Many of Birmingham's major attractions are Downtown, where you'll find a handful of hotels, government buildings, and corporate headquarters, as well as all of the noted attractions in the Civil Rights District. The Five Points South area, just south of downtown, is a vibrant neighborhood that encompasses the University of Alabama at Birmingham and blocks teeming with upscale restaurants, boutiques, and apartments.
Inside the Civil Rights District
The Civil Rights District is the heart and soul of Birmingham. Visitors from throughout the world travel here to remember the violent struggles for racial equality that shocked the nation in the 1950s and 1960s.
A good place to start exploring this period in American history is at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 520 16th St. N. (tel. 205/328-9696; www.bcri.org). Allow at least half a day to tour this emotionally wrenching museum that takes visitors through the riots that erupted in Birmingham and throughout the South in the 1950s and 1960s. Deeply moving and ultimately inspiring, the museum's displays take the viewer back to a harrowing place and time in our nation's history. With the joyfulness of gospel choirs singing in the background, the museum journey culminates with a room-size mural that re-creates the March on Washington, D.C., when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Visitors are transfixed by the video of King's historic address, with many children reciting the pledge along with the slain civil rights leader. Other galleries address human rights issues throughout the world. In addition, the institute offers ongoing educational programs and houses a state-of-the-art library and research center. Admission costs $12 adults, $5 seniors, $6 college students, and $3 children 4-12. Admission is free on Sunday and to children living in Jefferson County 17 and under. The institute is closed on Monday (except from Martin Luther King Day in Jan through the end of Feb) and national holidays.
Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and cater-cornered from the landmark 16th Street Baptist Church, has often been referred to as being at the threshold of the civil rights movement. Within the park, a paved Freedom Path features sculptures commemorating the riots that occurred here in the 1960s, when police turned attack dogs and fire hoses on men, women, and children protesting segregation. There are plaques recounting the importance of clergy in the movement, as well as an emotionally charged statue of children standing defiantly behind bars, in remembrance of those who went to jail for the cause of freedom. A placid water fountain flows in the center of the park, providing a shady spot for quiet reflection and contemplation. Hand-held electronic devices that provide audio tours of the park are available across the street at the Civil Rights Institute ticket office for a nominal fee. Using narrative and eyewitness accounts, the audio tours provide context and background for what visitors are seeing as they walk through the park.
From the park, walk back across the street to tour the 16th Street Baptist Church, 1530 6th Ave. N. (tel. 205/251-9402), where the infamous 1963 Klan bombing killed four adolescent girls -- Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair -- as they got ready for a Sunday School program. Tours begin in the resplendent sanctuary, where guides give an overview of the church's history before showing an interesting film tracing the devastating impact of the notorious hate crime, and the ensuing decades-long legal trials that eventually brought the perpetrators to justice. In the church's basement and fellowship hall, a memorial to the girls contains enlarged black-and-white photographs of the chaos and aftermath of the bombing. Most chilling is the well-known photograph of the stained-glass window that remained undamaged except for the face of Jesus, which was blown away by the blast. Take a moment to reflect on the wall clock that is frozen at the time the bombings occurred, 10:22am, and which remains a symbol of the church's defining moment. Allow at least 2 hours to see the church, where admission is by a suggested donation of $3.
In 2006 the church was designated as a national historic landmark. It is still an ongoing, active congregation of some 600 members. Worship services usually begin at 11am on Sunday. Visiting tourists are warmly welcomed to participate.
Cool Options for Kids
Families have various options for keeping the kids entertained. The Birmingham Zoo, 2630 Cahaba Rd. (tel. 205/879-0409; www.birminghamzoo.com), is home to more than 800 animals, including bald eagles and Bengal tigers, red pandas and ring-tailed lemurs. A Children's Zoo area offers such other draws as a train ride and picnic areas. Admission is $12 adults, $7 children and seniors. Educational fun awaits at the hands-on McWane Center, 200 19th Street N. (tel. 205/714-8300; www.mcwane.org), which features hands-on displays, discovery areas, and an IMAX theater. Admission to the exhibit halls and the IMAX theater is $16 adults, $12 kids 2 to 12.
Alabama Adventure (formerly known as Visionland), 4599 Alabama Adventure Pkwy., Bessemer (tel. 205/481-4750; www.alabamaadventure.com), is the area's amusement park, about 15 miles southwest of town. The park is home to Magic City USA Theme Park and its signature wooden roller coaster, the Rampage. Alabama Adventure also has a 600,000-gallon wave pool with sand beach at Splash Beach Water Park. Admission to both the theme park and waterpark costs $34 adults, $24 kids under 48 inches tall.
In downtown, the best cultural value around can be found at the brilliant Birmingham Museum of Art, 2000 Eighth Ave. N. (tel. 205/254-2565; www.artsbma.org), regarded as one of the finest in the South. Besides its free admission, what makes this modern facility so outstanding is its impressive permanent collection of more than 21,000 works of art dating from antiquity to the present day, including a sculpture garden, the Kress Collection of Renaissance Art, and 18th-century French paintings and decorative arts. In addition to masterpieces by Claude Monet, John Singer Sargent, and many others, the museum has a popular children's gallery.
Music lovers should not miss a chance to visit the Alabama Jazz Music Hall of Fame Museum, 1631 Fourth Ave. N. (tel. 205/254-2731; www.jazzhall.com), which pays homage to musicians such as W. C. Handy, who was born in this state, and Erskine Hawkins, a noted local music educator who wrote Big Band leader Glenn Miller's hit song Tuxedo Junction. An entertaining, if rather outdated, film shown in the historic movie theater, now known as the Carver Center for the Performing Arts, begins the self-guided tour. In it, interviews and historical photos and voiceovers detail the state's contributions to the art form of jazz music. The bi-level museum exhibits costumes, musical instruments, records, and playbills recalling the glory days of jazz, primarily in the early part of the last century. Look for the display case devoted to Ella Fitzgerald (who had no other ties to Alabama other than once being hospitalized here for a brief illness), where the scat-singing diva's sequined dress is displayed along with her well-worn Neiman Marcus credit card. It's closed on Sunday and Monday. Admission is $3 for a guided tour or $2 for a self-guided tour.
Paying homage to pioneers of aviation is the Southern Museum of Flight, 4343 73rd St. N. (tel. 205/833-8226; www.southernmuseumofflight.org), located 2 blocks east of Birmingham International Airport. More than 8 decades of aviation history are detailed in display and restoration projects being undertaken at the hangars. World War II bombers, biplanes, and an F14-Tomcat are among the vintage as well as experimental aircraft on display, along with ultralights and glider planes. Among aircraft from the Vietnam era are an A-12 Blackbird, a Huey UH-1 helicopter, and an F-4 Phantom jet fighter. A detailed history of the courageous Tuskegee Airmen is chronicled as part of the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame gallery. The museum is closed Monday. Admission is $5 for adults and $4 for seniors and students.
Attractions near Birmingham
Those in search of more testosterone-tested attractions should hit the road and head out to the rolling, wooded hills that surround the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, 6030 Barber Motorsports Pkwy. (tel. 205/699-7275; www.barbermuseum.org). This one-of-a-kind museum, founded by a Birmingham businessman, showcases more than 1,100 motorcycles representing nearly 140 manufacturers. The 80,000-square-foot venue's most-photographed chopper? The star-spangled replica of the Harley-Davidson Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson rode in the film Easy Rider. The massive glass-and-concrete building reaches several stories, with seamless displays that trace the evolution of motorized two-wheelers from the early 1900s to today's ultramodern machines. Mechanically inclined visitors may want to visit the in-house restoration shop in the basement to watch as workers spiff up, shine, and fine-tune the antique cycles. Every bike in the museum is in working condition. Admission is $15 adults, $10 children, free for children 3 and under. They're road-tested outside, along the awe-inspiring Barber Motorsports Park, a 2 1/2-mile road course considered to be among the best in the U.S. Porsches also whiz along this winding ribbon of road during the Porsche Sport Driving School, where, for a hefty fee, VIPs with advance reservations embark on a multiday training course to learn to drive these quintessential sports cars. For more information on the school, call tel. 888/204-7474 or 205/699-2657 (www.porschedriving.com).
And, of course, if you're in Birmingham, you can't be this close to Talladega and not take a day trip to see what NASCAR fanatics have labeled the world's biggest, fastest, and most competitive motorsports facility in the world. A short drive east of Birmingham, the Talladega Superspeedway, off I-20 on Speedway Boulevard (tel. 800/G0-2-DEGA [402-3342] or 256/362-9064; www.talladegasuperspeedway.com), is a shrine to speed that covers more than 2,000 acres and offers stadium seating capacity for more than 143,000 spectators. Tours of the 2 3/4-mile track are offered daily, except on race days. To attend an actual racing event, call well in advance to inquire about ticket availability. Next door to the track is the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum (www.motorsportshalloffame.com), a must for racing fans of all ages. Admission to the museum costs $10 adults, $5 kids 7 to 17. Combination tickets that include guided bus tours of the racetrack cost $12 for adults and $8 for kids. It's open daily, but the track is closed during and after racing events.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.