Once a largely industrial town and hub of iron, steel, and railroad production, the largest city in Alabama now has a thriving cultural central, with acclaimed museums dedicated to everything from Birmingham's role in the Civil Rights Movement to vintage motorcycles, aviation, jazz, and fine art.
Whether you want to learn about Birmingham's history as an industrial steel town or see University of Alabama coach "Bear" Bryant's signature houndstooth hat, there's a museum to suit every interest. Below, we've rounded up the top museums in the city. Bonus: Many of them offer free admission.
This interactive Smithsonian affiliate features permanent and rotating exhibits dedicated to significant events and figures in the Civil Rights Movement. Museum highlights include the Oral History Project, a multimedia exhibit featuring the voices of nearly 500 movement leaders; a replica of a Freedom Riders bus; and the bars of the cell where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Tickets are $15 for adults; $13 for seniors (65 and up), college students (with ID), and children grades 4–12. Admission is free for children third grade and under.
You can learn about Birmingham's history as an industrial steel town at the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark. In operation from 1882 to 1970, the furnace was once the world's largest manufacturer of pig iron, and its original pipes and massive stoves remain intact. While strolling the grounds is free of charge, self-guided tours of the on-site museum are $5 per person and available (by appointment only) at 10 a.m.,12 p.m., and 2 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. The museum also hosts regular exhibitions on contemporary metal art, as well as the occasional concert and festival. Check the venue's event calendar for the latest updates.
Featuring everything from Native American textiles and Mayan jewelry to contemporary works by Andy Warhol and Joan Mitchell, the Birmingham Museum of Art houses more than 27,000 works of art in its permanent collection. Museum highlights include one of the country's best collections of Vietnamese ceramics and Albert Bierstadt's 19th-century "Looking Down Yosemite Valley." Don't miss the outdoor sculpture garden, which features works by Rodin, Elyn Zimmerman, and Valerie Jaudon. Admission and parking are free.
Standing at 56 feet and perched on a 124-foot-tall pedestal, the Vulcan—an ode to the Roman god of fire and forge—is the world's largest cast iron statue. Designed by Italian artist Giuseppe Moretti, the statue is a symbol of the city's role in the iron and steel industries, and has been situated on the edge of Red Mountain since the 1930s. Visit the adjacent interactive museum dedicated to the history of the Vulcan and Birmingham, stroll the 10-acre green space, or take the elevator to the observation tower for panoramic views of the city. Check the Vulcan's calendar for events like concerts, author readings, and special exhibits.
From Nat King Cole to Lionel Hampton and Erskine Hawkins, many of jazz music's greatest luminaries hail from the state of Alabama. Learn more about the genre's folk origins, role in the Civil Rights Movement, and contemporary influences at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, located inside the historic Carver Theatre downtown. Guided tours are available by appointment to view the exhibits, which showcase costumes, photographs, instruments, quilts, and other memorabilia from notable musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p..m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Located near Regions Field downtown, the Negro Southern League Museum has the country's largest collection of original League artifacts and is a must-visit for baseball enthusiasts. Established in 1920, the Negro Southern League was a pre-integration minor league whose teams included the Birmingham Black Barons. The museum's collection features 1,500 signed baseballs; the uniforms of Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Willie Wells; the McCallister Trophy; and a Cuban Stars player's 1907 contract, the oldest in the existence. Admission is free.
With more than 1,600 vintage motorcycles, the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum is the largest of its kind in the world. Founded by legendary race car driver and Alabama-born George Barber, the collection includes 200 varieties of motorcycles from over 20 countries, some of which were part of the temporary "Art of the Motorcycle" exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In addition to the museum, the 930-acre park hosts the annual IndyCar Series' Grand Prix of Alabama on its 2.38-mile racetrack. Note that during special events, like the Barber Vintage Festival in October, visitors must purchase event tickets in addition to museum entry passes.
Some of the country's best athletes—including Charles Barkley, Hank Aaron, and Evander Holyfield—were born and raised in Alabama. Learn about their achievements and view more than 6,000 sports artifacts at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame Museum in Uptown. The three-story, 33,000-square-foot museum houses athletic equipment, uniforms, large dioramas, Heisman Trophies won by Auburn University athletes Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson, and University of Alabama coach "Bear" Bryant's signature houndstooth hat. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
One of the largest aviation museums in the Southeast, this 75,000-square-foot facility boasts more than 100 types of civilian, military, and experimental aircraft in addition to photographs, paintings, and models. Here you'll find dioramas of Vietnam War helicopters and Korean War jets; a display dedicated to the famed Tuskegee Airmen; and the remains of Lake Murray B-25, a World War II-era plane discovered in South Carolina in 2005. The museum is also home to the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for students and seniors, and free for active military service members and their families.
This downtown museum, housed in a former Loveman's department store, is a perfect destination for budding scientists and naturalists. Watch a film in the city's only IMAX Dome Theater or explore interactive, hands-on exhibits centered around birds and insects, Alabama dinosaurs, bubble making, and more. The museum's lower level is a dedicated aquarium with more than 50 species of aquatic life and a touch tank with small sharks, stingrays, and other marine creatures. Get the combo ticket, which includes admission to the adventure hall and IMAX ($20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $15 for children ages 2 to 12).