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The Vulcan statue high above the nighttime cityscape in Birmingham, Alabama

Alabama

Birmingham, Alabama: A City Steeped in History and Filled with Culture

By: Christi Womack

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  • States:
    Alabama

Find out how this cosmopolitan and welcoming destination shares its story by preserving and embracing its past.

Fueled with prosperity from the iron and steel industry at the turn of the 20th century, Birmingham’s performing arts venues thrived. By the 1960s, the city became the hub of the national Civil Rights movement. In this lively city at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, explore landmarks to learn how the past forged the cultural diversity enjoyed by all today.

Significant Symbols in the Historic Civil Rights District

For a moving experience, visit the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, part of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, to learn how Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders charted a new direction for human rights. The four-block district includes the A.G. Gaston Motel, headquarters for their campaign, as well as other must-see destinations that convey the magnitude of the era:

  • Birmingham Civil Rights Institute – At this affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, learn about the city’s role in the Civil Rights movement. Peruse exhibits in several galleries, and check calendars for a list of special events.
  • 16th Street Baptist Church – The centerpiece of the community was a bombing target, where four black girls were killed in 1963. The church became a rallying site and continues to welcome visitors at its worship services and for tours at select times.
  • Historic Bethel Baptist Church – Tour the former movement headquarters, now a National Historic Landmark, where the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth led nonviolent desegregation efforts.
  • Kelly Ingram Park – Use your mobile phone to take a free audio tour and learn about the significance of the sculptures installed in this gathering spot in the heart of the Birmingham Civil Rights District. People once gathered at the park next to the 16th Street Baptist Church to bring attention to the movement.

Touring the Civil Rights Institute museum and research center

Touring the Civil Rights Institute museum and research center
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The Industrial Age of Birmingham

Before the Civil Rights era, Birmingham flourished with the advent of the steel and iron industry in the late 1880s. At the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, tour the plant where iron was made for nearly 100 years. Stop in the museum’s visitor center to view exhibits, then take a self-guided tour of the machinery, including two blast furnaces, and some of the 40 buildings.

For an incredible view of the city, go to the nearby Vulcan Park and Museum atop Red Mountain. Towering above the city, marvel at the Vulcan statue that was cast from local iron in 1904; it’s a symbol of Birmingham’s industrial history. You won’t see a bigger cast iron statue anywhere else in the world.

Railroad Park, a lakefront green space in the middle of the city, is a popular place for picnics, jogging, concerts and other events. While here, study the Birmingham History Wall to see an illustrated story about the city’s industrial and artistic heritage. Look closely at the walls and seats that were made from hand-cast bricks and cobblestone materials found at the site.

The Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, a former blast furnace plant

The Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, a former blast furnace plant
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Reputation for Excellence in the Theatre District

The neon lights are sparkling again in Birmingham’s renewed Theatre District, which is filled with entertainment, shopping and dining opportunities. Take in a show at the Red Mountain Theatre Company, a nonprofit theater featuring local and national talent in a repertoire that includes large-scale musicals, new works and concerts. Absorb the history inside the Lyric Theatre, the oldest theater in the city, which opened as a vaudeville venue in 1914. Converted to a movie house by the 1930s, recent renovations created a wider stage to give the theater the ability to host festivals and performing arts. Across the street, stop in another historic site. The Alabama Theatre, built in 1927, still shows movies in addition to hosting concerts and other special events, including the annual Sidewalk Film Festival each August.

The historic Lyric and Alabama venues in the Theatre District

The historic Lyric and Alabama venues in the Theatre District
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Getting There

Fly in to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport (BHM), where you can rent a car and start exploring. The airport is about eight kilometers from downtown.