Think outside the grits: From under the weight of its industrial past, Birmingham is lifting its head.
Wed Apr 16 2008
Once dubbed the“Pittsburgh of the South” because of its astonishingly fast industrial growth (not for any latter-day negative connotations), Birmingham is experiencing another growth spurt; thanks to a surge of new businesses and renovated real estate, the Downtown District is turning into a hip cultural hub.
But the past still resonates: A 56-foot cast-iron statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge, lords over the town. Created by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, Vulcan has guarded the city with a raised spear—and perplexedly exposed butt cheeks—since it was moved to its current location in 1939. Pay the statue a visit at Vulcan Park and Museum (1701 Valley View Dr, 205-933-1409) where you can take in a beautiful panoramic city view. Stop by the museum for quirky trivia about Vulcan’s spear, which has been replaced, variously, by an ice-cream cone, a Coke bottle and, in the ’40s, a green torch that changed to an eerie red in the event of a fatal traffic accident.
For some Southern hospitality, check into the charming Cobb Lane Bed and Breakfast (1309 19th St, 205-918-9090; from $89) in the Five Points South Historic District. This B&B, located within a stunningly restored 1898 house boasts a delicious breakfast (Southern-style, natch), incredibly friendly owners and eight elaborate Victorian guest rooms.
To sup, go to the cozy, French-inspired Chez Fon Fon (2007 Eleventh Ave S, 205-939-3221), for fresh fruit cocktails, and steak frites, courtesy of James Beard Award-winning owner and chef Frank Stitt. Considered a culinary treasure, Stitt pioneered upscale cuisine in the ’80s with his flagship restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill (2011 11th Ave South, 205-939-1400). Make like a good ol’ boy and order the creamy stone-ground baked grits and mouthwatering country ham.
If you’re seeking lighter fare, check out Bottle Tree (3719 Third Ave South, 205-533-6288), an adorable café-cum–art gallery that’s also one of the coolest live-music venues in town. Find the picnic tables on the light-strewn outdoor patio where you can chow down on vegan food.
Take a postprandial stroll through the beautiful Highland Park area, where you can browse affordable eclectic wares on offer at Naked Art (3815 Clairmont Ave, 205-595-3553; nakedartusa.com) in nearby Forest Park.
Photograph: Jeffrey Greenberg
Make a pit stop at Garage Café (2304 10th Terr South, 205-322-3220): Housed in a converted auto shop, it serves sandwiches and brews, but the real draw is a sprawling courtyard packed with concrete benches, cast-off lawn ornaments and oddball art, all for sale.
To get to Birmingham’s City Center, catch one of the vintage DART street trolleys, which operate daily (10am to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays). Stop by Reed Books (2021 Third Ave North, 205-326-4460), with more than 30,000 rare tomes and vintage comics to offer.
It’s all nuts at Peanut Depot (2016 Morris Ave, 205-251-3314), where pounds of flavorful peanuts (salted, Cajun or boiled, $2–$3 per pound) have been roasted in old-school metal drum ovens for passersby and Alabama football fans since 1907. Or get hopped-up on sugar and caffeine at the wildly popular Urban Standard (2320 Second Ave North, 205-250-8200). This coffeeshop-cum-boutique has helped revitalize this long-blighted stretch of the Downtown District—along with a real estate boom.
A few blocks north is The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in the historic Carver Theater (1631 Fourth Ave, North; 205-254-2731), a must-see for serious jazz buffs (especially fans of native sons Erskine Hawkins and Sun Ra). Continue on to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (520 16th St North, 205-328-9696; admission $10), which chronicles the city’s significant role in the civil-rights movement. Soak up the weight of Kelly Ingram Park with an audio tour on the site of the 1960s race rallies and subsequent riots.
Cap off your tour of the Magic City with a trip to spooky Sloss Furnaces (20 32nd St North, 205- 324-1911). Once a prosperous iron furnace and plant, its eerie skeleton is thought to be haunted. Climb around the abandoned machinery, marvel at the corroded smokestacks and summon the spirits of workers who toiled to fuel the city.
Three nights, two people
Car rental $113
+ Meals $160
Delta offers nonstop flights.