"O'Neal Bridge - The Shoals, AL" by Brent Moore via Flickr Creative Commons

Located in the farthest corner of Northwest Alabama on the banks of the Tennessee River are four cities bursting with history, music, style, and Southern pride. Collectively known as the Shoals, Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, and Sheffield, are no strangers to the limelight with frequent film stars, musicians, and even fashion designers choosing to make their home bases in the area.

From 5-star dining to outdoor recreation and even two African lions, the Shoals has something for everyone.

"Welcome to Muscle Shoals, Alabama" by Jimmy Emerson via Flickr Creative Commons

A nonstop hit making machine

Muscle Shoals may be mentioned in the hit song “Sweet Home Alabama,” but its close relationship with the music industry doesn’t end there. FAME Recording Studios has hosted big name stars and created huge hits for the Rolling Stones, Bono, Aretha Franklin, and Alicia Keys, all inspired by the region, even earning itself a self-titled documentary called Muscle Shoals. Visitors in the springtime will find plenty of television and movie stars strolling the streets of downtown during the George Lindsey UNA Film Festival. As a general rule in the Shoals: You should always keep a piece of paper and pen handy because you never know whose autograph you may be asking for next.

"Wildwood Park" by Kevin Stephenson via Flickr Creative Commons

A natural escape

Take a walk along the Tennessee River to McFarland Park and you’ll see plenty of college students hanging out in ENO hammocks, locals casting a line and speedboats zipping by. If you have time, spend a few hours walking along the TVA nature trails, located on both the Florence and Muscle Shoals sides of the river, or take a canoe and kayak out down of the creeks that flow from the Tennessee for some serious bass fishing. If you want to see some not-so-local wildlife, the University of North Alabama’s two African lions, Leo III and Una call the area home as mascots. If you ask for Ann, one of the caretakers, you can hear all about how they got to Florence and if she likes you, may even let you feed them some goat’s milk.

Southern comfort food at its finest

Frequently featured in Southern Living, Florence’s dining scene is on every Southerner’s radar. For first timers willing to get up a little early on a Saturday morning, a drive to Stagg’s Grocery for homemade chocolate gravy and biscuits is a must, but for weekday visitors, a stop in Rivertown Coffee for a taste of the local, house made coffee and fresh muffins will do. For kids and adults with a serious sweet tooth, no hot summer day is complete without an orange pineapple ice cream from Trowbridge’s, a retro ice cream parlor and downtown mainstay since 1918.

"Justice John McKinley Federal Building - Florence, AL" by Brent Moore via Flickr Creative Commons

Making history since 1818

The amount of history found in the Shoals is something wouldn’t expect from a big city, much less a few small towns. For starters, the University of North Alabama, originally called LaGrange College when it was founded in 1830, is the state’s oldest four-year university. Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright built the Rosenbaum House in Florence house in the 1930s, and you can find Helen Keller’s birthplace and the pump where she learned to sign “water” across the river in Tuscumbia at Ivy Green. The Shoals’ strong ties to music come from The Father of the Blues W.C. Handy, who was born in Florence in 1873. Tourists can visit his home, museum, and library throughout the year or celebrate blues and jazz music with the week long W.C. Handy Festival every summer. For a more immersive look into the unique history of the Shoals, a guided tour of the old planation homes from Florence-Lauderdale Tourism is a must.