From its storied past with the steel industry and Civil Rights chaos, Birmingham, Alabama is re-emerging as a vibrant and attractive city known for its world-renowned medical facilities, its upscale dining options, and its cultural and entertainment offerings. The older generation is encouraged by the influx of young, well-educated professionals who are moving in, bringing their families and enticing new businesses. Grandparents can enjoy so much with their grandchildren, and Millennials have all the resources they need to create the life they desire. Any way you look at it, Birmingham is hip again.
Here are some of the great attractions ready to be enjoyed.
Stroll through glorious gardens
The Birmingham Botanical Gardens is a source of great pride in a strategic part of the city. This tract of 67 acres (27 hectares) is known as Alabama’s largest living museum. In addition to a large horticulture library, there is a conservatory, a wildflower garden, two rose gardens, and a Japanese garden complete with a tea house. This is a popular setting for weddings and family photographs. Children’s summer camps, gardening classes and events for all ages and in all seasons are offered for Birmingham residents and visitors. It’s a perfect place for young moms to meet with their babies in strollers for some exercise in beautiful surroundings and is a magnet for artists. Birmingham Botanical Gardens is open every day from sunrise to sunset.
Aldridge Gardens in nearby Hoover is less known and smaller but every bit as lovely. These 30 acres (12 hectares) feature a 5-acre (2 hectares) lake and an art gallery. The spring and summer hours are 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily.
Visit the animals at Birmingham Zoo
Birmingham Zoo is one of Alabama’s most popular attractions, drawing numerous school groups on field trips and grandparents with their delighted grandchildren. The Giraffe Feedings and the Sea Lion Splash Shows always have eager audiences, and the Trails of Africa exhibit is garnering much attention. In the Africa section, there is a herd of bull elephants, wildebeest, red river hogs and zebras. The animals, of course, are the stars of this show, but visitors will also find a carousel, splash pads, a gift shop, and concessions for snacks or lunch. Regular hours are 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday and 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Take a picnic to the park or get exercise outdoors
The key question when planning a picnic in the park is which one to choose. The Vulcan Park and Museum is the site of Birmingham’s most recognizable symbol, the Vulcan statue atop Red Mountain. This statue is the world’s largest cast iron statue. It was created by Giuseppe Moretti, who was commissioned by Birmingham city leaders desiring to have an impressive representation at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Vulcan won the Grand Prize. After the fair, it was dismantled and brought to Birmingham where it was reassembled in several locations before finally finding its permanent home in 1939, where it could be visible for miles around. An elevator takes visitors to the top for a breathtaking panoramic view of the city. Near the base, there is a museum and a gift shop that has recently undergone an expansion and remodeling project. There are outdoor picnic tables under shade trees. This park is handicap-accessible with free parking and Wi-Fi.
Not far from Vulcan Park is Red Mountain Park with 15 miles of trails. Popular activities here include hiking, biking, zip-lining, geocaching, taking Segway tours and dog-walking. This park is a valuable green space where Birmingham city-dwellers can soak up the outdoors and get plenty of exercise.
For another kind of exercise, head to Alabama Splash Adventure, west of Birmingham in nearby Bessemer. It is a combination water park and amusement park. The admission prices may seem a little steep, but many freebies are included, such as free parking, free sunscreen, free use of inner tubes and life jackets, free Wi-Fi and free Pepsi products all day long. This park is fun for all ages. Be sure to check the website for daily hours, because they often vary from week to week.
Explore science and history
The McWane Science Center in downtown Birmingham is a captivating place for parents or grandparents to see through the eyes of children. With four floors of exhibits and an IMAX Theater, hours of learning and discovery can take place. The phrase “hands-on” is taken to a new level with the Shark and Ray Touch Tank and in the Art and Tech sections. Now showing in the IMAX Theater are “National Parks Adventure,” “Wild Africa” and “Robots.” Again, the idea is to provide something of interest to all ages from toddlers to senior adults.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute spotlights the importance of the Civil Rights Movement in America and particularly the important events that took place in Birmingham, AL. This is a location for reflection, learning and remembrance. It is not a place for casual fun, but hopefully it is a place where parents and grandparents can share lessons and stories about character, equality and freedom.
The State of Alabama is extremely proud of its contributions in the area of sports, so the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame was established to showcase its renowned athletes who are native sons. ESPN has a list of 15 athletes that it considers to be the “greatest ever.” Five of those were born in Alabama and are in this Sports Hall of Fame. They are Jesse Owens, Hank Aaron, Joe Lewis, Willie Mays and Carl Lewis. What has been referred to as “the greatest rivalry in sports” — the Iron Bowl, an annual football game between the University of Alabama and Auburn University — is also featured in this museum. Field trips are designed particularly for students in grades 3-8, but sports fans from all over will enjoy it as well.
Gaze at amazing art and create some of your own
The Birmingham Museum of Art is acknowledged as one of the finest collections in the Southeastern United States. However, in terms of providing multi-generational opportunities, this museum also excels. Bart’s ArtVenture is a state-of-the-art area where children can discover, explore and create art at their own pace. Specific sections include Bart’s Art Cave, Bart’s Art Bar, Step Into Art and Bart’s Lair Under the Stairs. Birmingham Museum of Art is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and admission is free.
There are only 4 carousel carving schools in the entire United States, and Chaffin Carousel Carving School, located in the basement of the Hassinger Daniels Mansion Bed and Breakfast on Highland Avenue in Birmingham, is one of those schools. Ira Chaffin is a sought-after sculptor who invites students to come, learn and work alongside him in his studio. He also allows groups to come for visits, to see the process of creating horses, lions, giraffes, rabbits or other possible members of a carousel menagerie and to spend a few minutes carving small pieces themselves. From senior adults to Boy Scout troops to grandparents with their grandchildren, this is an intriguing place to visit. Chaffin says, “It takes approximately an hour to learn to carve wood. But it takes a lifetime to be a good decision maker.” He teaches the importance of planning ahead, because once a piece has been chiseled off, it can’t be put back on. Contact information is on his website to arrange your visit.
Take time to shop and eat
In addition to all of these opportunities to learn, to exercise, to explore and to create, you and those in your group might be interested in shopping and eating. Birmingham is very accommodating in those categories, too. Riverchase Galleria, with its 156 stores, is a great place to park once and find everything under one gigantic roof. No matter the weather or the outside temperatures, you will be comfortable and dry at Riverchase.
Another shopper’s mecca is The Summit, located at the intersection of Interstate 459 and Alabama Highway 280. The stores of The Summit are spread out over several acres, and shoppers will want to find parking places near the stores they are targeting. There are other shopping complexes scattered throughout the Greater Birmingham area, but Riverchase and The Summit are arguably the best-known and most popular.
For dining options, Birmingham has every chain you could possibly name, but it goes a step further with the restaurants of world-class chefs such as Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings. Frank Stitt owns Highlands Bar and Grill (consistently rated as the best restaurant in Birmingham) along with Bottega, Bottega Grill and Chez Fon Fon. Chris Hastings owns Hot and Hot Fish Club and OvenBird. A recommendation if you are dining in downtown Birmingham is John’s City Diner owned by Shannon Gober. The food is fresh, excellent and reasonably priced. If you want to try genuine Southern soul food, then venture to north Birmingham and have lunch at Eagle’s Restaurant, owned by the Rucker family. Oxtails, pig ears and feet, chitterlings, neckbones and potatoes and amazing candied yams are regular staples on the menu. They are open Sunday through Friday but closed on Saturday.
Enjoy Birmingham for learning, exercising, sharing, shopping or dining
Birmingham has risen from the economic blows of steel factory closings and the negative history of the 1950’s and 60’s. It is alive, vibrant and pulsating once again. The gardens are in full bloom, and the museums can compete with any in the country. Medical personnel to politicians, artists to engineers, educators to horticulturists, all will find much to soak up for themselves and share with others in Alabama’s largest city. The chefs are in the kitchen, and the red carpet is spread out and waiting. Plan your visit to Birmingham soon.
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