Beautiful Birmingham: Alabama’s Cultural and Entertainment Gem



Birmingham rides a series of ridges along the wooded foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, giving the area dramatic topography.  With a metropolitan population of more than a million people, Birmingham is Alabama’s largest city. 
 
Though Birmingham stands in the heart of the Deep South, it is not an Old South city.  Founded in 1871 at the crossing of two railroad lines, the city blossomed through the early 1900s as it rapidly became the South’s foremost industrial center.  Iron and steel production were a natural for Birmingham; underground lay abundant key ingredients---coal, iron ore and limestone.  As an industry town, Birmingham suffered greatly in the Depression.  After World War II the city grew moderately while retaining its strong Southern character.  At the same time a profound movement toward diversification was afoot.  The huffing and puffing of Birmingham’s legendary iron and steel mills gradually was replaced by a work force of medical Birmingham and engineering professionals.  Today, Birmingham enjoys a balance of manufacturing and service-oriented jobs. 

The traditional heart of Birmingham’s downtown is an 85-square-block zone encompassing an interesting blend of architectural periods and styles.  Early 1900s skyscrapers are within view of their striking contemporary counterparts, and quiet neighborhoods are nestled in the woods just minutes away.  On a plateau between Red Mountain and the city center is one of Birmingham’s most celebrated historic neighborhoods, Five Points South.  This charming district, incorporated as the Town of Highland in 1887, has always been something of a place apart.  Focused on a landmark circle, Five Points South is an intriguing collection of architectural styles including Spanish Baroque and Art Deco.  Streets radiating off the circle are similarly blessed with a lively mix of old and new buildings now animated by more than a dozen restaurants and bars, specialty shops, a hotel and a theater. 

Molded by the difficulties of its colorful history, today Birmingham is a Southern city that is--all at once--young, traditional, vibrant, classy, complex and, some even say, exotic.  It is diversity that is Birmingham’s greatest strength and strongest appeal. 
 
Southern Hospitality and Old World Charm
 

The Bed and Breakfast (B&B) experience is unique. You get the benefits of home with service that rivals the best hotels.  The best B&Bs are small and privately owned.  The owners usually live in the same home and will do everything they can to make sure your stay is a pleasant one. Warmth, coziness and good food aren't the only benefits of staying at a B&B though. Your hosts can fill you in on local tourist attractions, restaurants, hiking trails and other interesting things to do during your stay.
 

I highly recommend Cobb Lane Bed and Breakfast, located in the middle of Five Points.  It is close to fine dining restaurants, but is in a residential area, so it's quiet and peaceful, too.  

Owned by Ira and Sheila Chaffin, Cobb Lane offers the feel of Victorian comfort and genteel relaxation.  Upon arrival, you are given a warm welcome by one of the owners, who meet you on the expansive, wicker-furnished front porch and introduce you to Cobb Lane. 

As you enter, the parlor is scented with a sweet surprise, delicious homemade cookies!  At this point, the key system is explained; so you can come and go as you please, and then you are give a tour of the premises. 

Carefully selected family heirlooms and antiques fill this butter yellow Victorian beauty.  Each of the luxurious rooms have a unique theme were personally decorated by Mrs. Chaffin. Her style and flair are everywhere! 

After a great night’s sleep, the smell of breakfast fills the air to gently awaken you.  Guests gather and sit at a beautifully decorated table in the formal dining room, as breakfast is served beneath a crystal chandelier on fine china. 

Mr. or Mrs. Chaffin joins their guests for a delicious breakfast and engaging conversation.  It is a delightful way to start your day. 

In addition to being an innkeeper, Ira Chaffin is a renowned sculptor and wood carver and owns the Chaffin Carousel Carving School, one of only two in the country. 

My visit to Cobb Lane was so enjoyable I just had to hug Mrs. Chaffin goodbye.  To be perfectly honest, I can’t recall ever feeling that way about a hotel clerk.  Needless to say, I will be back!  And even better, they bought another home, so B&B number two is coming soon!  For more info, please visit www.cobblanebandb.com.


Other Places to Stay 
 
Hyatt Place Downtown
2024 4th Avenue South
Birmingham, AL 35233
205-322-8600
 
The Wynfrey
1000 Riverchase Galleria
Birmingham, AL 35244
205-987-1600

Embassy Suites
2300 Woodcrest Place
Birmingham, AL 35209
205-879-7400 

Wining and Dining 

Should you have Birmingham pigeonholed as serving only barbeque and fried pies, just remember that the city is a dining destination, with award-winning restaurants like Chez Fonfon, www.chezfonfonbhma.com, Highlands Bar and Grill, www.highlandsbarnadgrill.com, and Bottega, www.bottegarestaurant.com, three not-to-be-missed experiences.  James Beard Foundation award-winning chef, Frank Stitt, uses commonplace, seasonal ingredients flavored with traditions from France, Italy, and the Mediterranean, to create meals that make palates sing. 

The Irondale Café (“The Original Whistle Stop Café”) is a home-style cafeteria with strong Hollywood ties.  The café, the inspiration for writer and actor Fannie Flagg’s successful novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and hit movie of half that name, still feeds hungry folks every day of the week. www.irondalecafe.com.
 
Birmingham has one of the “Top Ten Bars Worth Flying For,” as GQ Magazine lists the top ten bars in the world, and among them, “The Garages” for its eclectic, authentic charm. www.gargagescafe.us.
 
Wine enthusiasts often are surprised to find vineyards and wineries in the greater Birmingham area.  That’s right, vineyards and wineries in Alabama!  They also are eager to sample the bottled goodness found along the local Wine Trail, especially delicate peach wines made from local fruit. www.alabamawinetrail.net.
 
Things To See

Regardless of your interest, Birmingham covers the gamut with a little something for everyone. 

The Birmingham Zoo’s new exhibit is the first in the world featuring a herd of African bull elephants in a natural setting, according to Zoo CEO Bill Foster. “Trails of Africa” will distinguish the Birmingham Zoo as a national leader in the care and conservation of threatened elephants, and will draw even more visitors to this great facility, already one of the state’s top attractions.  See www.birminghamzoo.com for details, admission and hours of operation.

 The Birmingham Botanical Gardens, a partnership between the City of Birmingham and the Friends of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, is home to one of the largest collections of living plant specimens in Alabama.  It is in the very heart of Birmingham, spans an area of 67.5 acres and has over 25 unique garden themes.  Scattered throughout the gardens are more than 30 sculptures.  In addition, it had the distinction of operating the largest public horticulture library in the country. 

I would advise you to visit the garden in the morning hours, as there is so much to appreciate, you may just need the whole day.
 


Strolling along the paths of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, it is hard to remember you are in the heart of a metropolitan area,.  Here the sweet smell of blossoms hovers in the air and birds and bees sing carefully orchestrated melodies.

Both the gardens and parking are free for visitors. Gates open daily between dawn and dusk. For more information, visit www.bbgardens.org. 
 
Museums are wonderful places to learn the history of a place, its people, and its culture.  For anyone traveling to Birmingham, a stop at the Birmingham Museum of Art cannot be missed.  This museum was founded in 1951.  About 24,000 objects are contained within the museum depicting cultures from around the world.  Asia, Europe, America, Africa, Native Americans, and Pre- Columbian objects of art are at the museum.

 One of the most impressive collections on display is the Vietnamese Ceramics.  It is considered the finest in the world, with the Kress collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings following in a close second.  In case you are wondering, yes, it is the same Samuel H. Kress of the Kress five and dime that was located at 921 Canal Street in New Orleans. 
 
Sculptures and other decorative pieces date to the late 13th century up to the 1750's.  The collections of the 18th century European arts offer superior work from English ceramics to French furniture.  Outside of England, the Birmingham Museum of Art has the largest Wedgwood collection.

The present building housing the art objects was created in 1959.  Architects Warren, Knight and Davis helped create the building, but it was Edward Larrabee Barnes of New York, that offered a renovation and expansion in 1993, to house the 24,000 pieces of art.  They also created an outdoor sculpture garden to enhance the beauty of the museum.

 
Since its opening, the museum has been free of charge to visitors.  The museum is closed on all Mondays and major holidays. The free admission does not apply to special exhibits. For additional information, please see www.artsbma.org.
 



Vulcan, the mythical god of metalworking, is the largest cast iron statue in the world and is second in size only to the Statue of Liberty. The statue was Birmingham’s entry in the 1904 World’s Fair, where it won first place.  Vulcan Park and Museum features spectacular views of Birmingham and interactive history museum. www.visitvulcan.com.
 
With 19 acres of green space in the middle of downtown Birmingham, including nine acres of open lawn, Railroad Park is the ideal place to have a little lunch, throw a little Frisbee, take a little jog.  Situated along 1st Avenue South, between 14th and 18th Streets, the park is a joint effort between the City of Birmingham and the Railroad Park Foundation. www.railroadpark.org. 
 
Movies and Film 

TIME named Birmingham’s “Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival” among its Top 10 “Film Festivals for the Rest of Us,” Festivals for those not traveling to Cannes.  

The multi-colored dance floor at “The Club” in Birmingham was director John Badham’s inspiration for a key icon in the1970s movie, Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta.
The Alabama Theatre is a 1920s movie palace in the heart of downtown.  The “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ still rises from the beneath the theatre floor for live accompaniment of silent movie screenings.

Civil Rights 

Birmingham’s role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s placed it “at the center of the most significant domestic drama of the 20th century ….”  Development of a Civil Rights Trail currently is near completion. www.bcri.org.
 
Vonetta Flowers, the first African-American to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics (2002 – bobsledding), is a track coach at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.



Joe Minter’s yard is a breathtaking collection of folk art structures that fill the entire side yard at Minter’s modest home on Nassau Street.  African heritage is a dominant theme in Minter’s work, with bands of African warriors rising high above the other sculptures, their heads fashioned from bowling balls or hoods of old hairdryers.   
 
Sports  


Birmingham’s world-class musical talent has put the city in the national spotlight
with two winners from the mega hit TV show American Idol. Ruben Studdard won in 2003 and Taylor Hicks came home with top honors in 2006. In between, Birmingham’s Bo Bice won first runner-up in the 2005 competition.   With more than 1,000 acres for biking and hiking, Birmingham’s Ruffner Mountain is larger than New York City’s Central Park and is just a five minutes drive from downtown.  Birmingham is a national leader in urban green spaces. www.ruffnermountain.org.

 Birmingham’s Barber Motorsports Park houses the largest collection of vintagemotorcycles in North America. The park is considered the “Augusta of Motorsports,” referring to the quality of the world-class course and home of the Porsche Driving Experience and the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School.  In addition, Birmingham sealed the deal on a three-year contract with the Indy Racing League for races in 2010, ’11 and ’12 at Barber Motorsports Park.  The “Alabama Grand Prix,” makes Birmingham the only Deep South city on the North American Indy circuit. www.barbermotorsports.com.

Birmingham is home to the nation’s oldest baseball park, Rickwood Field, which opened in 1910 and hosted baseball greats such as Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, Willie Mays and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. www.rickwoodfield.com


With the opening of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail throughout the state, Alabama has been called “…one of America’s top 10 golf destinations.” In addition, Birmingham is ranked #1 as host city for the annual Region’s Charity Senior PGA Tour. www.rtjgolf.com.


Interesting Facts

Birmingham is known as the founding city for the celebration of Veterans Day and hosts the nation’s oldest and largest Veterans Day celebration. 

 The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s University Hospital is among the world’s top kidney transplant centers.   


Southern Living, the nation’s most successful regional magazine, is published in Birmingham. 

With so much to do and see, Birmingham is a star shining brightly for sure …

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