birmingham, al city guide


Image by Melinda Shelton

Today’s Birmingham, AL, City Guide comes to us from Rachel West, a book editor and dietitian at Oxmoor House, where she writes and edits Cooking Light and Weight Watchers books. She’s also an illustrator and has been capturing everyday and not-so-everyday moments for over a decade. Rachel has graciously shared a guide to the neighborhoods of Birmingham, including many of the historic landmarks in this southern city. Thanks, Rachel, for this spectacular guide! — Stephanie

*In light of the tragic tornado damage that struck both Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, please click here to view a wide range of links to relief organizations that are helping out in the area. If you’re able to donate time, money or supplies these groups can help you coordinate those efforts.

CLICK HERE for the full guide after the jump!

Birmingham may be most well known outside the South for its prominent place in Civil Rights history, but this hilly city in north-central Alabama is much more. It’s known as the Magic City for it’s phenomenal growth in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a hotbed for the iron and steel industries. You’ll get a reminder of this industrial history anytime you look toward Red Mountain, where you’ll be greeted by Vulcan, the world’s largest cast-iron statue weighing in at 50 tons. And depending on the direction you’re coming from, you might get a view of his lovely and well-toned bum. This city, the largest in Alabama, is bursting with eclectic restaurants, a thriving arts community, local music events, multiple universities and a cutting-edge healthcare industry. Sitting in the foothills of the Appalachians, Birmingham is surrounded by state parks and biking paths ideal for outdoor enthusiasts and cyclists. So come for a visit, y’all, and enjoy some delicious Southern food and a generous dose of Southern hospitality.

History

The city owes its existence to the area’s rich mineral resources and the iron and steel industries that sprung up to profit from them, including Sloss Furnaces. Sloss, which produced iron for nearly 90 years, is now a historical landmark and museum that serves as a site for festivals and concerts and offers a metal-arts program. Among the pipes and smokestacks, people can enroll in a variety of classes, including blacksmithing, welding and iron and bronze casting.

To get a glimpse into the city’s Civil Rights history, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is the ideal starting point. There’s a self-directed tour that takes you through the city’s role in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as an oral history project told from those who participated in the movement. It’s located in the Civil Rights District, which also includes the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of a church bombing in 1963 that killed four girls, and Kelly Ingram Park, where a number of large-scale demonstrations and boycotts were organized.

Check out the Birmingham Google map for all of the locations below.

Hotels

The Tutwiler Hotel: This beautiful historic hotel in downtown Birmingham is near the financial district and local parks. The bar is a great place to hang if you’re staying at the hotel or if you want to grab a drink.

Hotel Highland: This trendy boutique hotel is in the middle of Five Points South, the heart of Birmingham’s entertainment district, and is within walking distance of some of the city’s best restaurants.

The Redmont Hotel: Located in downtown, this gorgeous boutique hotel opened its doors in 1925 and has had a rather colorful history — Hank Williams spent his last night here in 1952, and in the early 80s, it was purchased and restored by a group of NBA notables including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It also has Birmingham’s only rooftop bar, Above.

Downtown

Urban Standard: This local coffee shop offers a casual, neighborly atmosphere; tasty offerings on their breakfast, lunch and brunch menus; and of course, delicious coffee from a Birmingham-based specialty coffee roaster, Primavera.

What’s On Second (2306 2nd Avenue North, 205.322.2688): Very near Urban Standard is this fantastic store filled with three stories of everything you can imagine: costume jewelry, old postcards, dishware, antiques, toys, books, furniture and a variety of other random things that will bring a nostalgic smile to your face.

Trattoria Centrale: The funky atmosphere is great for Monday-through-Friday breakfast or lunch, Sunday brunch or dinner on Friday nights. The menu changes regularly and offers up interesting pizza toppings and fresh, locally sourced ingredients.

Birmingham Museum of Art: For an artsy (and free for general admission) downtown diversion, the art museum is an ideal option. The existing collection offers something for everyone, and the temporary exhibitions (which do have an admission fee) offer more variety.

Alabama Theater: Built in 1927, this stunning theater (restored in 1998) is a great place to see a movie — they screen everything from classics to kids’ movies — and a host of other theatrical, artistic and musical performances.

Lakeview/Forest Park

Atmosphere Home Essentials (at Pepper Place): This is a must-visit shop if you’re into modern, contemporary furniture and home decor.

Interiors Market (at Pepper Place; 2817 2nd Avenue South, 205.323.2817): They have a huge selection of home items, antiques, art and accessories with a mix of styles.

The King’s House Antiques (at Pepper Place): Offers an assortment of high-end antiques, accessories and rugs.

Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery (at Pepper Place): Indoor and outdoor spaces full of everything garden-related you might need (or don’t yet know you need) — plants; heirloom seeds; unique, hand-crafted bird houses; lanterns; and other outdoor accessories.

The Red Cat (at Pepper Place): A casual coffee shop with tables outside.

Cantina (at Pepper Place): Laid-back restaurant with good food (love the guacamole and any of the tacos) and drinks (try the Prickly Pear Margarita). Great outside seating area when the weather is nice.

Bettola (at Pepper Place): Chef James Lewis was recently nominated for Food and Wine’s annual Best New Chefs for the Gulf Coast region. The menu is authentically Neapolitan, featuring pizzas cooked in an wood-burning oven imported from Italy and classic hand-rolled pasta dishes.

Forest Perk (3328 Clairmont Ave, 205.453-9237): A coffee shop in the middle of an unremarkable strip mall — just down from the Piggly Wiggly — with delicious coffee and cupcakes, both full-size, and babycakes in flavors like Carrot Cake and Almond Joy. Features artwork for sale by local artists.

Naked Art Gallery: This great space is in the heart of Forest Park. You’ll find an eclectic selection of artwork and jewelry made by local artists and artisans.

Little Savannah: Quaint bar and restaurant using local, seasonal ingredients on their ever-changing menu. The food is delicious with an extensive wine list, full bar and a variety of specialty cocktails. Some of the latest are the bourbon-based Walker Percy and The Sound and the Fury with William Faulkner’s favorite liquor, whiskey.

Crestwood

Urban Suburban: Love this store! You can find lots of fantastic things in an array of styles at affordable prices.

Crestwood Coffee Company (5512 Crestwood Blvd., 205.595.0300): Great neighborhood coffeehouse with daily food specials and fun events like open-mic nights and happy hours.

Southside/Five Points

Bottega Restaurant and Café: These two of renowned chef Frank Stitt’s four restaurants are housed in the same building. (All of his restaurants, including Highlands Bar and Grill and Chez Fonfon, are in the same neighborhood, just minutes from each other.) Go to the café (on the right side) for a more casual Italian meal, and go to Bottega for something a bit dressier.

Highlands Bar and Grill: Another one of Frank Stitt’s creations. Sophisticated (but not pretentious) food blending French and Southern cuisines.

Chez Fonfon: Frank Stitt’s French bistro-style restaurant (next door to Highlands Bar and Grill) is a bit more casual. They have great burgers, too.

Hot and Hot Fish Club: The restaurant of well-known chef Chris Hastings offers an ever-changing menu of sophisticated seasonal dishes. The fresh heirloom tomato salad in the summer shouldn’t be missed.

Garage Café: This watering hole is a favorite with locals. It’s übercasual and a great place to grab a drink, hang out and listen to music.

Hanna’s Antique Mall: This is a huge store — you can spend hours browsing — with a wide variety of antiques: furniture, rugs, silver and china, linens, jewelry and collectibles. The staff is friendly and very helpful.

Camp Taco (1017 20th Street South, 205.930.1915): These tacos are amazing. The menu is a blend of Mexican cuisine fused with American favorites — ranging from BLT tacos (a personal favorite) to grilled shrimp tacos and a variety of vegetarian options. The tacos are made to order using fresh, natural ingredients. It’s a casual, affordable place to grab lunch.

Taj India: Authentic Indian food in a quiet white-tablecloth dining room. It’s hidden in a small shopping center, but don’t let the ho-hum exterior keep you from going. The food is so worth it.

The J. Clyde: A huge assortment of beers, made locally and from all over the world. Knowledgeable servers can help you narrow down the selection from their hefty beer menu. Casual atmosphere and a great covered-patio area for outdoor dinner and drinks.

Surin West: Great option for a variety of Thai dishes. They also serve sushi.

Homewood/Edgewood

At Home: One of the best home stores in the city. Lots of great options for your home in a variety of styles.

O’Henry’s Coffee: Cozy atmosphere to grab a coffee on the go or sit and stay awhile.

O’Carrs: This tiny eatery is a Birmingham hotspot. The Homewood location is small with tight quarters, and you must have everyone in your party present before being seated. They serve sandwiches, soups, salads and milkshakes, but the reason to go is for their famous chicken salad served with fresh fruit, beautifully cut and presented, or delicious salad greens. You seriously can’t go wrong. (There’s a roomier location in Cahaba Heights at 3150 Cahaba Heights Village Road, 205.967.4173.)

Tricia’s Treasures: This is a large store filed with light fixtures, furniture, rugs and other home items. You can easily hunt for hours. Very friendly staff.

Alabama Booksmith: This small independent bookstore is located just down the street from Tricia’s Treasures. Inside, you’ll find a carefully curated collection of books. This small shop draws an array of well-known writers for author signings, so you’ll also see a hefty selection of signed first editions and rare books.

Homewood Antiques & Marketplace: Wide variety of options for the more traditional home. They also sell vintage clothing.

Dreamcakes: For something deliciously sweet, stop into this bakery and try one of their amazing cupcakes.

SAW’s BBQ: If you’re craving barbecue, you must go to this local spot. Delicious barbecue sauces (both white and vinegar-based). Saw’s sells their sauce, too, so pick up a bottle to take home.

Mountain Brook Village/English Village

A’mano: Small boutique with lots of handmade one-of-a-kind items from local artists. Pottery, paintings, jewelry and a variety of other things. It’s a wonderful place to shop for unique gifts.

Dram Whiskey Bar: Great Mountain Brook spot for interesting cocktails and a wide selection of whiskeys.

Continental Bakery: This bakery definitely needs to be on your must-visit list in Birmingham. The wide variety of breads and pastries — sourdough, ciabatta, scones, challah, boule, bagels, scones and a variety of Breads of the Day — are made daily using classic bread-making techniques. The selection is amazing, and all are delicious.

Chez Lulu: Located just next door to Continental Bakery and run by the same owner, this restaurant is small and quaint with a decidedly French café feel. The quiches are amazing (and always changing), and the garlic peasant soup is outstanding.

Cahaba Heights/Vestavia Hills

Elizabeth’s Consignment (4208 Dolly Ridge Road, 205.977.3355): This shop has it all: furniture; collectibles; vintage clothes, jewelry and bags; linens; books; and other knick-knacks — all at very reasonable prices.

Flip Burger Boutique: This is the inventive burger restaurant of Top Chef All-Stars winner, Richard Blais. (He has two other locations in Atlanta). The restaurant can get crowded during prime times, but the vibe is cool and modern to match the liquid nitrogen-cooled milkshakes — the Krispy Kreme shake is to die for — and there are unique and ever-changing burger and side options.

Miss Myra’s Pit Bar B Q (3278 Cahaba Heights Road, 205.967.6004): Some say this is the best barbecue in the city, particularly the pulled pork and the white bbq sauce.

Local Notables:
Fannie Flagg, Courteney Cox, Condoleezza Rice, Emmylou Harris, Louise Fletcher, Kate Jackson, Margaret Walker, Frank Stitt, Taylor Hicks, Ruben Studdard, Paula Poundstone

Laura

My hometown! Thank you so much for this! We love it down here! Saw’s BBQ? Best BBQ ever!!

MaryB

Birmingham is a great city! I lived there for six months, and now live only a few hours away. This list is definitely inspiration for a mini-vacation.

Laura

Great guide to my beautiful hometown! A couple of additions:
-V. Richards in Forest Park- neighborhood market/cafe. Great meats, produce, and specialty selection for the locals, as well as an inexpensive cafe that has great breakfast.
-Parkside- casual bar with a neighborhood vibe. They have a good beer selection and a great patio out back.

emily

Love this! Makes me super excited to go back to Bham in 2 weeks for a wedding! I’d have to add the botanical gardens- the rose garden is one of my favorite places in the world, Gilchrist in English village for limeades- definitely taking my husband there, and Savage’s bakery in Homewood. When we opened the door to Savages at Christmas, the smell triggered a Proustian moment. It’s not a trendy cupcake place, but if you can get a gingerbread man, you won’t be sorry!

Amber

My home! Wow, alot of these places I have not tried and some I have recently tried. Thanks! Will definitely check them out!

Trista

I’ve lived around Birmingham my whole life, and went to the UAB for college. The Alabama Theatre is my favorite place in the city! They screen Casablanca every Valentine’s Day and White Christmas every December. I also saw the Russian Nutcracker there.

Amanda

I’ve lived in Birmingham most of my 34 years. I was so proud to see it represented on d*s! All of these places are wonderful!

Brittany

I’ve got a few more to add!!!

Downtown MUST eats:

Brick&Tin: super delicious sandwiches, soups, and salads. The owner knows where/who/when/how ALL of ingredients are grown/raised, and you can definitely taste it! Order anything off the menu, and you’ll LOVE it. Do note that they are closed on the weekends, though :(
http://www.brickandtin.com/index.html

Café Dupont: a very classy restaurant using seasonal and local ingredients to make gourmet dishes. I definitely recommend the Fried Oysters and Okra if it’s being served when you’re there!
http://www.cafedupont.net/

Southside:

ROJO: Latin & American food and it is OH SO delicious! The atmosphere at Rojo is so cool and artsy. It’s a good place to grab a beer and some fish tacos or the southwest quesadilla!
http://rojo.birminghammenus.com/

Homewood:

Urban Cookhouse: Millie Ray’s Orange Rolls. That’s ALMOST all you need to know :) They are so deliciously dangerous! Urban Cookhouse is a nice place to grab a fresh, local, lunch like a chipotle braised pork on warm rolls or a large, amazing salad. OH! And you have to order their housemade strawberry lemonade!
http://www.urbancookhouse.com/

Some nightlife:
Bottletree: A wonderfully quirky bar/cafe/music venue. You must check out the music calendar – a lot of really talented (but maybe not widely known) artists come through and play shows for $10ish a pop. Before the sun goes down, the cafe serves lunch and dinner with a lot of vegetarian options.
http://www.thebottletree.com/

Parkside Cafe: Another casually cool place to grab a beer and snack. The decor is delightful, and this bar also has a charming patio area in the back with lots of seating to relax with a group of friends.
http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=104821484093

casamos

I am SOOO excited to use this next time I visit down South! What a great city! God Bless Alabama as they rebuild!

Jenn

*gasp* How is Dreamland BBQ not on this list!?!? We swung through Birmingham on the way home from New Orleans last year specifically for it on the BF’s brother’s insistence and remain eternally grateful to him for it! Sinfully good!

amymezzell

I am so glad some commenters added more to this list. There is so much missing from it! The list is also very heavy on Pepper Place stuff but didn’t even mention the Farmer’s Market, which is the main point of PP. Go on a Saturday morning!

Hope

Cantina is really yummy, but you forgot Bottletree! The Sunday brunch is phenomenal.

Claire

Love this list! In Cahaba Heights, Doodle’s Italian Ice is also worth visiting. They have delicious sorbets and ices in flavors like Ninja Turtle.

Catherine

Davenport’s Pizza in Mountain Brook Village!

Ally

Excellent choices! JClyde, O’Henries, Flip Burger…mmm, I love my city : )

Laura

I’ve lived in the Birmingham area my whole life and never heard of Elizabeth’s Consignment shop. I checked it out today and was so excited to pick out 3 vintage clothing items and a handbag. This shop was so cute and off my beaten path. And the prices were super reasonable!

Elizabeth

Atmosphere Home Essentials is a must visit! Great accessories and furniture (on the floor and special order!) with amazing customer service!!!

Jordan

I agree with Bottletree for good food/drinks and a cool music venue…Definitely add that one to the city guide…

Erin @ Dwell & Tell

Love this list to my home town, Rachel and Grace! 

My favorites are Hanna Antiques, Bottega Cafe and Rojo.  Naked Art Gallery will always put a smile on your face. 

Another addition in the Forest Park neighborhood: Silvertron Cafe.

Erin @ Dwell & Tell
Dwellandtell.com

Erin @ Dwell & Tell

Love this list to my home town, Rachel and Grace! 

My favorites are Hanna Antiques, Bottega Cafe and Rojo.  Naked Art Gallery will always put a smile on your face. 

Another addition in the Forest Park neighborhood: Silvertron Cafe.

Erin @ Dwell & Tell

merrypranxter

You forgot Nabeels! it’s a little imported foods shop & eatery in… Homewood i believe. I don’t live in B’ham anymore, i’m up the road in Anniston, but if i can help it i do not go to Birmingham shopping without stopping at Nabeels for lunch & a handful of russian chocolates!

Jill

I’m so happy to see my husband’s home town featured here. I live in NY, but I think B’ham is unique in offering amazing boutiques, each with a real sense of character, rather than the chain stores you see everywhere else. To this list I would also add Table Matters in Mountain Brook, Christine’s, Three Sheets in Homewood, Continental Bakery in English Village (there is a great antiques store catty-corner across the street–is it called Circa??) and so much more. I love to shop in Birmingham. And so glad someone else mentioned the wonderful gingerbread men at Savage’s Bakery in Homewood–we never come home without a box! There’s also a wonderful kids’ shoe store right next door–Jack N Jill?–where we’ve bought many of my little ones’ shoes.

Jill

Also, my husband stayed in the new (and I think probably only) modern hotel, Aloft, last visit and loved it.

janet

Proud! I love my hometown of b’ham and miss it so much. Thanks for doing such a great roundup of hotspots.

Annie

People think I’m crazy having moved from NYC to Birmingham, but hopefully this will change a few minds! (Maybe? No?)

hummingbird

agreed, Bottletree definitely needs a shout-out, not to mention Workplay. Both are amazing venues/bars and are worth noting for sure.

Keri

I second (or third) the recommendations for Nabeel’s and Rojo. Also for the Garage. It’s technically a bar, but they have the BEST sandwiches. The atmosphere is perfect too. Also, they have one of the best malls too – The Summit. Anthropologie!!! I know it’s probably not as cool as a great vintage store, but it’s the one mall in this country that I miss (the second is the Fashion Square in Scottsdale). I miss you B’ham!!!

Maria Ric

You’ve got to add Urban Cookhouse! The freshest, most delish ingredients. Also, Zoe’s is great–love the Greek Salad…

Kate C

What a great shout out to my adopted hometown. I’d like to add that we have an award winning orchestra that plaays everything from Beethoven to Bela Fleck in a beautiful concert hall. Check out a concert it you get to town!

Marie

Moved back to Bham 6 months ago…My recommendations: Rojo, Dodiyos, Workplay, Bottletree, Parkside, Brick & Tin, Nabeels, Jinsei, Bottega Cafe, Sol Y Luna, Chez LuLu, Trattoria, Cocina Superior, Chez FonFon, Dram….

Kate

Continental Bakery in English Village for breakfast, Sol Y Luna in Lakeview for Brunch, Railroad Park for hanging out and so much more. Thanks for reminding me about all the great things in Birmingham…it’s easy to forget when you live here!

Anne

And the most awesome bookstore: Alabama Booksmith, 2626 19th Place South. Jake will hook you up with just the right book for you. His aim is always true!

Billy B

Excellent review of Birmingham’s hotspots. Can’t wait to check them out for myself. War Eagle.

brooke

i grew up in Bham, now living in Prague, Czech Republic. the things i miss most about home are : BOTTLETREE!, Chez LuLu, Nabeel’s, Zoe’s, Reed’s, and Rojo.

Phyllis M

Good list, it’s nice to see that there are more favorite spots left off than not! Once upon a time my pretties, there was nary a restaurant in this old town except for
a few meat & threes and a couple steakhouses along with couple BBQ joints.
Now it’s a culinary compendium of anything for any palate! Love it!
Here’s my additions of notarity:
Silvertron Restaurant in Forest Park – Excellent Sunday Brunch, food & service
consistently good with good variety.
Libby’s Plant Odyssey in Lakeview – Homegrown guru of plants and flowers!!
Ore in Crestline – Taylor Hicks’ new restaurant that is getting rave reviews!
Ocean & 26 in Southside – OMG, both of these are HIP, HAPPENING joints with fabulous food! If you haven’t been, you’re missing out bigtime!
McNolia’s in 5 Points South – Fun, funky, eclectic, one of a kind gift shop.
iii’s eyeglasses in 5 Points South – THE PLACE to find one of a kind eyelasses that no one else in the area will have from around the world and from some of the best well know designers! Deborah, Kris & Wendy are the best!
Charlemange Records in 5 Points South – Been going strong 30+ yrs with an almost unbelievable selection of vintage albums, cassettes, 8 tracks, etc. along with new stuff….it is one cool place to visit.
Sonny Boy Elixirs in Downtown on 3rd Ave North 1 block west of Alabama Theatre – Voodoo Potion shop for all your spells! Interesting place…

Stephanie

Love B’ham! I came here 3 years ago from Manhattan and am surprised every day by how much I love it. Lots of southern grace with plenty of sophistication! Another fave is the new location of Lamb’s Ears in Crestline Village. The best gifts and home accents.

Theresa

So glad the other commenter mentioned Savages Bakery! They have the most incredible pop rolls and the meltaways are heavenly.

Des Connolly B'Ham ENGLAND

I am interested in knowing how B’Ham AL aquired its name. It can only be named after B’Ham ENGLAND where I live (Bournville) where Cadbury which is now owned by Kraft operates from. The word Birmingham is in fact 3 words-Birm-ing-ham. Going back to the middle ages, Birm would have been the name of the family or land, by the stream (ing) in a hamlet (ham). What was the origin of the B’Ham AL?

A.J.

@Des – late reply, but I was looking for the Birmingham pencil drawing that usually accompanies these posts! Birmingham, AL is named after Birmingham, UK for its industrial heritage.

funny voicemail greetings

Birmingham is a lovely place, been there many a time now it’s always a pleasure when visiting alabama. Anyhow thanks for posting up a great guide and a nice bit of history.

Eliza

Just wanted to say that this is a great article, but if you are looking for Indian food in Birmingham, Sitar is world’s better than Taj India!! It’s truly authentic and delicious.

Cindy Thigpen

Thanks SOOOO much for highlighting some of the shops at Pepper Place! We’re in an area of town that people are still discovering. Called the “design district” of Birmingham, its unique shops and restaurants are independently owned. The atmosphere is quaint and you’ll find one-of-a-kind goods. Customer service is priority and parking is right outside the door. Support Local!
Cindy Thigpen
Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery

Hollie

Ohh so glad to see this! I moved to Birmingham 2 years ago from Michigan, and everyone thought I was crazy! Birmingham is such a unique and beautiful place and SO many different things to do, no bad review can bring me down!

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