Throughout Birmingham’s historic Kelly Ingram Park, sculptures depicting some of the most turbulent images of the Civil Rights era are scattered like echoes of the past. As part of the city’s sprawling Civil Rights District, the four-acre expanse marks ground zero for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Remnants are at every turn throughout the district—while newcomers like the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute provide a place where Mike Gunn, senior VP of the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the city can continue to “tell its own story.”
Although most of us are at least familiar with Birmingham’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, what happened next is a bit of a mystery. Just where did Birmingham go from there? As it turns out, every which way.
City of Contrasts
Entertainment is pretty high on the agenda of Birmingham, which draws an eclectic crowd of filmmakers, musicians, chefs and sports enthusiasts. The Sidewalk Film Festival—with interwoven workshops and food events—is also a big hit, drawing indie filmmakers from around the world to the city’s historic Theatre District every year. Mainstream Hollywood has also been charmed by Birmingham. The Club’s multi-colored dance floor inspired one of the most memorable movie scenes ever in the 1970s film “Saturday Night Fever,” while the 1920s Irondale Café is the original Whistle Stop Café of author Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes.” Far removed from its civil rights days, the city’s annual “Miss Apollo Pageant” is the second oldest continuing drag queen pageant in the country.
Historic sites—and the tax breaks for renovating these gems—are also invigorating meetings and events. As one of only a handful of movie palaces still in operation in the US, the Alabama Theatre’s “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ still rises from beneath the floor to accompany silent movie screenings and events. Likewise, as a former iron giant-turned-National Landmark, Sloss Furnaces offers six unique venues. Here, groups can experience Birmingham’s industrial heyday through cast and formed metal sculpture lessons. Jazz jam sessions still waft from the historic Carver Theatre and Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame on iconic 4th Avenue, while the on-site museum tells the stories of the African American musicians who played there.
“If lack of entertainment is a concern, it’s misplaced,” Gunn says. “Birmingham’s signature entertainment is dining and live music. Every night of the week, the city hums with live music—live theatre, symphony performances and other entertainment fill the evening hours.”
Sports enthusiasts have their own booty of spoils, including a tour of Rickwood Field, the nation’s oldest baseball park; Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson kicked a lot of dirt here. Built on former mining land, the opening of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has made the city a top golf destination in the US, while car aficionados can explore the largest collection of vintage and contemporary motorcycles in the world at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. The largest cast-iron statue in the world overlooks urban green Red Mountain Park, where groups can partake in zip-line tours, rappelling or glamping amid old mining land.
Birmingham is also considered an emerging foodie destination by a number of top chefs, many nominees or winners of a coveted James Beard Foundation Award. The city is soon to welcome a 40,000-sf food studio by TIME while one of the oldest cultural food festivals in the US, the Birmingham Greek Festival, just hit its 43rd year anniversary.
“Birmingham’s culinary scene is also recognized as one of the hottest in the country,” Gunn adds, “with Zagat recently naming Birmingham the No. 1 ‘Next Hot Food City.’”