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 image of their hometown.
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 and the everyman’s-treasure. When it’s time to eat and drink, this mid-sized city delivers like a metropolis, with plenty of barbecue and 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 two thousand 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 fans, and shoppers at the Saturday farmers’ market. Avondale and Forest Park are adjoining neighborhoods; architecture buffs will appreciate their 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—the Galax, the Princess, 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 three thousand—is home to classic movie nights and a famous Wurlitzer organ with 2,336 pipes. National live bands take the stage at the 1914 Lyric, a 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.
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.
After shuttering its old location on Highland Avenue, Taj India relocated to Lakeview this year. The family-run institution is beloved for its hospitality and lengthy lunch buffet of homestyle Indian dishes.
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, an eclectic home shop with a gallery of abstract art and chic tabletop accessories like Tom Dixon whiskey decanters. In August 2023, Pepper Place welcomed an innovative new tenant—IN8Bio, a multimillion-dollar cancer research center focused on novel therapies.
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. 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 that includes warm scones and cold kombuchas as well as plenty to peruse, from art books to flea-market finds.
Red or White is a wine bar and retail shop with enticing al-fresco seating on the planted patio, and around the corner, the Rougaroux is home to spicy poboys and a funky New Orleans ambiance. Walk off the calories 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, part of its 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-old staple for British and French pieces, also carries art deco accents and estate jewelry. The heartiest meals come via relative newcomer Civitas, where the towering Bloody Mary garnishes alone could fuel your day (but you’d be remiss to skip the fish sandwich).
Cruise straight down Cahaba Road, winding past the Zoo and the Botanical Gardens, and arrive in Mountain Brook Village. An ongoing construction revamp of the village keeps each visit feeling new, if not occasionally harried when traffic is high. Order 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. Long-loved mainstays include 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. The Little Betty Steak Bar isn’t open yet, but Instagram photos of the fall 2023 newcomer have residents salivating in anticipation of rare lamb chops, hand-cut pastas in vibrant sauce, and seared scallops.
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 thirty thousand per day at multiple locations in the city. 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 along with a bare-bones trinity: ribs, red sauce, and white bread.
One of the oldest joints for ’cue in the state is Golden Rule, in operation since 1891. It got new ownership this year, but fans of the three locations will still see friendly faces, as all the employees and menu items remain. The banana pudding is a cult classic.
Among the comparatively newer names in town, Rodney Scott’s needs no introduction among Southern low-and-slow fanatics. The South Carolina pitmaster’s 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—the carved figureheads from a Spanish galleon, perhaps? Finally, you cannot buy the thousand-plus vintage motorcycles and race cars on display 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 the dramatic Pipeline Quarry Trail, where raptors swoop above the thick canopy as you stand on jagged outcrops of natural limestone. Earlier this year, the Freshwater Land Trust logged 129 miles of newly connected trails, bike lanes, parks, and sidewalks as part of the Red Rock Trail System. There’s a great interactive online map too!
WHEN TO GO
Regions Field kicks off baseball season each April, and Sloss Furnaces hosts the Magic City Art Connection, featuring more than two hundred jury-selected Alabama artists, plus workshops. May celebrates furry friends at Do Dah Day, the city’s annual dog costume contest and parade, benefitting local rescues.
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, which overlooks Birmingham. Each summer, the Alabama Music Awards recognize the state’s best in sound, and movie nerds should visit in August for the Sidewalk Film Fest, a nonprofit supporting Alabama’s independent filmmakers and screening 250 films 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, featuring 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 take place around the city, including art exhibitions and memorials at pertinent locations like the 16th 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; the revamped Redmont with its minimalist stylings, art deco touches, and skyline-view bar; and the modern, chic Kelly, a Tapestry Collection by Hilton property. For contemporary design vibes and suburban exploration, opt for the Grand Bohemian, a boutique property in Mountain Brook Village with a whimsical design and funky rooftop. Or the newer Valley Hotel in Homewood, where floor-to-ceiling windows, midcentury furnishings, and a soothing Nordic color palette provide respite.