The Best Things To Do in Birmingham, Alabama
Our travel editor's weekend intinerary for Southern Living's hometown.
Although our skyline may not be filled with cranes like Nashville and our downtown streets not as congested as Charleston's, that doesn’t mean it’s quiet around Birmingham. From a global-flavored food hall to restored historic high rises and a cocktail lounge with a mid-century living room in the front, the ‘Ham has been subtly changing its status from pit stop to destination with tourists, and predictable to progressive with locals. As residents of the city Southern Living calls home, our staffers have had the catbird seat for the transformation.
Here’s how I take in the best of new and old in the Magic City on the weekend.
Start off with breakfast and, more importantly, coffee at Woodlawn Cycle Cafe where James Taylor or Sharon Jones might be spinning on the record player. I’m a granola-and-yogurt type, but their toastie, a sweet potato biscuit with bacon, scrambled eggs, white cheddar, and whole grain mustard is popular with the brunch set. Afterwards, stop in at Club Duquette where musician Duquette Johnston and his stylist wife Morgan sell everything from Taylor Stitch Jeans to French Opinel pocket knives and candles made by Jake Carnley owner of Great Bear Wax Co., who you might find hand-pouring wax in the back of the shop. Take a short drive over to the Crestwood neighborhood to Seasick Records to find vinyl by Alabama artists from Jason Isbell to Sun Ra. Owner Dan Drinkard can point you in the right direction if you’re feeling indecisive.
For lunch, head to Urban Standard, which recently and resiliently reopened after a fire, for a veggie Reuben made with beet pastrami or, my favorite, the chicken salad. Take a latte to go to Railroad Park, a greenspace gem within downtown Birmingham. You might find our Home and Gardens editor Zoe Gowen walking her Golden Retriever-Great Pyrenees mix, Khaki, around the trails lined by fuzzy plumes of Pink Muhly Grass and Feather Reed Grass along with ponds encircled by giant, mustard-colored coneflowers. Conveniently enough, the newly remodeled Good People Brewery sits right next to the park where they serve half-pours of all their beers so you can try two or four different styles. My go-to: the Bearded Lady, a citrusy, refreshing wheat ale.
As for dinner and drinks, Frank Stitt’s classic Chez Fonfon is still as fresh as ever after nearly 20 years and Birmingham’s newest bar The Atomic Lounge serves new-school drinks in a mid-century-style shotgun. Somehow, the space contains a cozy fireplace, a mini-booth lined hallway, a Brady Bunch-style living room, and a back room entered via a doorway of Birmingham-native and civil rights activisit Angela Davis’ head. Husband-and-wife owners Feizal Valli and Rachel Roberts have also constructed a giant Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band-style homage to Alabama’s local and not-so-local celebrities from Coach Nick Saban to Mother Angelica.
While the sidewalks still roll up on Sundays here, some of the city’s best restaurants are still open if you know where to look. First, I fuel up at Homewood’s humming coffee shop Octane, and wait for 10:30 a.m. to roll around. That’s when I take a quick two block walk over to Johnny’s, my favorite restaurant in Birmingham, and wait for the doors to open. Chef Tim Honztas, a descendant of the city’s Greek restaurant-owning dynasty, does meat-and-three staples with painstakingly sourced ingredients like hand-graded okra and shrimp from Bayou La Batre. I can’t stop ordering his Chicken Souvlaki with Tahini Butter and the squash casserole, which, for me, is the gold standard by which all others are measured.
If you’re wanting to stay within downtown, the Pizitz Food Hall has over 15 vendors offering poke bowls, warm baguette sandwiches, falafel, and tacos, a Warby Parker (Hey, we’re hip!), and letterpress shop Yellowhammer Creative. It’s easy to while away a Sunday afternoon at cash-only dive bar treasure The Garage with its wisteria vine-covered courtyard encircled by the relics of a former antique shop; dishes and tchotchkes still sitting on shelves behind glass doors alongside stone sculptures and planters lying in between tables. For those that like to escape inertia on Sunday, put on your hiking boots and drive out to Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve for over 14 miles of forested trails.
When you find the sensation of hunger again, there’s Post Office Pies in Avondale, helmed by Chef John Hall, an alum of New York City restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, Momofuku, and Per Se, who discretely shows off his training in approachable wood-fired pizza and salads made with local produce. For a sweet end to Sunday, take a quick walk over to new ice cream shop, Big Spoon Creamery, and smother your Monday-morning dread in a scoop of Cullman-grown strawberry or Sicilian-style pistachio. I’ll see you there.
Note: Need a hotel? The Redmont Hotel downtown recently underwent a facelift giving the the 1920s landmark new life with a bustling lobby and patio area as well as a rooftop bar and high-tech amenities.