Birmingham is a dichotomy of visuals. Red Mountain, named for its rust-colored seams of red hematite iron ore, divides the downtown’s brick warehouses, silver high-rises, and terracotta façade architecture from the suburbs, where twisted, cliffside roads snake against golf courses and historic homes, shaded by a leafy canopy of elms and oaks.
Birmingham is also a dichotomy of reputations. Not shying away from telling a full story of the city, including the brutal days of the civil rights movement and the black soot of the city’s steel-producing era, the newer generations have worked tirelessly to lift up a fresh reputation for their Birmingham home.
WHY WE LOVE IT
An international leader in modern healthcare, Birmingham is also devoted to history. You’ll find restored theaters, the nation’s oldest baseball park, and sweet spots for fine antiques as well as the everyman’s-treasure. When it’s time to eat and drink, this mid-sized city delivers like a metropolis, with plenty of barbecue, plus a shocking number of James Beard recognitions at all price points. New hotels, independent shopping, an international airport, and exceptional, easily accessible wild spaces make any season a good season for traveling to Birmingham.
NEIGHBORHOODS TO KNOW
The Alabama Theater marquee—a vertical landmark of nearly 2,000 bulbs, whose likeness arrives on tourism posters and t-shirts—welcomes you to the heart of the Theater District, a thriving section of downtown with three historic playhouses, a baseball park, craft breweries, and historic churches. Lakeview was designed as a city resort in Birmingham’s fledgling days. The plans for a lake retreat since cast aside, it’s grown into a nexus for farm-to-table foodies, hipster fashion, and a farmers’ market every Saturday. Avondale and Forest Park are adjoined neighborhoods; architecture buffs will appreciate the variety of homes, from Craftsman bungalows to Queen Anne mansions. Central thoroughfares include art galleries, flower shops, and al fresco cafes. The suburbs are worthy, too. The Villages refers to Crestline, English, and Mountain Brook, where boutique hotels and stores flank European bakeries and sunny, small parks.
THE THEATER DISTRICT
Between 1900 and 1910, Birmingham’s steel industry boomed. The population grew by 300 percent in that decade. In its earliest heyday, Birmingham was a show town, with more than seventy theaters bearing monikers in bright bulbs such as the Galax, the Princess, and the Rialto.
Only the grandest remain, each painstakingly restored. At 3rd Avenue North and 18th Street, the Alabama—a 1927 Grande Dame, with gilded trappings and seating for 3,000—is home to classic movie nights and the famous Wurlitzer Organ, with 2,336 pipes. National live bands take the stage at the 1914 Lyric, an original vaudeville house saved in 2013 from extreme decay. Here you’ll find twelve traditional opera boxes and beautiful decorative plaster. The Carver Center for the Performing Arts (1935) was the first to screen movies to Black audiences. It’s now home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, a museum and an educational center that draws huge global music acts. The Fennec (2021) serves up intimate singer-songwriter shows with dinner, and a few blocks down, the Double-A Birmingham Barons baseball team plays at Regions Field.
Don’t miss the Saturday farmers’ market at Pepper Place, a riot of color, local produce, and live music. But any day of the week, Pepper Place—a collection of historic brick warehouses, transformed in the 1990s—offers enticing retailers such as Billy Reid, Alabama’s most famous fashion designer. Pick up turmeric vinegar or apple butter at the Stone Hollow Farmstead and venture to Design Supply, a 9,000-square-foot eclectic home shop with a gallery of abstracts and chic tabletop accessories, like Tom Dixon whiskey decanters.
Lakeview shines in delicious diversity. Refuel at the James Beard Award–winning chef Chris Hastings’s Ovenbird, find oysters and Champagne at Automatic Seafood, and indulge in handmade bucatini at Bettola. Back Forty Beer Company offers not only crisp IPAs but dramatic views of the city’s active rail lines and of Sloss Furnaces. The latter, a former pig iron manufacturer, is now a National Historic Landmark where a museum, metal arts program, and festival venue all reside.
FOREST PARK & AVONDALE
In the 1920s, Forest Park was the hot zip code for the city’s prominent players.
Today, the steep hillsides support dozens of historic architecture styles, delighting renovation buffs. Shoppe on Clairmont Avenue stands as a stunning iron-and-glass greenhouse and an adjacent plant shop. Gregarious owners Mark Thompson and Jay Draper opened General next door, with a menu of pimento cheese sandwiches and cold lemonade, as well as art books and beautiful flea-market finds.
The Rougaroux, home to spicy po-boys and a funky New Orleans ambiance, is caloric. Walk it off over the mile of hills to the Avondale neighborhood. Forty-first Street is a main drag with high appeal, including live music in the backyard at Avondale Brewing and board games, coffee, and classic cocktails at Satellite. Sozo Trading Co. features thrift and artisan goods made in Uganda, a mission to support communities there. Don’t skip Ore Mercantile—where else can you buy a fish-shaped, silver hip flask, bespoke shaving cream, and a classic meatball sub in one stop?
Tudor-style architecture visually links the hubs of Birmingham’s poshest suburbs. In English Village, located at the crest of Red Mountain, queue at the Continental Bakery for gooey, strawberry-cream-cheese croissants and rich, roasted coffee. Source a Niçoise salad at their adjoining French concept, Chez Lulu, or pop in Brogue & Cuff for bespoke men’s fashion. Henhouse Antiques, a twenty-three-year staple for British and French pieces, also has Art Deco accents and estate jewelry.
Cruise straight down Cahaba Road, winding past the Zoo and the Botanical Gardens, and arrive in Mountain Brook Village. Snag a fortified sherry or cold French róse and catch up with friends over a charcuterie board at the minimalist stunner, Golden Age Wine. Soft linen pants at B. Prince, diamond earrings and Golden Goose sneakers at ETC. and the infused oils at Mountain Brook Olive Company might necessitate buying an extra suitcase. A recent facelift to this village has doubled the footprint, but long-loved mainstays remain, like Gilchrist—an old-fashioned soda fountain with killer club sandwiches—and Davenport’s Pizza—where you can play the original Pac-Man while waiting on square-cut slices.
Birmingham’s steeply carved terrain makes walking questionable, but Crestline Village is a flatland, ideal for biking, jogging, or pushing kids on swings at Crestline Park. Post workout, Saw’s Juke Joint serves mouthwatering barbecue, and Porch earns bragging rights as the neighborhood’s best burger. At Otey’s Tavern, you’ll locate the locals, sipping domestics at sunset.
GET YOUR ’CUE ON
Birmingham has one of the highest concentrations of barbecue restaurants per capita in America. The diversity of styles is a charming bonus. Pay homage to the originals. Head to Miss Myra’s in Cahaba Heights for the smoked chicken, slathered in iconic, vinegar-based Alabama White Sauce. Jim & Nick’s has incredible pulled pork sandwiches, but also excellent (free) cheese biscuits. This chain bakes 30,000 per day. Barbecue for breakfast? Yup! Demetri’s, in Homewood since 1961, has cult-status cheese grits served with smokey sausage, and Dreamland in Southside greets you with fire, smoke, and rusty-license-plate decor, serving a bare-bones trinity: ribs, red sauce, and white bread.
Then, branch out to the newer names in town. Rodney Scott’s, run by South Carolina’s famous pit master, arrived in 2019. His succulent whole hog preparation is a moist, fatty, slightly spicy must-eat. Fat Charles BBQ posts on Instagram to announce the location of its food truck. Track it to find a fusion of Latin flavors including the OG Brisket Tacos with pico de gallo.
HUNT FOR YESTERYEAR
Birmingham is smitten with antiques and vintage finds. Jim Reed’s Books & the Museum of Fond Memories can supply you with a battered Stephen King novel as quickly as a weird discovery. Perhaps a replica of the leg lamp from A Christmas Story? What’s On Second is a quirky ephemera shop in Little Five Points where you might find a Garfield phone, a Spuds MacKenzie poster, faded 1920s postcards, and the best of the ’80s—hello, Nintendo games and Madonna on vinyl! Speaking of vinyl, one street over, Renaissance Records offers new and used albums, plus cassettes, CDs, and band posters.
Sourcing serious antiques is also easy. Architectural Heritage sells Italian marble mantels and copper chimney pots, and the vendors at the brand-new Antique Market on Linden sling a bit of everything. Pick up a set of vintage Martini glasses or something larger, like the carved figureheads from a Spanish galleon, perhaps? Finally, you cannot buy the 1,000-plus vintage motorcycles and race cars at the gleaming Barber Motorsports Museum. However, it’s well worth the twenty-minute drive from downtown to ogle a 1940s Triumph or a ‘60s Ferrari.
Birmingham is home to dozens of fantastic parks, but it was Railroad Park in 2010 that forever changed downtown. Replacing a blighted section of defunct tracks, this nineteen-acre linear green space encouraged residents to move back downtown, helping pave the way for the return of the Birmingham Barons baseball team and the creation of Regions Field. Ruffner Mountain Nature Coalition protects and maintains fourteen miles of trails minutes from downtown, including a dramatic Pipeline Quarry Trail, where raptors swoop above the thick canopy as you stand on jagged outcrops of natural limestone. Oak Mountain welcomes concertgoers to the amphitheater, but also beginners or experts for serious mountain biking, via thirty miles of single and double track trails.
WHEN TO GO
The sound of spring here could be summed up in three words: bats, beers and barks. Regions Field kicks off baseball season each April. May celebrates furry friends at Do Dah Day, the city’s annual dog costume contest and parade, benefitting local rescues. Beer fans should book in June, for Magic City Brewfest at Sloss Furnaces, where the city’s best hop masters are joined by national craft brewers for a weekend of tasting tents.
Summer of 2022 brought the World Games—proof enough that Birmingham’s star is rising. However, every Fourth of July, Thunder on the Mountain at Vulcan Park is a chance to celebrate not only independence, but also Vulcan, the world’s largest iron statue that overlooks Birmingham. Each summer, the Alabama Music Awards recognize the state’s best in sound, while helping to preserve a rich musical legacy, and movie nerds should visit in August, for the Sidewalk Film Fest. This nonprofit supports Alabama’s independent filmmakers, showcasing 250 films in a single weekend, screening inside theaters, empty storefronts, and historic churches.
The Barber Motorsports Vintage Festival means thousands of antique motorcycles in October. Greek Fest is one of the town’s longest running festivals, with gyros, dolmas, and a downright good time at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral downtown.
At various times in December, the Villages host Holiday Tree Lightings, with shops open late. The Nutcracker arrives at the Alabama Ballet each December. Want something a bit cheekier? Check out Miracle on 24th Street—an annual holiday pop-up at the acclaimed Queen’s Park cocktail bar. The tropical space is transformed for the month into a Chevy-Chase-worthy holiday cocktail party. Throughout February, Black History Month events happen around the city, including art exhibitions and memorials at pertinent locations, like the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
WHERE TO STAY
Fifteen years ago, the hotel scene was nothing to send a postcard home about. Now, downtown hotels include the Elyton—a chic hotel inside the 1909-built, sixteen-story Empire building—and the revamped Redmont with minimalist stylings, Art Deco touches, and a skyline-view bar. For contemporary design vibes and suburban exploration, opt for the Grand Bohemian, a boutique property in Mountain Brook Village, with a whimsical design and a funky rooftop. Or the newer Valley Hotel, in Homewood, where floor-to-ceiling windows, mid-century furnishings, and a Nordic color palette provide soothing respite.