Birmingham, Alabama, was born in the Appalachian foothills as a railroad, mining and steel town just after the Civil War. With a plentiful supply of coal, iron ore and limestone, the city had the raw materials to grow into an industrial powerhouse. Nearly 100 years later, Birmingham became known worldwide when local leaders stood on the front line of the nation's civil rights movement.
Today, Birmingham continues to grow while maintaining deeply Southern traditions. The largest city in Alabama, it thrives both culturally and commercially.
Topping the list of things to do and see downtown is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where multimedia presentations chronicle the city’s role in the 1960s civil rights movement. Across the street is Kelly Ingram Park, the site of historic marches and protests. Visitors can tour the nearby Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where Ku Klux Klan members once planted sticks of dynamite. The resulting explosion killed four children and injured 22 others.
A short drive southeast from downtown is Vulcan Park and Museum. Atop Red Mountain stands “Vulcan,” the largest cast-iron statue in the world and a well-known symbol of the city. The 55-foot depiction of the Roman god of fire and iron honors Birmingham’s industrial history. Inside the museum, exhibits (quite literally) come to life as actors portray important figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. Along with a good dose of history, Vulcan Park also offers some the best city views.
The city’s southern climate makes it easy to stay outdoors much of the year. Nature lovers can head west of Vulcan Park to the Birmingham Zoo and Botanical Gardens to see sloths, orangutans, flamingos and chinchillas. Favorite activities are the weekday sea lion training and weekend sea lion shows. Near the airport to the north, Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve has 1,000 wild acres open for exploration and adventure.
In downtown Birmingham, travelers find a collection of cultural activities. Top billing goes to Birmingham Museum of Art. It is the largest art museum in the Southeast, and admission is free. The permanent collection includes 24,000 works, a sculpture garden and a children’s gallery, which features crafts, storytelling and scavenger hunts.
The McWane Science Center downtown, with an IMAX Dome Theater, live science demonstrations and hands-on activities, is a favorite family attraction. The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame is located inside the Carver Theatre, an Art Deco joint that once hosted Duke Ellington. Today, the jazz hall hosts concerts, comedy shows and theatrical performances.
For an elegant evening out, Birmingham visitors can choose the ballet, opera or symphony. Or, for a taste of distinct local flavor, the city's jazz and blues tradition begs to be explored. Ona’s Music Room is a modern, industrial-style venue in the historic business section. Colorful nightspots and restaurants are located just outside downtown Birmingham in the Five Points South Historic District. In September, residents and visitors can catch headliners and local acts at the annual Taste of Fourth Avenue Jazz Festival.