most notably, the musical arts. Legend has it that early Native American settlers said the running waters of the surrounding river sounded like song. Since then, the region’s musical heritage has been attributed to the river’s mythical influence.
“The Shoals,” a four-city area that encompasses Florence, was the music industry’s hailed recording hub in the 1960s, claiming artists such as Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, and many more. W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues, and Sam Phillips and Buddy Killen, the Fathers of Rock and Roll, were all born in Florence. Recording studios still permeate the area, and many musicians call the town home, making it a prime destination for great live music.
Music tours of The Shoals and sites like the W.C. Handy Birthplace, Museum & Library provide a broad introduction to the area’s musical roots. Still, the city has much more to offer, with a cultural scene that extends to remarkable architecture and artistry.
Take a walk—or a walking tour—around the Downtown Florence Historic District and beyond to see streets lined with lovely antebellum abodes and well-preserved structures like the iconic Shoals Theatre. These architectural attractions blend into the Florence art culture with spots such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s renowned Rosenbaum House.
Though small, the city also touts a diverse shopping scene that ranges from local artwork to handcrafted goods. Visitors will even find high-end fashion, spurred by locals Billy Reid and Natalie Chanin, internationally acclaimed fashion designers who brought their work back home. This world-class shopping is sure to stoke your appetite, and the town’s profusion of locally conscious, contemporary Southern cuisine doesn’t disappoint.
But save time for soaking in the city’s beautiful surrounds, from parks and preserves to tours and trails to sport fishing and scenic lake cruises on the Tennessee River. While on the water, be sure to listen closely—you might hear the soothing sounds of the distinctive Southern soul that has defined this storied town for generations.
Despite the city’s thriving music culture today, Florence remembers the musicians who put it on the industry map with distinctive sites such as the W.C. Handy Birthplace, Museum & Library. William Christopher Handy, whose legacy earned him the title Father of the Blues, had humble beginnings—born in a simple cabin in Florence in 1873. Visitors can tour the cabin and peruse a large collection of his personal papers, memorabilia, and artifacts, from handwritten sheets of original tunes to the piano where he composed successes like “St. Louis Blues,” “Beale Street Blues,” and “Memphis Blues.”
Beyond music, Florence offers a burgeoning city scene that shares the spotlight with the charm of tradition. There are storied structures like Pope’s Tavern and Museum, brimming with relics that tell tales of the Civil War, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1939 Rosenbaum House, which displays Wright’s iconic style of American residential architecture. Such historic sites mingle with eclectic, contemporary boutiques and eateries. Find apparel, accessories, and odds and ends with local flair at My Favorite Things. While scouring the Alabama Chanin flagship store, drop by its in-house restaurant, The Factory, for fresh seasonal fare showcasing the “new Southern kitchen.” Or try Court Street Market for a similarly local mentality with an assemblage of products ranging from olive oil to gourmet popsicles.
The town blends a deep reverence for its diverse past with a commitment to continuing its legacies in the present. Preserved antebellum homes and historic buildings such as the Georgian Revival Limestone House Bed & Breakfast and the Shoals Theatre have been revamped to offer impressive modern-day accommodations and entertainment. The Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts holds rotating exhibits in two homes on the National Register of Historic Places.
While a stroll through Florence may feel like stepping back to sweet Southern days gone by, it won’t be long before you’re immersed in the city’s booming retail economy, seen in its notable fashion offerings. Ecodesigner Natalie Chanin made Florence the home of Alabama Chanin’s design and production studio, where she creates and sells high-quality, environmentally conscious home goods and apparel. A progressive culinary scene is also emerging with restaurants like Odette, which features elevated, modernized Southern cuisine. Still you’ll find quaint go-to spots like Sweet Basil Cafe, serving classic soups, sandwiches, and desserts.
While visiting, be sure to stop by neighboring town Tuscumbia, a fellow member of “The Shoals” region, for an inspiring tour of Ivy Green, Helen Keller’s birthplace and childhood home. Built in 1820, the simple white clapboard house became the miraculous site where Helen, left blind and deaf from a severe illness at the age of 19 months, learned to communicate despite unfathomable barriers. See the Keller family’s original furnishings, as well as personal mementos, gifts, and books from Helen’s extraordinary life—which included learning multiple languages in Braille, writing several books, and lecturing around the world.
By Elizabeth Bonner
Photography by John O’Hagan