Packed with interesting museums and historic attractions, Birmingham is Alabama’s largest city plus its economic and cultural center. Originally known for its steel industry, it later drew international attention for the pivotal role it played in the civil rights movement.
Due to this, many monuments around town relate to the movement and the rallies, protests and demonstrations that took place. Yet other excellent museums look at everything from art and aircraft to science, the city and motorsports.
While lots of rusty old industrial sites can still be spotted here and there, The Magic City has plenty of picturesque parks and green spaces to explore. Other things to do in Birmingham include exploring its lively arts and culture scenes and a glut of great restaurants and nightclubs.
17. Southern Museum of Flight
Nestled next to the city’s international airport is the fascinating Southern Museum of Flight. Its huge hangars house almost a hundred aircraft with countless exhibits, engines and bits of equipment also displayed.
Now one of the largest institutes of its kind in the southeast of the States, the vast museum was first opened to the public in 1966. As well as perusing massive models and memorabilia, there is also the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame to explore.
The undoubted highlight, however, has to be the rows and rooms of gleaming jets and hulking great bombers. Next to its civilian and military planes, you can also find a fine replica of a Wright Flyer. Complementing its incredible old vintage aircraft are some fantastic paintings, photos and videos.
16. Ruffner Mountain
Preserved as part of a nature reserve, rugged Ruffner Mountain rises up dramatically to the northeast of Birmingham. Surrounded by suburbs with the airport lying not far away, it has loads of pretty trails and spellbinding scenery for visitors to enjoy.
Formerly home to both iron ore mines and stone quarries, the area was eventually transformed into a park in 1977. Since then, locals and tourists alike flock to the forest-coated mount to relax and immerse themselves in nature.
While hiking its fifteen miles of scenic trails, you can take in sweeping views of the city and even spot local wildlife. At the visitor center, guests can learn more about the native flora and see raptors, snakes and turtles up close and personal.
15. The Summit
Set on the southeastern outskirts of town are the innumerable stores and restaurants of The Summit; a sophisticated outdoor lifestyle center. The perfect place to shop til you drop, its sprawling site also has a state-of-the-art cinema where you can watch all the latest releases.
Since opening in 1997, the open-air mall has expanded enormously with nearly a hundred upmarket shops and chic restaurants scattered about the complex. These include not just Apple and Levi’s but Banana Republic, Lush and Urban Outfitters too.
After shopping for clothes, cosmetics or computers, you can enjoy a lovely meal at one of the sushi bars or steakhouses. The Summit also hosts numerous cultural events and festivals at its attractive outdoor site.
14. Kelly Ingram Park
Located in the heart of the Birmingham Civil Rights District is Kelly Ingram Park. As it is bordered by the 16th Street Baptist Church, countless rallies and protests took place here during the fight for civil rights in the sixties.
Thanks to the prominent role it played, the small park is now dotted with several superb sculptures and moving monuments related to the movement. Particularly striking is its Four Spirits statue that depicts and acts as a memorial to the four young girls killed in the bombing of the baptist church.
‘A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation’, it also contains commemorative sculptures of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other heroes of the movement. Lining the square are not just the church and art installations but the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute too.
13. 16th Street Baptist Church
Lying at one corner of the storied park is the 16th Street Baptist Church. The first African-American congregation to organize in Birmingham, it notably served as the organizational headquarters of the civil rights movement in the city.
Due to its numerous rallies and marches, the church and protestors were often targets of police brutality and retaliation. On the 15th September 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb that tragically killed four young girls at Sunday school.
Despite this, its members and Dr Martin Luther King Jr. continued to strive for civil rights with the church being repaired the following year. At the National Historic Landmark, you can delve into its captivating history, take in exquisite architecture and see a stained-glass window depicting black Jesus.
12. Railroad Park
Often described as ‘Birmingham’s Living Room’, the gorgeous green Railroad Park lies right in the center of the city. As well as offering all kinds of fun outdoor activities, it hosts myriad amazing concerts, cultural events and festivals.
So named due to the two rail lines that pass nearby, the paths, ponds and playgrounds cover several blocks in the downtown area. Lovingly landscaped, the park features flowerbeds, lawns and wetlands with little streams weaving their way here and there.
Besides walking, jogging and biking, you can lounge on the green grass, use the outdoor gym and try out the skate bowls. Some great views can also be had of downtown and the passing train, with cafes and restaurants lying nearby.
11. Birmingham Museum of Art
Boasting one of the finest collections in the Southeastern United States is the brilliant Birmingham Museum of Art. Set in the center alongside Linn Park, it is particularly known for impressive and eclectic African, Asian and Native American artworks.
Founded in 1951, its extensive holdings now occupy a magnificent modern building. Within the light and airy galleries, you can see everything from paintings and photos to drawings, decorative arts and sculptures. On top of masks, ritual objects and furniture, there are also rooms packed with ceramics and textiles to explore.
After having seen its more than 26,000 artworks, make sure to stroll around the wonderful sculpture garden outside. You can also stop for a coffee at the cozy cafe and buy souvenirs in the gift shop.
10. Pepper Place Market
A colorful and chaotic affair, the hugely popular Pepper Place Market is held every Saturday from April through to December. While only a couple of dozen vendors set up stands in winter, the summer months see over a hundred farmers flock downtown to sell their wares.
Now one of the largest markets in Alabama, it started life with just a handful of producers back in 2000. Laden with fresh fruit and vegetables, its rows of stalls are lots of fun to peruse with coffee stands and food trucks also dotted about.
In addition to all the crops solely produced in the state, plenty of people hawk handmade jewellery, artwork and clothes. Adding to the ambiance are street performers and engaging activities for kids.
9. Alabama Theatre
Also located in the heart of downtown is the elaborately decorated Alabama Theatre. Once a movie palace, the hallowed venue now hosts unforgettable concerts, comedy nights and classic films in the exquisite auditorium.
As it was built to be Paramount’s flagship theater in the southeast, the 1927 theatre features loads of ostentatious decorations and refined designs. Besides its majestic Moorish-style theme, this includes a lavish lobby and gold-glad theatre that still houses its original Wurlitzer organ.
While watching one of its top-class ballet, opera and Broadway performances, you can sit and gaze at the elegant architecture on show. In total, the fantastic old theatre hosts about 250 events each year with something new and interesting always taking place.
8. Regions Field
If it is thrilling sporting spectacles you are after, then Regions Field in Southside is certainly the place to go. At the intimate arena, fans can watch the exciting home matches of the Birmingham Barons; the city’s Minor League Baseball team.
Designed to blend in with the industrial buildings around it, the smallish ballpark was completed in 2013. Thanks to its brick and steel facade, it has a delightful old time look and feel with downtown’s skyscrapers rising in the distance.
From its comfy seats, visitors can enjoy perfect views of the field and contribute to its intoxicating atmosphere. It also has excellent food and drink options and play areas where you can chuck a ball back and forth before the batting commences.
7. Birmingham Zoo
Home to hundreds of exotic and endangered animals, Birmingham Zoo lies ten minutes drive south of the center. At its sprawling site, you can see everything from fierce lions and enormous elephants to remarkable rhinos, tigers and Komodo dragons.
Long a firm favorite with families, it was first opened to the public in 1955. Impressively enough, its spacious enclosures now house more than 550 animals of over 180 species from every corner of the globe. Besides exploring Alligator Swamp and Flamingo Lagoon, there are also aviaries, reptile houses and other themed areas to discover.
On top of all this, guests can stroke and feed farmyard animals, take languid camel rides and watch amazing sea lion shows. There are also playgrounds, splash pads and picnic areas to make use of and a little train to ride about upon.
6. Birmingham Botanical Gardens
Next door is another of the city’s standout sites: the beautiful Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Full of colorful flowers, plants, trees and shrubs, its peaceful paths and reflective ponds are a treat to amble around.
Founded in 1963, it has grown considerably with now thirty themed gardens to explore. While some house pretty roses and irises, others are wild and free with bogs, woods and desert areas lying alongside twinkling lakes. Rock formations, water features and a Torii gate can also be found in the gorgeous Japanese garden.
In total, more than thirty awe-inspiring outdoor sculptures line the miles of meandering nature trails. Its garden center and library also have exhibits on the local flora with talks and workshops taking place all the time.
5. Sloss Furnaces
Stroll just a short distance northeast of downtown and you’ll come across the striking smokestacks and rusting machinery of the Sloss Furnaces. Now a National Historic Landmark, it hosts an art and cultural center with tours taking you around the incredible old industrial site.
From 1882 to 1971, the vast factory produced innumerable tonnes of pig iron in its ginormous blast furnaces. Nowadays, visitors can walk around the rust-colored machines, see old equipment and snap photos of their distinctive shapes and silhouettes against the bright blue sky.
On tours, you learn all about the plant’s past and the workers and slaves who produced the pig iron. The educational center puts on plenty of exhibits and metal arts workshops alongside concerts, community events and festivals.
4. McWane Science Center
An interesting and entertaining place to visit, the exceptional McWane Science Center lies right in the city center. As well as four floors of interactive exhibits, it has lots of activities, experiments and a massive IMAX to check out.
Housed within its historical building are hundreds of thousands of artifacts and specimens to peruse. While some rooms focus on fossils and dinosaurs, others look at the environment and local Native American cultures. The aquarium also has a terrific touch tank where you can stroke small sharks and stingrays.
In addition, there are play areas and climbing frames for young ones to enjoy and parts where guests can create things and try out experiments. You can also watch films on the enormous cinema screen, see thrilling science shows and stop for a coffee at the cafe.
3. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Just one of the city’s many unmissable museums is the brilliant Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in the downtown district of the same name. Lying along one side of Kelly Ingram Park, its interpretive exhibits depict the struggles of the movement in the fifties and sixties.
Opened in 1992, the ‘living institution’ and its cultural research center look at the past, present and future of the fight for civil rights. Multimedia exhibits cover everything from segregation in the city and the Freedom Riders to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church next door.
Historic photos, videos and personal interviews with movement participants shed light on these tough subjects. Visitors can also explore contemporary human rights issues before heading to some of the other important historic sites located nearby.
2. Vulcan Park and Museum
The largest cast iron statue in the world, the Vulcan towers above its surroundings from atop Red Mountain. Birmingham’s standout symbol and sight, it reflects the importance of the iron and steel industry to the city’s development.
Originally erected in St. Louis, Missouri for the 1904 World’s Fair, its prominent pedestal is now set amidst lush grounds some ten minutes south of the center. Standing 56 feet high, it depicts Vulcan – the Roman god of fire and the forge – in a striking pose.
Aside from snapping photos of the fabulous figure, you can also travel to the top of its observation tower and enjoy phenomenal views over downtown. After wandering around the park’s pretty paths, make sure to stop by the interactive museum which examines the history of the statue, city and state.
1. Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum
Even if you’re not at all into motorbikes, the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum is simply a must due to its staggering collection. At its sparkling complex on the eastern outskirts of town, guests can peruse over 1,600 amazing motorcycles and modern racing cars.
The largest museum of its kind in the world, it was established in 1994 by former race car driver and later collector George Barber. Coating almost every available inch of its five floors are never-ending makes and models of motorbikes, all displayed in a cool and creative way. In total, more than 200 manufacturers are represented ranging from Honda and Kawazaki to Suzuki and Zimmerman.
Right outside is a remarkable racecourse where you can watch cars and motorbikes hurtle their way around the track. Hardcore motorheads and adrenaline seekers can also take a bike for a spin around the course if they feel like it.