She shares her key spots in the Magic City.
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Valerie Collins Thomas at Bistro 218 in Birmingham, AL
Valerie at Bistro 218
| Credit: Robbie Caponetto; Makeup and Wardrobe: Jestina Howard/Zenobia; Hair: Darrius Peace; Glasses: iiis.; Dress: Bearden Design et Boutique; Jewelry: J. Catma; Shoes: Converse

When Valerie Collins Thomas' husband first asked her to consider moving to Birmingham, her reply was a resounding no. "I was really stuck on 1960s Birmingham," recalls Valerie. "Unfortunately, what makes national news about the city isn't typically [award-winning chef] Frank Stitt or the other good stuff. It's often something a little unsavory that somebody says." A recruiting visit didn't do much to assuage her concerns; it was pleasant enough but failed to showcase the city's diversity. Even so, the job was a good opportunity for her husband, so they decided to take a chance and make the move.

Shortly after arriving in Alabama, Valerie joined the gym at the Jewish community center. "I met four or five women, and they folded me right in," she says. "This hasn't happened in other cities I've moved to…People aren't just going to wrap you up and invite you to things. But here, when I needed it the most, these women said, 'Hey! Who are you? What are you interested in?' They helped me get connected, and I think that's one of the real beauties of this city."

Valerie Collins Thomas at The Pizitz in Birmingham, AL
Valerie at The Pizitz residences and food hall in downtown Birmingham
| Credit: Robbie Caponetto; Makeup and Wardrobe: Jestina Howard/Zenobia; Hair: Darrius Peace; Glasses: iiis.; Jewelry: J. Catma; Top: ISHI?; Belt: Bearden Design et Boutique; Pants: Billy Reid; Boots: basic.

Now, 12 years later, as the president and CEO of The VAL Group, Valerie introduces potential transplants to Birmingham, tailoring visits to reflect their interests and values. Once they make the move, she works to foster meaningful connections in the community, just as those women did for her. "Regardless of who you are, people here want to get to know you and show you a good time," she says. "And if you have something hard happen, they're going to be willing to help you. It's unique." Here, Valerie shares her favorite spots in the Magic City, whether you're just visiting for a weekend or staying for good.

The Market at Pepper Place in Birmingham, AL
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

My Ideal Saturday Morning

"I love that I know my farmers, and I walk to The Market at Pepper Place every weekend unless I'm out of town. Almost all the things that [my husband and I] consume are bought directly from the people who grew or made them: Fruits, veggies, soap, candles, flowers, socks, linens crafted with Alabama cotton—everything is available. The market is one of the main reasons we can't possibly leave Birmingham. It's just magic."

A Local Race I Love

"The MLK Day 5K Drum Run is the best run/walk of its type. It's tied to Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and supports area charities. The kicker is, at multiple spots throughout the course, there are high school and community drum lines performing their beats! You don't even realize how far you've gone because it's so much fun."

The Essential in Birmingham
Margaritas at El Barrio in Birmingham AL
Left: An assortment of dishes at The Essential. | Credit: Robbie Caponetto
Right: Margaritas at El Barrio | Credit: Laurey W. Glenn

The Most Memorable Meals in Town

"I love, love, love Birmingham's access to chef-run restaurants, whether white tablecloth or casual. I am so grateful that I can dine at places where they use local ingredients, farm-raised meats, and fresh seafood. Some of my top picks are Bottega, Lé Fresca, Bistro 218, Galley and Garden, Pizza Grace, The Essential, Bamboo on 2nd, Bettola, El Barrio, and Blueprint on 3rd."

The wine room at Galley and Garden in Birmingham, AL
The wine room at Galley and Garden
| Credit: Courtesy Galley and Garden

The Best Seats to Root for the Home Teams

"One of my favorite new things is going to events at Protective Stadium. I'm not even a big sports person, but I wanted to support University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) football when it returned, so we got season tickets. Now that Protective Stadium is their home, it's the best time. We love it so much that when the Birmingham Legion FC soccer team announced that they would hold their games there, we bought season tickets for those, too, and we'd never been to a soccer game before! The stadium will also host the opening and closing ceremonies for The World Games in July."

Two Historic Venues

"I look for any excuse to attend a performance at the Alabama Theatre [built in 1927] or The Lyric Theatre [built in 1914]. They're both gorgeous, and I am inspired anytime I'm there."

Ideal Spots to Spend a Sunny Day

"Rotary Trail is such a beautiful and relaxing way to move from one end of the city to the other. Plus, the park has great activities to engage friends and neighbors from all over Birmingham."

The Coolest Festival for Movie Lovers

"I always look forward to the Sidewalk Film Festival, which happens in August. There are more than 200 films shown in multiple downtown venues within walking distance of each other, and there's dancing in the street. I was the last girl standing last year! It's the best."