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Birmingham, Alabama

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Did You Know … ?

  • Birmingham hosted the country’s first Veterans Day celebration (1947).
  • Birmingham is the only place where all ingredients for making iron — coal, iron ore and limestone — are within 10 miles.
  • Rickwood Field is the nation’s oldest baseball park (1910).
  • Birmingham is home to the world’s largest cast-iron statue, “Vulcan,” 56 feet tall and 120,000 pounds.
  • The Whistle Stop Cafe in the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” (1991) was based on Birmingham’s Irondale Cafe.

City built on steel

Birmingham is the newest and largest of Alabama’s major cities. In 1871, founders selected the city’s site to take advantage of a promising location at the crossing of two railroads near rich deposits of coal, iron ore and limestone. Given the obvious future in iron and steel production, founders named the new settlement after England’s Birmingham, the heart of that country’s iron industry.

Tourists get some idea of the city’s raison d’etre in museums. Even local parks, on the grounds of former iron ore mines, add layers to the portrait of Birmingham. An outsized statue, “Vulcan,” reminiscent of the Roman god of the forge, is the city’s unofficial symbol.

However, Birmingham was better known in the 1960s because of civil rights demonstrations and the brutal responses of the local police chief, “Bull” Connor, and the KKK.

The city is well past that now, and events of the era are commemorated at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and at other sites closely associated with the struggle. The institute is a resource for scholars and educators, as well.

Beyond the history, Birmingham, set in north-central Alabama in the Appalachian foothills, offers visitors a range of in-town diversions and is a central jumping-off point for day trips to smaller towns and to area parks for activities such as cycling, hiking and whitewater rafting.

Birmingham boasts about a climate that supports outdoor living. For tourists, this may mean playing golf, watching baseball, picnicking in the downtown Railroad Park while listening to live music, attending a street festival or dropping in at Pepper Place Saturday Market for the baked goods, live music and cooking demonstrations.

In addition, in a printed guide for tourists, the city says the arts are central to its culture, especially the live music. The settings are as varied as concert halls, festive outdoor events and local clubs that feature blues, jazz and the like. Birmingham publishes a list of about 30 places to find art, and it hosts the springtime Magic City Art Connection, a juried contemporary art show. The city also publishes a list of about 40 outlets of special interest to buyers of antiques.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Do your whitewater rafting at Locust Fork on the Black Warrior River, known for difficult rapids with names like Double Trouble and House Rock. The Cahaba River also offers rafting in white waters but, for a break, has sections for more tranquil kayaking.
  • Go to the auto races. Birmingham is the only Deep South city on the North American Indy circuit.
  • Scout the nightspots for live jazz. Include the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame on your daylight rounds. If making an August trip, embrace the Birmingham Heritage Festival, which highlights blues and gospel as well as jazz.
  • Dive (intellectually, that is) into the city’s tumultuous modern history at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  Also, go to Kelly Ingram Park, site of well-publicized demonstrations and site of controversial statues erected in remembrance. And see the 16th Street Baptist Church were a KKK bombing killed four girls in 1963.
  • Five minutes from downtown, hike on Ruffner Mountain’s sometimes-arduous trails. The area was once an iron ore mine. Also, there are some challenging trails at the Oak Mountain State Park, good for hiking or mountain biking.
  • Sample the thrill rides and the ziplining at Alabama’s Splash Adventure Waterpark in Bessemer. Or, at Red Mountain Park, also once the site of iron ore mining, there is a treetop challenge course, as well as a zip tour.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Come to town for the Sidewalk Film Festival in September, considered one of the nation’s foremost.
  • Follow the local wine trail with an open mind about wines made with local peaches. Maybe you would prefer seeking out the local craft beers, which are fairly new on the landscape.
  • Thirty minutes from downtown, the Tannehill Historic State Park highlights the 19th century beginnings of the local steel industry. Tour the park’s Iron and Steel Museum for insights.
  • Continue the theme at Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark in town. These blast furnaces are now a museum focused on the forging of iron in the early 20th century. Also, if scheduling works, attend a rock concert at the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark.
  • For lovers of the motorized transport, the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, housing hundreds of motorcycles, racecars and other wheeled vehicles, is a must, as is a tour of the Mercedes-Benz factory in nearby Vance.
  • Birding is a big deal here. Bring binoculars and choose your spot or spots, such as Ruffner Mountain, a huge urban park, or places like the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve or the Upper Cahaba River region.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Eat fried chicken. For the next meal, choose a fine dining chef-owned establishment. See a cooking demonstration at the seasonal Pepper Place Saturday Market.
  • Tour the Arlington Antebellum Home and Gardens, the only antebellum house in the city. Have lunch there on a summer Thursday. Stage your wedding in the gardens.
  • Fish for bass in and around Birmingham, the town some call the world’s bass capital. But the Cahaba River, for example, is home to 135 fish species (some protected).
  • Get a panoramic view of Birmingham from the observation balcony on the pedestal of the city’s iconic cast iron statue, “Vulcan,” which was patterned after the Roman god of the forge.
  • Given the weather, duffers can hit the links almost any day of the year. Two local courses are part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
  • Plan a culture vulture’s day at art galleries by day followed by an evening at the theater — or the ballet or symphony.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau at http://birminghamal.org