For many who visit Birmingham, the town is a historical reference point, associated with the Civil Rights movement and little else. But while the struggle for equal rights is rightly integral to the Iron City’s identity, it is not the only thing that defines it. Birmingham is a city set against wooded hills, in love with the outdoors, steeped in the South’s enviable food culture, and blessed with the region’s love of music.
While you’re here, make sure to turn the radio dial to 107.3 for Birmingham Mountain Radio. The eclectic mix of indie, underground, soul and country this station pumps into the airwaves is a national treasure that is criminally unrecognized in the rest of the country.
Birmingham and the Civil Rights movement
Birmingham’s name evokes the Civil Rights movement across the world, and not always in a way city boosters may love. If there is an iconic historical image of the city, it is grainy newsreel images of protesters fleeing police batons and attack dogs.
A large chunk of the tourism infrastructure of the city has been built to accommodate students of this period of history. The seminal attraction, and most impressive facility of the bunch, is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The museum explains how Birmingham, the largest city in one of the most stubbornly segregationist states in the South, became the front line in the war for equal rights. The effect is accomplished via exhaustive research, narrative immersion, and a bag of multimedia tricks.
The year 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the summer of 1963, one of the milestone moments in the Civil Rights movement. To celebrate the occasion, the city saw the dedication of the Birmingham Civil Rights Memorial Trail, a route that traces the outline of many of the most important moments of the city’s push towards racial reconciliation. The 22 stops are marked by plaques and public art, much of it quite poignant; in places, visitors must cross a gauntlet of sculpted snapping dogs, before being confronted by statues of the four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which also forms part of the trail.
The foodways of the USA are plentiful and diverse, but few have the South’s deep sense of history and tradition. Birmingham, an industrial city built on mines that have long attracted immigrant labor, has long sat at the crossroads of the game hunting and hill produce of the upland South, and the agricultural bounty of the bottomlands.
If you’re looking for that most famous indigenous Southern cuisine – barbecue – it’s impossible to go wrong with Saw’s, which has arrived on the American barbecue scene like a bat out of the most delicious circle of Hell. The meat drips off the bone and glistens under a pearly sheen of lip-smacking oil and fat; this, readers, is the smoked stuff that brings foodies to their grateful knees. For a more upscale take on modern Southern cuisine, seek out the Hot and Hot Fish Club. Headed by the James Beard-nominated Chris Hastings, this is Southern fine dining that sticks to the ribs with all the comfort of home cooking.
Soul food was invented in African American kitchens, originally as a cuisine of necessity, but now recognized as a gastronomic vehicle for rich sauces and original recipes. You can argue for days over the best soul food in Birmingham, but you’ll get a nod of respect for trying anything at Eagle’s Restaurant, a tucked-away diner that has perfected the meat-and-two model. Want to head further south for your cuisine? El Barrio is a decidedly sexy execution of the Mexican moderne genre, a huge airy space with folk art, beautiful clientele and some very fine tacos.
Birmingham may love food, but it also has a surprisingly funky nightlife scene for a relatively small town. The gorgeous, the young, and those in need of craft cocktails pack into The Collins Bar, just west of hip Avondale. Let a bartender know your taste and liquor preferences and they do the work of selecting your drink. On the other side of the spectrum, the gloriously down-at-heels Garage Cafe is what happens when a dive bar collides with a junkyard. The outdoor garden looks like it contains the detritus of a thousand yard sales, peppered with friendly customers getting their cold beer on.
Experience Alabama’s great outdoors
Many first-time visitors don’t know how physically attractive Birmingham’s setting is. The city was built over major iron veins, and is nestled within swathes of thick forest and flinty hill country. It’s a landscape ripe for hiking, and Alabama’s largest state park, Oak Mountain, is located just 12 miles south of town. Within the networks of hiking and biking trails, you may come across Maggie’s Glen, a quiet sylvan heart in the midst of the woods.
If you’d like to do your outdoor exploration closer to the city, just head uphill to Vulcan Park, crowned by a buff statue of the Roman god of smithing (trivia fact: it’s actually the largest cast-iron statue in the world). There’s a small onsite museum that explores the history of the city and its mining industry, and the park itself affords pleasant views of the city and surrounding foothills. Plus, there are a few trails for those who want to bushwack around within a stone’s-throw distance of urban Birmingham.