Birmingham was established in 1871 when an abundance of iron, limestone, and coal was discovered in the area. As the production of steel grew, so did the city’s population. Now home to more than 210,000 people, Birmingham is the largest city in Alabama and provides a wide variety of things to do.
It’s easy to spend a day in the Steel City learning about the civil rights movement, hiking, indulging in delicious Southern cuisine, and browsing the city’s unique shops.
Here are some of the best things to do in the area.
Visit The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was founded to educate visitors about the importance of civil rights, and, more broadly, human rights for all. A short video leads the way into the first exhibit, Barriers Gallery, which illustrates what segregation in the United States was like between the 1920s and the 1950s. Artifacts, posters, and videos are displayed in chronological order; exhibits cover everything from Jim Crow laws to the bus boycotts in Montgomery to Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in Washington, D.C.
The Institute was constructed across the street from key locations such as Kelly Ingram Park, which was an important meeting point for civil rights groups, and 16th Street Baptist Church, where four children were killed during a hate bombing in the 1960s.
The Institute is open from Tuesday through Sunday. Allow 2 to 3 hours to make your way through the exhibits. Admission costs $15, but on Sundays, entrance is granted by donation.
Admire The Animals At The Birmingham Zoo
Although it’s relatively small, The Birmingham Zoo is home to everything from African elephants and hippos to endangered red pandas. The zoo frequently hosts special events and talks to promote education and animal conservation. At certain events, visitors can even feed the resident lorikeets and giraffes.
The Birmingham Zoo is open daily. You’ll need an hour or two to admire all the felines, monkeys, and birds. Admission costs $17 per person but is half off every Tuesday.
Enjoy Panoramic Views At Vulcan Park
Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge, has become a symbol of Birmingham. You can see references to Vulcan around the city, but nothing beats the 50-ton cast iron statue of him on top of Red Mountain. Standing 56 feet tall in Vulcan Park, it’s the world’s largest cast iron statue and celebrates Birmingham’s role in the iron and steel industry.
The Vulcan statue alone is worth the drive to the top of the mountain. While the statue is the draw, the surrounding platform, which provides panoramic views of Birmingham, is the reason to stay. There is plenty of parking, and entrance to the park is free.
In addition to the view, you can also take in the Vulcan Museum, which documents the iron and steel history of the city. Admission costs $6.
Hike The Quarry Trail In Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve
Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve boasts more than 1,040 acres and 14 miles of hiking trails for outdoor lovers. Before Ruffner Mountain was the beautiful preserve it is today, it served as an iron-ore mine.
If you only have time to complete one hike, make it the 1.1-mile Quarry Trail around the ridge. It’s a moderately difficult trail with uneven terrain, but it provides access to other trails if you’d like to prolong your hike. One trail that branches from the Quarry Trail is the Hawk’s View Overlook Trail, a half-mile uphill trek to a gorgeous view of Birmingham.
Since the area was once a mining site, stay on the trails and don’t get too close to the edges -- the ground may be unstable. A $3 donation is suggested for using the trails.
Stroll Through Railroad Park
Railroad Park is a 19-acre green escape in the center of town. The man-made park features 600 trees, countless flowers, and a lake in the center. During construction, bricks, cobblestones, and other materials were uncovered; these were repurposed into the walls and benches that line the grounds.
The park is equipped with a playground, skate area, gym, and several trails for walking, running, and jogging. A little less than a mile, the loop around the perimeter of Railroad Park is one of the most popular. The park is free to the public and is open every day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
You can also drive through the nearby Rainbow Tunnel, an underpass that is lit up with colorful lights in the evening.
Explore The Sloss Furnaces
Where there is iron production, there must be furnaces! A National Historic Landmark, the Sloss Furnaces commemorate the beginnings of Birmingham. After operating for almost 90 years, the Sloss Furnaces were abandoned in 1971 due to the Clean Air Act. After undergoing renovations, they opened to the public.
Today, the site is equipped with a short introductory video and exhibits, and visitors can take a self-guided tour to learn about the history of the furnaces, the iron-production process, and the people who once worked at the site. It’s captivating walking through the site and seeing the giant, rusting contraptions; you can easily imagine the site as it was just 50 years ago.
The Sloss Furnaces are open Tuesday through Sunday and are free to visit.
Eating In Birmingham
Birmingham offers a wonderful selection of international cuisine, specialty food shops, and classic Southern fare.
Here are some places to grab a bite in the Steel City.
Pizitz Food Hall
A Birmingham original, Pizitz Food Hall is situated in the heart of downtown. The building operated as an eight-story department store until its closure in 1988. Since 2017, when the building was restored, the hall has grown to include 14 food stalls. With so many options, you can choose whatever cuisine your stomach desires, from traditional cheeseburgers at The Standard to Ethiopian injera flatbed at Ghion Cultural Hall. Conveniently, Pizitz has its own parking structure and allows 2 hours of parking free of charge.
Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q
You’re in the South, after all, so a stop at a juicy barbecue spot is a must. Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q is happy to oblige your taste buds with pulled pork sandwiches, barbecue plates (two trimmings and a sauce), and small plates of nachos or queso dip. However, the real showstoppers are the cheese biscuits that are provided at the beginning of each meal, free of charge. They’re fluffy, salty yet sweet, and most of all, cheesy. Jim ’N Nick’s sells bags of the cheese biscuit mix, and they fly off the shelves!
Church Street Coffee & Books
Located in a cozy corner of Birmingham called Mountain Brook, Church Street Coffee & Books is the perfect place to go either before or after visiting the Birmingham Zoo. Part coffee shop, part bookstore, Church Street serves up the best reads with some strong brews. In addition to being highly knowledgeable about new books, the staff members are known for their specialty Breakup Cookie, a large soft-baked cookie with melted chocolate chips and a sprinkle of sea salt on top.
Steel City Pops
Steel City Pops, a local favorite, whips up popsicles that are fruity, creamy, paleo, or even cookie. All the popsicles are made from local ingredients that are natural and unrefined. Visiting Steel City Pops is truly an experience. Not only do you choose your pop, but you also have the option to make it gourmet. You can dredge it or dip it in milk, dark, or white chocolate and then garnish it with an assortment of toppings, including sprinkles, fruit, and cookie crumbles. Choose from pre-made gourmet recipes in-store or create your own concoction. Some popular options include s’mores, pecan praline, and strawberry milkshake.
Shopping In Birmingham
In Birmingham, there are a lot of independently owned shops and boutiques that specialize in unique and creative goods.
One such shop is Marguerite’s Conceits, which sells bed and bath goodies such as lotions, bath soaps, bath bombs, and scrubs. Since it’s a short walk from Church Street Coffee & Books, you can grab a hot brew and walk through the quaint streets of Mountain Brook to look for fun gifts.
Set within Pizitz Food Hall, Yellowhammer Creative is full of hand-printed cards, posters, stickers, T-shirts, and bags. The designs are all quirky and unique to the brand. Many of the goods available center on Birmingham, so Yellowhammer is the perfect place to purchase fun souvenirs for loved ones (or for yourself!).
Although it’s a little bit of drive outside of Birmingham, The Blue Willow provides unique home goods and decor. If you’re looking for goods full of Southern charm, you'll find them here. If you want to take it one step further for someone special, the shop even provides monogramming on fabric, glass, and metalware.