WALKING DOWN BIRMINGHAM’S tree-lined avenues or driving past its youthful restaurants, boutiques and breweries, it’s strange to think that, for many reasons, this city shouldn’t exist. In fact, for much of Alabama’s storied history, it didn’t. There was no river flowing through the city’s heart to give it life, no harbor to attract the nation’s commerce. But then, after the Civil War had run its course, the railroad came, and what was once a collection of three small farm towns became something else.
It became “The Magic City.”
Despite lacking the traditional geography of many of the South’s other great cities, Birmingham had something else—something special. Just outside downtown in the long, low ridges of the once-mighty Appalachians could be found iron ore, coal and limestone: the three main ingredients for steel. And in a rapidly industrializing nation gearing up for what would become the American Century, that was enough for a city to seemingly materialize overnight, as if by magic. In 1910, just 39 years after it was founded, Birmingham’s population had boomed to more than 132,000 people. By World War I, the city’s famed Sloss Furnaces was one of the foremost producers of pig iron in the world.
But things change. During the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham became synonymous with the brutal tactics used to suppress civil-rights demonstrators, and white flight to the suburbs saw the city’s population decline. At the same time, Birmingham’s industrial heart was struggling to keep going. In 1971, the great Sloss Furnaces shut down. A year later, the last of the region’s ore mines shuttered.
Perhaps all of this is why Birmingham—at least for someone new to the city—doesn’t feel wholly Southern. It’s a bit of the Rust Belt lost in the South. The city is quietly proud of its industrial history while still keeping an eye toward the future. And after five decades of population loss, it’s estimated that the decline finally leveled off between 2010 and 2014.
But you don’t need numbers to see that something is changing. Just make your way over to the city’s Avondale neighborhood. And really, you should already be heading there anyway for the can’t-miss pork-and-greens special at Saw’s Soul Kitchen. One of the city’s famous Saw’s restaurants (the others being Saw’s BBQ in Homewood and Saw’s Juke Joint in Crestline), this small dive on 41st Street South has helped anchor the neighborhood’s renaissance. Now, any given weekend sees flocks of college students dancing at the spaceship-themed, live music venue Saturn; young professionals enjoying craft brews from Avondale Brewery Co. across the street; and locavores chowing down on Asian fusion dishes from the Airstream trailer on the Parkside Cafe’s tiered patio.
And Avondale is not alone. The city is filled with energetic enterprises—many centered around food, such as chic downtown gastropub Carrigan’s Public House or the restaurant empire created by James Beard Award-winner Frank Stitt. Southern Living, Garden & Gun and The New York Times have sung his praises, and for good reason. His understated Chez Fonfon—located right next door to his flagship Highlands Bar and Grille in the city’s lively Five Points neighborhood—is a pitch-perfect French bistro in the heart of the South. But as evidence that he hasn’t forgotten his down-home roots, the restaurant serves up one heckuva burger.
There’s more than food to this place, however. Homewood, a city in its own right located just south of downtown, is full of trendy boutiques, including Soca, the flagship of a women’s clothing chain with shops in Tuscaloosa and Nashville. Then there is midcentury-modern purveyor Soho Retro, whose rotating stock will have designophiles drooling.
But even with all this new life, there are the remains of the old, of The City That Steel Built. Sloss Furnaces, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now a museum. Visitors tour its great machines, and it has become a popular venue for musical acts and host to many of the city’s festivals.
And then there is Red Mountain.
Just southwest of the city core and butting up against Homewood, this low Appalachian ridge, perhaps more than anything else in the city, embodies both Birmingham’s past and its future. The mountain was the source of the city’s iron ore—the mountain’s rocks still run red with its rust—but the mines no longer hum. That doesn’t mean all is quiet, though. Today, Red Mountain provides one of the largest urban parks in the country, alive with hikers, bikers and adventure seekers who are able to gaze out upon The Magic City’s second act from the heart of its first.
LIFTING THE CURTAIN ON THE MAGIC CITY
The Tutwiler Hotel
Though the original Tutwiler Hotel was torn down in 1974, the current incarnation is no less historic. In fact, having begun life as the Ridgely Apartments a year earlier (1913) than the original, it’s arguably more so. These days, the upscale hotel offers complimentary breakfast, city views and short walks to many of the city’s premier attractions, including the neighboring Birmingham Museum of Art. (2021 Park Place; bit.ly/Tutwiler)
Cobb Lane Bed and Breakfast
Those seeking the intimacy of a historic bed and breakfast should look no further than this restored Victorian mansion in the city’s historic Five Points neighborhood. Though built in 1898, this seven-room inn still features modern musts such as fully appointed private bathrooms, air conditioning and complimentary Wi-Fi, thanks to a restoration that won this B&B Birmingham Historical Society’s Preservation Award of Excellence in 2005. (1309 19th St.; cobblanebandb.com)
Aloft Birmingham Soho Square
OK, OK, you’ve probably figured it out by now—Birmingham is steeped in history. But that doesn’t mean your hotel has to be, too. Located just south of downtown in the trendy suburb of Homewood, this decidedly urban boutique hotel is perfect for those with an eye to the future. And if the name sounds familiar, it’s because the chain has set up shop in Bentonville and will open a Little Rock location in 2016. (1903 29th Ave. S., Homewood; aloftbirminghamsohosquare.com)
//EAT & DRINK
Saw’s Soul Kitchen
Though not the original Saw’s (that’s located a little farther south in Homewood), this small Avondale barbecue-and-soul-food joint has become a Birmingham institution, thanks in no small part to its signature dish: cheese grits stacked with greens, perfectly cooked pulled pork and lightly battered onion rings. Since the dish comes sans Saw’s signature white sauce, go ahead and order a side of wings to share. (215 41st St. S.; sawsbbq.com)
The Garage Cafe
This eclectic Highland Park dive has received no shortage of accolades, including a nod as one of Esquire’s Best Bars in America and GQ’s 10 Best Bars Worth Flying For. But despite The Garage Cafe’s national renown, walking into its wisteria-shaded, antiques-strewn patio still feels like stumbling upon a secret treasure. (2304 10th Terrace S.; garagecafe.us)
This classy, yet cozy, French bistro is part of James Beard Award-winning chef Frank Stitt’s restaurant empire. If the weather permits, grab a table on the patio and play a game of boules (French-style bocce) between bites of savory chicken-liver mousse or the crowd-favorite hamburger topped with French comte. (2007 11th Ave. S.; fonfonbham.com)
Carrigan’s Public House
This stylish gastropub’s big draw isn’t just the craft cocktails and elevated pub fare—think roasted garlic-aioli burgers and cotija-cheese-topped corn dogs with guajillo-chili ketchup—but also the panoramic downtown view from the rooftop deck. (2430 Morris Ave.; carriganspub.com)
Like so many of Birmingham’s best hangouts, this antiques-store-turned-bar in Avondale features one heckuva patio. But it also has something special to set it apart from the pack: namely, an Airstream trailer named HotBox that serves up new spins on Asian dishes such as cucumber kimchi, spicy soba noodles and pork-sausage banh mi. (4036 Fifth Ave. S.; facebook.com/parksidecafe)
Red Mountain Park
Originally home to the mines that kept the city brimming with iron ore during Birmingham’s industrial heyday, Red Mountain is now one of the nation’s largest urban parks, comprising some 14 miles of hiking trails, a ropes course, zip lines and three treehouses accessible by rope bridges. (2011 Frankfurt Drive; redmountainpark.com)
Birmingham Museum of Art
With more than 26,000 works, including the largest collection of Wedgwood pottery in the world and the South’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Asian art, this 180,000-square-foot downtown museum is a must for any art lover. (2000 Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Blvd.; artsbma.org)
Birmingham Botanical Gardens
From the Japanese garden, complete with teahouse and arching bridges, to the herb terrace and glassed conservatory, this 67.5-acre slice of Eden is packed with more than 25,000 varieties of plants throughout its 25 individual gardens. Look for the crape myrtles, day lilies, summer annuals and tropical plants to be in bloom this month. (2612 Lane Park Road; bbgardens.org)
For almost 90 years, from 1882 to 1971, this great industrial complex churned out the pig iron on which the city was built. Now a national historic landmark and museum, the facility offers 60-minute guided tours of the great 400-ton furnaces, but visitors can also explore on their own. (20 32nd St. N.; slossfurnaces.com)
Hop City Craft Beer and Wine
The Southeast is positively exploding with world-class craft beer these days, and there is no better place in Birmingham to stock up on hard-to-find brews before heading home than Hop City. If its selection of regional, national and international brews seems overwhelming, a quick stop at the in-house, 66-tap bar will surely provide some direction. (2924 Third Ave. S.; hopcitybeer.com)
From flowy sundresses to boho tassel necklaces, every item in this flagship boutique in Homewood is handpicked. And with lines like AG Denim, DL1961 and Citizens of Humanity on the shop’s shelves, this is a haven for lovers of designer denim. (2820 18th St. S.; socaclothing.com)
Ashford Hill for Henhouse Antiques
Located in the Mountain Brook neighborhood’s charming English Village shopping district, this antique shop is fittingly filled with Old World charm. The owners travel Europe each year to stock the shop, so expect everything from French farm tables and Swedish chests to tea caddies and giltwood mirrors. (1900 Cahaba Road; henhouseantiques.com)
OK, it’s weird to go furniture shopping on vacation. But trust us—you’re going to want to drop by this Homewood gallery filled to the brim with a rotating collection of everything designophiles crave, like impossible-to-find midcentury marvels (Saarinen tulip tables! Paul McCobb case pieces!) and contemporary designs from firms such as Gus Design Group. (2805 18th St. S.; facebook.com/sohoretro)