Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to the best things to do in Birmingham AL. Last time in Birmingham, Alabama, we delved deep into the city’s civil rights history. Today we’re going to take in a different side of The Magic City and find the best things to do in Birmingham AL.
We’ll start by learning why on earth people call Birmingham the Magic City at Vulcan Park. (As far as I know neither David Copperfield nor Penn and Teller live in Birmingham. I’m pretty sure all magicians are legally obligated to live in Vegas.) Next, we’ll take in the finest cultural center in the city.
Then we’ll feast on some of the finest Mexican-inspired food in Alabama (not damning with faint praise here.) We’ll wrap the whole evening up by meeting some of Birmingham’s most distinguished citizens. (They just happen to be a little dead, that’s all.)
Things to Do in Birmingham AL
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! And it’s the perfect location to find the best Things to Do in Birmingham AL.
Things to Do in Birmingham AL
What to Pack?
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do today. If it’s summertime, I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
Birmingham can get very hot, so don’t forget the sunscreen. My favorite is the Neutrogena spray bottle because it’s so easy to apply. And as a solo traveler, I can actually use it myself on my own back. I just put it in my purse and re-apply throughout the day.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!
Things to Do in Birmingham AL
Morning: Vulcan Park
Every city needs a symbol. Paris has the Eiffel Tower, London has Big Ben, and my hometown of New York City has Pizza Rat. Well l’il ol’ Birmingham, Alabama just might have the coolest symbol of all. It’s a giant cast iron statue of Vulcan: God of the Forge.
No list of the best Things to Do in Birmingham AL is complete without a trip to to Vulcan Park to see this metal giant looming over the Magic City. Plus, you get to visit the Vulcan Park Museum and learn everything you didn’t know you needed to know about the steel industry. I hope I can whet your appetite for knowledge with…
Three fun facts about vulcan park
1) Why Vulcan?
Vulcan here, at the peak of Vulcan Park, is the largest cast-iron statue in the world. He was designed to represent Birmingham at the St. Louis World’s Fair. You’ve already heard all about this fair if you’ve seen the movie Meet Me in St. Louis. They chose Vulcan because he was the god of the forge. Birmingham was known at the time as Steel City because Birmingham was one of the top steel producers in the country. Some people also called it the Pittsburgh of the South. Is that a compliment?
2) Why Steel?
The area surrounding Vulcan Park contains many resources that are necessary for steel production. There are natural deposits of iron, limestone, and coal all around Birmingham. This made the place an ideal center for steel production. Because of steel, the city grew so rapidly at the end of the 19th century that it earned the nickname Magic City. (You see, it sprang up overnight. Like magic! Tada!)
You can get great views of Vulcan Park and the resource-rich land surrounding Birmingham by climbing the Observatory Tower and getting up close and personal with the god Vulcan.
Once you are done with Vulcan and his views of Vulcan Park, head inside the museum. You get to see real products from the steel industry. My favorite is the pig iron, which is just crude iron formed into these long bars. That’s such a cute nickname! I think they should put little piggie ears and noses on the pig iron. Then they’d be even cuter.
3) Why Vulcan Park?
So by now you might be wondering how Vulcan went from a one-off statue for a World’s Fair Judy Garland sang about to a symbol for an entire city. Well, like many other public goods in the United States, Vulcan Park was created during the Depression. After the World’s Fair ended, the city of Birmingham didn’t know what to do with old Vulcky here. He languished for 30 years, with his skin painted white flesh color and generally deteriorating.
In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration agreed to help Birmingham find a home for its lonely forge god. By 1939, Vulcan Park was born, and Vulcan had a beautiful new home! I think it was tempting fate to leave anything as big as Vulcan alone and unhappy for so long. After all, Birmingham is called the Magic City. What if a wizard showed up and animated Vulcan? It wouldn’t have been long before he’d started crushing the city, Godzilla-style.
24 hour tip
As you’re leaving Vulcan Park, don’t miss the opportunity to meet kudzu, aka the Vine that Ate the South. Kudzu was introduced into the South from Japan. (It was as an agricultural experiment gone wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.) The climate of the South is very different from that of Japan and kudzu took the opportunity to spread all over everything in sight. You can find it in many southern states, not just Alabama. My cousin in Mississippi used to scare me by telling me that kudzu was going to eat me in my sleep.
Anyway, the moral of this story is to tell the truth to customs when they ask you if you’re bringing foreign plants into a country. Ecosystems are nothing to mess around with!
Things to Do in Birmingham AL
Afternoon: Birmingham Museum of Art
Now that we’ve spent our morning of the best Things to Do in Birmingham AL with a big, half-naked dude, it’s time to put some pants on and get classy. Let’s head to the Birmingham Museum of Art! This museum is arguably home to the best collection of art in the Southeast. (Do not send me angry mail, Atlanta and New Orleans! I know you have good museums too. Also it’s kind of weird that you’re sending me emails because cities don’t have fingers.)
The Birmingham Museum of Art is perhaps most famous for its remarkable collection of ceramics, but we can find any time of art here, from ancient to contemporary. But first my favorite kind of art: the edible kind.
Approximately top 5: Birmingham Museum of Art
1) Lunch at Oscar’s
Oscar’s is that rarest of creatures, the excellent museum restaurant. It serves produce from a local farm, so the vegetables all taste like they were just pulled from the earth. (Possibly by Vulcan. Or a wizard. I’m not really a farming expert.)
I dined on the lunch special, which was a combination of risotto, a summer vegetable medley, fried okra, and a feta, tomato, and cucumber salad. First off, you had me at fried okra. Second off, this was an entirely vegetarian lunch and it still satisfied a meat aficionado like yours truly. Well played Oscar’s! The ceramics are going to have to be pretty smooth to compete with this.
2) Tomb Guardian
We’re going to be spending a lot of time today with sculptures and figurines in honor of Vulcan Park, so prepare yourself. This is a Chinese tomb guardian that dates back to the 3rd century BC. No one is exactly sure what whether it was supposed to guide souls to the afterlife or protect their corpses from angry spirits. I vote for this being a guide. I don’t think any spirit crazy enough to go around messing with dead bodies is going to be put off by some lacquered deer antlers. If that’s all it takes, then every ghost movie ever made would be a lot shorter.
3) Epa Mask
One of the things the Birmingham Museum of Art is known for is its collection of African art. This Epa mask comes from the Yoruba people in Nigeria. It’s used as part of rituals and ceremonies. Often the figure on top of the mask represents a heroic figure in the community.
Unlike scaring ghosts away with deer antlers, this makes a lot of sense to me. Anyone would love the honor of a giant awesome mask of themselves riding a horse all badass. The fact that the mask would be used by the community just to remind everyone of your greatness forever and forever is the cherry on the sundae. I bet my students would behave themselves more often if I promise them a giant mask in their honor.
4) Wedgwood ceramics
One of the highlights of the Birmingham Museum of Art is its mindblowing collection of Wedgwood ceramics. The museum has the largest collection of Wedgwood outside of England. Some of you might be thinking, “Why do I care about some old, two-tone pots?” Well, you’re not going to get anywhere in life with that kind of attitude, Internet Stranger! Wedgwood is an English china company that dates back to the mid 18th century. That’s right, the company is older than America!
These guys pictured above are examples of the Portland Vase. This is a copy of a Roman vase probably made for the wedding of the Emperor Augustus’s daughter. Wedgwood made a mint selling his own reproductions of the Portland vase. How did Wedgwood know it would be such a big hit? Who has the idea to wake up one morning and make a million copies of an almost 2000 year old vase? I guess this is why I’m not a wealthy ceramicist.
5) Laughing Boy by robert henri
I like this painting because Henri has captured something essential about little boys’ personalities. I teach boys about this age and they are just this adorable. But also when they get this laughing look on their face it probably means that they’ve just done something naughty and are about three seconds away from confessing. I wonder what this child did. The curator notes say the child was Dutch, so I assume he unplugged a dam or stole someone’s Gouda. That’s what naughty Dutch children do, right?
Things to Do in Birmingham AL
Late Afternoon: Dinner at El Barrio
Ordinarily I recommend spending the time between 5 and 7 PM doing something random and relaxing like taking a nap or visiting the World of Coca-Cola. But for our itinerary of the best Things to Do in Birmingham AL, I urge you to get an early dinner. After all, we have another activity planned at 8PM. Also the lines to El Barrio are out the door as soon as the restaurant opens and we don’t want to wait forever for a table. They don’t take reservations, so don’t ask.&
I was able to get seated right away at the bar. This is one of the advantages of being a solo diner. I paired my margarita and guacamole with some amazing bacon and jalapeno quesadillas. (I believe I’ve mentioned in other entries on the South that Southerners believe in putting bacon or lard on absolutely everything.) The food at El Barrio is Mexican-inspired, not an attempt at authentically Mexican food. I enjoyed the twist of the bacon as well as the fact that the tomatillo and jalapeno meant the strong and spicy flavors hadn’t been diluted for an American audience.
Also the house made crema that came with the quesadillas was way better than the sour cream I’ve had hiding in the back of my fridge since New Year’s. I always assume that if it’s already sour, it can never go bad!
Things to Do in Birmingham AL
Evening: Birmingham Ghost Walk
My favorite kind of walking tour is a food tour because you get to save time and money. Also you can eat as much as possible, which is my favorite thing to do after making terrible puns. But my second favorite kind of walking tour is a ghost tour. It gives me a fun evening activity to do as a solo female traveler. It is safer than a bar, and I never get groped by a strange gentleman except for that one time on a ghost tour in Mystic, Connecticut. But it was a ghost who groped me, so it was fine.
I was surprised at first to learn that Birmingham has a ghost tour, but then I realized it made sense given all the tragedy and murder in Birmingham’s history. I won’t spoil all of the guide’s stories. You’ll have to be content with…
Three spooky facts about birmingham, alabama ghosts
1) Rev. James Coyle
Be aware, this is the most depressing ghost tour on the tour. James Coyle was a Catholic priest who performed the wedding ceremony between a local white lady and a young Puerto Rican man. Unfortunately this was 1921 and the young lady’s father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The father went to Rev. Coyle’s home at the rectory and killed him. (The killer was never convicted. Some of the jury members were also members of the Klan. Also the defense attorney was Hugo Black who ended up being a Supreme Court Justice. I warned you this story was depressing.)
It’s not surprising to me that there are stories about Coyle haunting the area. If I were murdered just for doing my job, and then the killer was acquitted, and then the person responsible for my killer being acquitted was appointed to the Supreme Court, I’d be pretty mad too.
2) Fant Thornley
First of all, Fant Thornley is the greatest name a ghost could ever have. And I’m happy to inform you that Fant Thornley’s nature lives up to his name. Fant Thornley (it’s heretical to shorten his name) was director of the Birmingham Public Library in the 1950s and 60s. Local African-American students began read-ins to protest the segregation of the library. The mayor, Art Hanes, said he would only integrate the library at gunpoint.
But Fant Thornley realized he didn’t need the mayor’s permission because the library was allowed to set its own rules. So he convinced the board to allow everybody to use the library. People say that Fant Thornley loved the library so that he couldn’t leave it in death. He apparently haunts the library in a calm, quiet way as befits a librarian ghost. I personally think he’s just trying to start an organization called Ghosts For Racial Justice. Good luck Fant Thornley! I need to say your name a few more times before I go. Fant Thornley, Fant Thornley, Fant Thornley! There. Now it’s out of my system.
3) Richard Hawes
We’ve been getting a little heavy-duty with the history on this ghost tour so it’s time for a relaxing tale of child murder. Richard Hawes was a local married man with two young daughters. One day he left on a trip. While he was away, the body of one daughter was found drowned in a local lake. Everybody got more suspicious when no one could find her mother or the other child. Even more suspicious was when Hawes returned from his trip–with a pretty new wife. He claimed that he’d divorced his wife. If you believe that, I have a cast-iron statue in Birmingham I’d like to sell you.
Long story short, they found the other girl and her mother also drowned in the lake. Hawks was rapidly convicted and hanged for his crimes. Apparently the old courthouse where the trial took place is now this YMCA and Hawes likes to haunt it. Isn’t there swimming at a YMCA? Didn’t Hawes like to drown people? I don’t think I’ll be practicing the butterfly stroke at this Y any time soon.
Also two more tidbits to get you excited about taking this tour. The guide’s name is Wolfgang Poe and he keeps something truly terrifying in his pocket. Pleasant nightmares!
Those are the best Things to Do in Birmingham AL!
What are your favorite things to do in Birmingham AL? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Birmingham? Does sour cream ever actually go bad? And what would happen to Birmingham ever did bring Vulcan to life? Please leave your thoughts below!
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 with the best things to do in Birmingham AL. If you have another 24 hours in Birmingham with the best things to do in Birmingham AL, add this itinerary.