One of my favorite parts of traveling — and travel writing — is seeking out the underrated cities and then getting all evangelical about them. Ever since I moved from New York to Nashville three years ago, Northerners have been asking me for family travel tips for Tennessee’s capital. And while I’ve got plenty, I’d much rather direct your Southern sightseeing to the lesser-known gems like Memphis, Athens, and yes, Birmingham.
“Alabama?!” shout ye shocked Yankee parents. But hear me out: “Magic City” (yes, that’s Birmingham’s nickname, I did not know this previously either) is not some backwoods town, folks. While yes, Alabama, like the rest of the South and our whole damn country, has its issues (past and present) with racism, classism, and more, that’s far from the whole story. And Birmingham in particular is a brilliant spot of diversity, history, and vibrant modern arts/culture/food/you name it — one we should all be proud to take our kids to. Plus, it’s a less-than-three-hour drive from both Nashville and Atlanta, so make it (the most affordable) part of your family Southern road trip. You won’t regret it.
Where to stay
I’m always a fan of renting my own space when traveling with my son (when we’re not staying with friends, that is), and Birmingham has no shortage of cute Airbnbs. That said, if you’re looking for a full-service stay, you can’t go wrong with the Holiday Inn in Birmingham’s Homewood neighborhood. The hotel is a win in terms of accessibility, affordability, and cleanliness. And what traveling parent could turn down a few nights of someone else cleaning their room? Not you? Me neither.
But if you’re looking for a splurge, the Grand Bohemian Hotel in the quiet Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook will set you back some bucks — but make up for it with luxe amenities and, you know, this outdoor pool.
Where to eat (& drink)
In Birmingham, unsurprisingly, Southern food is paramount — and the relative proximity of the Alabama Gulf Coast means that fresh seafood is in good supply. But the multicultural city also boasts an ever-growing share of Asian and Latin American food, so you’re guaranteed not to get bored (or overdose on biscuits).
Coffee in Birmingham really deserves its own “Where to coffee” category, but I’ll throw it in here. From Five Points’ Filter Coffee to Pepper Place’s Red Cat Coffee House to local roasting icon Revelator to Caveat Coffee over by the Homewood Holiday Inn, there’s no shortage of caffeinated hotspots to fuel parents and muffin-fuel little ones. But my personal favorite has to be quirky Urban Standard, with eclectic arty decor that delights kids and adults alike — and plenty of tables to spread out and draw or play a game.
Pizitz Food Hall
Housed inside a 1950s department store that’s been converted into a food mecca, Pizitz Food Hall’s offerings range from Southern food classics to pho and poke bowls. Don’t miss The Alabama Biscuit; its name speaks for itself.
Automatic Seafood & Oysters
Chances are your kids aren’t oyster fans (although if they are, more power to them), but there’s something for everyone here at Automatic Seafood, from blackened fish to bananas foster French toast. The open space includes outdoor seating and impeccable Southern-chic design.
Back Forty Brewery
What would 2020 family travel be without a stop at a big brewery that welcomes kids? Back Forty is a Birmingham standby, with tons of seating, outdoor space, dogs, kids, you name it. Farmers even stop by and bring their goats on leashes. Seriously. And of course there’s plenty of delicious local beer (fun fact: in AL breweries can only sell what’s made on-site, which means zero wine on offer here but you won’t miss it), plus a kids menu, pizza, and this poutine. Come on.
Where to shop
Club Duquette and Trove Design Shop are your best bets for clothing and cool local makers. And during my visit to Birmingham I believe I stopped at Botanica BHM no less than…thrice? And I loaded up my entire car with plants to drive back to Nashville (apologies to my son for the “poky plants”). This place is gorgeous and has super knowledgeable staff, plus every happiness-inducing houseplant you could want at prices you can handle. What better way to introduce the next generation to the fun of a green thumb? Another great option for this is the Forest Park neighborhood’s garden and plant shop Shoppe, which has a green house and even does events for kids.
Where to play
When you’re road-tripping with kids, you need stops that serve multiple purposes. Where can you rest and snack, walk and climb… play arcade games and drink whiskey (for kids and parents, respectively, obv)? Birmingham has plenty of establishments that do double-duty when it comes to pleasing all ages and all traveler temperaments.
Railroad Park, Birmingham Barons Minor League Baseball, Good People Brewery
These three BHAM favorites are all on the same block; Railroad Park hosts cook-offs, live music, and plenty of kid-friendly events. Grab bagels and coffee at nearby Mile End, catch a Birmingham Barons game with the kids (tickets are very affordable), and top it off with a gose at Good People Brewing, Birmingham’s largest and perhaps most iconic brewery.
This was my first stop on arrival in Birmingham, and it was the ideal place to decompress after the drive from Nashville. The Woolworth offers food, cocktails, a rooftop space, and games, games, and more games. Kids love the duckpin bowling, foosball, ping pong, air hockey and more. Plus it’s hella affordable (by Nashville/New York standards at least).
Sloss Furnaces National Historic Site Museum
This old ironworks is right across the street from Back Forty, so grab a beer and then go wander through. The Sloss Furnaces iron mill operated for a hundred years — from the 1870s to the 1970s, when Birmingham was something of a post-Civil War industrial powerhouse — and is now enjoying its retirement as a museum. Kids love exploring the (totally safe, now) furnaces; parents love the history, the Instagram moments, and the concerts. Even The White Stripes have played here!
Vulcan Park & Trail
Ah, the giant statue of Vulcan. This big guy is a regular Birmingham mascot — the Alabama Cristo Redentor, if you will (you know, the big Jesus that overlooks Rio de Janeiro?). Climb up for gorgeous panoramic views all the way to the Appalachian foothills. There’s also a great nearby trail and geology museum that will please nerds of all ages.
Pepper Place Farmer’s Market
It’s the largest farmers market in the state! How could you miss it? Every Saturday morning until noon only, catch live music, free samples, and all the fresh produce/cheese/meat/breakfast you and your kids can eat. And make sure to stop by The Farm Stand at Stone Hallow in the middle of the market; they sell pickles, straw hats, and even farm-made perfume.
Where to Learn
Birmingham Museum of Art
This is a good one, guys. And I’m saying that as an art museum obsessive who has dragged my child to see art in every city we’ve been to. The Birmingham Museum of Art does not scrimp on indoor-outdoor design, traveling exhibitions (we saw one on Barbie that was sweet), and hands-on exhibits and activities for kids. Plus, chances are, if you visit Birmingham between, I dunno, May and October, it’ll be 103 degrees out — and you’ll love this cool, art-filled respite.
McWane Science Center, Birmingham Zoo & Botanical Gardens
Gravity! Live science demos! An iMax! Oh my! You pretty much can’t go wrong with kids and science centers, and the McWane does not disappoint. Kids can feed underwater creatures, watch chemistry experiments come to life, roam through a pint-sized version of Birmingham (“Itty Bitty Magic City,” natch), and touch…pretty much everything.
And just a few steps away from the science center, the Birmingham Zoo is lauded as one of the best in the South. You can even “Brunch With the Bachelors” — bachelor elephants, that is.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
But really, arguably the most important part of Birmingham is the crucial role the city has played in the Civil Rights Movement. And the fantastic Birmingham Civil Rights Institute rivals even its sibling in Memphis, the National Civil Rights Museum. The BCRI’s exhibits are fascinating, powerful, beautiful, educational, and incredibly moving; you and your kids have never learned so much (and maybe cried at the same time). Hurry over, and get motivated to keep the movement going.