Alabama’s largest city is making a comeback after decades of dormancy, and there’s plenty of free stuff for visitors to see and do in the new Birmingham.
Re-energized by a wave of fresh development and the emergence of a true downtown vibe, the city once called the “Pittsburgh of the South” for its steel industry is now varied enough for a family trip or a weekend getaway for couple.
Interested in history or the arts? How about a tour of a worldwide broadcasting operation? Birmingham has that and more.• Civil Rights District: Visitors interested in civil rights history can pay tribute to the era on a pilgrimage to sites where headlines were made. Walk along streets where police and firefighters used dogs and fire hoses to rout black demonstrators seeking equality in 1963. Stand at the spot where a Ku Klux Klan bomb went off that same year, killing four black girls inside 16th Street Baptist Church. Across from the church, sit in Kelly Ingram Park, where statues depict compelling scenes from the city’s civil rights struggles. In the heart of the district is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute ( www.bcri.org).
• Birmingham Museum Of Art: Billing itself as one the nation’s best regional museums, the Birmingham Museum of Art houses more than 25,000 drawings, paintings, prints, sculptures and decorative pieces from all over the world. Its painting collection includes Albert Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley, selected by The National Endowment for the Humanities as one of 40 American masterpieces. www.artsbma.org.
• Railroad Park: Once a trash-strewn empty lot beside train tracks, Railroad Park opened in 2010 and quickly became a favorite gathering spot. With features including ponds, a wetlands area, a walking track and a natural amphitheater, the 19-acre park is a perfect spot to spend a few hours watching people or reading a book. www.railroadpark.org.
• Eternal Word Television Network: Located minutes from downtown in tree-covered Irondale, Eternal Word Television Network offers weekday tours of what it calls the world’s largest religious media operation. Founded by an enterprising nun, the operation is geared toward Catholics, but anyone can see the studios and control rooms that are used to beam shows to more than 150 million TV households worldwide. The opulent Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament and Monastery is located on 400 acres about a one-hour drive away. www.ewtn.com.
• Birmingham Botanical Gardens: With 67 acres of land and more than two dozen unique gardens, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens is one of the most-visited free attractions in Alabama. There are roses for flower fans, a Japanese garden for Asian enthusiasts and a vegetable garden lush enough to make any home gardener green with envy. www.bbgardens.org.