Last Updated on February 26, 2023
Birmingham is known as the Magic City, and a visit there confirms the magic. You will find so much that you never knew, from the Civil Rights Trail to fine dining. Birmingham was founded relatively late in American history, in 1871 with the merger of three farm towns. The new city was named for Birmingham, England. From the beginning it was a planned industrial town with substantial iron ore deposits.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham was a focus of the Civil Rights Movement. Klansmen who worked in mines and industry had access to dynamite and other bomb materials. The bombing of Black churches earned the city the nickname “Bombingham.” Today, those sites are preserved respectfully as historic reminders to the world of the horrors of racism.
Vulcan, created for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair by Giuseppie Moretti, tops Red Mountain and gazes over the city. At 56 feet tall and 100,000 pounds, the world’s largest cast iron statue is impossible to miss. As the Roman god of fire, he is a perfect symbol for a city that grew from the blazing furnaces of iron production. Birmingham is the only place in the world that has all three elements needed to produce cast iron: coal, limestone, and iron ore.
You can go to the top of Vulcan for a terrific view of Birmingham. Don’t skip the museum at his feet. It tells Birmingham’s history and how Vulcan came to be built.
One giant mural explains that Birmingham was named “The Magic City” because the iron industry caused it to grow from a tiny town to a huge city almost overnight.
Bethel Baptist Church
The fight for civil rights will always be associated with Birmingham. The movement started with Bethel Baptist Church pastor, Fred Shuttleworth.
It began in 1957 when Shuttleworth enrolled his children in an all-white public school in the city. The issue exploded, literally. He was beaten by Klansmen and his home and church bombed. The church was bombed three times, but never missed a service and never lost a life in the bombing.
There is a plaque in front of the church noting the Christmas 1956 bombing that destroyed Shuttlesworth’s parsonage.
16th Street Baptist Church
There is a simple black stone monument on the side of the three-story church telling the story of four young girls who lost their life on Sunday, September 15, 1963.
Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, all 14 years old, and Carol Denise McNair, 11 years old, were preparing for a choir performance in the basement that Sunday. A Klan bomb ended their young lives and injured twenty other parishioners.
Kelly Ingram Park
Outdoor sculptures in Kelly Ingram Park depict Birmingham’s civil rights struggle. “Four Spirits,” a life sized sculpture on the corner directly across the street from 16th Street Baptist Church, is of the four girls playing.
One item in the park that at first glance might not seem to fit the theme is a chestnut tree representing the chestnut tree Anne Frank wrote about in her diary. The tree is a reminder that the hatred and segregation Hitler used to turn German Jews into second-class citizens is similar to what African Americans faced in segregated America.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Cross the street and enter the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This huge domed building is filled with the history of the struggle for equal rights from the 1950s and 1960s through to present day.
Two of the exhibits were most memorable for me. One was the jail cell in which Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned. It was here that he wrote the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
The other is a display of a typical 1950s drug store soda fountain where a white teen couple are sipping drinks and flirting. Outside a black teenage girl is standing by the door with her schoolbooks and gazing longingly inside at that same counter, a place where she is not permitted to sit.
I took Barry McNealy’s Civil Rights tour and would recommend it highly when you visit Birmingham.
Joe Minter’s African Village in America
Joe Minter has been described by one visitor as “that crazy artist who lives in the graveyard.” His pieces of folk art are among the strangest that I have ever seen. They cover his entire side yard on Nassau Street. The cemetery borders the yard.
He was working as a construction worker when he felt God told him to build folk art structures and to plant a garden of memory to show the injustices suffered by African Americans. He obeyed this voice and has been creating his unique art ever since. Each piece tells of the plight of African Americans struggling for equal rights.
Imagine being in the peanut business over a century ago. This is a landmark in Birmingham’s original Wholesale District. In the early days it was filled with the smell of roasting coffee, peanuts, and baked bread. The streets teemed with horses and freight wagons. It’s located in The John Hand Building, the oldest merchant building in Birmingham.
John, Peanut Place’s third generation owner, will greet you. There are several antique roasters here; one of the roasters is over 110 years old. John’s grandfather bought and used it and works to this day.
Reed Books Museum of Fond Memories
Whether you’re an avid reader or not, you will enjoy browsing through Jim Reed’s collection of over 50,000 books, magazines, newspapers, and movie posters. These are just the ones he has catalogued. He has over 250,000 more that aren’t catalogued.
Reed told us how he decided to open this store, “I had other careers and I finally realized my problem was bosses. So now I don’t have any identified bosses.” He added, “I never listened to advice because the stubborn shall inherit the earth.”
Birmingham Pedal Tour
What a way to have a designated driver! These pedal buses hold 14 people and the driver. Five on each side are pedaling seats and there is a four person bench with no pedals at the back for those who might be too inebriated or just not want to pedal. You can book for a group.
The Pedal Tour will take you between Birmingham’s breweries for a night of fun in the beer gardens. Birmingham has its share of breweries you can visit like Ghost Train Brewing, Sweetwater Brewing, Back Forty Beer Company, Good People Brewing Company, Birmingham District Brewing Company, and more. Many have food trucks in the gardens at night, so you will be able to nibble as you sample different brews.
The Market at Pepper Place
This huge farmer’s market with about 120 tents, food trucks, and carts pops up each Saturday from 7 a.m. until noon in the parking lot of a restored factory. You’ll find local chefs doing live cooking demos, while local artisans bring unique hand-crafted items to sell.
Negro Southern League Museum
This museum will delight baseball fans. It has the largest collection of original Negro League baseball artifacts in the country. The museum began to honor the players of the Southern Negro League, many of whom went on to play for the National League teams.
The player exhibits are life sized. There’s Leroy “Satchel” Paige’s number 25 uniform for the Kansas City. The McCallister Trophy, the oldest known Negro League trophy, is on display. You’ll see an exhibit on Rickwood Field, the oldest ballpark in the country. There are exhibits on Hall of Fame members, Willie Mays, Hilton Smith, Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, and George “Mule” Suttles. There are lots of autographed baseballs.
The Pizitz Food Hall is a uniquely Birmingham concept. It houses multiple food venders, restaurants, and a bar in the downstairs level of the former department store. Russian immigrant Louis Pizitz began the Louis Pizitz Dry Goods Company in 1899, which later evolved into a chain of department stores. This eight story building, once one of the chain stores, was completed in 1923. The architecture is as much fun as the unique dining experience.
Highlands Bar and Grill is one of the best restaurants in the southeast, and that’s not just my opinion. Chef Frank Stitt is a nine time James Beard Foundation finalist and Winner for Outstanding Restaurant in 2018. Stitt first learned to cook as a kid at home in Cullman, Alabama. You can’t go wrong here no matter what you order.
Bright Star has been around in Bessemer, a Birmingham suburb, since 1907. The original murals painted by an itinerant European artist give it a beautiful old world flavor. The menu is eclectic and has a Greek flavor. Their broiled seafood platter was named one of the 100 Dishes to Eat Before You Die. Another unique honor is it was named in the United States Congressional Record in 1996 by Senator Howell Heflin as an Alabama landmark for its service to the community.
Saws Soul Kitchen features true southern food, with things like shrimp, grits, and pulled pork as well as unusual dishes like fried pickles and pork and greens. It’s all served in a restaurant adorned with piggy decor.
Tratorria Centrale is a great place to start your day. The lattes are a popular drink. They serve some unusual omelets made from locally sourced eggs. I sampled the butternut squash, arugula, and ricotta option and loved it. Their scones are another specialty. But don’t ignore them for lunch; the gourmet pizzas and pasta dishes are out of this world.
Johnny’s Restaurant specializes in Greek food with a southern flair. Chef Timothy Hontzas mixes Greek specialties such as spanakopita, souvlaki, and lamb dishes, with fried green tomatoes, fried catfish, and jamablaya.
Bogue’s is another Birmingham tradition. It opened in 1938 and is still going strong. It is housed in the old Fire Station 22. This is a real blue plate style place specializing in meat and two veggie plates. Helpings are huge and food is delicious.