Built on the backs of the laborers that once manned its furnaces, mines and mills and quite famously a flash point in America’s civil rights struggle, Birmingham—Alabama’s largest city—has always been a tough kind of town. Then, once all that was over, the region seemed to simply turn its back on the once-heavily industrialized core, home to one of the South’s most impressive city centers, preferring instead the various suburban idylls tucked into the region’s wealth of forested hills and valleys.
Rather suddenly, now, Birmingham—once referred to the Pittsburgh of the South, and for good reason—seems to be on a relatively urgent mission to redefine itself. This time, however, it’s running straight toward its past, choosing to build on, rather than paper over, the city’s complex heritage. In the process, Birmingham is, if slowly, growing to become one of the most rewarding new destinations in the Deep South. Coming through? Here’s how to have the best day, ever.
Brew and go. Take a seat at the bar at Revelator Coffee Company and watch the baristas at work on the shop’s custom Slayer machine. Not the espresso type? Competent pour overs and good pastry should have you feeling right in no time. Revelator is just one of a growing number of business working to make downtown a focal point, rather than something you avoid (1826 3rd Avenue North). Once fueled, do the short walk to Railroad Park. Something like the city center’s front yard, this manicured, 19-acre green lung isn’t just a great place to get in your morning walk, it’s a striking symbol of the local renaissance, drawing curious visitors from around the region. To make your way there, cross underneath the railroad tracks at 18th Street—just look for the colorful lighting that turned a formerly foreboding underpass into one of the city’s favorite works of public art. Artist Bill FitzGibbons’ work has been such a hit, and the lights (which at first appear to be neon, but are actually computerized LEDs) now stay on 24 hours a day (1600 1st Avenue).
Explore the old factories. From empty towers to silent smokestacks, callbacks to Birmingham’s industrious heritage are everywhere you look. At Sloss Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark, where iron was produced for nearly 90 years, the past comes alive with tours, classes (Cast Iron Sculptures for Beginners!) and popular events. There’s even a rotating cast of artists-in-residence (20 32nd Street North). If it’s a weekend, head across the railroad tracks to Pepper Place. Once a Dr. Pepper bottling plant, the city’s best farmers market is held here Saturdays (Apr-Dec). Sample from a wide selection of local produce and artisanal eats before settling in for a pick-me-up at The Red Cat, a smart cafe. Here on a quiet day? The neighborhood is known for its collection of design-centric shops—all are worth a browse (2829 2nd Avenue South). And should you need another caffeine hit, Domestique Coffee Roasters is nearby—they’re passionate about Haitian coffee (not to mention Haiti), drop by for a cup and a chat (3017 6th Avenue South).
Eat a bunch of meat, then swing through the trees. A quick drive from downtown, the reputation of Saw’s BBQ stretches across the South. Their empire appears to be growing, but the Homewood location is where it all began. Get here shortly before they open at 11 o’clock and line up for ribs and/or smoked chicken, served with classic Alabama white sauce. (Recipes vary, but the primary ingredients are generally mayonnaise and vinegar—try it, it’s really good). Save room for banana pudding, if they have it (1008 Oxmoor Road). Part of Birmingham’s distinct charm is its relatively rugged terrain—it seems as if you’re never far from a hill or a hiking trail or some kind of open space. While you’re out this way, stop in at Red Mountain Park—this incredible mountaintop preserve features fifteen miles of hiking and biking trails, a zip line, an adventure course and other fun stuff, high above town. No cars are allowed up top—you’ve got to park and walk to the good stuff. That’s fine—you just ate a whole pile of ‘cue (2011 Frankfurt Drive).
Happy hour with the in crowd. Back downtown, the after-work buzz is all on the brand-new Pizitz Food Hall, bringing local food and drink together on the ground level of a long-abandoned department store building that’s just coming off a rather striking residential conversion. Make sure to grab a seat at the center bar and eavesdrop on all the latest gossip—you’ll be a local expert in no time (1821 2nd Avenue North). Once done with downtown, move the party just up the way to Avondale. Currently one of Birmingham’s hippest addresses, the section of this one-time company town abutting recently revived Avondale Park, where workers took their leisure during Birmingham’s industrial heyday, is home to three of the city’s most popular drinking dens. Start with local brews at the Avondale Brewing Company, with its inviting indoor-outdoor setup (201 41st Street South), then stop in for a round at the cheerfully dive-y Parkside—many head straight for the year-round courtyard, complete with fire pit (4036 5th Avenue South). Wrap up the crawl with cocktails and a game of shuffleboard at 41st Street Pub & Aircraft Sales—they’re known for their Moscow mules (130 41st Street South). Hungry? Post Office Pies has pizzas made in wood-fired, custom brick ovens. They are very good (209 41st Street South).
Ready to book? If you’re looking for the lowest airfares to Birmingham, start your search at CheapFlights, or compare multiple sites at once with BookingBuddy. Don’t forget that bundling your flight and hotel together can save you a lot of money; give it a try at either Orbitz or Expedia—both are great places to start a simple airfare search, too. If you’re just after the best hotel deals in Birmingham, start your search at Hotels.com or Priceline, where you can save up to 60 percent on any given night by taking advantage of their Express Deals feature. (This simple tool has probably saved us—no joke—thousands of dollars over the years.) Don’t forget, you can also cross-reference a ton of hotel user reviews with the best rates available from more than 200 web sites at TripAdvisor. If you need a rental car in Birmingham, begin your search by swinging wide to get a sense of the market—a site like Booking Buddy lets you check pretty much every site worth knowing in just a couple of clicks.