“It’s nice to have you in Birmingham.”
These days you’ll see that lovely slogan gracing buildings all over the city as part of Magic City Mural Collective’s “99 murals in 99 neighborhoods” project.
And, here’s the thing: it’s true. It is nice to have you in Birmingham.
Visitors are coming to the Magic City in record numbers to explore award-winning restaurants, craft breweries, innovative art festivals, and renowned outdoor attractions. And this trend has every chance to continue as Birmingham was recently announced as the host of the 2021 World Games.
You might say there’s a cultural renaissance underway and the city is eager to invite visitors to experience the new Birmingham. With an overabundance of Southern hospitality and charm, world-class cultural and sporting attractions, and historical importance to boot, the city is poised to entertain and surprise you.
Start your morning with a Parisian café experience at downtown’s Continental Bakery. Owner Carole Griffin’s love for baking with simple, artisanal ingredients inspired a tasty menu of homemade croissants—try the apricot pecan—and decadent pastries. The charming space is packed with musical instruments for impromptu performances by the café’s loyal artist following.
For an emotional and educational look at how ordinary people and extraordinary actions changed the world, a visit to Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a must. Installations provide insight into the American civil rights movement as well as struggles against injustice the world over.
Quiet your growling stomach with a visit to Green Acres, a downhome downtown lunch spot on a bustling stretch of historic 4th Avenue North. This local favorite dishes up mountains of crispy fried chicken and catfish to regular devotees.
Or opt for a downtown institution straddling the line between old and new. The juxtaposition is apparent with one look at the building’s exterior. John’s City Diner features a classic neon sign above the door and a brand new “Nice to Have You” mural gracing the building’s side. The dining room with its original tiles and banquettes may seem old school, but the locally-sourced menu is anything but stuck in the past. Try the Alabama raised pork chops with bourbon-maple glaze and lightly battered Gulf Coast oysters with balsamic reduction.
Photo via Flickr/Robert S. Donovan
After Southern grub, a leg stretching is in order. Head to Midtown for a walk in the park. Railroad Park, a visionary project transforming a derelict industrial area into a 19-acre green space has become the city’s living room. Notice the rail yard’s original cobblestone cleverly recycled in benches throughout the park. Grab a seat and watch locals of all backgrounds play. From skater punks performing feats in the park’s three skate bowls, moms taking a free Zumba class under the pavilion, and Frisbee on the lawn, it’s a Birmingham slice of life not to be missed.
The city’s beer scene is percolating with new micro-brewers popping up around town and a one-block walk brings you to one of the most popular, Good People Brewing Company. Enter through the taproom in this converted industrial space, then tour the brewing operation while sipping El Gordo, the imperial stout we just named as the country’s best.
Good People Brewing Company
As you exit, you’ll see the largest sign boasting a city’s name this side of Hollywood. The steel “Birmingham” façade of Regions Field, home to the minor-league Barons leaves little doubt the city is baseball proud. And, with good reason. Winning a league championship in 2013 and busting national attendance records, the Barons prove this isn’t just a football-obsessed town.
Before leaving Midtown, drive through the trippy illuminated tunnel on 18th Street, one in a series of installations called “Birmingham Lights,” designed to artfully connect the downtown core with the city’s medical and university districts.
You could easily spend a week hopping from one award-winning fine-dining experience to the next and the place to begin is James Beard-favorite Highlands Bar and Grill For three decades, Chef Frank Stitt has crafted culinary masterworks from the palette he labels “French-inspired Southern.”
The lively bar area, filled with crowd-watching mirrors and see-and-be-seen locals provides a sexy start. Order oysters on the half shell and a glass of champagne to set the mood before moving to the elegant chateau-inspired dining room for Gulf Coast redfish served with roasted potatoes and locally-grown seasonal vegetables and baked grits with country ham, mushrooms and thyme.
Have a nightcap at a historic spot consistently voted as one of the South’s best bars. The Garage is southern gothic to the hilt with a long, sordid history, an otherworldly courtyard packed with dripping wisteria and long abandoned statuary, and a laissez faire vibe. Good thing it stays open late, this is a place for lingering.
Every Saturday morning, locals flock to the site of a former Dr. Pepper Plant for the area’s largest market. At Pepper Place Farmers’ Market, 100 seems to be the magic number. There’s nearly one hundred outdoor stands loaded with Chilton County peaches and vine-ripe tomatoes, all grown within a hundred-mile radius. For immediate gratification, try Bob’s Soon-to-be-Famous Pimento Cheese with a slice of hearty wheat from Magnolia Bread Co. and wash it down with JaWanda’s Sweet Potato Pie. There’s honey tastings, chef demos, and plenty of local color.
Not Saturday? No worries. Stop in locally-owned Lucy’s Coffee in the hub of the medical district on University Boulevard for bacon, egg and cheese nourishment in the form of an Egg MacLucy. A patchwork of mix-matched tables and chairs, including an eye-catching 1950s mustard-yellow couch give the spot a homey feel while the gracious staff welcomes visitors like family. Fair warning, parking is a challenge, but it’s worth the effort.
Plentiful days of sunshine make Birmingham an outdoor mecca. After fueling up, head to the 1,500-acre Red Mountain Park for 12 miles of exceptionally well-maintained hiking and biking trails. For adventure seekers, there’s a zip line tour and a challenging rope and obstacle course called Beanstalk Forest.
When the lunch bell rings, find your way to the hip Avondale neighborhood for Post Office Pies, recently voted best pizza in ‘Bama. Boasting a retro-cool location in a former post office and an owner with substantial kitchen cred including stints at Gramercy Tavern and Momofuku, this spot’s wafer-thin pizzas and seasonal salads live up to the hype.
While you’re in the neighborhood, pop in another of the city’s acclaimed beer establishments, Avondale Brewing with a dozen beers on tap, all named for local legends. Lore has it that a circus owner and his elephant Miss Fancy once brought crowds to nearby Avondale Park. The pachyderm now graces a label and serves as the brewery’s mascot.
The Magic City is filled with mythic tales and none is taller than the Roman god of fire and forge, Vulcan. At 180-feet tall, he’s the world’s largest cast iron statue and a weirdly wonderful symbol of the city’s one-time iron-and-steel glory. The superhero, cast from local iron in 1904, occupies a perch on Red Mountain with stunning views across the city and valley. Take the elevator to the top to truly appreciate Vulcan’s watch post.
Photo via Flickr/Bill Blevins
For a highly original shopping spree conveniently within Vulcan’s shadow, make your way to the tree-lined neighborhood of Forest Park. You’ll get a feel for the city’s vibrant art scene with a stop in Naked Art Gallery. Pick up one of Belgium-born owner Vero Vanblaere’s light-switch covers painted with Birmingham landmarks as a souvenir.
For funky wardrobe finds, check out neighboring Zoe’s Consignment. From second-hand designer labels to vintage duds, chances are you’ll find a new-to-you treasure.
To feel the pulse of the city’s downtown revitalization, take a stroll along 2nd Avenue North. Enjoy an aperitif at Collins while learning more about the city from the super-sized Birmingham-centric periodic table hanging above the bar.
Just be sure to put your name on the list for dinner at neighboring El Barrio first. When you walk through the door of the bustling Mexican-meets-Southern joint, you might wonder if you’re still in Birmingham. Walls lined with reclaimed wood mix with modern concrete and iron trimmings give off a Brooklyn vibe. The menu showcases locally sourced ingredients and outrageously good sauces making dishes like the roasted chile relleno with stuffed black beans, cactus and roasted-garlic cream a new Southern favorite.
Local heroes St. Paul and the Broken Bones have helped shine a light on the city’s robust music scene and nowhere is the diversity and breadth more clear than the little venue with an oversized presence, Bottletree. If jazz is your thing, don’t miss a show in the dimly lit, romantic Ona’s Music Room featuring the city’s best pianists and horn players.
Birmingham is easy to reach from most spots in the U.S. with Delta, United, American, Southwest and US Airways all flying into Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. The airport is located five miles and less than 15 minutes from downtown.
For historic ambiance, it’s hard to beat the Tutwiler, known locally as “The Tut.” With a Hampton Inn affiliation, you might think cookie-cutter, but that’s far from the case here. This grand dame of Birmingham hotels has been welcoming guests since 1914 and oozes with elegance and charm.
For a taste of new Birmingham, reserve a spacious room at the recently opened Westin located in Uptown, the city’s recently unveiled dining-and-entertainment district. Enjoy half-price pints and three-dollar sliders during happy hour in the lobby at Todd English Pub.
Jess Simpson is a freelance writer and blogger with a passion for all things travel, art and the outdoors.