When President Obama signed an executive order creating the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument in 2017, he was cementing what so many Americans already know, that Birmingham has played a pivotal role in our nation’s history. Thus any American interested in seeing the country’s history in places like Boston and Philadelphia should put historic Birmingham on their must-visit list.
When you’re here, there are so many different places to visit in the city that it easily can fill up two or three days. Here are the best things to do in Birmingham, Alabama for history lovers who want to dig deeper into our country’s story.
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The Best Things to Do in Historic Birmingham
Here’s what to do in Birmingham, with a few food and drink suggestions thrown in as well. I’ve mainly stuck to the best sites in historic Birmingham, but there are a few other must-sees and fun items on here as well.
Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument
First, no trip to Birmingham is complete without visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument (BCRNM). I’ve listed many of the site’s components below, but I suggest you plan your visit so that you understand the history as much as possible.
A few suggestions would be to either hire a private guide to show you the area and explain the significance of each spot as you go, or to start with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (next) and then see the surrounding sites individually.
I have traveled to many historic sites, and it’s almost impossible to take in what you need to on your own without a guide or without at least getting the story first.
I had the privilege of seeing the site with Barry McNealy, education and programming consultant of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. You can listen to my interview with him about the history of Birmingham and the work that went into creating the site here:
While you should listen to the interview, I really can’t express enough how much my visit was enhanced by having an expert explaining the site to us.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Whether you go on a tour of the site or you choose to go on your own, a visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a must for understanding the history of Birmingham. There’s nothing quite as powerful as being confronted with the instruments of white supremacy as the collection of artifacts that are on display here.
Plan to spend a few hours digging into the exhibits here. The most famous artifact on display is the jail cell that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was held in where he wrote the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963.
However, don’t just explore the fight for good. It’s here where you really can learn about how white supremacy works and see it’s legacy through today. If you’re white, it’s your responsibility to learn not just about how things were but to see what that means about the world we live in today.
16th Street Baptist Church
Across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is the most famous historic site in Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church. In 1963, the church was bombed by the KKK and four young girls were lost.
The church was targeted by the KKK for its role in the Civil Rights Movement, and the history of the church is much larger than the events of a single day.
The church is nearly one hundred and fifty years old and was founded as the first black Baptist church in Alabama, and they moved into the current building in 1911. For decades, the church had been a major stop for prominent African Americans thinkers, including W.E.B. Dubois and Mary McLeod Bethune.
The church was a major meeting place for the local civil rights movement, with leaders planning marches and demonstrations. You can listen to the events that lead up to the bombing and what happened on that day in my interview. You can also read up on the history of the church on their extensive website.
If you are traveling with a group of ten or more, you can schedule a tour with the church. The cost is $5 per person. If you are traveling in a smaller group, you can visit the church without a tour. All the information to plan your visit is here.
Kelly Ingram Park
Across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and caddy-corner to the 16th Street Baptist Church is Kelly Ingram Park, an important part of the BCRNM.
Historically, the park was an important meeting point for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and it was the site of protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, including children’s protests.
You can read all about the park’s significance here.
Today you walk through the park and see statues reenacting the violence and other events that took place here, including firehoses being unleashed on protesters and children in jail.
The Carver Theatre for the Performing Arts & Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame
A Birmingham cultural icon, the Carver Theater was a place where Black Birmingham could see movies during the era when theaters were segregated.
The theater now holds live performances and is home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
Even if you don’t have time for a visit to the jazz museum, you can appreciate the Art Moderne architecture.
The grandson of a former slave, A.G. Gaston was a World War I veteran and one of the most important and wealthiest African American businessmen in the mid-twentieth century.
Gaston owned many businesses in Birmingham. The motel served the city’s African American travelers with beautiful accommodations. You can read all about the motel’s central role in the Civil Rights movement here.
Located by the 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park, the motel is part of the BCRNM. The building has been vacant since the 1990s, but the National Park Service is working with the city to restore the building.
You can stroll by the building while you walk around the BCRNM site.
Fourth Avenue Historic District
Going beyond the boundaries of the National Monument, the Fourth Avenue Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and preserves the history of Birmingham’s black business and cultural institutions during the era of the Jim Crow South.
Some of the other sites on this list are part of the district, like the Carver Theatre and the Masonic Temple. However, a visit here includes walking around the blocks and soaking in the history and architecture, beyond just rushing from building to building.
Negro Southern League Baseball Museum
Even if you’re not a huge baseball fan, you need to spend some time at the Negro Southern League Baseball Museum. I like baseball, but I’m not really into baseball history, yet I found myself completely enthralled during my visit here.
The Negro Southern League served as a feeder league to the Negro American and Negro National League and was one of the most popular things to do in Birmingham when the teams were playing from 1920-1951.
Admission is free. You can plan your visit here.
The Black Masonic Temple
Built in 1923, the Prince Hall Masons played a pivotal role in both the Civil Rights Movement and civic life in the Fourth Avenue Historic District. Today the building is closed, but you can see pictures of what it looks like inside here. You can walk by during your visit since its part of the BCRNM.
There are preservation efforts underway.
Alabama Penny Savings Bank
Alternatively referred to as the Pythian Temple, the Alabama Penny Savings Bank was built in 1913. The company was the first black-owned bank in Alabama. At the time it was the largest and strongest black-owned bank in the US, and it financed the loans for black-owned businesses and homes.
It’s an important site when you visit the Fourth Avenue Historic District.
Alabama Sports Hall of Fame
If you love sports history, head to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame to explore the museum dedicated to Alabama sports. Anyone who has paid attention to American sports knows that Alabama has played a huge role in American sports history. You can learn about the Hall of Fame and details for visiting here.
This gorgeous 1920s theater is a movie palace that was built by Paramount to showcase the studio’s movies. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s. Inside the theater has been renovated but retains its historical integrity and beauty, including an original Wurlitzer organ.
Today, the sign is a popular Instagram spot. If you want to see a show inside the theater, you can check their upcoming events here.
Heaviest Corner in the World
I learned the history of the Heaviest Corner in the World when I stayed at the Elyton Hotel. I wrote up a review of my stay including an overview of the history here.
If you don’t want to stay at the Elyton but still want to come and appreciate this piece of Birmingham, you can get drinks at the hotel’s rooftop bar, Moonshine.
The Pizitz Food Hall
Located in the 1920s, the Pizitz building is located in the middle of Birmingham’s historic retail and theater district. Once a mid-century department store, the newly renovated Pizitz Food Hall adds a bit of the modern world to this important spot.
While I ran right to Unos Tacos, the food hall is home to many different restaurants, making this a great place for families and groups traveling together to eat since everyone can pick out their cuisine. They have everything from traditional southern cuisine to Nepalese food to Poke bowls and Pho.
Highlands Bar & Grill
If you want to experience the best of Birmingham’s fine dining scene, enjoy a dinner out at Highland Bar & Grill where James Beart award-winner Chef Frank Stitt combines southern cooking with traditional French techniques for something truly exquisite. Opened in 1982, it has become a Birmingham institution.
This trippy National Historic Landmark was one of the largest industrial manufacturers in the world at the end of the nineteenth century. Today, besides being a popular Birmingham Instagram spot, it’s a great place to appreciate Birmingham’s industrial roots.
The plant closed in 1970 but is opened today offering both self-guided and group tours. You can get tour information here.
Birmingham Museum of Art
I love visiting American art museums, and the Birmingham Museum of Art is a great American art museum, with over 24,000 items in its collection. While the American, Folk, and Contemporary Art collections are wonderful, its the Alabama art collection that’s a must-see, featuring artwork integral to the state’s history.
I used to skip botanical gardens when I travel, but not anymore. I’ve become a complete convert. There’s nothing lovelier than wandering through manicured gardens and enjoying their tranquility. They’re also a personal favorite of mine for taking Instagram pics since they usually have some great architecture and interesting photo spots.
The Birmingham Botanical Gardens opened in 1963 and have been delighting visitors for over fifty years. Make sure to visit the Japanese Garden and the Southern Living Garden.
Five Points South
One of the most beautiful and architecturally significant areas of Birmingham outside of downtown, Five Points South is a must-see. Storyteller Fountain and Five Points Circle are the two most famous spots, but enjoy walking around this area soaking in the Victorian and Art Deco architecture.
McWane Science Center
If you’re planning your history-centric visit to Birmingham with kids, then a stop at McWane Science Center is a great way to inspire them to appreciate the sciences as well! This interactive museum has aquariums, dinosaurs, and an IMAX theater – perfect for creating wonder and excitement in littles!
While most come to Railroad Park, nicknamed “Birmingham’s Livingroom,” for its beautiful Instagram-worthy view of the city’s skyline, the park is a great destination to get outside and enjoy some fresh air. It’s connected to Sloss Furnace by a walking trail.
Southern Museum of Flight
Home to over one hundred aircraft, this museum chronicles the early history of flight and its connection to the southeast. The highlight is the Tuskeegee Airmen exhibit, which is a must-see if you won’t be able to get out to Tuskeegee during your time in Alabama.
Okay, full disclosure. Topgolf is not a historic Birmingham site. It’s not even local to Birmingham since it’s a national chain. However, it’s awesome, so I’m including it.
If you’re looking for something to do in Birmingham at night while you’re on vacation, but you don’t want to go clubbing, I highly recommend Topgolf.
You can sit around outside, order drinks, eat snacks, and shoot some balls without having to be good at golf or feeling weird being out in a club or at a bar. This is especially great for families.
Vulcan Park & Museum
Birmingham was founded in 1871 during reconstruction, and it was one of the most important industrial cities in America during its heyday. The mining, iron, steel, and rail industries were key to its early boomtown success, leading to its nickname as the Magic City.
If you want to explore this side of Birmingham history, take a visit to Vulcan Park. You can find opening times and information on visiting the accompanying museum here.
Baseball has been an important part of Alabama history since 1885. If you go to the museum but still want to get a taste of the sport, check out a game at Region’s Field. The Birmingham Barons and the UAB Dragons both call this field home.
Oak Hill Cemetary
The first cemetery in Alabama to be enshrined on the National Register of Historic Places, Oak Hill Cemetary was Birmingham’s first cemetery and opened in 1871. If you love to explore old cemeteries like I do, you’ll be excited to know that they offer history tours open to the public. Check here for tour information and scheduling.
If seeing NYC’s Statue of Liberty isn’t in the cards in the near future, then you can pay a visit to Birmingham’s version instead! And while it may not be the real thing, it’s no joke. It stands thirty-six feet tall atop a sixty-foot pedestal.
The statue is no cheap knock-off either. It was cast in France in the 1950s. It was located in downtown until the late eighties, but it’s now in Vestavia Hills, a southeastern suburb.
Rainbow LED Tunnel
These funky light tunnels are permanent art installations in downtown Birmingham. While they do make the perfect Birmingham Instagram spot, they’re also just fun and cheery. You can find them at the historic viaducts at 14th, 18th, 19th and 20th Streets downtown.
What to Pack for Birmingham, Alabama
Alabama Off the Beaten Path guidebook. It can be kind of a pain to find the major guidebooks once you land, or you’ll find them overpriced. I always like to pick mine up ahead of time.
An Unlocked Cell Phone so that you can use a local sim card while here to help navigate public transportation and when you’re on the road. (For people without American cell phone plans).
Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS, and general travel genie.
A Great Day Bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc). My current favorite is the Pacsafe Citysafe, which is especially great for cities because it has many anti-theft features designed to deter pickpockets. It also transitions to a night bag more easily and won’t embarrass you if you go to dinner directly after sightseeing all day.
More Birmingham Travel Resources
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for Alabama make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging enjoying time in the beautiful (but occasionally slippery) outdoors or in cities where tourists can be targeted by pickpockets.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for three years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.
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