An alarming number of people think that I moved to Charleston from Alabama. Like New Hampshire and Vermont, Mississippi and Alabama are both variations on a theme in terms of shape, and are exactly next to each other. As it turns out, most Americans are terrible at geography, and there’s no mnemonic device that helps you remember which one is which.
Additional confusion comes into play when it turns out that I know Birmingham pretty well. I went there often as a kid, it was a midway point between Oxford and Atlanta, and I spent almost a week there this autumn for a business trip. I love that town, so I get excited any time there’s a chance to stop in. No one ever believes me when I say this; Birmingham gets no respect.
Usually, I stay with friends, I couchsurf, or I AirBnB. On my last trip, I got to stay at the historic Tutwiler downtown, which was really fun. I wouldn’t recommend the Redmont, since the lobby didn’t seem clean when I went to the rooftop bar, and almost everything else seems to be a chain hotel. Do what feels right. You need a car here for sure, and this is the rare city that has very, very cool suburbs. Don’t feel weird about being excited about Homewood or Vestavia Hills– they have a ton to offer. Birmingham has several historic ethnic populations, so keep your eyes peeled for church suppers (I went to the Greek festival and it was awesome), small grocery stores, and out of the way restaurants.
- Birmingham Civil Rights Institute/Ingram Park/16th Street Baptist Church: This is a meaningful moment in American history. You should stop by, pay your respects, and learn something about our history.
- Jemison Park Nature Trail: I went running here every morning I was in Birmingham. It’s an oasis in the middle of town.
- The Vulcan: Big ole statue that watches over Magic City. There’s a great visitor’s center, and a little park, not to mention beautiful views of the area.
- Sloss’ Furnace: Cool place to learn a little about the history of Birmingham, and occasionally the site of a haunted house. The docents here are very knowledgeable and friendly.
- Birmingham Art Museum: I was surprised at how nice and expansive this is. The gift shop was also lovely, and they had a little cafe, too.
- Birmingham Public Library: I’m probably the only person who visits local libraries when I’m traveling, but their archives are great and they have a very pretty reading room, plus an art gallery!
- Bottletree: Great live music venue. Check listings– you can see something great here almost every night of the week!
- The Alabama Walk of Fame: It’s fun to walk down this and be like, oh, I didn’t know he was from Alabama!
- Little Donkey: Full disclosure, I’m friends with some of the guys who own this place. That said, they have reinvented the genre of deliciousness. I had the finest sandwich of my life here, and it’s not gonna break the bank, either.
- Octane Coffee: This is part of a mini-chain that also has an outpost in Atlanta. Amazing coffee and a great design.
- Urban Standard: My favorite coffeeshop in Birmingham! It’s downtown, and everyone who works there is really attractive. It’s very pretty inside, and there’s lots of great snack options, too. Don’t miss this!
- Good People Brewing: Simply put, this is my favorite brewery in Birmingham! Try to stop in for a tour or tasting, but make sure you grab a pint of theirs in a local bar.
- Parkside: Low key bar with a great selection and a nice patio.
- Highlands Bar and Grill: The original occasion restaurant in Birmingham. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve ever eaten here, and the service is perfect every time.
- Lou’s Pub: a bar disguised as a package store. A REALLY good bar, actually. Great service, great selection, and a relaxed environment in which to enjoy a great cocktail.
- The Garage Cafe: Cash only, y’all. I never would have found this place if someone hadn’t taken me, so try to get the best directions you can. It’s really fun once you get untangled.
- Continental Bakery: excellent European pastries and coffee. They open early, and have fantastic bread.
- Chez Fon Fon: Located next door to Highlands Bar and Grill and run by the same folks. It’s packed every night of the week, but grab a seat at the bar and enjoy delicious French food.
- Gordo’s Market: out of the way taqueria. The tacos are like $2 a pop and cannot be beat.
- Steel City Pops: I want to live on Popsicles, and these are particularly good.
- J. Clyde: if you want a beer they don’t have here, you want a beer that doesn’t exist.
- Niki’s West: Way off the beaten path, this is a Birmingham classic. It’s a cafeteria and a model of efficiency. The food’s amazing, very inexpensive. Expect to wait in line, and don’t forget to get a roll.
- Avo and Dram: You wanna have a nice, fancy cocktail or some rare bourbon? This is your place.
- Hot and Hot Fish Club: I’ve actually never been here, but every single person I talked to told me it was worth a trip.
- Urban Suburban: I still regret leaving this cool mirror made of black seashells there. This is one of those multi-booth places and they have a great selection at a huge variety of prices.
- Charm: Constitutionally unable to leave without buying something here. They have gorgeous, local jewelry, weird hats, and fun gifts.
- Super Oriental Grocery: Dizzying array of Asian groceries, the likes of which I haven’t seen outside of Los Angeles. I hear the attached restaurant is very good, too.
- What’s On Second: Good selection of rarities and junk. I could lose hours in here.
- Five Points: this is just a recommendation– wander around here and check out the record stores, little boutiques, and the like.
- Zoe: a great vintage and consignment store.
- Church Street Books: tightly edited collection of books and great coffee. This is a nice place to read in a nice neighborhood.
- Alabama Booksmith: Owner Jake Reiss traffics in signed, first edition hard covers. A more knowledgeable staff you will not find.
- Art Eyes: No website for this place, but they had great eyeglasses. It’s unusual to find something like that!
Alright, these are my best tips for Birmingham. Did I miss anything?