The largest city in the state of Alabama, Birmingham was once an industrial town, known for its iron and steel production and manufacturing of railroad parts and materials. Now a Southern commercial, educational, and cultural hub, the city has a thriving craft beer scene, award-winning restaurants, acclaimed history and art museums, beautiful parks, and lively, walkable neighborhoods—all within driving distance as day trip or quick weekend getaway from Atlanta, Nashville, and other nearby destinations.
Whether visitors want to learn more about the city's pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement, zip line down a mountain, or kick back on a patio with a local brew, Birmingham offers a variety of activities for visitors—many of them free.
From walking through the colorful and serene Birmingham Botanical Gardens to the eclectic shops of historic Forest Park, here are the top 13 things to do in Birmingham, Alabama.
Explore Birmingham Civil Rights District
This six-block area in downtown is dedicated to its pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement and was designated a national monument by President Barak Obama. The district includes several historic sites, including the the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Fourth Avenue Business District, Carver Theatre, and Kelly Ingram Park, site of many of the era’s protests and demonstrations which now has stark and poignant sculptures commemorating the era. After a walking tour of these landmarks, visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a Smithsonian affiliate which offers guided tours, oral histories, and permanent and rotating exhibits dedicated to significant events and figures in the city’s history. Museum highlights include photographs, multi-media displays, and the bars of the cell where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
Stroll or Bike Through Railroad Park
Located in the heart of downtown Birmingham adjacent to Regions Field—home of the minor league baseball team the Birmingham Barons—Railroad Park is a 19-acre urban green space and community gathering place. In addition to regularly hosting yoga classes and movie nights, the park has a designated skating area, playground, and outdoor workout equipment. Settle in for a lakeside picnic, bike or run on the park's walking trails, or head to the park's western edge to connect into the Rotary Trail, an urban path that welcomes visitors with its iconic “Magic City” sign. Rent a bike from a bike-share to pedal to the historic Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, just 1.5 miles away.
Discover the Past at the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark
Learn about Birmingham's history as an industrial steel town at the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, which was once the world's largest manufacturer of pig iron. Operational from 1882-1970, the furnace and its original pipes and massive stoves remain intact. Take a self-guided tour of the on-site museum, which features regular exhibitions on metal art, many of them local artists-in-residence. The grounds are perfect for snapping an Instagram-worthy photo and are regularly used for outdoor concerts and events.
Visit the Birmingham Museum of Art
The Birmingham Museum of Art houses more than 27,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, and other works of art in its permanent collection, which includes everything from Native American textiles and Mayan jewelry to contemporary works from Andy Warhol and Joan Mitchell. Museum highlights include its Asian art, which includes one of the country's best collections of Vietnamese ceramics, and Albert Bierstadt's Looking Down Yosemite Valley, one of the most important 19th century American landscape paintings. Don't miss the outdoor sculpture garden with works ranging from Rodin to contemporary artists like Elyn Zimmerman and Valerie Jaudon. Admission is free.
Visit the Birmingham Botanical Gardens
Nestled in 67.5 lush acres adjacent to Lane Park at the southern tip of Red Mountain, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens are home to more than 12,000 species of plants, 25 distinct outdoor exhibits ranging from a serene Japanese garden to a formal rose garden, and 30 outdoors sculptures. Admission is free, and the grounds include a 2-mile walking trail, an art gallery with rotating exhibits, a conservatory, and a library. The gardens host regular classes and events ranging from outdoor yoga to floral arranging and indoor plant care.
Play at Red Mountain Park
With over 15 miles of trails and aerial adventure tours, Red Mountain Park is the perfect destination for nature lovers and thrill seekers alike. Located just 8 miles from the city, the park offers challenging terrain for experienced hikers and mountain bikers, like the three-mile Ike Maston Trail, a technical track which winds up and down the mountain. For an easier stroll, opt for the 2-mile, mostly flat BMRR South rail-trail, perfect for walking with children or strollers. The park is also home to the state's largest dog park, three scenic treehouse overlooks, and an adventure area with zip lining, a climbing tower, and a tree-top obstacle course. To learn more about the mountain's history and Alabama life from former miners and current park rangers, download the free TravelStoryGPS.
Visit Vulcan Park and Museum
At 56 feet tall perched on a 124-foot 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 perched 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 observation tower to the top for panoramic views of the city.
Sample Local Craft Beer
Birmingham is a hot spot for craft beer, with more than a dozen local breweries, including Good People Brewing Company, the state's oldest and largest. Sample the Muchacho—a Mexican-style lager—or one of its IPAs, stouts, and other brews in its taproom, which overlooks downtown's Railroad's Park. From there, follow the Magic City Brewery tour, which includes Birmingham District Brewing Co., Ghost Train Brewing Company, and the the Lakeview District's TrimTrab Brewing Co., which doubles as a gallery for local artists. Or book the Birmingham Brewery Tour, a $65 guided excursion that stops at three local breweries and includes four 4-oz. samples at each location.
Shop and Eat in Forest Park
For some of the city's best shopping and eating, head to the historic neighborhood of Forest Park, located on the northern crest of the city's Red Mountain. Peek into eclectic shops that dot Clairmont Avenue, enjoy the verdant streets lined with stately homes, or stroll through one of the neighborhood's lush parks. Neighborhood must-visits include SHOPPE, a garden center and greenhouse located inside a 1920s bungalow, and its sister home goods store, GENERAL. If you work up an appetite while browsing, stop into the Rougraroux for Cajun cuisine like gumbo, boudin, po'boys and daiquiris.
Visit the Negro Southern League Museum
Established in 1920, the Negro Southern League was a pre-integration minor league baseball league that included the Birmingham Black Barons, which won the title three times. Located near Regions Field downtown, the Negro Southern League Museum has the country's largest collection of original League artifacts in the country, including 1,500 signed baseballs, Satchel Paige's uniform, the McCallister Trophy, and a Cuban Stars baseball player's 1907 contract, the oldest in the existence.
Sample Global Cuisine at Pizitz Food Hall
Located in the historic Pizitz Building on the corner of 1st Avenue North and 18th Street North in downtown, this food hall has restaurants and stalls offering global cuisine ranging from Mexican tacos to Vietnamese pho and Bibimbap. Grab a shawarma pocket or kebabs at Eli's Jerusalem Grill, traditional Himalayan/Nepalese dumplings at MO:MO, or a burger from The Standard. Piztiz also has a bar, weekly Tuesday evening yoga classes, and live concerts in the courtyard featuring local acts on Thursday nights.
Eat, Drink, and Listen to Live Music in Five Points
At the intersection of Highland Park and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, this lively neighborhood is home to some of the city's best restaurants and live music venues. For a fancy night out, try Highlands Bar & Grill, from James Beard award-winning chef/owner Frank Stitt (the desserts are stellar, too—pastry chef Dolester Miles is also a James Beard winner), or Hot and Hot Fish Club, which serves Gulf-inspired seafood and Cajun fare. For a more casual meal, opt for the Five Points outpost of Dreamland BBQ for hickory-smoked pork ribs doused in the restaurant's signature vinegar sauce. Enjoy live music or a round of billiards at Marty's PM, a local nightlife staple.
Explore the Natural World at the McWane Science Center
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, explore interactive, hands-on exhibits ranging from live animals to Alabama dinosaurs to bubble making. 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 water creatures.