I spent a quick 24 hours in Birmingham, Alabama two weeks ago, wrapping up my final few days of work with a visit to one of the city’s middle schools. I was able to fit in a bit of exploring between meetings and thought I’d share a few highlights.
First and foremost, people in the city could not have been more warm and welcoming. We tend to stay out each other’s way up here, so it always takes a minute to realize that when someone in an elevator wishes you a nice day… that’s all they’re doing. They’re not trying to get you to donate to Save the Whales, or sell you something, or steal your handbag. It’s a refreshing change. (Though I do sort of prefer keeping to myself.)
Oh hi, Boston College.
I stayed Downtown at the historic Tutwiler Hotel, which is now owned by Hampton Inn (love that free breakfast and wifi). It was a quick drive to the school and airport (less than 10 minutes to both) and was within walking distance of the Birmingham Museum of Art, the Civil Rights Institute, the Board of Education, and the Birmingham Public Library. It was the perfect home base for my short visit.
The trail includes more than 200 detailed signs (each featuring photographs, historical information, and quotes from Civil Rights leaders) and connects 70 places of importance to the 1963 Birmingham Civil Rights Campaign. The trail begins at the Civil Rights Institute, which was just a few blocks from where I was staying, so I made sure to check out a number of the signs after dinner — really moving and beautifully designed.
Being a vegetarian (and a rather choosy one, at that), I am not always the best person to make restaurant recommendations. And in fact, I wouldn’t recommend the place where we ate dinner the night we were in town (can’t win ’em all!). But, a bit of Southern hospitality at its finest: a gentleman overheard me and a co-worker chatting about dinner plans our connecting flight from Atlanta to Birmingham, and tracked me down at the baggage claim with two recommendations, Bottega and Hot and Hot Fish Club. He seemed to know what he was talking about (which is more than I can say for myself).
We stopped at Arlington on our way from the airport to our hotel. The house is open for visitors most days, but I believe you need to schedule a tour in advance if you’d like to have a guide with you. We picked up some information at the visitors center after buying our tickets and toured the house and gardens on our own.
Arlington is the only former plantation home still standing in the area. The gardens were pretty, and the magnolia trees on the property were extraordinary. Most of the furniture has been replaced and it seems like a number of outbuildings (including a reproduction of the original kitchen house)were added for weddings and other special events hosted on there. I am not sure what I was expecting (and perhaps we caught things on an off day), but there was sort of a weird commercialized, scrubbed up vibe there.
I saved the
pots best for last.
One of my favorite places to go when visiting a new city is their art museum. I was so impressed by the Birmingham Museum of Art and how accessible it is. Both museum entry and parking are free, and the museum itself is bright, airy and really easy to navigate. It was perfectly unpretentious (Detroit Institute of Arts is similar — I am obsessed with that place), which is how I like my museums. The African ceramics pictured above are from the collection of Birmingham artist Dick Jemison. I just love how they are displayed; it struck me as a room full of personalities.
There are several hands-on art areas throughout the museum, as well as a dedicated art space for children, making this a great place for families to visit. They also have a restaurant on site, and a fantastic gift shop (I picked up a small sketch book and some Monks Meditation tea from Huntsville, Alabama’s Piper & Leaf).
It was a busy, but really lovely 24 hours!
Also On Tap for Today:
What is your favorite local (or far off) museum?