Birmingham, dubbed “The Magic City” following a sudden rise to prominence in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, is today a modern city rich in history and southern charm. The most populous city in Alabama, Birmingham, is a vibrant metropolis with quaint walkable communities, each with a character and history all its own. The temperate climate makes almost any time of year a good one for rediscovering the magic of Birmingham, a renaissance city experiencing rebirth in a downtown that reveals little of its turbulent past.
Birmingham was founded in 1871 by a group of real estate promoters, bankers and industrialists who sought to develop an industrial city near the planned intersection of the Alabama & Chattanooga and South & North Railroads. The railroad crossing was established for its proximity to abundant iron ore, coal, and limestone deposits—the raw materials for making steel.
By the turn of the century Birmingham was growing as an industrial powerhouse and people were moving from rural areas to the city in search of opportunity. African Americans who joined the migration in search of a better life were quickly relegated to the lowest-paying industrial jobs, a defining trend in racial divide. The Great Depression nearly brought Birmingham’s growth to a halt, but the city returned to prosperity a decade later with the wartime demand for steel. By the 1950s and 1960s a civil rights struggle grew between races, exposing the city to national and international notoriety over violent clashes that erupted in the segregated city, eventually leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Well-planned tourist sites pay homage to Birmingham’s historic past, painting a picture of a city whose people have realized both tragedy and triumph. Birmingham’s resiliency plays out in the beautifully diverse communities beckoning visitors with everything from award-winning restaurants, to live theater and shopping, and an abundance of art, science and history museums.
“We are a city that has continued to progress at a pace that allows us to still live up to The Magic City nickname,” says Vickie Ashford, the Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau director of traveling media. “With neighborhoods changing to add local flavor, one-of-a-kind shops, and award winning restaurants and chefs the magic remains. Visitors will also enjoy attractions that are both significant and indigenous to Birmingham.”
Within walking distance of the beautifully restored and exquisitely maintained Tutwiler and Redmont hotels are the new Uptown restaurant district and two urban gems: Birmingham Museum of Art and McWane Science Center. Equally impressive though is the Theater District, which is home to three of the city’s 27 original playhouses. Two of the historic venues, the Lyric and Alabama theaters, host a variety of ticketed performances year round.
The Lyric Theatre, which opened in 1914 and later fell into disrepair, reopened as a performing arts venue earlier this year following an $8 million renovation. The Lyric was one of the first theaters in which Blacks and Whites could see the same show for the same price, though entrances and seating locations remained segregated. The stage featured Vaudeville shows and live performances by the Marx Brothers, Roy Rogers, Mae West and other notable performers.
The Alabama Theatre, which was built in 1927 as a Paramount Publix Theater, is located directly across 3rd Avenue North. This exquisite “movie palace” is a showcase of the era’s high standard for entertainment with original Venetian chandeliers, gold leaf design and a giant Wurlitzer pipe organ—one of only three original installations in the country. The instrument still rises from below the stage to entertain theater guests prior to each film and live performance. Public tours and Wurlitzer organ demonstrations are available the first Wednesday of every month.
Carver Theater for the Performing Arts located in the 4th Avenue Business District was originally built for African Americans in the segregated theater district. Today, it is home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and features exhibits about the state’s notable jazz musicians.
The adjacent Civil Rights District is home to the Civil Rights Institute and Museum, Kelly Ingram Park and Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The museum’s multi-media galleries lead visitors through the era of segregation and the American Civil Rights Movement, often in chilling detail. Directly across the street guests can deepen their experience with an audio tour of the park where civil rights demonstrations were met with brutality. 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of one of the most horrific occurrences of the civil rights movement, is adjacent to the park. There a bomb shattered the quiet of a Sunday morning and took the lives of four young girls. Tours are available during the week and by appointment on Saturdays.
Five Points South
The Five Points South neighborhood has been a multi-cultural haven for Birmingham’s free-spirited creatives for more than a century. The historically significant Art Deco, Spanish and Craftsman architecture of this area adds to its charm. Tucked between eclectic shops and entertainment venues are two restaurants by James Beard Foundation honoree Chef Frank Stitt, III. Highlands Bar & Grill, which is widely revered as one of the city’s finest dining establishments, is located on 11th Avenue South next to Chez Fon Fon, a cozy bistro with traditional French cuisine and delectable pastries.
Five Points South also serves as the gateway to Vulcan Park & Museum. The city’s most iconic monument, “Vulcan” pays tribute to Birmingham’s early iron industry. Weighing over 60 tons and standing 55-feet tall, the statue was commissioned for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. From the observation tower in the center of the 10-acre park one can find a scenic view of The Magic City. Exhibits at the nearby Vulcan Museum chronicle the rich history of both the statue and the city.
Visitors to the Avondale community just east of the city should plan to arrive hungry. Avondale is home to Saw’s Soul Kitchen. The tiny 41st Street South restaurant seats scarcely two dozen patrons, but serves up savory, smoky barbecue and soul food to a robust crowd. Connoisseurs of both barbecue and brews can carry out and dine just down the block at Avondale Brewing Company. The microbrewery invites guests of Saw’s, pizzeria Post Office Pies, and the handful of other nearby restaurants to pull up a chair and enjoy a frosty beverage with their meal. The brewery also offers tours, tastings and special events.
Pepper Place, an emerging design and entertainment district in Lakewood is made up of independent purveyors of fine art, antiques, and interior and outdoor décor, and is well known for its Saturday farmer’s market. Nestled there among the lush landscape of Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery is one of Birmingham’s newest and most unforgettable restaurants, Ovenbird. The menu of shareable small plates inspired by the live fire traditions of Latin countries focuses on seasonal southern ingredients and locally sourced meats grilled, smoked or roasted in its cast-iron hearths. Ovenbird is the newest restaurant by James Beard-nominated and “Best Chef in the South” award winner Chef Chris Hastings, who with his wife, Indie, also owns the acclaimed Hot & Hot Fish Company located in Five Points South.
Story by Nathalie Strickland
Photography courtesy of the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau.