Discover Birmingham, Alabama

Named after Britain’s second largest city, Birmingham, Alabama is itself the third largest city in the state after Huntsville and Montgomery.

It is indeed a relatively new city, having emerged as part of the post-US Civil War reconstruction strategy.

Birmingham quickly became a major producer of steel and steel by-products, making the most of rail access, cheap labor and the availability of all the necessary minerals. Today, this industrial legacy, albeit greatly reduced, can still be seen, with both active manufacturing sites and historic sites where visitors can revisit the city’s economic origins.

Birmingham, like much of Alabama, is also known for its role during the civil rights period of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The history of this time and the years that followed is dealt with very comprehensively in the Institute for Civil Rights which is walking distance from downtown.

Here you can, in a few hours, learn the details of Martin Luther King’s arrest and imprisonment, after which he wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” detailing the struggle for justice. One can experience the scenarios in public places where “white only” was the order of the day.

Find out and view evidence of the Klu Klux Klan’s activities in the Birmingham area. Sit in the office of Birmingham’s first black Mayor, Richard Arrington, who served the city for 20 years between 1979 and 1999. You can also learn how other human rights struggles around the world have drawn inspiration from the civil rights movement.

Perhaps the most emotional are the details of the atrocities committed on September 15, 1963 when you look at the broken glass that remains from the 16th Street Baptist Church, located directly across the street. Four young black girls were killed by a bomb planted by the Klu KLux Klan during Sunday worship. As a result, two other black children died that same day, one of whom was shot in the back by police while fleeing down an alley.

Today the city is a much happier and more peaceful place with lots going on and following the decline of steel and manufacturing enjoys a revived economy supporting many establishments suitable for visitors.

One of these is just outside the city limits but certainly stands out in the US and possibly the world with its collection of motorcycles. The exhibition is spread over several floors and is breathtaking even for a non-petrolhead like me. Row after row of old and not so old bikes adorn the floors with a huge display of British manufacturers, most of which are sadly gone. The Barbers Vintage Motorsports Museum is definitely worth the time to travel the few miles out of town. Most of the more than 900 motorcycles are still roadworthy. Special exhibitions are held periodically and I am happy to say that our own John Surtees took center stage during my stay. He is the only man to have won world championships on both two and four wheels.

Like many other cities, Birmingham has a very vibrant music and food scene. I was fortunate enough to combine the two at an open air market on Pepper Place on Saturday mornings. Here you can enjoy locally produced food as well as regional specialties including ‘Nana’s Puddin’, an original homemade banana pudding made and sold by a father and son combination. The longest line was for the craft token and the confectionery stand, which was no exaggeration at least 100 meters long. It looked and smelled delicious, and in the US, good bread is very expensive once you’ve experienced the standard store offerings.

The market made me hungry for brunch, so off to Automatic Seafood. Despite the name, the restaurant has an extensive menu and I settled on oatmeal with a banana pecan topping while sitting outside and enjoying the Alabama October climate. Plus a cup of freshly brewed coffee. Precious!

However, the history of Birmingham is incomplete without mentioning golf. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail runs throughout the state of Alabama, but nearby is one of the finest examples – Oxmoor Valley. Two 18-hole championship courses, Ridge and Valley, are complemented by a 9-hole par 3 course that takes just over an hour for four people. All courses have a range of tees to suit all levels of golfers and as you would expect from an RTJ course, each hole has its own unique challenge. Playing alone is not a problem and I rented a set of racquets and teamed up with three very friendly gentlemen from New York.

As part of an Alabama tour, Birmingham is a must-see.

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Learn more about: Sweet Home Alabama (North America)