Posted May 28, 2016
As we continued, our road trip across the American south we made the short two-hour drive from Atlanta by way of Senoia, Georgia to Birmingham, Alabama, known as the Magic City. Much of my understanding of Birmingham has been shaped by its tumultuous history as one flashpoint of the civil rights movement and the violence that came with it throughout the 1950s and 1960s. We were intrigued by how the Magic City’s storied past has shaped the modern-day city. What we found was pleasantly unexpected.
Birmingham, Alabama and Tourism
Birmingham was founded in 1871 during post-Civil War reconstruction at the intersection of two major railroads built to move iron ore, coal, and limestone, the three main raw materials used in making steel, sent mainly to the northern cities. The city has never served as a major national or international tourist destination, and it was perhaps because of that we were most fascinated by what awaited us. Over the past couple of years, the downtown area has experienced a rebirth, with the revitalization of warehouses into craft breweries and the creation of the Railroad Park, a 19-acre public green space.
For those who make the journey into the deep south, Birmingham offers an unparalleled exploration of the civil rights movement through the Civil Rights Institute, located across the street from the infamous site of one of America’s darkest days, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, in which four children were killed. In the same area is the Kelly Ingram Park, a beautiful park that memorializes the struggle of Birmingham’s African American population during the civil rights movement.
Over the course of our three-day visit we were asked several times what brought us here, and too much surprise, we responded that we traveled here specifically to explore what the city offered to travelers. To travel off the beaten path, even in one’s own country can be an exhilarating and enlightening experience, especially to a destination we may have preconceived notions of. What better place to have an impactful trip than the Magic City.
Where to Stay in Birmingham
Hassinger Daniels Mansion Bed and Breakfast
The Hassinger Daniels Mansion Bed and Breakfast, in the Five Points South neighborhood, is as central a location as you can get. The 1898 registered national historic mansion, now a bed-and-breakfast is welcoming from the moment you lay eyes on its large wrap-around front porch. The foyer and downstairs are filled with a unique southern charm, and the carvings that decorate much of the front sitting room, all from the carving school in the mansion's basement. Our room, Hera’s Loft on the third floor was a spacious en-suite with a small balcony overlooking the city. The bed-and-breakfast has 10 guest rooms spread out over three floors.
Not only is staying in a locally owned bed and breakfast impactful on the community you visit, but you also enrich your experience by getting to know the host as well as the other guests. Breakfast is the optimal time for this interaction. Each morning, breakfast was served at 9 a.m. in the grand dining room on the ground floor with all the other guests. This made for a lively and engaging discussion about ourselves and what brought each of us to the city. The host, Sheila did an amazing job engaging with all of the guests, even remembering our names, occupations, and where we were from. It certainly made for a more personal and enjoyable experience.
Where to Eat in Birmingham
Saw's Soul Kitchen BBQ
According to many of the cab drivers, the most important thing to eat while in Birmingham is BBQ and of course, each of them had a different favorite place. Located just a block away from Avondale Brewing Company (what to see and do in Birmingham), is Saw’s Soul Kitchen, a well-known spot for great southern BBQ. Set in a tiny building that doesn’t accommodate more than 15 people at once, it’s ideal to get there early as sometimes you have to wait in line just to get inside. Oh, and it was nearly full the whole time we were there. After studying the large chalkboard menu, Carrie and I both ordered pulled pork sandwiches with a side of fried green tomatoes, fries, and coleslaw. The food, all classic southern fare, was sensational, making Saw’s Soul Kitchen an absolute must when in Birmingham.
5 Point Public House Oyster Bar
Possibly the best meal I had on our entire road trip was at 5 Point Public House Oyster Bar, and it wasn’t oysters! One of the foods I looked forward to eating most on the trip was a real southern chicken biscuit sandwich, and once I saw it on the menu my decision was made. Carrie had a cranberry and spinach salad. I seriously enjoyed my beautifully cooked chicken biscuit sandwiches, served on a cheddar biscuit, with maple butter and pickles, and a side of succotash, which I had never had before. I could not have been happier with my choice. The restaurant was less than a five-minute walk from the bed and breakfast.
What to See and Do in Birmingham
Craft Breweries - Avondale, Cahaba, and Good People Brewing Companies
To our surprise, Birmingham has a strong local craft brewery scene and it turned out to be one of the highlights of our visit. The Avondale Brewing Company, located in the Avondale area, is set in a historic building that has been home to a wide range of businesses such as a post office, firehouse, bank, and a bordello, was the first microbrewery we visited. We each had a flight that included six of their twelve beers.
Another one of Birmingham’s great local craft breweries, the Cahaba Brewing Company is located about a 15-minute walk from Avondale Brewing Company and is set in an enormous warehouse, with a large porch, perfect for a beer on a warm evening. They also had a food truck serving hot homemade apple and berry pies, which I couldn’t pass up and grabbed one of each!
Good People Brewing Company, probably the best known local craft brewery, is conveniently located across the street from Regions Field, home of the Birmingham Barons. An ideal location for any brewery! So along with several hundred others, we checked out the brewery before a Barons baseball game. We had a Smash Mosaic and Farmhouse Ale, both were superb, but because of the crowd, we could only have the one each. If I were to visit again I would stop by when there isn’t a game so I could enjoy the space more and try more of their beer. One of the cool features about the brewery was the large porch with jenga blocks that everyone was playing.
Civil Rights Institute/ Kelly Ingram Park/ 16th Street Baptist Church
Birmingham, was once dubbed “Bombingham” because of a large number of bombings, has undoubtedly a tumultuous past, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s when the city served as a focal point of the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Institute ($12 entry), built in 1992, documents the civil rights movement, not only as experienced in Birmingham, but throughout America. The self-guided tour starts with a series of eye-opening exhibits of life in the segregated city of Birmingham before exploring the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the development of the civil rights movement. The exhibits are extensive and provide a glimpse into the events that have shaped modern America. The last exhibit was a series of photographs taken the day the bus carrying the Freedom Riders from Washington, DC to Montgomery, Alabama was viciously attacked and fire-bombed en route to Birmingham. The powerful images depict scores of riders injured and receiving treatment and the bus engulfed in flames. The institute is an absolute must when in Birmingham.
Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from the Civil Rights Institute is a peaceful park in the middle of the city that pays tribute to the civil rights struggle in the city. The park includes several statues of children being intimidated by police dogs, sprayed with high-pressure water hoses, and incarcerated on a large scale during the Children’s March of 1963. The city provides a free audio tour that can be accessed from your phone. Across the street from the Civil Rights Institute is the 16th Street Baptist Church, now a National Historic Landmark, and the site of Birmingham’s deadliest bombing, in which 4 children were killed during Sunday school.
Downtown Birmingham has undergone a transformation over the past decade. One development in particular along the railroad tracks worth checking out is the Railroad Park, which opened in 2010 and is hailed as “Birmingham’s Living Room”. The beautifully laid out 19-acre green space has a range of features, including a large pond, multiple trails, a cafe, free exercise classes, performance and picnic areas that would rival many city parks. The park, located across the street from the new Birmingham Barons stadium, hosts a selection of concerts and cultural events throughout the year.
One important point of reference looming over the city from the south is the fifty-ton Vulcan statue, the largest cast iron statue in the world. The statue, unveiled at the World’s Fair in 1904 in St. Louis, Missouri, is of the Roman god of fire and forge, the city’s symbol. It sits atop Red Mountain as a constant reminder of the city’s past as an important iron and steel producer. For a small fee ($5) you can tour the Vulcan museum which explains the city’s early development and the central role the mining industry had. The ticket to the museum includes a tour atop the statue where you have a stunning panoramic view of the city and the surrounding countryside.
Carrie and I are huge baseball fans and simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to catch a Birmingham Barons game. The team, founded in 1885, are a Double-A team affiliated with the Chicago White Sox and play at Regions Field located next to the Railroad Park and Good People Brewing Company. It just so happened to be Thirsty Thursday, which meant $2 beers at the ballpark all night. We bought seats a few rows behind home plate for what the cheapest ticket at a Washington Nationals game would cost. The best part about the stadium was the dedicated section to the city’s growing local micro-brew scene. This gave us the chance to try Tim Tam, a brewery we weren’t able to visit. The evening weather was perfect and the Barons won with an 8th inning rally.
We were pleasantly surprised by the vibrancy of Birmingham. Traveling to cities off the typical tourist trail are perfect not only because you really get to experience the city and its people for what they are but also because you are more likely to have an impactful trip. Visiting local craft breweries, local restaurants, and staying in a locally owned bed and breakfast meant we definitely had an impactful stay. We continued our road trip through the American south and traveled north to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
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All photography by Albert Bond
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