Today is the official anniversary date of the city charter of one of my favorite Southern cities, Birmingham, Alabama. Nicknamed “The Magic City,” Birmingham has always held a magic for me, so today, we celebrate with a city guide to one of our favorite spots of the South. Birmingham offers the best in Southern hospitality, that deep South charm, great food, music, and a bustling progressive hub of commerce.
In the midst of the busy Christmas rush now upon us, some of you might be wanting to get away from it all and are already dreaming about a summer vacation, or perhaps just a little getaway for after the new year. So, we offer you this little city guide, featuring the best of B’ham — places to shop, sleep, see, and for suppertime.
And a special thanks to my best friend, Ginny. She is lucky enough to still live in Birmingham, and was available to give me tips on a few of these places I’ve never been too.
- Dreamland – When I first started jotting down ideas for the Birmingham guide, this is the first place I thought of. That might say enough, but their barbecue is so good, I regularly think about it, even miles from the possibility that I will get any anytime soon. And you know, as a former Memphis resident, I’m choosy about ‘q. This place is good, cheap, and a fantastic, Southern atmosphere with no frills. Just good food.
- Bottega — There are two sides to this Birmingham legend — a casual cafe, and the fancier restaurant. I’ve been to both, and honestly, I prefer the cafe. The food is just as good, and the atmosphere, both sides of the line, is charming. You’ll think you’ve just stepped into Italy.
- Hot & Hot Fish Club – We’ve written about Hot & Hot before, so you know it’s good. Their food is memorable, fresh, and Southern. Oh, and delicious.
- Chez Lulu — The last time I was in Birmingham, we only had one evening in our infamous cross-country road trip, so there was much pressure on where to go for dinner. So many favorites. But Ginny remembered this gem that I’d somehow, never been to before. I don’t think I’ve stopped thinking about the delicious garlic soup, vegetable tart, charming decor, and accordion player since I left. Life changing, is the word that comes to mind. It’s the cutest French place you’ll probably ever eat, and their famous for their baked goods, along with their sister, Continental Bakery, owned by Carole Griffin.
- Rojo – Some of my favorite memories are sitting outside a very chill Rojo, enjoying tasty, spicy Mexican food, surrounded by a cool, local crowd and plenty of colorful lights. If you’re a tourist, this place is off the beaten path, so you’ll get an authentic, hip Birmingham experience here.
- Sol Y Lula — Another cantina style restaurant, you can feast in a close atmosphere on traditional Mexican food, or enjoy popular tapas. You’ll love this one too.
- Bettola – This is one of those places I received a little ‘Ham help with, but I’ve been told it’s “yum.” Casual, yet upscale, with an Italian influence, they offer pastas, pizzas, meats, roasts, and sautes.
- Cafe Dupont — This traditional bistro features a new menu every day, based on regional ingredients, so you’ll never know what to expect, except that it should be good.
- Highlands Bar & Grill — Located in the Highlands neighborhood, one of my favorites. This is one of the best restaurants in town, and has won many national awards. Not for the wallet-conscious, but well worth the price.
- Dodiyos – A little Mediterranean spot, Dodiyos offers Greek dishes, as well as food inspired by cuisine from Spain, Italy, France, North Africa, and any place that touches the Sea.
- Little Savannah — Try brunch at this little bistro. The folks are friendly and the food is good. The chef finds fresh, local ingredients from the farmer’s market and even their own house garden, and infuses flavors from around the world with Southern comfort favorites, as the name suggests.
- Jinsei — Craving some sushi? I haven’t had the chance to try out this spot yet, but I hear it’s great, from very reliable sources.
- John’s City Diner – A popular Birmingham spot for a wide range of delicious food. You’ll find everything from old Southern food to Asian infusions in a landmark location.
- Irondale Cafe – You Fried Green Tomatoes fans out there will recognize the original Whistlestop Cafe here. It’s been opened for generations, and this is where you want to go if you want the good, classic Southern food.
- Milo’s Hamburgers – You can find a Milo’s location all over the city. Some folks don’t care for the unique flavor of their burgers (it’s the sauce). I find them delicious. But then, I love a good greasy burger. But even if you don’t make it into one of these fast-food style joints, be sure to stop by and get a jug of their sweet tea. It is the best in the world. (They sell it in most of the area grocery stores.) I used to have a certain someone bring it to me every time she visited.
- Niki’s West - This casual spot features everything from breakfasts to steak at good prices. It’s where you should go if you’re missing a good, home cooked meal.
- The Garage Cafe – Very cool vibe. Make sure to sit out on the vine-covered courtyard and enjoy.
- Surin West – I love Thai food, but I’m pretty choosy when it comes to what’s good or not. Surin West will not disappoint. I had to specifically ask for the name of this place, remembering having been taken there by Ginny, only to discover it was already on my list, since I’d come across so many mentions of it on Birmingham sites. So you don’t just have to take my word for it.
- Five Points — While there are so many great places to eat in this area, the real appeal is just to park your car, and walk around among the locals, then pick a place that strikes your fancy. There’s plenty to choose from, such as Surin (listed above), Pita Stop, the Blue Monkey Lounge, J. Clyde, and so many others.
- Peterbrook Chocolatiers – Once you’ve had your fill of barbecue, Italian fare, burritos, or hamburgers, head over to the Cahaba area for some Peterbrook Chocolates. As a Jacksonville resident, where Peterbrook was founded, I was happily surprised to be driving along one day and discover a Peterbrook in the ‘Ham. Turns out, they’ve spread across Florida, and now have two locations in Alabama. Don’t miss the Peterbrook specialty, chocolate covered popcorn. Sounds weird, tastes delicious.
If you’re looking to stay and watch the Stars Fall on Alabama, there are a host of great hotels to stay at. Of course, as in any thriving metropolis such as Birmingham, there are a host of great chain hotels, if you’re looking for a standard and inexpensive stay. I’ve certainly been welcomed by friends and family many stays, but have often enjoyed great experiences at the Sheraton and Hampton Inn among others. But if you’re looking for a more authentic Birmingham experience, check out these great places.
- The Redmont – Located in downtown Birmingham, you’ll be in the heart of all the action. The Redmont is a boutique hotel, which sets it apart in this location, and sports beautiful, modern rooms, as well as a rooftop bar to enjoy the views.
- The Tutwiler Hotel – This historic hotel is now operated by Hampton Suites, so you know that you’ll get a good experience, along with a timeless setting. The Tutwiler was just renovated and preserved a few years ago, so you’ll be sure to have a pleasant historic experience, while still enjoying all the modern amenities.
- The Wynfrey – Located adjacent to the Riverchase Galleria, you’ll have access to tons of shopping, as well as a top-notch experience that specializes in Southern hospitality. This hotel is for you if you enjoy a large, corporate-friendly setting, with still plenty of glam.
- Ross Bridge Resort — Outside of town, but on some of the most beautiful grounds, you’ll find Ross Bridge Resort. I highly recommend this luxurious hotel, surrounded by lakes and woodlands. You’ll feel like you just stepped into some European resort, fit for royalty. And while owned and operated by Marriott Renaissance, this resort feels one-of-a-kind.
- The Summit — This clever play-on-words describes both Birmingham’s mountain geography, as well as the peak of perfection when it comes to shopping in the city. Conveniently complete, this offers shopping for anything and everything you’d ever want. There are over a hundred shops and restaurants, and growing more everyday.
- At Home – Be sure to stop in this chic furnishings stop. They’ve got everything gorgeously curated, from bedding, sofas, dining room tables, lighting, window coverings, art, pillows and accessories.
- Leaf & Petal — This shop is right on trend, but still traditional enough to cater to a Southern Birmingham. I love places that you can tell are hometown, one-of-a-kind, but still offer amazing products and services. That’s just what you’ll find here. They offer home goods, as well as plants for your garden. They’ve been doing it right for years, and you’ll swear you walked into a small town where everybody knows your name at either location.
- A’Mano – One of those eclectic, colorful shops where you know you’ll find just the right thing. It’s like the Etsy, in a physical store, offering local products made from artists right in Birmingham, as well as around the world. With every purchase, you get a short biography of the artist from the knowledgable staff, many of whom are artists themselves.
- Alabama Booksmith — This bookstore comes highly recommended, and while I haven’t yet had the chance to visit, I trust that if you’re anything like me, you love a good bookshop. Southern writers are well represented here, and they offer lots of events for the community such as book clubs, signings, and a helpful staff that can point you to a favorite right away.
- Downtown Homewood – This neighborhood is full of local shops, such as At Home (listed above).
Be sure to pick up a copy of Black & White while you’re in town. You’ll find them in restaurants and around town. A great (free!) publication that will give you all the hot spots in town, and what’s going on.
- Birmingham Botanical Gardens – This is a great activity to do year-around. These gardens aren’t your typical botanical gardens, but they feature so much more, including an interesting Asian-inspired, as well as the Southern Living garden. Now, you know that will be impressive. You can even see the Moon Tree, grown from a seed taken into outer space. And, what’s more… it’s free!
- Birmingham Museum of Art — This is a fantastic (and another free activity) museum, located in Birmingham. It has one of the finest collections in the South, including an impressive Wedgwood china room that houses over a thousand pieces, which is the largest collection outside of England. You can easily spend a day browsing the many collections here.
- Statue of Liberty — This exact replica of “Liberty Enlightening the World” stands visible from Interstate 459, near 280. It was originally cast for an insurance company, but now stands in Liberty Park, open to the public from sunup to sundown.
- Vulcan Park — This statue is one of the landmarks of Birmingham. You’ll remember Becky and I paid a visit to the park a while back on one of our Sweet Iced Tea road trips. Built to represent the city’s status as king of steel, the Vulcan is a symbol of strength. The park surrounding is a beautiful place to overlook a great view of the city. And locals know that the statue of the Roman god sports some pretty fitted trousers. You might hear someone mention the “full moon” over Birmingham, even in broad daylight. Now you’re in on the joke. Make sure you tour the Vulcan Center to learn about the history of the statue, as well as get to light his torch that was held from 1946 to 1999.
- Sloss Furnace – This is one of the coolest places to visit in Birmingham, for my money. And not just because it’s free! Sloss produced iron for almost 100 years, giving rise to the city of Birmingham, both physically, and in population. Industry can be beautiful with its pipes and smokestacks.
- Pepper Place – Each Saturday, weather permitting, you can buy vegetables, flowers, baked goods, and lots more, all from local farmers and artisans. There are always musicians on hand to entertain while you drink your coffee, nibble on goodies, and take a look around.
- Samford University — This campus is one of the most beautiful campuses in the South. If you have some extra time in the city, it’s worth a walk around to look at the architecture and landscaping.
- WorkPlay — When the sun goes down, head on over to the spot for music entertainment in the ‘Ham. I’ve caught many great shows here, and you just never know when the next John Mayer is on stage. As with any venue, be sure to check their website to see what’s going on on any given evening.
- Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail — For you golf enthusiasts, this is the place you’ll want to schedule a day. One of the most beautiful trails in the South, if not in the country.
- Birmingham Barons – Birmingham is host city to a fantastic Minor League Baseball team, the Barons. The Barons have been in Birmingham since 1885 and are currently affiliated with the Chicago White Sox. And, does anyone else remember that this is the team Michael Jordan went to play for after his retirement from NBA play? A great way to spend an afternoon, or take the kids to enjoy America’s favorite pastime.
- McWane Science Center — The kiddies will love this science museum, located downtown for a day of learning and hands-on fun. They house many exhibits on dinosaurs and geology, space travel, aquatic life, and an IMAX theater.
- There are several other great companies located in Birmingham that are happy to give tours, if you arrange them ahead of time. I can recommend the Golden Flake Potato Chip factory (where you get samples all day long of potato chips!) and the Southern Progress company. This gorgeous headquarters is home to magazines such as Southern Living and Health. It is certainly worth a visit.
- Oak Mountain State Park – If you’re interested in spending some time in Birmingham’s beauty and get out into the great outdoors, be sure to visit Oak Mountain State park. For a mere $2, you can get in, pack a picnic lunch, and stay all day. You’ll have your choice of everything from a beach, to a golf course, to trails complete with waterfalls. Not to mention the best views of Birmingham!
- Mountain Brook Area — My favorite thing to do in Birmingham is to drive out to a gorgeous area called Mountain Brook. There are hosts of adorable shops, boutiques, restaurants, coffee cafes, and galleries to explore. Not to mention some drool-worthy homes. Be sure to browse around Bromberg’s, where you’ll feel like you stepped back into a fancy old department store, Big Sky Bakery, and Billy’s Bar at English Village. Stop by for lunch at La Paz Mexican in Crestline.