One Great Day in Birmingham
by Susan Montgomery
Birmingham, Alabama, is a city of many contrasts, which make it a fascinating destination for visitors. It is certainly a place rich in historical and cultural significance, but it also has a developing culinary scene and contemporary vibe that makes it full of opportunities for new discoveries. After visiting Birmingham, you will understand the great appeal of what is called the New South. It is a city that is embracing the future while never forgetting its turbulent past.
There is so much to do in Birmingham that it deserves a stay of several days; however, what if you only have a day or two while driving through the area? The good news is that you can still capture the spirit of the city. Here is a quick guide on what to do in Birmingham, based on my brief wonderful visit there:
Where to stay:
Hampton Inn & Suites Birmingham Downtown-Tutwiler Hotel. This National Historic Landmark, built in 1914, just oozes with traditional southern elegance while offering upscale modern amenities, including complimentary Wi-Fi and breakfast. The hotel’s Century Restaurant and Bar is a stylish retreat for guests wanting to relax after a day of sightseeing. The Tutwiler Hotel is centrally located in the heart of downtown Birmingham close to restaurants and museums.
Where to eat:
Urban Standard. The welcoming charm of this casual breakfast and lunch spot in a beautifully renovated building is intentionally reminiscent of European cafes. Whether you want Creamy Grits or Biscuits and Redeye Gravy for breakfast or a classic chicken salad sandwich or Hippie Gumbo for lunch, you will be totally impressed with its enticing Southern cuisine and character.
Niki’s West. A Birmingham institution since 1957, this is another relaxing, welcoming spot with southern specialties for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Try biscuits with smoked sausage for a special treat.
Eagles Restaurant. You can’t leave Birmingham without sampling authentic soul food and you’ll find it at Eagles, which has been family-owned since 1951. Andrew Zimmern from “Bizarre Foods America” on the Travel Channel featured this causal diner and its classic soul food favorites such as collard greens, stewed okra, black-eyed peas, chitterlings, fried pork chops, and a local favorite—pig feet and ears. And Eagles has the best cornbread you’ve ever tasted.
This may be the most celebrated restaurant in Alabama, but make sure you have reservations way in advance. Owned by renowned chef, Frank Stitt, this French bistro-styled gourmet restaurant is full of elegant ambiance and the hearty French food is innovative and delicious. Try escargots, sautéed trout with brown butter, homemade charcuterie, delicious pates and coq au vin, along with an extensive wine list featuring French wines.
Museums to see:
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This museum is an absolute must during a visit to Birmingham because it depicts the crucial role the city played in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, but also because it focuses on human rights throughout the world. The museum does not sugarcoat the volatile periods of the city’s civil rights history, but it does reflect the lessons learned and emphasizes how the city and the South are moving forward positively. Vibrant exhibits, including dramatic videos and photographs, make history come alive. And right across the street is the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, the site where four small girls tragically died as the result of a Ku Klux Klan bomb in 1963.
.Vulcan Park and Museum. See sweeping views of the city from Red Mountain with its massive cast iron statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge, which was a highlight of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and has looked over the city since the 1930s. You can even take an elevator to the top of the statue to view the dramatic cityscape. And then tour the museum to learn about Birmingham’s fascinating steel-making industrial history
Barber Motorsport Museum. This architecturally impressive museum features 1400 exhibits of stunning vintage to modern motorcycles and race cars, many very rare. This museum will convince you that these intiricately designed vehicles are works of art.
Birmingham Museum of Art. This nationally recognized regional museum presents more than 26,000 works from 3000 B.C. to the present, including collections of African, American, Asian, Pre-Columbian and Native American art. It also regularly features impressive traveling exhibits.
What else to see:
The Peanut Depot: Since 1907, the old roasting ovens here have been churning out delicious peanuts. You feel like you are stepping into a page out of history, but it's surprising that these roasters are still roasting. It is worth visiting for the smell alone.
Jones Valley Teaching Farm: Children in the area learn about how to grow nutritious produce and prepare healthy meals. Celebrated Southern chefs sometimes visit and give cooking lessons to school children. Visitors are welcome to both buy produce and tour the lovely gardens.
Avondale Brewing Company. This casual, inviting brewery and bar and exudes the friendliness of the Deep South with its own handcrafted beers, making it a great stop for a tasty sampling or brewery tour for a break during your sightseeing.
Kelly Ingram Park: This historic park was a staging area for civil rights confrontations and demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. Dramatic sculptures throughout the park depict police dog and hose assaults on demonstrators. A guided audio tour is available for visitors through their mobile phones.
There is so much more to do than this sampling listed here. Go to the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau website for more information on all there is to do in this great city.
Photos by Allan Kissam and Susan Montgomery.