I shift from one foot to the other, relishing in how full I am from the pancetta, scallion, and goat cheese omelet I wolfed down at Trattoria Centrale, a cozy Italian breakfast joint, a few hours before.
The faint buzz of the cappuccino is lingering in my brain, which is good, because I’m analyzing the thousands of tiny brushstrokes that coalesce to make Claude Monet’s “Le Matin, temps brumeux, Pourville.”
For a moment, I’m so lost in the hazy blues and greens of the landscape painting, I completely forget where I am.
A hearty chuckle followed by a thick Southern drawl echoes from somewhere in the back of the museum gallery and I’m pulled from my daydream.
That’s right, I smile to myself incredulously. I’m in Birmingham, Alabama.
To outsiders, Birmingham may still hold traces of an expired reputation. A dusty old steel town. Another city in the Deep South marked with the scars of racial division. A place to pass through for a pulled pork sandwich on I-65. But for longtime residents and newcomers exploring the city with fresh eyes (and empty stomachs), Birmingham is a city in full bloom.
In the words of Jim Windsor, a lifelong resident of the city, “Birmingham is finally cool.”
Fall down the rabbit hole at the Grand Bohemian Mountain Brook
To experience Birmingham the right way, settle into the only hotel as dynamic as the city around it. Nestled next to the Botanical Gardens and the Birmingham Zoo, the Grand Bohemian Mountain Brook has the local flora and fauna woven into its atmosphere and the Kessler family spared no expense when creating the details of the hotel. From dainty golden butterflies on light fixtures to plush purple armchairs suitable for an Alice in Wonderland tea party, the hotel is overflowing with color, texture, and avant-garde opulence.
At the Grand Bohemian, the line between observer and curator is blurred; if you fall in love with the art in your hotel room, hallway, or almost anywhere else in the hotel, you can buy it directly off the wall. With a glass of wine in hand, you can also wander through the hotel’s gallery to get a taste for local, regional and international artwork.
When Birmingham’s finest has tired you out, head to the full-service spa or sink into some of the most comfortable mattresses the South has to offer. Picasso-esque dreams optional.
With Birmingham recently named one of Zagat’s “25 Most Exciting Food Cities,” its savory southern cooking, inventive upscale dining, and farm-to-table specialties are no longer a secret. Birmingham is a place you must taste to believe.
Before you leave the hotel…
Ride the elevator to the rooftop of the Grand Bohemian for a meal at Habitat Feed & Social. Whether it’s creamy Blue crab eggs benedict in the AM or a juicy Alabama Berkshire pork chop for supper, the whimsical restaurant is serving up creative new takes on classic cooking.
There’s scarcely a better way to start the day than fusing the comforts of Italian cooking with the no-fuss bliss of quick breakfast. At Trattoria Centrale, warm homemade scones, pancetta-stuffed omelettes, and eggs topped with hearty meat sauce await at this downtown cafe. Fast, affordable, and downright delizioso.
The B’s: brisket, beer, bourbon, bacon
The brainchild of Birmingham chef, George Reis, 5 Points Public House and Oyster Bar is a laid-back local hangout with a thoughtful menu of casual eats made from high-quality ingredients. Opt for the Pub Rub Beef Brisket sandwich and you’ll ask yourself why beer bourbon bacon jam isn’t a part of your daily diet. Admire the industrial chic decor, complete with filament bulbs, exposed pipes, and hanging repurposed doors – all while you sip on a pint of one of 40 craft beers.
Small plates, big flavor
Tapas-style restaurants, while ubiquitous and trendy these days, can sometimes leave you with an empty wallet and a marginally full belly. But Ovenbird, nestled in Pepper Place (a complex of renovated warehouses that include a former Dr. Pepper bottling plant), blends cool ambiance with a satisfying menu of South-America-meets-Southern plates. From bright, fresh ceviche to melt-in-your-mouth meat dishes like the Spit-Roasted Duck with butternut squash puree, lentils, sherry reduction, and pumpkin seeds, Chef Chris Hasting’s menu is inventive, unpretentious, and filling. No meal at Ovenbird is complete without one of their signature cocktails and a scratch-made s’more. (Yes, pumpkin spice marshmallows are a real thing.)
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Is there anything more artful than a juicy pulled pork sandwich with the perfect ratio of meat-to-sauce? Or a warm cheesy biscuit slathered in sweet honey butter? Or a creamy cup of homemade banana pudding? For 30 years, Jim ‘N Nick’s Community Bar-B-Que has been serving up Southern barbeque bliss in Birmingham and beyond. So throw your tie over your shoulder and dig in.
(For those prefer a more vinegar-y sauce experience instead of red, opt for Dreamland Bar-B-Que.)
For more divine dining options in Birmingham, check out Ollie Irene’s for chic bistro fare, Fancy’s on 5th for oysters and burgers, and Hot Diggity Dog for a gourmet hot dog.
Head back up to the rooftop of the Grand Bohemian for a legendary nightcap. Sip on a signature cocktail like the “Over the Mountain” made from Bulleit Bourbon, Cardamaro, Simple Syrup, Fernet Branca (a good digestif!) and Jack Rudy bitters. Enjoy your libation while listening to some live music or shoot some pool. (Loser pays the bar tab, right?)
The Marble Ring
When given the chance to drink like the legendary Alabamian socialite Zelda Fitzgerald, take it. Named after her quote “I hope you die in a Marble Ring,” The Marble Ring speakeasy is a haven of 1920s glitz, glam, and flowing libations. To enter, simply pick up the phone in Hog Diggity Dog (no one will judge if you scarf down a Deli Dog and some poutine first) and then proceed to take an Instagram photo in the bar’s iconic golden bathtub with an Old Fashioned in hand.
The Atomic Lounge
If you’re anything like me and have long dreamt of drinking a cocktail called The Legendary Sex Panther while wearing a full body giraffe costume, you’re in luck at The Atomic Lounge. With a smattering of mid-century modern decor, a closet full of costumes, and a come-as-you-are ambiance, this is a must-stop bar on any boozy Birmingham jaunt.
Craft Beer Galore
For a simpler, but nonetheless, quintessential Birmingham drinking experience, take to brewery hopping. From Good People Brewing to Avondale Brewing to Trim Tab, there is no shortage of stellar beer in every corner of the city. (I opted to sink into a couch in the spacious family-friendly tap room at Good People and enjoy a Snake Handler double IPA.)
Become the artist…
Before delving into the local art scene, do some creating yourself at The Grand Bohemian. Pop up to the Kessler cooking school for a master class or blend your own bottle of wine using different grape varietals in their custom wine studio.. (Don’t worry, the sommeliers won’t be there to judge.)
Classic Meets Contemporary
Since 1951, the Birmingham Museum of Art has been dazzling locals and visitors alike with a dizzying array of art from around the world. Let the hours slip by gazing at gripping Native American sculptures or peering into the detailed portraits by Dutch artists. If you find yourself coming down with Stendhal syndrome from the splendor, rest with a coffee and a snack at Oscar’s, the museum’s cafe with framed works of art adorning the walls.
Naked Art (Shirt and shoes required)
Exploring a city’s art scene is never complete without checking out what the up-and-coming local artists are up to. Naked Art, a home-turned-shoppable-gallery run by Belgian-turned-Birminghamian Véronique Vanblaere, is an eccentric spot overflowing with local wares. In every corner of this cozy house is handmade jewelry, trash repurposed into funky clothing, revamped restaurant menus, and visual arts. Even the bathroom is an artistic endeavor; as part of the annual “Tour de Loo,” the Forest Park bathrooms are transformed by local artists into art installations. (Now those are some classy commodes.)
Vroom, Vroom Room
Ever hear the dinner party question, “What would you do if you own the lottery?” Well, the answer for racing lover George Barber was to restore and collect classic cars and motorcycles and display them in a world-class facility: the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. After sending 21 bikes to exhibit at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 1997, the bond was forever forged between Barber’s motorsports and art.
As a visitor, you are surrounded by vehicles of all makes, models, colors, sizes, and ages — each one a piece of art in its own right. Whether you have an inherent need for speed yourself or know nothing about motorsports, the Barber Museum is worth a visit. From a baby blue 1958 Chevy Bel Air Impala to an exhibit of Yamaha bikes spanning decades, there is a machine for every taste that will leave you lost in thought, marveling at what humans have created.
Walk next door…
Right next to The Grand Bohemian is the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, 67 acres of greenery on the outskirts of downtown. Wander mindfully through the Japanese gardens, read about the local plant life, or simply settle onto one of the many benches to soak up the serenity.
Birmingham’s Living Room
For a glimpse into local life, head to in Railroad Park, an urban park fondly nicknamed “Birmingham’s living room.” On any given day, you can find families laughing on the playground, couples strolling hand-in-hand, UAB students clutching Starbucks cups, buoyant dog-walkers, teens testing their skateboard skills, and everyone in between. Pop by for seasonal perks, like an ice skating rink in the winter and community events all year long. (And when the Alabama sun starts to wear on you, a cold hoppy pint is waiting for next door at Good People Brewing.)
Who’s that guy?
Wondering who the big, burly Roman god towered over the city is? Head to Vulcan Park and climb to the observation tower of the world’s largest cast iron statue. Created from Birmingham materials and cast in local foundries, the Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge, watches over the city and proves an inextricable link to the past.
Feature image courtesy of Lindsey Ann Photography