Even though it’s the largest city in Alabama, Birmingham never really crossed my mind as a travel destination. I knew it had some connection to the civil rights movement because it’s only an hour and a half north of Montgomery, known for its bus boycotts. I’d also heard something about a large iron statue. Still, it wasn’t high on my list.
All I can say is I wish I had gone sooner. There are so many great wow moments in Birmingham—from the Civil Rights Institute to the Barber Vintage Motorcycle Museum and the James Beard Award-winning food. There are definitely some great reasons to visit Birmingham now.
Vulcan Park and Museum
Start your Birmingham adventures at the Vulcan Park and Museum. Located on top of Red Mountain, the world’s largest cast-iron statue stands 56 feet tall and depicts the Roman god, Vulcan. It is visible from much of Birmingham, including downtown.
You can visit the park for free to get a closer look, but pay the $6 for a ride to the observation deck for panoramic views of the city, definitely one of my favorite wow moments in Birmingham. Near the statute’s base, a map cast into the concrete shows the layout of the city, and other displays tell of the geographical composition of the area and its mining history.
Make sure to visit the small museum to learn more about Birmingham and the statue, which was created using locally mined iron and forged in local foundries for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Barber Vintage Motorcycle Museum
I’m not a motorcycle person, but I loved this museum! The 23,000 square-foot Barber Vintage Motorcycle Museum has more than 1,600 pristine motorcycles in its collection, representing roughly 200 different manufacturers from 20 countries. At any given time, approximately 700 of those motorcycles are on display.
While there’s some information on the history and mechanics of motorcycles, this museum is really about appreciating the artistry of them. Start at the top and spiral your way down five stories to the basement where mechanics repair and maintain the motorcycles and the museum’s collection of more than 55 vintage Lotus racecars.
The museum is only a portion of the 880-acre campus. Allot time to watch racecars from the Porsche Sports Driving School whip around the 2.38-mile, 16-turn road racing track behind the museum. You'll also want time to appreciate the 60 sculptures in the surrounding gardens.
Historic Bethel Baptist Church
Birmingham played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement, thanks largely to Bethel Baptist Church and its pastor, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Reverend Shuttlesworth organized the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) after experiencing the city’s extreme segregation.
In retaliation for forming the ACMHR, white extremists blew up the reverend’s house, located next door to the church, on December 25, 1956. Miraculously, no one was killed in that or the two subsequent church bombings.
Today, Bethel Baptist Church worships in a newer building nearby, but you can tour the historic church, now a National Historic Landmark, by appointment on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s fascinating to look at the historic photos and artifacts in the basement as well as learn about the movement that started here.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
After you’ve visited Historic Bethel Baptist Church, head to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The institute gives an overview of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham including the treatment of African Americans in the city’s early days, the bus boycott, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and the community at large today.
For me, highlights included the Barriers Gallery with its displays comparing the difference between life for whites and African Americans in Birmingham from the 1920s through the 1950s; the cell where Martin Luther King, Jr., spent the night; and artifacts from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
16th Street Baptist Church
On Sunday, September 15, 1963, white extremists planted a 50-pound bomb underneath a stairwell in the 16th Street Baptist Church in response to desegregation. Although there was enough dynamite to destroy the entire building, it only blew up the girls’ bathroom. The death of three 14-year-olds and one 11-year-old outraged the nation, helping to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
You can visit the church Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and on Saturday by appointment. (Tours are $5 per person and last about an hour.) Look for the large stained glass window featuring the image of a black crucified Christ and the words “You do it to me.” It was a gift from the people of Wales.
Outside the church where it borders 16th Street, look for a granite memorial commemorating the bombing. This is the approximate area where the bomb was placed that fateful morning.
Kelly Ingram Park
Located kitty-corner from the 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park served as a staging area for marches in the early 1960s, including ones where police dogs and fire hoses were turned on what were mostly young teenagers.
Throughout the park, you’ll see sculptures and artwork depicting key events of the Civil Rights Movement, beginning with a sculpture of the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. For information about this sculpture and others throughout the park, download the audio tour app.
I was particularly struck by the replica of the fire hoses and marchers getting blasted by water so powerful it could rip the clothes from your body. Further down, a sculpture of dogs leaping out from walls on either side of the walkway was also very powerful. It was a “wow” moment that opened my eyes to the atrocities marchers endured.
Highlands Bar & Grill
A trip to Birmingham wouldn’t be complete without dinner at Highlands Bar & Grill, assuming you can get a reservation. The restaurant won the 2018 James Beard Foundation Award for “Most Outstanding Restaurant in the Country.” The restaurant's pastry chef, Dolester Miles, won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Pastry Chef. (Try her renowned coconut cake.)
The menu features fresh heritage ingredients and changes daily but one thing doesn’t: the service. Many of the staff have worked there for years, and all are extremely hospitable and gracious.
If you can’t get a reservation at Highlands Bar & Grill, try one of Chef Frank Stitt’s other restaurants, Chez Fonfon, located next door, and Bottega Restaurant, also in the area. No matter which you choose, you won’t be disappointed. Be sure to see what our other Wander writers recommend for great wow experiences in Alabama.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.