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