What To Do in Birmingham
Birmingham, Alabama, is not your grandparents’ Birmingham, that's for certain. It’s a city filled with fun, fascinating places and friendly, interesting people. Personally, I haven’t lived in many other locations, but my husband, being a bit of a lifelong nomad - until he married me and I settled him right down - reports that Birmingham is among the “coolest places he’s ever lived.” Pretty high praise from someone who has trampled the Central African rainforests and climbed the peak of Mount Rainier. So, what’s so great about Birmingham, you ask? The thing that strikes me about the city is the strong comingling of its present with the past. While happily progressing to be a kinder, more contemporary city, filled with all the fun nightlife, scrumptious southern cuisine, and the modern conveniences you’d expect from a city its size, Birmingham doesn’t let you forget its history, both the magnificent and the tragic. Wherever you go in this great city, Birmingham whispers at you, beckoning you to remember what it was, and how it came to be.
Allow me to share my favorite historical things to see and do in the city:
1. Watch a show at the Alabama Theatre. Imagine the most beautiful old palace theatre you’ve ever seen in old movies. Now perish that thought, because the Alabama is better than that. The gaspingly high ceilings, massive crystal chandeliers, exquisite ornate carvings, gold wall leafings, are all just simply breathtaking. The Alabama Theatre was built in 1927 during the silent picture era, and it is the oldest palace theatre still operational in the state. Today, the Alabama hosts everything from music concerts to weddings, but it’s their old movie showings that really give a thrill. You feel like you’ve stepped back into history as you watch that phenomenal Wurlitzer Pipe Organ ascend from the nether regions of the stage accompanied by its organist, inviting you to sing along while he merrily dallies out tunes. And if you’re lucky, a juggler will walk out on stage and blow you away with his act. There’s the old-fashioned lemonade to enjoy (or something stronger if you’re of the age and inclination), as well as popcorn and various candies (that don’t cost you quite the arm and leg as contemporary movie theaters). The fact that you get to watch a much-loved movie is almost just a bonus. Being there just makes you feel…good. I know it sounds campy, but everyone who leaves the Alabama Theatre walks away with smiles on their faces. www.alabamatheatre.com
2. Hike the Moss Rock Boulder Fields. You really don’t expect it. You’re walking along, enjoying a shady, wooded trail when all of a sudden, Bam! It’s the biggest rock you’ve ever seen! Well, maybe not ever, I’m sure Colorado or say, Stonehenge has larger rocks, but certainly the boulders of the Moss Rock Preserves are nothing to sneeze at. Amid a 350 acre lush nature preserve, the Moss Rocks are a favorite among rock climbers of all skills and ages. History has it that the boulders were used by long-ago Native Americans as campsites for hunters. Near the boulders, you can hike to Hurricane Branch and enjoy its waterfalls, and the best part? It’s all free, open to the public every day during daylight hours. www.hooveral.org/Default.asp?ID=485
3. Drive to Tannehill Ironworks State Park. Tannehill is about thirty miles south of Birmingham and well worth the trip. The historical 1500 acre park is nestled among the tree-lined forge of Roupes Creek, and remains today as a vestige of nineteenth and early twentieth century life. You can view the old iron furnaces, tour primitive historical buildings, see the gristmill, camp or stay in one of the cabins, go fishing, hike the wilderness, visit the museum and country store, even ride a train. And if you’re an artsy-craftsy type, farmer’s market buff, or antique junkie, don’t miss out on Trade Days, held the third weekend of every month from March to November. www.tannehill.org
4. Tour the Sloss Furnace. www.slossfurnaces.com While Tannehill appeases your hankering for nature and fresh country air, Sloss Furnace appeals to your zest for dystopic, urban decay. First opened in 1882, Sloss Furnace produced iron for the city for 90 years. It is now a registered historical landmark, and it’s a really cool place to visit. First, there’s the awesomeness of the great smokestacks themselves, and the history of how Birmingham’s industrial age came to be. But there’s also the sense of what it really felt like to be a worker in those times, under those dismal conditions. Of course, I must mention the decidedly haunted element of it. Due to the reported high levels of “paranormal activity” as well as historical accounts of tragic human suffering and mortality that occurred within the bowels of the factory, Sloss Furnace is a favorite among ghost-seekers. Because of this, Sloss has been featured on television show shows such as Ghost Hunters. Every October, the furnace is turned into Fright Night, www.frightfurnace.com and becomes the city’s most popular haunted house. But whether you are seeking a thrill or just want to discover some history, don’t miss Sloss Furnace.
5. Visit Vulcan Park and Museum. Reigning over the city in all its mythological and steely wonder, is the Vulcan, the world’s largest cast iron statue. Built in 1904 to represent Birmingham’s new industrial age for the St. Louis World’s Fair, the colossal Vulcan, Roman god of the Forge, now stands atop a marvelous stone tower on Red Mountain. Visitors can ride an elevator (or climb the stairs if you’re feeling hoppy) to stand on the open observation deck under the mighty Vulcan’s feet. I will say that it’s not for the faint of heart or the scared of heights. But is does afford the most breathtaking view the city can offer. There is also the accompanying interactive museum, which features the city’s Civil Rights era movement. www.visitvulcan.com