A flashpoint of both progress and pain during the Civil Rights era, Birmingham has refashioned itself into a place both livable and relevant, part of the national conversation in unexpected ways. Like everywhere in America’s Sun Belt, the Alabama city seems to have a chain restaurant on every corner. But if you know where to look, you can eat wonderfully well and find meals that help tell the tale of the city over the past decades.
> Where to Eat:
Brick & Tin attracts a downtown lunchtime crowd willing to risk spilling unique-to-Birmingham white barbecue sauce on dresses and suits. The menu also offers daily-special soups, sandwiches such as braised brisket with caramelized onions, and a list of hard to find European wines by the glass.
For an unreconstructed Alabama meat joint, seek out Saw’s BBQ on Oxmoor Road in suburban Homewood, which has that been-here-forever feel (though it dates only to 2009). Mike Wilson is a former test-kitchen chef for Cooking Light, but there’s nothing light about his Flintstones-size slab of pork ribs, potatoes stuffed with pork and chicken, and banana pudding made with Nilla wafers.
And though Frank Stitt is justifiably famous for his Highlands Bar and Grill, many locals find themselves gravitating toward the hearty Italianesque flavors of his Bottega, set in a former mansion in the Highland Park area.
> Where to Stay:
The venerable Tutwiler has gone (and come back reincarnated as a Hampton Inn), leaving the boutique-style Hotel Highland at Five Points South as the option with the most personality. It provides a base from which to explore Highlands and the neighborhoods beyond.
> What to See:
Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark allows visitors to explore some 40 buildings of heavy machinery that made up one of the country’s most productive pig-iron blast furnaces, operating from 1882 to 1970.
With more than 24,000 works, the Birmingham Museum of Art has one of the nation’s largest and most diverse regional collections. Highlights include a newly renovated African gallery (above); simple but expressive folk pottery—bottles, jugs, jars, and pitchers—of 19th-century Alabama; and a photography gallery showcasing Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, and Weegee.
> What to Read:
There may be no better chronicle of the civil rights struggle through 1963 than Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (1988), much of which inevitably involves Birmingham.
> Travel Trivia:
- Only in Birmingham can all three ingredients for smelting iron—coal, iron ore, and limestone—be found within a ten-mile radius.
- Veterans Day was first celebrated in Birmingham.
- The lighted dance floor at The Club, on Red Mountain, inspired film director John Badham, who grew up in Birmingham, to create the one John Travolta dances on in Saturday Night Fever.
This guide was reported by Bruce Schoenfeld to accompany a feature he wrote entitled “Steel Magnolia,” both of which appeared in National Geographic Traveler’s August/September 2014 issue.