Birmingham: culture, dining and the birth of the Civil Rights Movement [classic article]

There are many sides to Birmingham, appealing to a wide range of tastes and budgets. 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.

Cultural venues include a fine arts museum and a real juke joint. 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.

The place where Rosa Parks made history, Jefferson Davis’ home and a museum devoted to Hank Williams, Sr., can be visited in nearby Montgomery.

Where to eat: Niki’s West serves the classic Southern “meat and 3” with a Greek twist in a fast-paced cafeteria setting.

Silvertron Cafe’ is a neighborhood secret in a come as you are setting. Monday night is $7.95 for any of their pastas, including the house-made fettuccini. 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.


Chef Frank Still loves fine Alabama produce

Chef Frank Still loves fine Alabama produce


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.


Iron Chef winner Chris Hastings' house-made charcuterie

Iron Chef winner Chris Hastings’ house-made charcuterie


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. Nightly rates start at $189.


The Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa

The Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa


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.


Dr. Frank Adams at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame

Dr. Frank Adams at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame

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.


Birmingham's Eddie Kendricks, from The Temptations

Birmingham’s Eddie Kendricks, from The Temptations


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.


Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park

Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park

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.

Live, backstage at Gip's!

Live, backstage at Gip’s!

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.

You ARE beautiful

You ARE beautiful

Hank Williams, Sr. lived in Montgomery; a fan has started an extensive museum there. See the car where Williams died in Oak Hill, WV, along with rare films, Nudie costumes and Kawliga, the wooden Indian he sang about.

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