Birmingham is the largest city in Alabama, and its cultural and economic nucleus. While it's best remembered as the site of protest, bombings, and other racial tumult during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, visitors to the Birmingham of today will find a pleasant green city of ridges, valleys, attractive views, and friendly, hospitable people.
Birmingham (unlike the city in England, the "h" is not silent here) has a population of 210,000 in the city (2018) and 1.2 million in the metro area (2010).
Generally speaking, most of the modern-day big cities of the Southern United States got their start in the 18th or very early 19th century as frontier forts or trading posts (or, in the case of coastal cities like Charleston or Norfolk, as seaports), then grew through the antebellum period into administrative centers where folks from the surrounding areas would come to conduct government business and/or market towns where they came to sell their agricultural goods. Birmingham's history is very different from that.
For one thing, it's a lot younger than most Southern cities: although white settlers began arriving in the area in the 1810s or so, until after the Civil War there was nothing inside the modern-day city limits but rural farmland dotted with a few small towns (notably Elyton, of which the Arlington Antebellum Home, Birmingham's only, is a remnant). For another thing, its economic raison d'être had a lot more in common with Northern Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh and Buffalo than anywhere else in the South. It's important to understand that the Civil War wrought total devastation on the former Confederacy, not only in terms of loss of life and physical destruction but also in terms of the structure of society. In the antebellum years, the Southern economy was based almost entirely around agriculture — specifically enormous plantations of cotton and other labor-intensive crops — and a rigid class system with rich white landowners at the top, black slaves at the bottom, and poor white subsistence farmers just a notch or two above the slaves, with little hope of upward mobility for either of the latter two groups. But the postwar abolition of slavery made that paradigm untenable. Meanwhile, this was also the time in history when the railroads were coming to the fore as America's main mode of long-distance transportation and freight shipping, and it just so happened that two of the new railroad lines that were being built across the South intersected in one of the few places in the world where iron ore, coal, and limestone — the main ingredients used to make steel — were all found in close proximity to one another. Thus was born the South's first major postwar industrial center, founded in 1871 and aptly named for the British city that's widely regarded as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution.
The steel industry brought immediate and rapid growth to Birmingham — so rapid, in fact, that it earned the nickname "The Magic City". The nation as a whole, too, was rapidly urbanizing and industrializing, and many of the skyscrapers, ships, railroad tracks, automobiles, machinery, and other stuff of this new America was made from steel forged in Birmingham. Job openings in the mills were plentiful, as was cheap labor to fill them (courtesy of a steady inflow of Greek and Italian immigrants as well as unskilled workers from the surrounding rural hinterlands), and they say it used to take only a few minutes outdoors for a clean white shirt to turn gray in the sooty air. In short, this was Birmingham's golden age. (A visit to the Sloss Furnaces is a must for anyone interested in this era of Birmingham's history.)
By 1929, Birmingham had grown to a population of nearly 260,000 and become one of the largest cities in the South (behind only New Orleans and Louisville and more-or-less tied with Atlanta). But, of course, 1929 also saw the onset of the Great Depression, which brought the steel mills and workhouses to a near standstill — in fact, many economists of the time singled out Birmingham as the city in America that was hardest hit by the economic crisis. Even after conditions improved, the changes wrought by the Depression were enduring: even through World War II and the prosperous postwar years, when the mills were once again running at full capacity, the gradual shift in focus away from heavy industry and toward white-collar professional fields was palpable.
It's in the context of this transition that Birmingham's pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement must be understood. Spurred on by a growing list of victories in the preceding years — the desegregation by military force of Little Rock High School and the University of Mississippi, the Freedom Rides, the Montgomery bus boycott — Dr. Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began their "Birmingham campaign" in 1963, joining with an incipient local activist community headed by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Bethel Baptist Church to address the concerns of a black community that was sick of being excluded from what desirable factory jobs remained. King and Shuttlesworth were confronted by Eugene "Bull" Connor, a longtime local politico whose extreme hostility toward integration and civil rights had made him a notorious and somewhat divisive figure even among Southern whites — and true to the latter's nature, many of the most well-known scenes of brutality that have come to characterize the Civil Rights Movement took place in Birmingham. As much as anything else, it's testament to the degree to which Dr. King's understanding of the power of television was key to the success of his nonviolence strategy: the images of peaceful protesters under attack by snarling dogs, fire hoses, and police brutality that were beamed into American living rooms on the TV news played a crucial role in turning public opinion against segregation, and in securing Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the years since, Birmingham has worked hard to exorcise the demons of its past, and has emerged from the postindustrial morass as a center for banking, insurance, and also — thanks to the world-renowned programs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and associated hospitals — biomedical research. As well, after years of white flight and its attendant problems, Birmingham has joined the growing ranks of U.S. cities that are being rediscovered in the 21st century by young folks, with trendy neighborhoods like Five Points South, Highland Park, and Avondale emerging as destinations for fine dining and lively nightlife. And the best is yet to come for the old Magic City — it's set to take center stage again as host city of the 2021 World Games.
The weather in Birmingham varies greatly. Winter weather is highly unpredictable, with temperatures ranging from below 20°F (-5°C) to 60° or even 70°F (15° or even 20°C) throughout the season, with frequent rain and occasional snow. Summers are very hot and humid, with frequent thunderstorms. The best times to visit are spring and fall, when the weather is mild and pleasant and there's often a breeze in the air. Even within the city limits, the springtime displays of dogwood, cherry, azalea and other blossoms must be seen to be believed.
- 1 Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport (BHM IATA), ☏ . Service is operated by American, Delta, Southwest, and United Airlines, with flights from Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlotte, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Miami, New York, Washington D.C, and other destinations. The airport presents a breezy and laid-back experience for travellers — that is, once you clear the often congested security lines. Folks landing in Birmingham have a slew of hotel accommodations and restaurants right on the doorstep of the airport, or you can take advantage of a full slate of rental car desks or 24-hour limo and taxi service to get wherever you're headed around town.
Birmingham is linked to the rest of the U.S. by the Interstate highway network. The principal interstates and highways serving the city are:
From the north, i.e. from Nashville and Louisville, I-65 and US 31 run more or less parallel to each other. I-59 approaches from Chattanooga and points northeast; you will possibly come from this direction if driving from the northeastern U.S. US 11 also comes from this direction.
Atlanta to the east, the biggest city nearby and with a major international airport, is connected to Birmingham by I-20. US 280 comes in from Columbus, Georgia to the southeast and further on from Florida. From places to the south, such as Montgomery and other parts of southern Alabama, comes I-65 and next to it US 31.
From Meridian in the southwest comes I-20 and I-59, the former from Jackson, Shreveport and Dallas, the latter from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. I-22 and US 78 lead to Birmingham from the northwest, i.e. Tupelo and Memphis.
Finally, I-459 circumvents the city on the southeastern side.
Avoid rush hour (7AM-9AM and 4-6PM) if possible; for details on usual spots for rush hour tie-ups, see Get around#By car.
Birmingham is served by Greyhound and Megabus, both of which pick up and drop off downtown at the brand-new 2 Birmingham Intermodal Station on Morris Avenue between 17th and 18th Streets North. The building also serves as the central station for the municipal bus system, so if you'll be using public transit to get around during your stay, you're all set.
This is by far the easiest and most reliable way to get around town — with the notable exception of rush hour, which can last from 6AM-9AM and 4-6PM. In particular, I-59, I-65, and Highway 280 in and around downtown are to be avoided at these times. Aside from that, though, getting around on four wheels is a breeze, and so is parking, even downtown: metered on-street parking is plentiful and reasonably priced, and usually free in the evening and on weekends.
Public transit is available in Birmingham and the surrounding area, though it's not what you'd call convenient, especially on weekends or in areas far outside the central core. The Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority runs both the MAX Bus System and the DART Bus Trolley, which operate M-Th from 10AM-10PM, F Sa until midnight and Su until 9PM.
There's a bike rental system called Zyp BikeShare, with bike stations around the city. You can use the bike for 45 minutes a time for a price of $3, if you keep the bike for a longer time, there's an overtime charge of $2 for the first 30 minutes, and $4 for each additional 30 minutes.
To start using the bikes, first register through the Zyp app or online to buy a Go pass (which means you pay for each ride), or purchase a one- or three-day or one month pass through the app and from one of the Zyp kiosks.
If you have one of the passes with unlimited rides for a day, three days or a month, you will still have to return the bike to a station within 45 minutes to avoid paying overtime fees (but you can immediately start using the bike again after returning it).
The downtown areas of Birmingham (notably separated by railroad tracks into a "north" and "south" side) are quite compact, so walking is a reasonable way to get from place to place within the central district. However, walking from downtown to further-flung neighborhoods such as Avondale or Woodlawn is not a viable option: aside from the distance and the lack of consistently available sidewalks or other pedestrian infrastructure, depending on the time of year even avid walkers might have to contend with summer temperatures that reach 100°F (40°C) regularly, and heat indices higher still.
The bulk of Birmingham's most famous tourist attractions revolve around the city's role in the Civil Rights Movement.
- 1 Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 520 16th St N, ☏ , toll-free: , fax: , ✉ email@example.com. Tu-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su 1-5PM. Interpretive museum and research center, where you can learn about the struggle for civil rights through such engaging exhibits as a mocked-up 1950s-era segregated city, a replica of a Freedom Riders bus from Mississippi, and even the actual door from the cell in Birmingham Jail where Dr. Martin Luther King was held (see below). Researchers have at their disposal an expansive archive of documents and recordings. Adults $9, seniors 65+ $5, college students $4, children under 18 free. Free admission on Sunday.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is immediately adjacent to:
- 2 Kelly Ingram Park (bounded by 5th and 6th Aves N and 16th and 17th Sts W). This four-acre park was named for a local World War I hero, but is best known as the place where the climactic confrontation between the attack dog- and firehose-wielding Birmingham police and fire departments, led by Public Works Commissioner "Bull" Connor, and the student demonstrators from the SCLC, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, took place. The park was rededicated in 1992 as a "place of revolution and reconciliation" in commemoration of these pivotal events, and now contains a number of sculptural exhibits. Notable among those is Four Spirits, unveiled in 2013 as a memorial to the young victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (read on).
- 3 16th Street Baptist Church, 1530 6th Ave N, ☏ . On September 15, 1963, in the aftermath of the Birmingham campaign (and at the beginning of the first school year in which the city's public schools were integrated), four members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed this oldest African-American church in Birmingham with dynamite, killing four young girls at choir practice and further outraging the nation and solidifying support in Congress for civil rights legislation. The church was rebuilt and remains in operation today, welcoming visitors both to Sunday services (11AM) and to the basement exhibition space featuring historical photographs and displays related to the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.
Other Civil Rights Movement-related landmarks in Birmingham include...
- 4 Ballard House, 1420 7th Ave N, ☏ . W-Sa 10AM-2PM or by appointment. The home and office of Dr. Edward H. Ballard, an African-American physician who hosted meetings of local Civil Rights activists here beginning in 1959, and who offered medical treatment to victims of police violence during the Birmingham campaign of 1963. The not-for-profit Ballard House Project is hard at work restoring the building and hosting events and exhibitions related to local Civil Rights history and other cultural themes.
- 5 Birmingham Jail, 501 6th Ave S. Dr. Martin Luther King spent eight days in April 1963 incarcerated here, from his arrest on the 12th for violating an injunction against the demonstrations he and the SCLC were leading in the streets of Birmingham through his release on the 20th under pressure from the Kennedy administration. While there, he wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, addressing various criticisms that had been leveled against him and his movement — both an essay written by a group of local white clergymen and published in the local newspaper the day before his arrest, and more broadly from white moderates nationwide as well as certain "opposing forces in the Negro community". The prison is still in operation as such, so no tours are offered, but there is a historic plaque and other interpretive material outside.
- 6 Historic Bethel Baptist Church, 3233 29th Ave N (one block east and one block north from the present-day Bethel Baptist Church building), ☏ . Tours M W F 10AM-3PM, Tu Th by appointment. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was agitating for racial justice in Birmingham for years before Dr. King came to town, and the church where he preached was a focal point of action in the period immediately previous to the Birmingham campaign: it was the designated point of contact in Alabama for the Freedom Riders, who in 1961 successfully forced the desegregation of interstate buses in the South, and was firebombed by white supremacists no fewer than three times, including on Christmas Day 1956.
- 7 Old Sardis Baptist Church, 1240 4th St N, ☏ . Services Su 11AM; not open for tours. With a Civil Rights pedigree that goes even further back than Bethel Baptist, Old Sardis Baptist Church started down the road of civic, social, and economic activism in 1947, when Rev. Robert Alford ascended to the pulpit — and it was here in 1956 that Rev. Alford along with Rev. Shuttlesworth and various other local ministers founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, the local organization that worked side by side with Dr. King and the SCLC during the events of 1963.
Industrial history buffs will find much of interest in Birmingham as well.
- 8 Sloss Furnaces, 20 32nd St N, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Tu-Sa 10AM-4PM, Su noon-4PM. The Sloss Iron and Steel Company was one of the first industrial concerns to set up shop in the then-brand new city of Birmingham. It eventually grew into one of the largest manufacturers of pig iron in the world (it should be said, largely on the backs of African-American convict labor — a form of legal slavery common in the Jim Crow era whereby local blacks would be rounded up and arrested on trumped-up charges and then leased out to private companies like Sloss for use as unpaid workers). Abandoned in 1972, their Furnace No. 1 was deemed an eyesore and slated for demolition, but saved at the last minute by historic preservationists and opened to the public as... well, it's hard to say exactly what this place is nowadays. Strolling around the old ovens, smokestacks, conveyor belts, and other abandoned equipment, you almost get the feeling of being in a giant art exhibit (the modern-day metal sculptures peppered around the site certainly don't do anything to discourage that sentiment). There is also a visitors' center with museum-style exhibits relating Birmingham's industrial history, and a full calendar of concerts and events at this one-of-a-kind venue. Free.
- 9 Vulcan Park, 1701 Valley View Dr, ☏ , fax: , ✉ email@example.com. Park: daily 7AM-10PM; Museum: M-Sa 10AM-6PM, Su 1-6PM; Observation Balcony: M-Sa 10AM-10PM, Su 1-10PM. What better way to pay homage to the mighty steel industry of early-20th century Birmingham than with an enormous statue of the Roman god of fire and metalsmithing? The world's largest cast iron statue at a height of 56 ft (17 m), Vulcan was forged in 1903 as Birmingham's contribution to the St. Louis World's Fair, then spent a few decades welcoming visitors at the state fairgrounds in West Birmingham before being re-erected and rededicated in 1936 at the summit of Red Mountain by the Works Progress Administration. Vulcan now stands atop a 126 ft (38 m) sandstone pedestal with an observation deck near the top that provides a panoramic view of Birmingham and vicinity. Nearby is a small museum with exhibits on local industrial history.
And, representing a period still further in the past, even before the foundation of the City of Birmingham, is...
- 10 Arlington Antebellum Home and Gardens, 331 Cotton Ave SW, ☏ . The home is a perfectly-preserved emblem of Southern heritage. Staff are well-versed in how the home, which is older than the city, has been involved in many pivotal points of Birmingham's development. It's an interesting and inexpensive way to learn about the city's heritage and the civil rights struggle. The home, on Birmingham's West End, is in a somewhat blighted neighborhood. However, visiting during daylight hours carries very little risk. And the home is accessible through main artery roads off of Interstate 65 at the Green Springs Avenue exit. Homeowners on the street adjacent to Arlington have well-manicured properties, symbolic of efforts by West End leaders to strengthen this historic part of town.
- 11 Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, 1631 4th Ave N, ☏ , fax: , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Tu-Sa 10AM-5PM (guided tours M-W F 10AM-1:30PM). Founded in 1978, the museum part opened in 1993 with exhibits from instruments to dresses on display. Of course you also get to experience the music itself in jazz performances, workshops and courses. $3/2 (guided/self-guided).
- 12 Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, 2150 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd N, ☏ , fax: , ✉ email@example.com. M-Sa 9AM-5PM. The museum presents the athletic history of the state of Alabama, and is one of the biggest in the U.S with over 6,000 pieces of sports memorabilia. Adults $5, seniors 60+ $4, students $3.
- 13 Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum and Motorsports Park, 6030 Barber Motorsports Pkwy, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. M-Sa 10AM-6PM, Su noon-6PM; museum closes one hour earlier Oct-Mar. The park is meticulously well-kept. Formula One and Superbike racing will thrill any visitor. This is truly world-class racing in a park that one would expect to see only in Europe or in a much larger city. $10, children 4-12 $6.
- 14 Birmingham Museum of Art, 2000 8th Ave N, ☏ , fax: . Tu-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su noon-5PM. Visual art from all over the world, from ancient Egyptian to contemporary American. In particular, its Asian section is considered the best in the southeastern U.S. Free.
- 15 McWane Science Center, 200 19th St N (Parking deck on 2nd Avenue North, between 18th Street and 19th Street, $3), ☏ , fax: . Sept-May: M-F 9AM-5PM, Sa 11AM-6PM, Su noon-6PM; June-Aug: M-Sa 10AM-6PM, Su Noon-6PM. This is a place where kids can explore science. Some of the highlights are the World of Water with fish and other aquatic life and the Alabama Collections Center with fossils and pre-Columbian artifacts. Exhibit halls: adults $9, children 2-12 & seniors 65+ $8, children under 2 free; exhibits and IMAX:$14/12/free.
- 16 Southern Museum of Flight, 4343 73rd St N, ☏ , fax: . Tu-Sa 9:30AM-4:30PM. If you're interested in aviation history, this is the place to go. The museum has more than 100 aircraft on display, both civilian and military (among them a Wright flyer replica), as well as plane parts, photographs and other artifacts. Adults $5, seniors & students $4, children under 4 and active military members free.
Parks and gardensEdit
- 17 Birmingham Botanical Gardens, 2612 Lane Park Rd, ☏ . Daily sunrise to sunset. The gardens are worth visiting for anyone with a horticultural flair. Displays are not limited to Southern offerings but also pay tribute to other parts of the world.
- 18 Birmingham Zoo, 2630 Cahaba Rd, ☏ , fax: , ✉ email@example.com. Labor Day-Memorial Day: daily 9AM-5PM; Memorial Day-Labor Day: M W-Th 9AM-5PM, Tu F-Su 9AM-7PM. More than 750 animals, including cheetahs, cobras, lions and anteaters. General $11, children 2-12 & seniors 65+ free.
- 19 Red Mountain Park, 2011 Frankfurt Dr, ☏ . Daily 7AM-5PM. It's under development as of August 2019, but still lots of fun and exploring awaits. Zip-lining over the tree canopies of the beautiful and historic Red Mountain and miles of bike, hiking and walking trails. When the park is complete it will span nearly 1,200 acres (485 ha), making Birmingham the city with the most green space per capita in the country.
- 20 Ruffner Mountain Nature Center, 1214 81st St S, ☏ , fax: , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Tu-Sa 9AM-5PM, Su 1-5PM. Nature preserve. More than 1,000 acres (400 ha). Free.
In addition to standard activities, Birmingham also has tons of outdoor adventures such as paintballing, four-wheeling and hunting, during season.
- 1 Alabama Theatre, 1811 3rd Ave N, ☏ . Numerous performances including concerts, comedians and movies take place at this 2,200-seat, exquisitely preserved old vaudeville and movie palace built by Paramount in 1927.
- 2 The Virginia Samford Theatre, 1116 26th St S, ☏ , fax: , ✉ email@example.com. Offers Broadway type productions in an intimate setting throughout the year.
- 3 WorkPlay, 500 23rd St S, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Multipurpose complex for music concerts and film events.
Birmingham doesn't field teams in any of North America's big four pro sports leagues, but no matter — if you just want to take in a nice baseball or soccer game without paying through the nose for tickets or dealing with enormous crowds and hoopla, here's your chance.
- Birmingham Barons, 1401 1st Ave S, ☏ . Birmingham's minor-league team is the heir to one of the oldest baseball traditions in the country, dating back to 1885. Today, the Barons are the Chicago White Sox's farm team in the double-A Southern League, and are perhaps most famous for having had basketball legend Michael Jordan on its roster during his first retirement from that sport in 1994. All home games are played at 4 Regions Field downtown, with one exception: the annual Rickwood Classic held in late May or early June, where the Barons return to historic 5 Rickwood Field, their home from 1910 through 1987. It is the oldest professional baseball park in the United States.
- Birmingham Legion FC, 800 11th St S, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Birmingham's newest sports franchise began play in the second-level USL Championship in 2019. Home matches are played at 6 BBVA Field, on the UAB campus and also home to UAB's men's and women's soccer teams.
In Birmingham, a bigger draw by far than pro sports are the University of Alabama at Birmingham's (UAB) college teams.
- UAB Blazers, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Ticket office: M-F 9AM-5PM; hours vary on game days. As with most big schools, the highest-profile among UAB's sports teams are basketball and football, with the latter having achieved unexpected success after a two-season hiatus in 2015 and '16. The teams play in the NCAA's Division I, mostly in Conference USA. For now, the football team plays their home games off campus at 7 Legion Field, but they'll be moving in 2021 to another off-campus venue, the new Protective Stadium now under construction downtown next to the convention center. The central ticket office for all UAB sports is at 8 Bartow Arena, also home to the basketball and women's volleyball teams.
Every year at the end of the football season, Legion Field also plays host to the...
- Birmingham Bowl. One of the NCAA's plethora of postseason bowl games, the Birmingham Bowl pits two of the best college teams from the American Athletic Conference and the Southeastern Conference against each other for postseason glory.
...and, in October, the...
- Magic City Classic. Of special interest to visitors interested in African-American culture is this college football event featuring the state's two largest historically black universities, Alabama A&M and Alabama State. The game, which consistently draws bigger crowds than both the Birmingham Bowl and regular-season UAB home games, caps off a week of festivities that draws nearly 200,000 attendees, many of them having no connection to either school. Many African-American celebrities and public figures participate, either as attendees or featured guests.
As you might expect in a city with a muggy subtropical climate, Birmingham's festival seasons are spring and fall, rather than summer.
- Magic City Art Connection. Not just a juried art festival showcasing the work of nearly 200 artists from Birmingham and across the nation working in a wide variety of media, but also a multifaceted extravaganza that takes over 21 Linn Park every last full weekend in April with live music, a "Corks & Chefs" event where local culinary talent takes center stage, and an engaging slate of kids' programming.
- Do Dah Day. Mid-May. If you're a pet lover, Birmingham's longest-running annual shindig is for you. The Do Dah Day festivities begin with a parade down Highland Avenue — a joyous cavalcade of pets, pet owners, whimsical floats, marching bands, synchronized dancers, clowns, mimes, and more — then settle in to 22 Rhodes Park where the focus shifts to live music, food, and general revelry. And don't forget to fill out your ballots for this year's Pet King and Pet Queen!
- 9 Taste of 4th Avenue Jazz Festival. End of August. The end of August sees the Historic 4th Avenue Business District, once the most prominent African-American commercial center in the city, swing to the strains of jazz music courtesy of a bevy of acts both locally-based and nationally-known. Bring the youngsters down to the Kids' Zone, learn to swing dance, or tuck in to a meal from one of Birmingham's best food trucks (they don't call it the "Taste" of 4th Avenue for nothing!)
- [dead link] Birmingham Artwalk. Much like the Magic City Art Connection, art is only the beginning of the story at the Birmingham ArtWalk: it's a multifaceted street party that takes over the Loft District in early September with art, live music, food and drink, and street performances. But by comparison with its springtime counterpart, the ArtWalk seems to not take itself so seriously: there's no competition pitting artists against each other, but rather a convivial and notably family-friendly vibe, with lots of activities for young folks.
- 10 Alabama State Fair, ☏ . Mid-September; check website for hours of operation. Like most state fairs, what began as a way for Alabama farmers to show off their livestock and produce has evolved over the years into a much larger spectacle. The fair lasts ten days and attracts visitors with exciting carnival rides, yummy food and drink, a petting zoo, live music performances mostly in the country & western genre, and even a full-fledged circus with parading elephants and acrobats on the flying trapeze. The venue is the Birmingham Race Course at the far east end of town. $10; children 5-12, seniors over 62, and active military $5; ride passes $25.
- Sidewalk Film Festival. Over three days in late September, seven historic venues in downtown Birmingham — including the restored Alabama Theatre and the Lyric Theatre — screen some of the year's best new releases in independent film.
While Birmingham's restaurant and nightlife scene may be vibrant (read on), retail still has a lot of catching up to do. You'll still find the bulk of the action outside the city line in places like Homewood and Hoover, and along Highway 280, where shopping malls and big-box stores predominate. Antique shops are an exception; you'll find some good ones of those scattered around downtown and in Southside neighborhoods like Highland Park and Five Points South.
Speaking of Five Points South, two independent shops that are worth your time if you're strolling through that area are 1 Renaissance Records on 11th Ave S, where local hipsters flock to pick up the latest tunes on wax, and 2 Five Points Paint and Hardware on 20th St S, which, even if you're not in the middle of a DIY home improvement project, is still worth browsing around just for the sheer throwback aspect: it really is like stepping into a time machine and going back to the 1950s.
- 3 Alabama Farmers Market, 344 Finley Ave W, ☏ . Daily 5AM-8PM. 49 acres (20 ha) of homegrown goodness, the Alabama Farmers Market has been in business since 1921, and since 1956 at their current location on the north end of town. No live music or food trucks or other hoopla here, just a consortium of over 200 area farmer-owners coming together to offer their fresh, natural, and delicious wares to the buying public at prices that handily beat what you'd pay at the supermarket.
- 4 Pepper Place Market, 2829 2nd Ave S, ☏ . Sa 7AM-noon. There's plenty to interest the visitor at the old Dr. Pepper bottling plant out by Sloss Furnaces, but the marquee attraction is this local weekend farmers' and artisans' market that runs from mid-April to mid-December, rain or shine. You'll find the same sort of fresh produce as at the Alabama Farmers Market, but you can also "shop local" for an ever-changing selection of artisan honey, prepared foods, toiletries, candles, arts and crafts, ad nauseam — or take in a live band, attend a long list of seminars and product demonstrations, or enjoy fun kids' activities.
Again, the majority of these are found in the 'burbs. However, here are a couple of alternatives within city limits:
- 5 Eastwood Village, 1600 Montclair Rd. The erstwhile Eastwood Mall was reborn in 2007 as a non-enclosed shopping center anchored by Walmart and also including locations of Party City, Ross Dress For Less, Office Depot, and Tuesday Morning. For retail history buffs, there's a small historical exhibit inside the "Retail Center" entrance of Walmart with a brief history of the mall, which was the first enclosed shopping mall in Birmingham and only the second one in the South, as well as several photos.
- 6 The Summit, 214 Summit Blvd, ☏ . M-Sa 10AM-9PM, Su noon-6PM. One of the largest lifestyle centers in the US, the Summit is an upscale shopping area that is perfect for a stroll on a nice day and is surrounded by restaurants after shopping all day works up an appetite. Includes the only Saks Fifth Avenue store in Alabama.
Most visitors are pleasantly surprised at the large dining scene in Birmingham, a city which has numerous well-known restaurants with famous chefs. Ask locals about best "meat and 3" places for soul food.
- 1 Delta Blues Hot Tamales, 1318 Cobb Ln, ☏ . M 11AM-3PM, Tu-Sa 11AM-10PM, Su 11:30AM-2:30PM. Delta-style hot tamales are of course a well-known example of Mexican-inflected soul food cuisine, but at Delta Blues that fusion is carried over throughout the whole menu: if you're not hungry for tamales, the additional options split the difference between Tex-Mex specialties (tacos, nachos) and classic Southern-style home cooking with a Cajun bent (red beans and rice, fried chicken, crawfish étouffée). Laid-back and unpretentious ambience (befitting its location on a brick-paved side street) is a nice change of pace from the usual Five Points South trendiness.
- 2 Gordos, 433 Valley Ave (at Valley Avenue Plaza), ☏ . Daily 8AM-9PM. Real Mexican food, great taste! You will enjoy all that they offer if Mexican is what you are looking for. Huarache, fresh and good! Burrito really good as well. They have a bakery, try the peach tres leches, fresh and very distinct.
- 3 Green Acres, 1705 4th Ave N, ☏ . M-W 9AM-9:45PM, Th-Sa 9AM-10:45PM. A take-out haven for all breaded soul foods. The fried chicken, catfish and okra are fresh and delicious and the location is a fun slice of local life.
- 4 Irondale Cafe, 1906 1st Ave N, Irondale, ☏ . Su-F 11AM-2:30PM. Remember the novel Fried Green Tomatoes, later turned into a movie starring Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy? Well, this is the original "Whistle Stop Cafe" whose rendition of the namesake Southern-fried specialty inspired local novelist Fannie Flagg. Anything you ask for on the menu of will be delicious, but of course you must order the tomatoes. To drink is Coca-Cola straight out of the vintage bottle, or have an ice-cold glass of Southern sweet tea.
- 5 Magic City Grille, 2201 3rd Ave N, ☏ . M 9AM-5PM, Tu-F 8AM-3PM, Sa 10AM-3PM. This great, locally-owned "meat and three", very popular among business folks and other locals for a great lunch, will offer your fill of Southern fried chicken and other comfort and soul foods.
- 6 Pop's Neighborhood Grill, 1207 20th St S, ☏ . M-F 6AM-3PM. The staff are super friendly, good proportion for what you pay. A real mom and pop type of restaurant.
- 7 [formerly dead link] Saigon Noodle House, 4606 U.S. Route 280, Suite 108 (at River Ridge Shopping Center), ☏ . Daily 11AM-9PM. Locals are divided on what to think of the pho at Saigon Noodle House: some complain about imbalanced ingredients (heavy on noodles, light on meat) and an overall lack of authenticity; others rave about the generous portions at bargain prices. If you're hungry for something else, there's also a full slate of banh mi sandwiches, vermicelli noodle bowls, stir-fried mains with rice or noodles — even a kids' menu. The ambience is a cut above what you'd expect from a suburban strip-mall location, too.
- 8 Dreamland BBQ, 1427 14th Ave S, ☏ . Daily 10AM-10PM. An Alabama "must eat". Unlike the original in Tuscaloosa, which serves only ribs and white bread, the Birmingham location also serves chicken, side orders, and salads.
- 9 El Barrio, 2211 2nd Ave N, ☏ . Lunch Tu-F 11AM-3PM, brunch Sa 10:30AM-2PM, dinner Tu-Sa 5-10PM. At this popular dining destination for Birmingham's new crop of hipsterati, the food is not quite Tex-Mex, not quite authentic Mexican, and way more culinarily innovative then you usually see in either of those types of restaurant. Tacos, quesadillas, tostadas, and full-size mains come with creative offbeat ingredients, but in middling portions that don't really justify the prices. Also: when El Barrio is crowded (which is basically all the time), the place gets loud, so unless you don't mind shouting, save the conversation for after dinner.
- 10 Melt, 4105 4th Ave S, ☏ . Tu-Th 11AM-9PM, F Sa 11AM-9:30PM. Melt has been serving gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches to hungry Birminghamsters since 2011, first out of their food truck and now at their brick-and-mortar location in Avondale. The menu comprises about a half-dozen varieties that you can further customize with your choice of meats or veggie toppings, along with a few salads and appetizers. Quick and attentive service is all the more impressive given how busy the place constantly is. Good option for families. $10–15.
- 11 Rojo, 2921 Highland Ave S, ☏ . Tu-Su 11AM-10PM. Rojo is a great neighborhood bar and grill where the food is good and reasonably priced, and the beer and wine selection is ample. Rojo also has a great outside sitting area that overlooks Caldwell Park and is especially popular during spring, summer, and fall. Rojo is good place to both eat and or grab a drink after work.
- 12 Surin West, 1918 11th Ave S, ☏ . Lunch M-F 11AM-2:30PM, Sa Su 11:30AM-2:30PM; dinner Su-Th 5:30PM-9:30PM, F Sa 5:30PM-10:30PM. Surin offers Thai food and sushi that are as good as you'll find anywhere outside of Bangkok or Tokyo.
- 13 Amore Ristorante Italiano, 5510 U.S. Route 280, Suite 116, ☏ . Tu-Th 4:30PM-9PM, F Sa 4:30PM-9:30PM. From the outside, Amore is a storefront in an anonymous-looking, ambience-free strip mall on a busy suburban arterial. Inside, it's a different story: the atmosphere is brimming with mood-lit elegance, and the menu of upscale Italian fare is enormous and presents creative twists on all your old favorites.
- 14 Bistro 218, 218 20th St N, ☏ . Lunch Tu-F 11AM-2PM; dinner Tu-Th 5-9PM, F Sa 5-10PM. Hidden in plain sight amidst the bustle of downtown Birmingham, the Bistro 218 experience is elegant yet laid-back, with an impeccable ambience and a very-good-if-not-quite-"impeccable" menu of bistro-style specialties loosely based on French cuisine (try the duck confit), but with plenty of upscale-ified nods to good old-fashioned Southern home cooking in the mix too (blackened Louisiana redfish is a favorite).
- 15 Bottega, 2240 Highland Ave S, ☏ . Tu-Sa 5:30-9:30PM. Italian restaurant comprising a café and a dining room. Italian dishes (and some others) including pizza on the all-day menu of the café and an extensive wine list.
- 16 Chez Fonfon, 2007 11th Ave S, ☏ . Tu-Th 11AM-10PM, F 11AM-10:30PM, Sa 4:30-10:30PM. French bistro, with dishes like croques, escargots, steak tartare and steak frites on the menu.
- 17 Highlands Bar & Grill, 2011 11th Ave S, ☏ . Tu-F 4-10PM, Sa 5-10PM. Owned and operated by Frank Stitt, whose other Birmingham-area fine dining establishments include Chez Fonfon and Bottega, at Highlands the menu adds a soupçon of French flair to a substrate of upscale Contemporary Southern cuisine, the ambience is elegant if often loud, and the prices (especially on the topnotch wine list) fall firmly into "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" territory.
- 18 Hot and Hot Fish Club, 2180 11th Ct S (behind Highland Plaza), ☏ . Tu-Sa 5:30-10PM. Reservations recommended. Try to get a seat at the "chef's table" to watch your food as it's prepared.
- 19 Little Savannah, 3811 Clairmont Ave S, ☏ . W Th 4:30-9:30PM, F Sa 4:30-10:30PM, Su brunch 10:30AM-2PM. Unique family-owned restaurant where Chef Clifton Holt visits local farmers every day and wife Maureen meets you at the door. The atmosphere is relaxed and gracious. Definitely a well-kept secret of the South.
- 20 Ocean, 1210 20th St S, ☏ . Tu W 5:30-10PM, Th-Sa 5:30-10:30PM. Among the most hyped restaurants in the über-trendy Five Points South neighborhood, but despite what you may be picturing, prices are fairly reasonable and the quality of the food lives up to its reputation. As you could probably guess from the name, seafood is the name of the game at Ocean, impeccably fresh and creatively prepared: head to the raw bar for delectable oysters, shrimp, clams, and lobster, or choose from a constantly-changing selection of à la carte mains.
- 1 Avondale Brewery, 201 41st St S, ☏ . M-W noon-10PM, Th noon-11PM, F Sa noon-midnight, Su 1-10PM. Awesome local brewery with some great beers. Large outdoor area and a cool event space on the second level.
- 2 Dave's Pub, 1128 20th St S, ☏ . Daily 3PM-2AM. Classic American bar in Five Points South.
- 3 The Garage, 2304 10th Terrace S, ☏ . Tu-Sa 11AM-2AM, Su 3PM-midnight. Very low key, locals spot. The Garage is an old antique store converted into a bar. The bar has a very unique back porch/beer garden. The garden is filled with antique stone tables and statues; a great place to go when the weather is nice. It is a low key, hard to find place but that is the way everybody wants it.
- 4 Innisfree, 710 29th St S, ☏ . M Tu 7PM-2AM, W 4PM-3AM, Th F 4PM-4AM, Sa 6PM-2AM. Popular bar/Irish pub in the Lakeview district. If you want to relive your college years with weak pours for high prices all while getting knocked around by an overcrowd of croakie wearers, even though it's midnight and the sun's been down for hours, this is the place for you.
- 5 The Nick, 2514 10th Ave S, ☏ . Daily 2PM-4AM. "Birmingham's Dirty Little Secret" is a grungy out-of-the-way dive bar famous for hosting late night rock shows.
- 6 Oasis Bar, 2807 7th Ave S, ☏ . M-Th & Sa 3PM-2AM, F 3PM-3AM, Su 2-8PM. Cool blues bar in Lakeview.
- 7 The Upper Deck, 449 Valley Ave (behind Valley Avenue Plaza), ☏ . Daily 11AM-5AM. Like the song says, "sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name" — and if that describes the kind of bar experience you're looking for, find your escape from the tyranny of trendiness at the Upper Deck, where reasonably priced drinks, pool tables, a jukebox, and unpretentious camaraderie await.
- 8 The Wine Loft, 2200 1st Ave N, ☏ . Tu-Th 5-10PM, F Sa 5PM-midnight. If wine is your adult beverage of choice, enjoy a massive yet well-curated selection thereof at the Wine Loft, along with a food menu of light gourmet fare where salads, flatbreads, and artisan thin-crust pizzas predominate. Prices are reasonable, the vibe is relaxed and about as far from snooty as it gets — just make sure to call ahead and double-check that they can accommodate you, as this is a popular place for wedding rehearsal dinners, corporate banquets, and other special events.
- 1 Tourway Inn, 1101 6th Ave N, ☏ . Two-star hotel about half a mile southwest of downtown, near Interstate 65. All rooms have air-conditioning, private bathroom, TV, refrigerator and microwave. There's free Wi-Fi and parking, but apparently no restaurant. Around $70/night.
- 2 Kings Inn Civic Center, 1313 3rd Ave N, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Two-star hotel on the outskirts of the Historic District. Rooms have private bathroom and TV. There's free Wi-Fi and parking. From $63/night.
- 3 Cobb Lane Bed and Breakfast, 1309 19th St S, ☏ . For being located in the trendy, bustling Five Points South area, Birmingham's only B&B presents a superbly quiet and genteel experience perfect for a relaxing getaway in the lap of Victorian luxury. The circa-1898 Bingham House is the venue, divided into seven guest rooms and suites sporting original hardwood floors and really magnificent antique furnishings and outfitted with cable TV, free WiFi, air conditioning, private bathrooms (en suite in most cases) — though oddly enough, there are no in-room phones. And of course, your room rate also includes an elegant "Southern Hospitality Breakfast" in the formal downstairs dining room, where you can expect your personable hostess to regale you with the history of the house and/or chime in with recommendations for things to do, places to eat, or whatever else you might need. Free off-street parking is a plus. From $99/night.
- 4 Hampton Inn & Suites Birmingham-Downtown-Tutwiler, 2021 Park Pl, ☏ . Check-in: 3PM, check-out: 11AM. Erected in 1913, the history of the grand old Tutwiler Hotel continues under the Hampton Inn banner. The lobby is all Gilded Age elegance, with original marble and decorative ceilings and a bevy of old photos testifying to the building's storied history, but the rooms sport all the standard amenities of the modern era. There's also free hot breakfast, free WiFi, fitness center, business center, indoor pool and airport shuttle. From $126/night.
- 5 Holiday Inn Birmingham-Airport, 5000 Richard Arrington, Jr. Blvd N, ☏ . Standard airport chain hotel is showing its age but still gets the job done well enough (most of the time, anyway). Spacious rooms contain all the expected amenities; there's a fitness center, free WiFi propertywide, an onsite bar and restaurant, and shuttle service to and from the airport. Standard rooms from $87/night.
- 6 Hotel Indigo Birmingham Five Points South — UAB, 1023 20th St S, ☏ , fax: , ✉ GuestServices@indigohotelbirmingham.com. Retrofitted into a 1930s-era, Art Deco-style medical office building in Five Points South, the Hotel Indigo Birmingham, like all good hotels of the brand, leans into and embraces its unique history: white lab coats are part of the staff uniform, the elevator doors are still adorned with the old caduceus and other medical insignia, and yummy food and drinks are Chef Niko Romero's "prescription" at the Rx Lounge. Aside from that, you'll find all the usual in-room amenities as well as a fitness center, concierge service, and free Wi-Fi. From $137/night.
- 7 Quality Inn & Suites Birmingham — Highway 280, 707 Key Dr, ☏ , fax: . Another solid if unremarkable mid-scale chain hotel, with a location on a busy suburban arterial about 20 minutes from downtown amid a sea of shopping malls, big-box stores, office parks, and chain restaurants. No real surprises among the amenities, either: free WiFi, business center with Internet and fax, heated indoor pool, complimentary hot breakfast, ample parking — no fitness room, though. From $90/night.
- 8 SpringHill Suites Birmingham Colonnade, 3950 Colonnade Pkwy, ☏ . Check-in: 3PM, check-out: noon. An all-suite hotel representing a step up in luxury from the other national chains in this price range, with all rooms containing microwave, mini-fridge, and pull-out sofa and amenities that cover all the basics plus dry cleaning service, concierge, and buffet breakfast. The pool is outdoors, to the delight of those who prefer swimming al fresco to being sequestered in a hot, muggy room that reeks of chlorine. Customer service and cleanliness standards both need work, though. From $129/night.
- 9 Courtyard Birmingham Downtown UAB, 1820 5th Ave S, ☏ , fax: . If you happen to be coming to town to receive treatment at one of the hospitals near UAB (or you're a loved one of someone to whom that applies), you'll find the Courtyard practically tailor-made for your needs: the hotel is connected to the hospital via skybridge, and staff is accustomed to going above and beyond to accommodate all manner of special medical considerations. But if you're just here as a tourist, you'll likely be dismayed by the location well away from any interesting sights, restaurants, or nightlife, and the overall old and tired feel to the place. In-room amenities include all the standards, plus ergonomic workstations are a nice touch too; elsewhere on the property is a fitness center, restaurant serving light meals, and 24-hour convenience store. Free WiFi, too. From $189/night.
- 10 Marriott Birmingham, 3590 Grandview Pkwy, ☏ , fax: . A typical Marriott experience: all the usual amenities you'll find at an upper-midscale full-service chain plus a few extras like ergonomic workstations and extra-luxurious bedding and linens. Indoor pool, onsite convenience store, and an outdoor patio area that provides a relaxing experience in spite of the banality of the hotel's suburban surroundings. RiverCity Restaurant serves a full buffet breakfast, and there's a free shuttle service to points around town. WiFi is available at a nominal extra charge. From $175/night.
- 11 The Westin Birmingham, 2221 Richard Arrington, Jr. Blvd N, ☏ , fax: , ✉ Westinreservations@bjcc.com. If you're familiar with the Westin brand, you know you're in for a luxurious experience, but location is another selling point here: it's not only right on the edge of downtown and directly connected to the convention center, but also just a quick zip away from the airport. Topping the lengthy list of amenities are a rooftop pool where you can lounge or take a dip with the downtown skyline as a backdrop, as well as a pair of superlative onsite dining experiences: Todd English Pub features bar-food favorites in a homey setting, and Octane Coffee Bar offers morning pick-me-ups. From $205/night.
Common-sense rules apply for most of the city center, e.g. travel in groups at night, don't look like a tourist, avoid dark alleyways, etc. While the city has a reputation for crime, dangerous areas are generally far away from anywhere of interest to tourists. Avoid the areas north of the civic center and west of I-65.
By contrast, downtown is very well patrolled, and other than common sense against normal big city stuff (e.g. beggars asking for money), there is not much to worry about. The same is true of the Five Points South neighborhood, so if you're headed to one of the swanky restaurants, pubs, or dance clubs over there, there's no need to fear.
The downtown area has a supplemental bike patrol called CAP (City Action Partnership) to deter crime and assist visitors. ☏ for a free security escort, directions, assistance with a dead car battery, etc.
The region has two telephone area code, 205 and 659, so you must dial all ten digits of a phone number.
There are many locations in Birmingham that offer free WiFi access, foremost among which are the 19 branches of the Birmingham Public Library. The largest and most centrally located of these is the...
As an important clinical research center, UAB Medical School operates most of the important hospitals in Birmingham. Their medical district south of downtown includes the 1,157-bed 2 UAB Hospital for a complete range of general medical concerns, as well as the 3 Children's Hospital of Alabama for pediatric care. An alternative to those is 4 St. Vincent's Hospital, Birmingham's oldest, operated since 1898 by the Catholic Daughters of Charity and especially renowned as a center for cardiology and robotics surgery.
Published three times weekly and distributed to about 150,000 subscribers across Jefferson County, the Birmingham News is the paper of record for the area. The Birmingham Weekly is the city's alternative newspaper, proferring a mix of local news, cultural coverage, event listings, and commentary of a decidedly more left-wing bent than most of the area's media.
- If retail therapy is in order, a 10-minute drive south from downtown on I-65 puts you in Hoover. The ambience is a bit plastic-fantastic but undeniably upscale, with all the shopping malls, chain restaurants, and big-box stores to slake your appetite for the familiar after taking in Birmingham's unique and funky city neighborhoods.
- In the same direction as Hoover but even closer to town, Homewood is another upscale suburb, albeit one with character — especially in the charming little downtown area at the foot of Red Mountain. Homewood is also where you'll find Samford University, home of the Alabama Men's Hall of Fame — and Division I football and basketball tickets that are a good sight cheaper than games at UAB.
- If you'd rather sink your teeth further into the Birmingham area's industrial history, and a little bit of grit doesn't faze you, head down I-20 to the working-class suburb of Bessemer, where much of Alabama's steel industry in the 20th century played out. The mills have mostly been idle since the 1970s, and the city's struggles with unemployment and its attendant problems are plain to see, but monuments to the good old days abound — check out the Tannehill Ironworks just outside of town. And if you'd like to "sink your teeth into" something else, Bessemer is also a rather unlikely foodie destination, home to Alabama's oldest operating restaurant and some of the best barbecue around these parts.
- "Roll Tide" is the phrase that pays in Tuscaloosa, the college town and former state capital that lies about an hour southwest of Birmingham along I-20. There's plenty of history, art, and culture to be found among the oak-lined streets of the "Druid City", but undoubtedly the main attraction is the University of Alabama itself — especially on football game days, when Bryant-Denny Stadium has been known to pack in over 100,000 fans (more than the population of the city!)
- A 45-minute drive northward along I-65 will put you in Cullman, home to St. Bernard Abbey, the only Benedictine abbey in Alabama. The Ave Maria Grotto, a miniature fairytale land on the grounds of the abbey, has been a favorite among visitors since it opened in 1934.
- Press further northward into the mountains and the next big city you'll come to is Huntsville. Formerly a sleepy cotton town, Huntsville shot to prominence in the years after World War II, when the U.S. government sent Dr. Wernher Von Braun and his team of scientists to the Redstone Arsenal to design missiles for the army. A decade later, NASA came to town and set up the Marshall Space Center to develop the propulsion system that would soon put American astronauts on the Moon, and... well, you can see why they call it the "Rocket City".
- Head the other direction on I-65, and in about an hour and a half you're in Alabama's state capital, Montgomery, a city replete with history, mostly of the unsavory variety — former capital of the Confederacy; home of one of the most active slave-trading markets in the U.S. in the years before the Civil War; site of Rosa Parks' infamous bus boycott. Montgomery wrestles with the ghosts of its past at the National Memorial for Peace & Justice, but it's not all somber reflection here: there's also a renowned Shakespeare Festival, a turn-of-the-century downtown turned living-history museum, and other cultural attractions.
- Sure, Birmingham is Alabama's biggest city. But for the Southern metropolitan experience par excellence, head about two hours east along I-20 to Atlanta, where big-league sports, world-class cultural institutions, cutting-edge cuisine, and urban-style hustle and bustle await.
|Routes through Birmingham|
|New Orleans ← Tuscaloosa ←||W NE||→ Atlanta → Charlotte|
|Meridian ← Bessemer ←||W E||→ Heflin → Atlanta|
|Memphis ← Fulton ←||W E||→ END|
|Chattanooga ← Gadsden ←||N S||→ Tuscaloosa → Meridian|
|Nashville ← Decatur ←||N S||→ Homewood → Montgomery|
|Rome ← Gadsden ←||N S||→ END|