Birmingham, Alabama: A Visit to The Magic City

The Alabama Theater in downtown Birmingham. Photos by Shady Hartshorne and Laurie Ellis except as noted
The Alabama Theater in downtown Birmingham. Photos by Shady Hartshorne and Laurie Ellis except as noted.

By Shady Hartshorne and Laurie Ellis

We started with the idea of going to an AA Baseball game in each of the four major cities in Alabama: Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile.

More and more Major League Baseball players are making the jump directly from AA to the big leagues and you can see these future stars in intimate stadiums at reasonable prices.

The statue of Vulcan is the largest cast iron statue in the world.
The statue of Vulcan is the largest cast-iron statue in the world.

We thought we’d see a few sights in Alabama, eat some grits and biscuits & gravy, pig out on barbeque and drink a lot of sweet tea, but what we experienced in Alabama really knocked our socks off and left us planning our next visit at the soonest possible opportunity.

We highly recommend “Off the Beaten Path: Alabama” by Gay N. Martin (published by Insiders Guideâ) and we also brought John Sickels’ Prospect Guide so we could read up on all the great baseball players we’d be seeing.

Iron and Steel

After an action-packed visit to Huntsville, we moved on to the largest Alabama city, Birmingham. It’s known as the “Magic City” because it grew so fast after being founded in 1871 as an iron and steel production center.

The 56-foot tall statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of metalwork, is the largest cast-iron statue in the world and it makes a great first stop if you’re visiting Birmingham because you get a panoramic view of the city and there’s a museum that gives you a quick overview of Birmingham’s history as an industrial center, a focal point for the Civil Rights movement and its new incarnation as a center for medical technology and research.

The Tourism Office also has a kiosk there where you can get information about all the things there are to see and do and pick up your copy of the “IN” Guide.

The BirmINgham Guide

The Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau asked Magic City residents for their favorite things to do, see and eat and the result is a comprehensive guide to the best stores, restaurants, and activities in the city.

Business owners proudly display the big red “IN” in their front windows to let visitors know that the locals chose their place as the best of the best.

You’ll also find information about the great festivals that happen in Birmingham each year like the City Stages music festival, which takes over the downtown area in June.

The Birmingham Museum of Art with the largest Wedgwood porcelain collection in the world is also in the “IN” guide.

Birmingham’s Restaurant Revolution

Two restaurants you’ll certainly find in your “IN” Guide are Highlands Bar and Grill and the Hot and Hot Fish Club run by superstar chefs Frank Stitts and Chris Hastings respectively. These two have made Birmingham a hot spot for haute cuisine.

Birmingham, Alabama's IN Guide
Birmingham, Alabama’s IN Guide.

Stitts is the established celebrity with a world-renowned reputation. A former protégé of Alice Waters, his knack for combining humble southern ingredients like stone-ground grits and pork bellies with French sauces and braising techniques earned him a James Beard Award in 2001. Gourmet Magazine calls it a “shotgun marriage between Bistro and Barbeque.”

Stitts has two other restaurants in Birmingham: Bottega, featuring Mediterranean cuisine and Chez Fonfon, which serves up traditional French dishes.

Hot and Hot

Chris Hastings studied under Stitts earlier in his career but is now a star in his own right with the exceptional Hot and Hot Fish Club, a smaller, more intimate setting.

The Chef’s team works behind a counter (wearing long-billed fishing caps) and you can watch each stage of each dish’s preparation.

Dessert at the Highlands Bar and Grill - Fresh strawberries with a biscuit and 2 strawberry shakes
Dessert at the Highlands Bar and Grill – Fresh strawberries with a biscuit and 2 strawberry shakes

To the uninformed eye, the scene looks kind of like a cross between ballet and bumper cars, but you can tell by the finished product that these are super-skilled professionals at the top of their game.

We were lucky to be able to sit at the “Chef’s Table” (the counter that surrounds the cooking area) and enjoy the Tasting Menu – a small sample of many of the items on the menu.

He likes to say he turns traditional Southern cooking “on its ear” with dishes like Tomato Salad with Pickled Okra, which is listed in “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.”

The Chef himself took time out to explain the origins of each dish and his technique in preparing it. One of Chef Chris’ favorite words is “foraging” which describes how he obtains only the freshest ingredients from the surrounding area.

The Pork Sampler features meat supplied by Henry Fudge, who spent 30 years meticulously breeding hogs to maximize their intramuscular fat or “marbling.” It’s the porcine equivalent of Kobe Beef.

If you want to try a Tasting Menu at Hot and Hot Fish Club or Highlands, we recommend you give the restaurant at least 24 hours advance notice.

Both restaurants are located in Birmingham’s Five Points South district, and if you’re planning a culinary tour of Birmingham, you might consider staying at Hotel Highland at Five Points South, a luxury boutique hotel that combines elegance with cutting-edge, almost whimsical design.

Civil rights pioneer Fred Shuttlesworth
Civil rights pioneer Fred Shuttlesworth.

Be sure to check out the “Dr. Seuss” mirror and “Beetlejuice” sofa in the lobby.

The Civil Rights District

If you know anything at all about the American Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, you will remember the images that flickered on television screens across the country of water cannons and police dogs being let loose on non-violent protesters attempting to stand up for their constitutional rights and basic human dignity.

In the years since then, the story has become somewhat oversimplified. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is, of course, remembered as the leader of the movement, but some of the important early figures and events in the struggle have been overlooked, like Fred Shuttlesworth, who founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in 1956 and eventually co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King in 1957.

If you want to learn about Shuttlesworth and other “foot soldiers” in the American Civil Rights movement, visit Birmingham’s Civil Rights District, which consists of the Civil Rights Institute, the16th Street Baptist Church, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and Kelly Ingram Park.

These memorials show the world that the people of Birmingham are not trying to hide from their history, but instead are shining a bright light on those events to let the world see exactly what happened and learn what we all can do to increase awareness of discrimination and civil rights abuses around the world.

The Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham. Photo courtesy of the Institute.
The Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham. Photo courtesy of the Institute.

As the film ends, the curtain behind the screen rises to reveal the rest of the exhibits, which are laid out in a way that almost carries you along from one station to the next – through the struggles of the movement to where we are today.

It’s amazing how clearly they are able to present this very complex story – from the big Supreme Court decisions to the details of degradation that segregation fostered. One brochure for a black-owned beach resort promises, “Vacation without Humiliation.”

Toward the end, there are oral history kiosks where visitors can tell their own stories and computer terminals where visitors can access the huge archives of the Institute. The final gallery takes you Beyond Birmingham to look at Human Rights issues around the world.

Four young girls were killed in 1963 when a bomb exploded just before services were about to begin.
Four young girls were killed in 1963 when a bomb exploded just before services were about to begin.

You should allow at least an hour – probably more – to see everything without rushing, and leave your camera outside – no photography is allowed. It’s better that way because this is a place you’ll want to experience fully without distraction. We guarantee you won’t have any trouble remembering.

Barber Motorsports Park has over 800 motorcycles on display.
Barber Motorsports Park has over 800 motorcycles on display.

Across from the Civil Rights Institute, you’ll find the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of the 1963 bombing that took the lives of four young girls and marked a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.

The church continues to function both as a house of worship and as a monument to the tragedy that took place there.

Kelly Ingram Park is the site of the 1963 demonstrations at which Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered the police and firefighters to use dogs and fire hoses on the protesters.

Outside Birmingham

You’ll definitely want to set aside time during your visit to see some of the attractions in the greater Birmingham area.

After a HUGE breakfast at the Original Pancake House, we headed about 16 miles east to Barber Motorsports Park with its roughly 800 motorcycles lovingly arranged in the 5-floor museum.

These bikes are just part of the over 1100 motorcycles from more than 140 manufacturers that constitute the largest motorcycle collection in the country.

You’ll also find a large collection of vintage Porsches and Lotuses (or is it Loti?) There’s a 2.38-mile track on the premises, which hosts the AMA Superbike Championship and the Porsche Driving Experience.

Fans of auto racing will, of course, be familiar with Talladega Superspeedway, where over 143,000 screaming fans pack the stands for both of its Nascar events. Talladega is about 50 miles east of Birmingham.

Fried Green Tomatoes

If you’re familiar with the movie, Fried Green Tomatoes, you’ll recognize the Irondale Café, which started as a hot dog stand in 1928.

Writer Fannie Flagg used Irondale as the model for the “Whistlestop Café” in her book and the subsequent success of the film made this simple southern restaurant into a tourist destination.

They now serve around 60-70 pounds of their signature dish every weekday along with other traditional southern dishes: fried chicken, black-eyed peas, chicken fried steak and many others.

The food is served cafeteria-style; you can order each dish individually or choose from combos such as “Meat & 3” or “Meat & 2.” During the 11:00 am to 1:00 pm lunch rush, the place is packed, so you might want to schedule your visit a little later. They also serve supper Tuesday through Friday from 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm.

Willie Mays grew up just minutes from Rickwood Field.
Willie Mays grew up just minutes from Rickwood Field.

Naturally, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has a site in the Birmingham area. The Oxmoor Valley facility has three courses that feature scenic forests, creeks and several challenging elevation changes.

The Renaissance Ross Bridge Resort & Spa provides lodging on the premises. There are also over a dozen other golf courses within an easy drive of the city center.

Strong Pitching and Clutch Hitting

And of course, we took in a Birmingham Barons game at Regions Park on a day when thousands of school kids packed the stands. Behind some strong pitching and clutch hitting, the Barons beat the Carolina Mudcats 2-1.

The old Royal machine is still cranking.
The old Royal machine is still cranking.

Before moving to their new ballpark, the Barons played in historic Rickwood Field, which still stands today and is recognized as America’s oldest ballpark.

In the Negro League, Satchel Paige and Willie Mays are alumni of Birmingham’s Black Barons, who also used Rickwood Field for their home games. The park is slowly being restored and still hosts games including the Rickwood Classic when the Barons return for a game wearing period uniforms.

No discussion of Birmingham and sports would be complete without mentioning Dr. James Andrews, the legendary orthopedic surgeon. It’s never good news when your favorite player visits Dr. Andrews, but his success at repairing torn ligaments is part of Birmingham’s emergence as a “cutting-edge” center for medicine and medical research.

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