Visiting Birmingham, Alabama brings the duel delight of fine living and important American history. It’s a physically pretty desination.The city lies near the Appalachian Mountains, enjoying a hilly landscape and wild blackberries. Believe it or not, it’s become a hot center for gourmet cuisine.
Birmingham was on the global radar in the 1960’s as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, as well as the bombing by the KKK of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls, are sobering parts of the city’s history. Today, sites pay respectful tribute to the hard road paved for equality.
Where to eat: Silvertron Cafe’ is a neighborhood secret in a come as you are setting. The fettuccini is house-made, so that’s also an insider’s secret. This is the locale to get Birmingham’s signature martini, The Birminghammer. It incorporates Birmingham’s Buffalo Rock ginger ale and gin. It’s very quenching and smooth.
Highlands Bar and Grill is owned by Frank Stitt, award-winning Southern chef. He combines Alabama products and French cooking techniques in a chic environment with entrees in the $30 range. His passion for produce, both local and heirloom, is renowned.
Hot and Hot Fish Club has Chris Hastings at the helm; he just won “Iron Chef”, beating Bobby Flay. His food is cutting edge, imaginative and very popular. A couple of hearty appetizers such as the house-made charcuterie plate can definitely make a meal. Entrees are in the mid $30-$40 range.
Where to stay: The Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa is the area’s premier accommodation. It’s located in a lushly wooded spot with lakes and a Robert Trent Jones golf course. There’s a luxe spa and Brock’s — a relaxed fine dining restaurant serving locally sourced produce and meats. The Renaissance Ross Bridge signature cocktail is the Golf Tea, made with freshly brewed sweet tea, Bulleit bourbon, peach schnapps and fresh mint. It’s nothing like a Long Island iced tea. The Golf Tea is a real cocktail, expertly composed and deceptively smooth. It’s got a naturally sweet and refreshing flavor.There are all kinds of ways to order dinner at Brock’s, including antipasti plates that you can choose with a number of courses, flatbreads, tapas and a more traditional multi-course dinner. All of Brock’s pasta dishes are created with pasta made in-house. You can order them as a full entree or as a smaller portion.
What to do: The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame highlights some of the most famous jazz musicians and songs of all time. A treasure of the museum – available as a guide by appointment – is Dr. Frank Adams, one of the stars of the Jazz Era.
Two blocks away is the Eddie Kendricks Memorial Park, honoring the late member of The Temptations. This park has a life-sized statue of the singer that people love to pose and sing along with; there’s a PA system playing his hits 24/7.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute exhibits the stark differences between the lives of whites and blacks in Alabama, going back to the 1800’s. They have news footage of the people of the Civil Rights Movement, educational resources and exhibits examining today’s civil rights’ issues. Their excellent gift shop carries heritage cookbooks, music CD’s and inspirational literature.
Across the street is the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young African American girls were killed in 1963. It’s an active church, still holding services. Ask a guide to take you to the basement kitchen that was the site of the bombing.
Also across the street is Kelly Ingram Park. The walking path runs through emotionally charged metal sculptures, to feel like you’re in the Jim Crow era. The park served as the staging area for demonstrations lead by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and other Movement leaders.
The statue of Vulcan that overlooks Birmingham is the largest cast iron statue in the world and city icon of the city. Take an elevator up close, visit the history museum and walk nearby trails up the mountain.
Zoe’s Consignment and Vintage has unusual finds from yesteryear and today. Fifth Avenue Antiques has several floors of treasures. Whether you’re looking for entire dining room sets or vintage clothing, there’s a lot to poke through. Plus, there’s a theater on the top floor that performs off-beat plays.
The Birmingham Museum of Art hosts world-class collections of everything from paintings to local folk art.
A hidden treasure in outlying Bessemer is Gip’s Place, a Saturday night BYOB party in a man’s backyard since 1952. It’s one of the last juke joints in America. Live blues and Southern rock bands play until around 3 am. It may be the best $10 cover you ever paid.
You can be beautiful. There was a tagger who sprayed “You are beautiful” on an overhang in the city. When the city wanted to clean it up, there was a whole uproar. People liked the affirmation! Now, the tag shows up in all kinds of unlikely places.
Chef Chris Hastings’ house-made charcuterie at Birmingham, Alabama’s Hot and Hot Fish Club
Birmingham, Alabama’s historic 16th Street Baptist Church
Dr. Frank Adams of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame
Highland Bar and Grill’s Chef Frank Stitt loves his special produce
Gip’s: Bessemer, Alabama is the site of the best $10 party you’ll ever attend