Birmingham may be the largest city in Alabama and the industrial center of the south, but when you’re here, it somehow feels quaint. As you explore the revitalized downtown area, it’s difficult to differentiate the old from the new; every piece of architecture feels intentional. The city’s design review committee makes it a point to be sure new developments have a true urban character and fit into the existing setting.
“Some people I’ve shown around sense that there’s a wholeness evident,” says Philip Morris, local urban revitalization enthusiast, who spent 31 years as an editor for Southern Living Magazine. “I tell them it’s no accident.”
What was once a barren and unfrequented part of the city is now a true destination, chock full of renowned restaurants, historic buildings, a thriving music, theater and art scene, and the cornerstone of civil rights history.
It’s no wonder Birmingham’s nickname is The Magic City—a trip to this historic-meets-modern city is enchanting. Get packing; it’s going to be a magical trip. Here are a few must-see spots to put on the schedule.
Photo courtesy of Urban Standard.
Fuel up for the day.
Start the day off with a breakfast trip to Urban Standard. This hip café, decked out with a killer antique collection, is located downtown, on 2nd Avenue North. Grab a fresh French press coffee and their urban breakfast plate—it’s two eggs (made to order), creamy grits, and a made-from-scratch biscuit with bacon jam. It’s filling but just the right amount of food to prep you for the busy day ahead.
Urban Standard/2320 2nd Avenue North
Photo courtesy of Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau
See the Storyteller.
In the Five Points South neighborhood “The Storyteller” fountain by Alabama-native Frank Fleming attracts many onlookers. The famous fountain is made up of fairy tale creatures seemingly listening to the ram-headed storyteller (known as “Bob” to some locals) in the center. The sculpture was made in the 1980’s and contributed to the revival of the downtown area.
Save some dough.
There’s plenty to do in Birmingham on a budget. Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Birmingham Museum of Art both offer free admission. Stroll the gardens’ 67 acres of 25 different garden areas—including Japanese, Wildflower, Fern and Southern Living—and over 3,000 species of plants. Then head over to the Birmingham Museum of Art, which is home to more than 25,000 pieces of art, ranging from pre-Columbian to postmodern. Speaking of free, Birmingham is also known for its free valet around town, something locals covet.
Photo courtesy of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Take in history.
Birmingham is the cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement, and you can absorb more about the essential details, artifacts, stories and struggles of the 1950’s and 60’s at the Civil Rights Institute. The institute’s exhibits are a living memorial of what has happened; along with a pensive look ahead remembering lessons from the past.
Civil Rights Institute/520 16th Street North
Photo from Unsplash.com
Grab some local produce.
Meander from fresh produce booths to artisan booths with the locals at The Market at Pepper Place. If you happen to be downtown on a Saturday from 7 a.m.-12 p.m., Pepper Place is a great spot to gather souvenirs, listen to live tunes or collect picnic supplies. Think fresh pasta made with local ingredients, live bluegrass, and a basket of fresh strawberries and peaches.
The Market at Pepper Place/2829 2nd Avenue South
Hike the Rail Trail.
Right in the downtown district of Birmingham is Railroad Park, 19 acres of green space and lakes. The Rail Trail is an ideal hike if you’re looking to walk and take in the epic city views. It’s just ¾ of a mile, so you won’t get too winded as you explore the downtown park. As you walk the trail, look around, turns out many of the walls and benches were built from reclaimed bricks and objects uncovered on the site when construction began.
Roam historic homes.
If you’re a sucker for scoping out historic homes, charming bungalows and craftsman-style houses, take a drive through the Forest Park neighborhood, a few minutes east of downtown Birmingham. The neighborhood is known for its standout collection of 1920’s architecture and is protected as an historic district. These are the types of homes that have landed spreads in Southern Living Magazine. From mansions to lofts, you’ll get a peek at homes with curb appeal.
Sip a bloody.
In a city known for its tasty food and booze, you’d be remiss to miss out on a drink at The Garage Café (known as “The Garage” to locals). Be sure to snag a seat outside in the antique-filled, wisteria-draped courtyard. Grab a bloody with all the fixins, or if you’re a beer drinker, check out the epic list of tasty local brews. It’s the perfect place to lean back and take in Birmingham’s eclectic vibe. Be sure to bring some cash, as it’s the only form of currency this funky dive accepts.
The Garage Café/ 2304 10th Terrace South
Evoke your inner Towanda.
Stop in for lunch at the whistle stop that was the inspiration for the iconic setting of the novel, Fried Green Tomatoes. Turns out author Fannie Flag used to frequent the Irondale Café as it was formerly owned by her great aunt. Try the buttermilk fried chicken, an ice cold lemonade and of course the fried green tomatoes. Ruth and Idgie wouldn’t steer you wrong.
Irondale Café/1906 1st Ave N, Irondale
Revel in the restoration of a city relic.
The Lyric, a former 100-year old vaudeville theater (think acts like Mae West and the Marx Brothers) has made its comeback after years in limbo. Its restoration has awakened the downtown theater district. In fact, when the restored Lyric sign was lit for the first time since its hay day, over 3,000 locals were there to watch it glow, according to Executive Director Brant Beene. The theater seats 730, for a more intimate music experience, with recent artists Randy Newman and Mavis Staples. While inside the Lyric, take a closer look at the ornate details of the space and feel the worn-in history of the beautiful building.
Take a brew tour.
Beer lovers unite, and come see how the local Avondale Brewing Company crafts each pint. Be sure to take a gulp of the Miss Fancy’s Tripel, this smooth and strong beer was inspired by a famous, local zoo elephant who guzzled beer to treat her stomach ailment and turns out, it helped. Avondale’s version is brewed for humans, but potent enough for elephants. You can schedule a tour for $15 a person and score a free pint glass.
Join in the Sing-along.
Just across the street, you’ll find The Alabama Theater, a Birmingham landmark built in 1927 by Paramount Studios. It has been a movie palace for decades and is the ideal place to catch indie flicks with pre-movie sing-alongs. Now, the large theater, which seats about 2100, hosts not only movies, but concerts, dance recitals and up to 20 weddings a year. This space underwent a complete restoration about 10 years before the Lyric, and was initially saved because of its Wurlitzer organ. The local chapter of the American Theater Organ Society could not bear to watch the organ and theater become a parking deck, so they purchased the entire theater in the 1980s.
Cool off with a popsicle.
If you’re exploring the city during the day, you’ll likely need to cool off at some point, and a trip to Steel City Pops in the Homewood neighborhood is sure to do the trick. Try the Sweet Tea with lemon zest popsicle, made simply with tea, raw sugar, water and lemon, or the creamy Cherry Sour Cream—it tastes like cheese cake with cherries on top. This location is open until 9 p.m. on weekdays, and 10 p.m. on weekends.
Steel City Pops/2821 Central Ave.
Photo courtesy of OvenBird Restaurant.
Eat way too much.
Food enthusiasts flock to Birmingham. After all, it’s home to world-renowned chef Chris Hastings’ Hot and Hot Fish Club (known for standouts like chorizo sausage, snapper, okra and tomato salad), along with award-winning Highlands Bar and Grill, Gianmarco’s Restaurant, Avo, Ocean and Bottega. But, the hot spot we recommend a trip to is OvenBird, Chris and Idie Hastings’ more casual and affordable spot. The food here is grilled, smoked, seared, braised or roasted in a massive 400-degree, wood-fired, cast-iron hearth. There are small plates galore and chef’s favorites include the signature beef fat candle, a merging of meat jus, herbs and a Spanish sofrito paste made with tomatoes, peppers and spices. Why the name? A tea light candle made from beef fat melts into the jus as it burns.
OvenBird/2810 Third Avenue South
See the lights.
Snap some photos at the historic, downtown train underpasses at 14th, 18th, 19th and 20th streets. The LED lighting installations, called Birmingham Lights, attracts a lively night crowd, with their cameras in tow. While you’re in the area, be sure to check out the lit-up replica of the 1926 sign reading “Rotary Trail in the MAGIC CITY.”