Built on the backs of the labor that manned its mines, furnaces, and mills, and quite famously a flash point in the Civil Rights struggle, Birmingham, Alabama, has been a tough sort of town pretty much from day one. For much of its life, it seemed as if the surrounding region all but had its back turned on the heavily industrialized center of town, for decades growing every which way but in.
Quite suddenly now, the city—sometimes referred to as the Pittsburgh of the South, for good reason—appears to be on a do-or-die mission to reinvent, this time not running away from its heritage, but rather building directly on a complex, often fascinating past, in the process becoming one of the most compelling destinations in the Deep South. Headed that way? Here are just a few great ways to get acquainted.
Coffee and a walk. Have a seat at the bar at Revelator Coffee Company (1826 3rd Avenue North) and watch the talented baristas at work on the shop's custom Slayer machine—if you're not the espresso type, competent pour overs and local pastry should have you feeling right in no time. This is just one in a growing number of small businesses working to make downtown the place to be, rather than avoid. Next, do the short stroll to Railroad Park. Something like the city center's front yard, this sculpted, 19-acre oasis isn't just a place to get some exercise, but it's also a symbol of the local renaissance, drawing curious visitors from around the region. Here over the holidays? There's a skating rink, until mid-January. To get there, cross beneath the railroad tracks at 18th Street—just look for the colorful lighting that turned a formerly foreboding underpass into one of the city's favorite works of public art. Artist Bill FitzGibbons' work has been such a hit, and the lights (which at first appear to be neon, but are actually computerized LEDs) now stay on 24 hours a day (1600 1st Avenue).
Hang around some old factories. From vacant towers to silent smokestacks, reminders of Birmingham's heritage are everywhere, but at Sloss Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark, where iron was produced for nearly 90 years, the past comes alive with tours, classes (Cast Iron Sculptures for Beginners!) and popular even—there's also a rotating cast of artists-in-residence (20 32nd Street North). If it's a weekend, head across the railroad tracks to Pepper Place. Once a Dr Pepper bottling plant, the city's best farmers market is held here Saturdays (Apr–Dec). Sample from a wide selection of local produce and artisanal eats before settling in for a pick-me-up at The Red Cat, a smart cafe. Here on a quiet day? The neighborhood is known for its collection of design-centric shops—all are worth a browse (2829 2nd Avenue South).
Eat a pile of meat, then swing through the trees. Just a short drive from downtown, the reputation of Saw's BBQ stretches far beyond Birmingham. Its empire is growing, but the Homewood location is where it all began. Get here shortly before it opens at 11 o'clock and line up for ribs and/or smoked chicken, served with classic Alabama white sauce. (Recipes vary, but the primary ingredients are generally mayonnaise and vinegar). Save room for macaroni and cheese—banana pudding too, if they have it (1008 Oxmoor Road). Part of Birmingham's distinct charm is its relatively rugged terrain—it seems as if you're never far from a hill or a hiking trail or some kind of open space. While you're out this way, stop in at Red Mountain Park. This incredible mountaintop preserve features fifteen miles of hiking and biking trails, a zip line, an adventure course and other fun stuff, high above town. No cars are allowed up top—you've got to park and walk to the good stuff. That's fine. You just ate a whole pile of 'cue (2011 Frankfurt Drive).
Happy hour with the cool crowd in Avondale. Currently one of Birmingham's hippest addresses, the section of this one-time company town abutting recently revived Avondale Park, where workers took their leisure during Birmingham's industrial heyday, is home to three of the city's most popular drinking dens. Start with local brews at the Avondale Brewing Company, with its inviting indoor-outdoor setup (201 41st Street South), then stop in for a round at the cheerfully dive-y Parkside Cafe—many head straight for the year-round courtyard, complete with fire pit (4036 5th Avenue South). Wrap up the crawl with cocktails and a game of shuffleboard at 41st Street Pub & Aircraft Sales—it's known for its Moscow mules (130 41st Street South). Hungry? Post Office Pies has pizzas made in wood-fired, custom brick ovens. They are very good (209 41st Street South).