Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to 24 hours in Birmingham Alabama. Birmingham, Alabama was a fairly unusual travel destination even for me. I had never visited a city for tourism purposes that gets so few tourists a year before. Just for reference, the city of Durham, North Carolina, not known as a major tourist destination, gets three times the amount of tourists per year that Birmingham does.
Nevertheless, I had committed to visiting all 50 states, including Alabama, and Birmingham is by far the easiest place in Alabama for a non-driver like me to get to. And boy am I glad I opted to spend 24 hours in Birmingham Alabama.
There’s something special about visiting a city a little less well traveled. The citizens of Birmingham could not have been more friendly or welcoming to me. I urge you to give Birmingham a try! Very few cities have been so important to American history, and I think every American should have to visit Birmingham. Join me for 24 hours in Birmingham, Alabama and let’s get those tourism numbers up together!
You may notice that I constantly refer to the city in this post as Birmingham, Alabama and not just Birmingham. That’s because I don’t want people to find this page when they’re looking for things to do in Birmingham, the second largest city in England. I hate to disappoint my readers!
24 Hours in Birmingham
Where to Stay?
Since you’re in such a historic city, why not stay in a historic hotel? The Hampton Inn and Suites Birmingham Downtown is located inside the historic (and mildly haunted) Tutwiler Hotel. You can get a little old-fashioned glamour here, stay in a very central location, and meet a friendly little pale child who will enter the room through your walls while you sleep. It’s win/win!
If you want a great deal on this hotel, just click here. And if you want great deals on almost 100 hotels in Birmingham, click here. This search engine will make it easy for you to find the most affordable and convenient hotel for your 24 hours in Birmingham.
24 Hours in Birmingham Alabama
What to Pack?
- A cell charger so you can keep your cell phone charged for the entire 24 hours in Birmingham
- My book Get Lost, that I wrote myself with all my best travel tips. This book will show you exactly why travel is better than a man.
- The most famous book set in Birmingham, Alabama is The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963. It’s a funny and moving coming of age story about a family from Michigan who goes to Birmingham. Every visitor to the city should read this book.
- I always travel with travel insurance from World Nomads. You never know when something might go wrong, especially in this day and age. But with travel insurance, you’re protected even if you are attacked by Vulcan during your 24 hours in Birmingham.
24 Hours in Birmingham Alabama
Morning: Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
There’s one main reason I say every American should spend at least 24 hours in Birmingham, Alabama. That is because of its importance to the civil rights movement. Birmingham saw an incredible amount of violence during this period of history. My mother, who grew up in the South, always referred to Birmingham by its nickname during the 60s, Bombingham. When you visit Birmingham, you’ll meet many people who lived through this tumultuous period.
For a deeper perspective on the brave people who fought for civil rights in Birmingham, you must stop at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This organization is dedicated to telling the story of the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham. I don’t want to give away all the information because you should visit the Institute yourself. But I will pique your interest with…
Three facts about civil rights in Birmingham
1) Separate And Unequal
It is hard to imagine how different life used to be in Birmingham. Every area of life was segregated. People justified this by saying the institutions were “separate but equal”. The Civil Rights Institute showed just how wrong this was. For example, here is a replica of a white classroom in 1953. This is just before the landmark case, Brown vs. Board of Education, was decided. The case declared that separate facilities were not equal.
Note the books, sturdy desks, and fancy projector in the background. Now here is a black classroom.
It is immediately apparent that the equipment and facilities are nowhere near as good. Also the student: teacher ratio was much worse in black classrooms. In the 1940s there were 24 white students per teacher, but 43 black students per teacher.
The displays at the Civil Rights Institute invite us to think about how civil rights have changed since the 1950s. But they also invite us to reflect about how things haven’t changed. Aren’t there still classrooms in this country that have too many students and too few resources?
2) Letter from birmingham jail
One of the most famous civil rights protests in Birmingham led to the arrest and jailing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King and his allies were protesting the racist policies of the city and its cruel Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor.
While King was in jail, there were eight white ministers from Alabama who wrote a letter to a newspaper opposing King and his methods. King wrote his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail in response. (A replica of his cell is pictured above.)
Even if you haven’t read the whole letter, which you should, you are certainly familiar with some of King’s quotes from this letter. Probably the most famous is “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. (I hope you’re starting to see why I say every American should have to visit Birmingham.)
3) Changes in Birmingham
The Birmingham today is not the terror zone of the 1960s. In 1979, an African-American young woman named Bonita Carter was shot and killed by a white Birmingham police officer. This led to citywide protests against police brutality. It also encouraged a city councilor named Richard Arrington Jr. to run for mayor. He won, making him the first black mayor in Birmingham’s history. (A replica of his desk is pictured above.) He served for 20 years until retiring.
This kind of change leads one to be optimistic, but appearances can be deceiving. Birmingham is about 75 percent African-American now. This de facto segregation is partially because of all the white flight to the suburbs that happened in the 1970s. Sometimes when walking around the city, it feels as if segregation hasn’t completely ended. Are people of different races really living together and working together?
However, I don’t want to be too much of a downer. Birmingham now has a young, energetic mayor named Randall Woodfin. As a tourist, I got an impression of a city on the rise, not on the decline. And of course, the best thing we all can do for Birmingham is go visit! Or better yet, go live there and work there!
24 Hours in Birmingham Alabama
Afternoon: Explore Birmingham
Now that we’ve seen the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, it’s time to get out and explore the city. Fortunately, the city of Birmingham makes it easy with their well-labeled Civil Rights Heritage Trail. Just follow the signs around the city and you’ll be stuffed with knowledge about the civil rights movement in Birmingham.
Approximately top 5: 24 hours in Birmingham
1) Lunch time!
At this point you’ll be hungry, so stop for some yummy Southern eats in downtown Birmingham. The restaurant where I went was delicious but has since moved to Atlanta. So instead, I suggest stopping at Yo Mama’s for some tasty chicken and waffles or a BBQ burger.
2) 16th Street Baptist Church
This National Historic Landmark is a lovely church, but sadly that is not why it is famous. The 16th Street Baptist Church was the site of a 1963 terrorist bombing that killed four black girls.
You might be wondering why someone would bomb a church. During the Civil Rights Movement, black churches were often centers for political organization. One of Birmingham’s civil rights leaders, Fred Shuttlesworth, led meetings here. Tragically, this activism led to multiple black churches being bombed by white supremacist terrorists.
The authorities did catch the four men responsible for the bombing, but they were never prosecuted until much later. One of the men involved was convicted in 1977, two others were not convicted until 2001, and the fourth suspect was never charged with a crime. (He died in 1994.) Former US Senator for Alabama Doug Jones was actually one of the prosecutors in the 2001 case.
3) Kelly Ingram Park
Kelly Ingram Park is probably the most important place to visit during your time in Birmingham. It was named after a white WWI veteran, but that’s not why the park is famous. One of the most famous protests in the Civil Rights Movement took place here. Because so many adult leaders had been jailed, black children began to protest in places like Kelly Ingram Park. This protest was known as the Children’s Crusade.
Bull Connor and his police officers set police dogs and fire hoses on the protesting children. Many children were also sent to jail. There are statues around Kelly Ingram Park depicting these horrific events. Signs around the park tell you how to access a free audio guide so you can learn more about each carefully designed statue.
If there can be said to be a bright side to this, the images of children being attacked shocked the nation. President Kennedy even sent the army to Birmingham. Because of the negative reaction to Connor’s brutality, businesses in Birmingham finally began to desegregate.
24 hour treasure
The most notable statue in the park is this one of the four little girls killed in the church bombing. An older gentleman was giving tours for tips in the park, and he explained some of the hidden details in this statue to me. The empty shoes on the ground symbolize another black child who was killed on the day of the bombing in a separate racist attack.
Also, notice the colors of the tiles in the park. They symbolize the hope that people of all races will be able to live together in harmony.
4) oak hill Cemetery
Oak Hill Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in Birmingham. I was surprised to find that the cemetery only dates back to the 1870s. Then I learned that Birmingham only dates back to the 1870s itself. Birmingham was created to be an industrial city in the postwar South. That’s why it was named after that major English industrial city, Birmingham. (But this post is not about Birmingham, England. If you’ve come to this page by accident, I am truly sorry.)
The most famous grave here is also one of the most recent: Fred Shuttlesworth’s. Sadly, Shuttlesworth is not as well known outside of Alabama as he should be. Along with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders, Shuttlesworth helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference dedicated to fighting for civil rights. Numerous attempts were made on his life by KKK members, but he continued to fight.
The Birmingham, Alabama airport is named in his honor. It’s one of only two airports in the US that I know is named after a civil rights leader. (The other is the Medgar Evers Airport in Jackson, Mississippi.)
5) Alabama Sports Hall of Fame
If it’s a hot day in Birmingham (incredibly possible), you might want to get inside to some air conditioning. I recommend visiting the museum in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. As you can probably guess, this is dedicated to the fierce men and women who have, at any time in history, played sports in the state of Alabama.
The docent was so confident about Alabama’s sports influence, he asked me to name my favorite sports team. He said he was sure they had at least one person in the museum connected with my sports team.
Sadly, I was not able to give this docent any challenge. My favorite sports team is the Atlanta Braves. The most famous Brave in history, Hank Aaron, was born in Mobile, Alabama. I should have said something like the Vermont Lake Monsters. That would have made him use his noodle!
Honorees other than Hammerin’ Hank include Joe Namath, Mia Hamm, Joe Lewis, and Willie Mays. Go there yourself and challenge the docent to find your famous sports team. Let me know how it goes at [email protected]rs.com.
6) Carver Theater
During the years of segregation, many successful black businesses operated in the city. One of the most famous is the Carver Theater, which was the only theater in Birmingham to serve African-Americans. It is located on 4th Avenue, which has sometimes been called “The Harlem of Birmingham.
The theater has since been home to the Jazz Hall of Fame and many jazz concerts, and it recently underwent a renovation. The Birmingham Civil Rights District was named a National Monument by Barack Obama as an Executive Order. It was one of his last acts in office. This means Downtown Birmingham has better access to resources now, so we should be seeing more renovations like this.
24 Hours in Birmingham Alabama
Evening: Dinner at Bistro 218
Most articles I’ve read claim that the increase in tourism to Birmingham in recent years is due to two things. One is an interest in learning about the Civil Rights Movement. The other is Birmingham’s constantly improving food scene.
The most famous restaurant in Birmingham is the Highlands Bar and Grill, which was recently named the best restaurant in America by the James Beard Awards. Of course I couldn’t get a reservation there. We’ll just have to settle for the adorable Bistro 218. This charming place combines French technique with Alabama ingredients. Win and win!
I started off my meal light with octopus with bacon and romesco sauce. The octopus and romesco sauce felt Spanish to be, but the bacon adds a little bit of Southern charm. Southerners have never met a food that doesn’t taste better with bacon.
That sprinkling you see on top is actually seaweed! I’ve never had seaweed used to add salt to a dish outside of a Japanese restaurant. It’s a terrific idea!
24 hour treat: amberjack, okra, and grits
The main course headed in a more Southern direction with the accompaniments of fried okra and grits. The chef added a little Parisian attitude with a tomato beurre blanc sauce. I wonder if fried okra and grits have caught on in Paris yet? If not, they are missing out!
I was also excited to taste amberjack, a meaty fish I had not yet had the pleasure of digesting. It is local to Alabama, but of course not land-locked Birmingham. You fish it off the Gulf Coast, or as it is known in my family, the Redneck Riviera. (My family is from the South, so we get to make that joke. You might not be able to, Internet Stranger!)
Dessert was the French classic, chocolate moelleux. You can just call it chocolate lava cake if you don’t want to twist your lips into a pretzel saying moelleux. This dish wasn’t given any Southern twist I could see except that the waitress gave me a free glass of dessert wine to enjoy. Free booze! That’s what I call Southern hospitality. Thanks, Birmingham!
24 Hours in Birmingham
How To Get There
Now, I wish I knew where you lived, Internet Stranger, because I could send you a box of Birmingham’s finest barbecue. But sadly, I do not, and so I can’t tell you exactly how to get from your home to your 24 hours in Birmingham.
But I can tell you that you can use a lovely airplane to get from my hometown NYC to the Birmingham airport, and I recommend Expedia for the best way to find the cheapest flight to Birmingham at the best time of day. There were no direct flights from NYC to Birmingham, so you’ll probably have to go through another city like Atlanta, but it’s pretty easy.
You can also head to Atlanta first and take a very cheap and easy Megabus from Atlanta to Birmingham. You can even use Expedia to rent a car so you’ll be all set when you arrive at your destination. (I can’t drive, but if you can, this must be helpful.)
Just click here to start looking for the best possible deals on your flight, so you can head out to your 24 hours in Birmingham ASAP.
That’s 24 Hours in Birmingham Alabama!
What would you do with 24 hours in Birmingham, Alabama? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Birmingham? Will grits and okra ever catch on in Paris? Do you think you can stump the docent at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame? Please email the answers at [email protected]
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Birmingham. If you have another 24 hours in Birmingham, add this itinerary.