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When researching new travel destinations, many people glaze over the American South with skepticism. The cities don’t shine with modernity, the cultural reputations are divisive, all the food is fried, and all the music is twangy — supposedly. Birmingham, Alabama is out to prove you wrong. The largest city in the state of Alabama boasts a complex history including post-Civil War industrialization, the corruption of an establishment, and its important role as the staging ground for human rights. Anyone who genuinely cares about U.S. history should plan a trip here.
That being said, a trip to Birmingham isn’t just a tour of the past. The city is currently experiencing an electrifying revival chock-full of entrepreneurial spirit, chic new neighborhoods, and a ramped-up food culture. Throw in electric pedal-assisted bike-share programs, brewery tours and vintage theaters refurbished as live music venues, and suddenly Birmingham starts to creep its way up your bucket list. Check out the best things to in Birmingham and get a taste of what the new American South has to offer.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
If there’s ever been a time to rediscover your bearings on basic human rights, it’s right now. The civil rights institute in Birmingham is one of the best educational destinations to feel the gravity of recent history. Touring the exhibits is a sobering experience, giving perspective to the current political commotion, and putting the trivialities of everyday life on the backburner. Exhibits include a rendition of a segregated city in the 1950’s, a replica of the Freedom Riders bus, and an actual jail cell door behind which Martin Luther King Jr. was detained for a period of time.
Civil Rights District
Surrounding the Civil Rights Institute is a district that effectively became ground-zero for the civil rights movement, and touring these streets makes for a great compact discovery of the city’s most significant landmarks. Attractions include the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of the 1963 racially-motivated bombings; Kelly Ingram Park, the famous site where fire hoses and vicious police dogs were unleashed on peaceful protestors; and the Carver Theater, a once-popular theater for African-Americans and now home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
Just outside of downtown Birmingham is a peaceful 1.5-mile bike ride winding along abandoned railroad tracks, lush wildlife and reclaimed materials from the city’s steel industry heydey. Recently completed in 2016, the Railroad Park today is 19 acres of community gardens, ponds, streams, hills, and a skate park.
Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum
If you have any vague interest in motorcycles, or even just learning about one of America’s most famous pastimes, the Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum is a great place to check out in Birmingham. Their collection of over 1,450 vintage motorcycles is bound to wow even the least motor sport-inclined. The facility also has a 17-turn, 2.3-mile course where you can watch 2-wheeled daredevils fly around at frightening speeds.
The zoo is one of the best attractions in Birmingham for the whole family. With over 900 animals of approximately 230 species including sea lions, rhinos, penguins, elephants, and endangered animals from six continents, the Birmingham Zoo has it all. It’s extremely well-funded with loads of special events, educational seminars, and conservation initiatives.
A visit to Birmingham’s Sloss Furnaces is a tour of the United States’ complicated, rollercoaster history with industrialization and its subsequent downfall. Originally constructed in the late 19th century, the steel and iron plant was one of the primary players pushing Birmingham towards its lucrative era as the industrial center of the South. Eventually, the smelting plant caused enough air pollution to face pushback from the Clean Air Act and was closed down. Today it’s been renovated to host concerts, fire shows, metal arts classes, barbecue cook-offs, and tons of educational exhibits.