Birmingham, Alabama, is more than football and frats. It’s a creative, livable city with fine food and drink, quirky shops, and a heavy dose of Southern charm.
Get there from Chicago in less than two hours by plane (both United and Southwest fly nonstop). Once you arrive in the Magic City, renting a car is the best option for transportation.
Make the modern, inviting Aloft Birmingham your home base. Its walkable, shop-heavy Soho Square location is ideal for exploring the city.
Birmingham’s caffeine connoisseurs are already abuzz about Octane Coffee, opening this spring (part of the snazzy new Uptown development). The Atlanta-based, cult-followed klatch will serve pitch-perfect espresso by day and craft cocktails by night.
For a taste of Alabama’s vibrant agricultural scene, spend the day at Pepper Place Saturday Market (reopening in April). The indoor-outdoor complex, housed partly in an old Dr Pepper plant, offers everything from sun-ripened produce (check out Jones Valley Teaching Farm) to retail shops specializing in interiors.
Follow the local footprints to Ollie Irene, a cozy joint serving progressive cocktails and paying homage to Grandma Ollie Irene’s home cooking. Try fried oysters on tasso-deviled eggs, cornmeal-dusted catfish, and chocolate pie.
For James Beard Award-winning specialties from chef Chris Hastings, splurge on supper at The Hot and Hot Fish Club. Pay special attention to the dishware, made by local artisans Earthborn Pottery. Watching your wallet? Camp out at the chef’s counter, one of the city’s liveliest bar scenes, for a stiff drink.
A newer addition to Birmingham’s barbecue universe, Saw’s BBQ steals your heart with kooky decor and North Carolina-style cooking. Ribs and gargantuan stuffed taters (a.k.a. baked potatoes) challenge even the heartiest appetites.
For a taste of local brew and live music, hit up acclaimed neighborhood spot Good People Brewing Company. Bonus: a rollicking backyard scene (lawn games!) and a line of food trucks to soak up the suds.
At Bottletree Cafe nightclub and performance space, shimmy to everything from karaoke to burlesque. Open-mic performances and book signings add local flair; thrift store decor adds character.
Gip’s Place is a down-home, bare-bones backyard juke joint and all-night party — in other words, not to be missed. The dancing is serious, the musicians are the real deal, and the ancient proprietor — Mr. Gipson, who’s been hosting these parties for decades — might get onstage and strum a song. BYOB and check Gip’s Facebook page to confirm that it’s open before you go.
Behind Garage Cafe’s grungy exterior is a verdant backyard replete with fire pit, wisteria, and statuary. Beer, basic cocktails, soups, and sandwiches make up the menu, but it’s the junkyard charm that keeps ’em coming back.
Feel the rhythm at The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, an intimate space dedicated to touting Alabama’s role in the creation and continuation of American jazz. After brushing up on the history of the greats (Ella, Nat, Duke), you may catch a performance of “Tuxedo Junction” from famed clarinetist Doc Adams.
Sobering, moving, enlightening: The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute details the city’s dark history (several of the more important demonstrations in the fight for racial equality took place right here).
A visit to the still-active 16th Street Baptist Street Church honors and acknowledges Birmingham’s tumultuous past with a powerful program. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the KKK bombing that killed four girls there; the story behind the stained-glass window at the church’s rear is both heartbreaking and inspiring.
Get the lay of the land from up high at the Vulcan Park and Museum, a picnic-friendly spot with sprawling vistas. At the top, the world’s largest cast-iron statue (Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge) bares an ass you can get behind.
A real-life High Fidelity: For more than 35 years, poster-crammed, jam-packed music shop Charlemagne Record Exchange has provided cool kids with tunes.
Major events, old movies, and killer concerts pepper the schedule at the landmarked Alabama Theatre. Built in 1927, the 2,500-seater is home to the state’s symphony and ballet, and, in recent years, has hosted Elvis Costello, Kings of Leon, Bonnie Raitt, and Norah Jones.
Located in an old house, Alabama Booksmith captures the rich literary history of the South. Scan epic shelves of signed copies, first editions, and an extensive collection showcasing local and regional topics. Readings and signings have kept the shop vibrant for fourteen years.