Atop Red Mountain, overlooking one of Alabama’s most dynamic cities stands a towering figure of the Roman god Vulcan. Cast from over 1,000 pounds of iron and standing 56 feet tall, the deity of fire and forge raises a protective arm across his thriving metropolis: Birmingham, Alabama.
It’s an odd patron for an American city, but there’s good reason why Vulcan is an ever-present figure here. Established in 1871 in mineral-rich Jefferson County and near rail crossroads, Birmingham was built on a foundation of steel mills and blast furnaces. The city soon became the industrial “Vulcan” of the region, and never looked back.
Today, the city is a modern urban center with a rich Southern tradition. Sports abound, culture is rich, and dining is top-notch. Indeed, there is a lot to explore here, and it’s well worth a visit.
With several daily flights into the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, flying to this Southern hub is easy. Downtown Birmingham is about six miles from the airport and easily reached by rental car, taxi, or rideshare. If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, the Amtrak Crescent Route runs between New Orleans and New York with a daily stop in downtown Birmingham at the Intermodal Facility.
Birmingham is a driving city. It spreads across 150 square miles (not including suburbs), and with limited bus service, renting a car will be your most efficient option for getting around. The city has a well-developed federal and state highway system, making navigation as easy as pie. Think of the city as a cluster of smaller neighborhoods. Drive to one, park, and explore by foot. Rinse and repeat.
Where to stay and eat
Birmingham offers an assortment of lodging options, ranging from major hotel groups throughout the city to a handful of beautifully-restored boutique hotels downtown. The Redmont, for instance, is a 1925 Art Deco beauty and includes the Harvest Restaurant and Bar, Chef Trenton Tisdale’s take on elevated Southern cuisine; and grab-and-go favorite, the 2102 Café. Just south of here in the Five Points area is Chris Hastings’s Hot & Hot Fish Club, a top choice for farm-to-table regional fare, Gulf Coast fish, and a discriminating wine list.
The Elyton, also downtown, is a more contemporary, yet equally sophisticated hotel option. Coupled with it is one of the city’s most celebrated Southern eateries, The Yard. Try it for your morning biscuits and gravy, or an inspired dinner of locally sourced salmon or truffled steak. Insider tip: Both the Elyton and Redmont sport roof gardens, perfect for overlooking the city while sipping on your sloe gin fizz.
The Grand Bohemian Hotel in Mountain Brook (slightly outside the city to the south) is a one-of-a-kind, fantastical destination in itself. With exotic, lush, violet-hued furnishings; an art gallery; cooking school; and billiards room, it’s a little like Oz meets Soho. Even if this isn’t your cup of tea, it’s worth a visit to experience the unusual.
Last but not least, try John’s City Diner downtown for a superior diner experience. More lavish than lard-y, the menu is built around organic produce and hormone-free meat. Go ahead, order the Chicken and Waffles – but don’t forget the salad.
There’s more than you could ever imagine happening in Birmingham, with activities to fit every interest. Dig into the city’s art, music, history, sports culture, and more via our top activity picks below.
Art and all that jazz
Alabama counts several jazz greats among its native sons and daughters. If you’re a jazz head, stop off at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame for a musical tour through the works and memorabilia of Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Lionel Hampton, Erskine Hawkins, and many others. Don’t miss Ray Charles’s piano or Ella Fitzgerald’s Neiman Marcus credit card.
If you’re more attuned to visual arts, check out Birmingham’s Museum of Art. Aside from top-drawer traveling shows, the museum boasts superlative permanent exhibits — including a Wedgewood china collection with one of only five copies of the Portland Vase in slate blue — and one of the largest collections of Asian art in the Southeast.
Civil rights history
Birmingham played an outsized role in the American Civil Rights story, and a visit would be incomplete without a stop to the Civil Rights District downtown. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, site of the 1963 bombing; Kelly Ingram (West) Park, a flashpoint of several historical protests; and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute provide a moving tribute to the African Americans who have struggled for freedom and equality in America.
When you’re ready for some outdoor adventure, Birmingham has you covered. Sports lovers can hustle to Rickwood Field, America’s oldest baseball park and ancestral home of the city’s first professional team, the Coal Barons. During the field’s heyday, enthusiastic crowds came to see Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Birmingham spitball pitcher, Burleigh Grimes. The Black Barons, Birmingham’s professional team in the Negro Leagues, also played here, including Negro American League home run record-holder, George “Mule” Suttles. Visit the Negro Southern League Museum for more African American baseball history and catch today’s minor league team, the Barons, at Regions Field for current baseball action.
Fresh air fun
For those of who just want some fresh air and pleasant scenery, there is Railroad Park, a lush nine-acre open-space within city limits dotted with over 600 trees and endless clusters of flowers. Recreational activities, concerts, and other events are held in the park throughout the year. For more hardcore outdoor adventure, head just outside the city where Oak Mountain State Park and Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve offer miles of trails for hiking and biking, including an international Mountain Biking Association EPIC-certified trail at Oak Mountain.
Birmingham sports some of the best locally brewed craft beer in the Southeast, so before you depart, wet your whistle with a guided tour of the city’s finest breweries. Red Clay Tours offers a three-hour tour of three breweries, including lots of tastings, a few pints, and a meal if you get hungry along the way. Importantly, they also pick up and drop off.
Truth be told, we’ve only scratched the surface. For more information about the many offerings of Birmingham, see visitbirmingham.com.