?Known as the "Magic City" for its fast-paced growth and power during America?s industrial heyday, Birmingham is now a cultural center of the Deep South. In the present, the city has forever cemented its legacy as one of the most important arenas of the Civil Rights movement: The Alabama capitol was at one time the most segregated city in the United States, but now hosts an important civic monument to this critical time in our nation?s history.
>SEE AND DO
For many of us who don?t remember the era, it?s somewhat surreal to think that segregation was commonplace here only a few decades ago. That is why the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (520 16th Street North 205.328.9696) serves such an important role in this city, giving visitors a chance to see what it was like to live in the South during segregation. Guests begin their journey with an 8-minute video that highlights the foundations of the followed by a multimedia exhibit where visitors are transported back in time.
Replicas of "Black Only" water fountains, school desks and other everyday items are compared next to "White Only" items, showing the drastic dichotomy between the races. Patrons are given the opportunity to see, feel, touch and hear as much as possible what living as an African American was like before the triumph of civil rights. The institute even boasts a replica of the bus that Rosa Parks rode on when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger.
Art enthusiasts will not be disappointed by The Birmingham Museum of Art home to more than 24,000 pieces of art, one of the largest collections in the South. Although they feature historic art from many civilizations, their collection of Vietnamese ceramics is considered one of the finest in the world, as well as their collection of Wedgwood china, the largest outside of England. (2000 Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Blvd.; 205-254-2565)
One of Birmingham?s most iconic monuments can be found at the Vulcan Park & Museum, which sits high atop Red Mountain. Sweeping 360° views of Birmingham are highlights of the park, which is also home to a history museum and the Vulcan AfterTunes concert series, taking place each fall and featuring a variety of local and national talent. (1701 Valley View Drive; 205.933.1409).
But the centerpiece of the park is Vulcan himself: Standing nearly 56-feet tall, he is the world?s largest statue made of cast iron, weighing in at approximately 50 tons. Constructed in 1904 for the St. Louis World?s Fair by renowned sculptor Giuseppe Moretti, Vulcan is the Roman god of fire and forge, highly appropriate considering Birmingham was famous for its industrial might due to the nearby unique geology (Jones Valley, in the Southwestern corner of the city, is alone in the world for having large deposits of coal, iron ore, and limestone ? the three raw materials needed to make iron.
?>WHERE TO EAT AND PLAY
Just a few minutes away from the Civil Rights Institute is the historic Five Points neighborhood, a wonderful collection of retail shops, restaurants, art deco buildings and nightlife. This part of town has become popular amongst LGBT locals.
One of my favorite restaurants in Birmingham is Bottega, which serves a unique Mediterranean-inspired version of Southern cuisine. Start with dolmades, the stuffed grape leaves with lamb, rice, currants and a touch of mint, or try the fried green tomatoes with mozzarella and marinara sauce. For a lighter fare try the whimsical Prosciutto di Parma served with mozzarella and fresh peaches. (2240 Highland Avenue; 205.933.1000)
Birmingham doesn?t have a true gay district, but is home to a handful of neighborhood bars and clubs mostly concentrated in the central Downtown and Five Points area. Those looking to dance should head to Quest Club, Alabama?s only 24/7 club, which hosts weekly drag events and karaoke.
>WHERE TO STAY
Those looking for a comfortable, yet luxurious night?s stay should check into Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa. The plush guest rooms include balconies overlooking the stunning grounds and a pool with enchanting waterfalls and fountains. Renaissance Ross Bridge also boasts the third-longest golf course in the world. (4000 Grand Avenue; 205-916-7677)
The Magic City is not a typical destination for many tourists, but for anyone interested in Southern culture and great art will greatly appreciate what Birmingham has to offer. Its unique link to American history, especially the Civil Rights Movement, remains more than relevant in our culture today ? cultivating the hope that one day the only place to experience LGBT oppression will be museums. For more information, go to www.VisitBirmingham.com.