If you grew up taking summer road trips around the U.S., you probably cruised through the South. I was an unruly tween when my family did but I still cherish the memories of our days splashing in swimming holes and finger-licking picnics that passed too quickly. It whetted my appetite to return for more and spurred a recent visit to Alabama. Now, I can’t wait to come back with my loved ones and enjoy all the Birmingham activities for families, especially since the city’s making “Best Places To Travel” lists.
This post was made possible by @InBirmingham All opinions are my own.
Bridging the Present with the Past
My recent trip was life changing and this post has been gestating since I returned. If you just want the tips, please scroll down, but knowing more about any historically significant place can make travel transformative. For example, I enjoyed a bowl of savory, collard greens at Johnny’s BBQ but knowing why a Greek family serves that Southern side dish made it all the more memorable.*
“Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.” – Francis Bacon
Birmingham is full of some of the friendliest and most fascinating people, each passionate about great, regional food and the city they call home. But I was hard hit to learn about depths of the regional past and a parallel, racial history that I was insulated from by growing up in the white suburbs east of Los Angeles.
Like most, I was familiar with the highlights – Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches and the Birmingham Church Bombing in 1963, but little else. Nothing equals being where those events unfolded, seeing the city in the company of people related to that hidden history – the good as well as the traumatic. Today Birmingham is full of bright, creative energy, but there’s still much to learn in illuminating the shadows of the past.
Let me illustrate it this way: On my first night in town I joined a group of friends for an extraordinary feast at the Hot and Hot Fish Club (read about the city’s wonderful dishes, chefs, and restaurants in this earlier post.) I took a seat next to stranger with a great smile, and over our spectacular dinner, author and speaker, Lisa McNair graciously talked about her family and a sibling she never met.
Lisa’s older sister, Denise McNair, lost her life in the church bombing of 1963. She was one of four innocent girls whose deaths turned the country’s, the world’s eyes to the ongoing travesties of the time. That one tragedy was an emblematic part of a pattern. It forced a pivot and things have improved. Now, I wish I were able to visit with my sister, to hold her hand as we walk through the Civil Rights Institute, the parks and museums; to listen, to share the heart break and the beauty.
Lisa McNair writes, “You might think that that (the bombing) would have led to my parents teaching me and my younger sister to hate all White people.” But her parents did the opposite and taught her, “to share with others how we were learning to fight to live for love instead of hate despite how others were telling us not to do so.” That grace under pressure startled me into a new perspective and over the next few days, I was welcomed into the expansive heart of Birmingham – from learning why there’s crooked bricks on the front of ‘Dynamite Hill’ homes (they were rebuilt after being bombed,) to the restaurant chefs and workers lifting out of the pandemic with smiles, service, and great food.
Birmingham Attractions for Families
Downtown Birmingham sits in a wide valley bordered by a hill region full of homes and businesses. I recommend starting a tour from the cliff above town at the Vulcan Park and Museum. Get a sense of the region’s layout from a cliff-side lookout, learn a bit of its history, and get close to the largest cast iron statue in the country.
Don’t Miss The Vulcan Park Museum
When I first rode into the city I looked up at the ridge and spied a metal giant with his hand raised. The statue of Vulcan, Roman god of fire and forge, was built to promote the local steel industry. Shipped to an 1800’s Expo, the monument spurred a rush towards jobs and Birmingham overflowed with laborers and their families soon after. It’s been nicknamed the Magic City ever since.
Today visitors of all ages can ride the tower elevator for a closer look at Vulcan. Brace for snickers. The statue’s backside is just above you as the doors open. After admiring the view, get a hint of what ore mining was like in a model mine shaft. In the history museum, guides will happily point out details and answer questions. The bright galleries are full of displays outlining the city’s growth. To get a sense of Vulcan’s scale, check out the giant boot standing in one corner. It’s made from the original cast.
What struck me hardest in the museum were pictures of the city swamped in smog and soot. It reminded me of growing up in Southern California when iron mills added to smokey air quality and I couldn’t play outside during smog alerts. The Vulcan Museum has pictures of the segregated labor housing built at the height of the steel boom. Wealthy citizens moved up the hill and away. Struggling immigrants and emancipated Black workers lived in the soupy air. It’s a bright contrast with the sparkling skies across Birmingham today.
Look between the lines to find evidence of discrimination at the various iron works, as in many places across the country after the Civil War. Whites worked in managerial positions, while Black workers were only hired for hard labor (see the video link in the Sloss Furnace section below.)
Dine in Homewood
When your tummy starts grumbling for attention, ride over into the Homewood neighborhood. Consider two Birmingham attractions for families and local favorites, Johnny’s Restaurant or Demetri’s BBQ. While both were founded by Greek immigrants instrumental in feeding Birmingham since the last century, the menus include regional ingredients and Southern recipes.
Alternative side trips in the Homewood area include the Birmingham Zoo and the Botanical Gardens (see below.)
Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark
From the ridge near the Vulcan Statue you may notice a huge, rusty installation in the lowlands just east of downtown. You’re looking at the remains of one of the largest steel mills in the country and the first to become a National Historic Landmark.
Plan to spend hours winding through the fascinating remnants of Sloss Furnaces. I strode through the spooky site by myself in this short video about my experience of Sloss.
In celebration of Black History Month and all the accomplishments of Birmingham’s African-American industrial workers, Sloss Furnaces Archives produced a short video on African-American labor in partnership with Historian Greg Wilson of Lawson State.
Dine Near Sloss Furnace Park
When it’s time to eat consider the Back Forty Brewery across the street from the park and furnaces. It’s a family friendly place with a hearty menu and a spacious outdoor seating area. I highly recommend the Catfish and Kale salad.
Downtown History Walks and Parks Are Some of the Best Birmingham Attractions for Families
The 16th Avenue Baptist Church was quickly rebuilt after the 1963 bombing. Today Black families and leaders smile from frames that line the walls of displays in the basement.
Upstairs, the church has new stained glass windows and it still echoes with gospel song on Sundays. While standing in the beautifully reconstructed church, the human impact of its history is palpable; a church table was rebuilt, a leaded glass portrait of Jesus was donated from Norway. Don’t miss the tall plaque commemorating the events of 1963 around the corner. It rises from the sidewalk next to the stairs that were bombed, then turn towards the park across the street.
Kelly Ingram Park contains several Civil Rights Monuments and a statue of four girls near the corner nearest the church. It’s a monument to their loss but missing are two other Black children who also died that day in Birmingham – both young boys minding their business on city streets. Take a breath and walk down to the Civil Rights Institute to put the tensions and their consequences into perspective.
Civil Rights Institute
The BCRI is no silent witness but a breathing space that often fills with community events and classes. The permanent galleries are inspiring in their focus. Wandering silently from room to room, I was struck by bold markers of events that had seemed like dry history lessons before. Turning a corner I faced freedom marchers’ bombed bus, life-size statues of Rosa Parks, and other leaders who were instrumental in moving issues forward in Birmingham.
Make a reservation for your group and consider a private tour with Barry McNealy, a master tour guide and teacher. For additional information regarding hotels or step-on guide services, call the Institute’s Tourism Division at 800-458-8085 or 205-458-8000
Civil Rights Walking Tour
Take all this information at your own pace on a self-guided walking tour as you follow markers along the city streets. The route could take several days but look over the layout and plan which highlights call to you.
There are two Green Acres Cafes. The local franchise proudly serves fried chicken wings, pork chop sandwiches and fried green tomatoes. All that hearty cooking received a 2007 Five Star Business Award from the Mayor of Birmingham. For a more refined meal, visit the historic Tutwiler Hotel, where Beverly Russell, Chef and owner of Six Sixteen, has created an Art Deco-inspired space with a menu that interprets traditional fare deliciously. The cocktails are stellar.
Birmingham Botanical Gardens
After the history experiences, clear your mind with a natural fix at one of the top Birmingham attractions for families, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Entrance is free. The Birmingham Botanical Gardens flow over sixty-seven acres and contain more than thirty themed gardens. I wandered the trails while watching mother’s stroll and babies play; girlfriend’s chatted at park-side tables near the cafe, and a photographer fussed as a bride and groom posed. A family stopped me on the walk and asked, “Where are the flowers?” That surprised me as something’s always in bloom there. Check this link to find seasonal blooms. I highly recommend the Japanese Garden and the Victorian Conservatory building.
Other Birmingham itineraries will insist you visit the McWane Science Center, the Birmingham Zoo, and the Jazz Hall of Fame in the Carver Center. It all depends on which of Birmingham attractions for families fits with your group.
Baseball Stars Now and Then
Baseball is center stage at several sites on my list of Birmingham attractions for families. Historic Rickwood Field stands quietly these days but was home to some of the most exciting games and best players in the Black leagues. The original team, the Coal Barons, has morphed into the now integrated Birmingham Barons.
Curious about baseball’s evolution in the south? Visit the Negro Southern League Museum (NSLM) and see African-American baseball in America from a Birmingham perspective. It’s home to the “largest collection of original Negro Southern League baseball artifacts in the country.” The state’s sports museum is housed nearby in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
Attend the 2022 Summer World Games in Birmingham
I can only imagine what a party Birmingham will throw when it hosts the summer Olympic Games this year. The eleven-day, international multi-sport event has been organized with the support of the International Olympic Committee to showcase a “new generation of global sports.” It will be a highlight of 2022 Birmingham attractions for families in July. Thirty of the fastest growing sports in the world will be showcased by over three thousand elite athletes from over 100 countries. The city will embrace them all.
What I learned about the South left me thrilled and saddened simultaneously. There was so much my parents and I missed on those early road trips. We live in hopeful times. Perhaps you’ll explore this eclectic list of the best Birmingham attractions for families and feel that too.
* About Johnny’s BBQ – Greek immigrants to the South helped keep Birmingham’s citizens fed for over a hundred years. They arrived to work and, while kept from employment at most establishments, set up food carts serving affordable meals (hot dogs!) for workers. The long tradition has since been embraced in restaurants like Johnny’s and Demetri’s.