Finding Weekend Escape in Tuscaloosa

BY LANCE WIEDOWER, Special to The Daily News

When I hear Tuscaloosa, it’s almost always in the classic voice of former college football announcer Keith Jackson as he welcomes TV viewers to the campus of the University of Alabama.

But don’t let visions of great SEC football showdowns cloud an understanding of Tuscaloosa the city. Yes, this city’s population of nearly 100,000 swells to over 130,000 when students are in town. But this community an hour west of Birmingham isn’t exactly a college town.

Yes, much of what happens there is centered on the university, even more so on football weekends in the fall. But don’t believe everything in Tuscaloosa is viewed through crimson-colored glasses.

We spent a recent weekend checking out the new Hotel Indigo on the banks of the Black Warrior River and enjoying the vibe of Downtown Tuscaloosa. It wasn’t my first visit to Tuscaloosa; I was in town six years ago to catch the inaugural concert at the then-new Tuscaloosa Amphitheater that sits near the Indigo.

If you’re an Alabama fan, you’re already sold on what makes this city special. Visiting on a football, basketball or baseball weekend is already on your list of great weekend getaway ideas. You’ve possibly visited the Paul W. Bryant Museum and admired the monuments to great coaches – past and current.

But what about a cruise on the Bama Belle or a fishing excursion on Lake Tuscaloosa? There’s plenty of local art at the Kentuck Art Center just across the river in Northport, a handful of breweries spread across Tuscaloosa or that aforementioned amphitheater to enjoy a concert.

Less than a four-hour drive from just about anywhere in the Memphis area, Tuscaloosa has a Downtown filled with boutiques and vintage shops, cool restaurants and a lively brewery scene.

We centered our Tuscaloosa weekend at the Hotel Indigo, and actually could’ve enjoyed a relaxing couple of days without wandering far from the boutique property. Off the hotel lobby is Shoal’s, the hotel restaurant that serves breakfast and dinner, with much of the ingredients sourced from within 90 miles.

On our second day in town, we ventured a few blocks up the hill into the main part of Downtown, where we found a cool lunchtime vibe at The Avenue Pub, famous for its bacon burger.

Following lunch, we enjoyed the unseasonably warm early February afternoon and walked to some of the shops in Downtown before heading back to the hotel to enjoy the city’s river walk, a four-mile paved path that originates at the nearby amphitheater before meandering east toward campus.

We could’ve walked but decided to instead check out the hotel’s complimentary bicycles for a ride. A great way to finish the afternoon or start an early evening is at the hotel’s fifth-floor rooftop and the views of the river below.

The Outlook is an indoor bar and lounge space with adjacent outdoor rooftop seating area. We thought this would be a great way to enjoy the sunset after an afternoon bike ride, but discovered no one younger than 21 is allowed up top because of state alcohol regulations.

So we instead hopped in the car for a short drive to Loosa Brews, where our 10-year-old son enjoyed the large retro game room followed by a game of darts at Black Warrior Brewing before returning to Shoal’s for a dinner of shrimp and grits and grilled salmon.

Much like other properties in the Hotel Indigo family, the Tuscaloosa Hotel Indigo is full of regional art, food and a general vibe that says laid-back Alabama.

All Indigo properties have a local theme. In Tuscaloosa it’s a feel out of the 1830s.

A partnership with Kentuck makes the lobby area of the hotel a rotating gallery of local artists that’s changed out every two to three months.

Hotel Indigo obviously welcomes Crimson Tide fans. But we were there when the University of Kentucky basketball team was in town, and a handful of Wildcats fans seemed at home in the hotel. Its décor doesn’t scream “Roll Tide” and that’s welcoming to visitors who just want to enjoy the city without all the fandom. It’s by design.

Our visit had nothing to do with the university. It took less than 3.5 hours to drive there from our house, making Tuscaloosa an easy two-night weekend getaway.

I’m a fan of getting away to quiet destinations for quick weekends. Tuscaloosa and its nearly 40,000 students isn’t exactly quiet, but the Hotel Indigo and Downtown had the vibe necessary for a weekend escape.

Lance Wiedower can be reached at