Exploring History in Birmingham, Alabama

Genie Davis November 23, 2011 No Comments

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Here’s the thing: how do you tear your children away from a wonderful first-time visit to New York City, exploring Central Park, the grand museums, and eating their way through Little Italy and Chinatown and tell them, next stop, Birmingham?

Well, no matter what you say, there’s going to be a little momentary disappointment. In my case, “Mom, why couldn’t you keep speaking at conventions in New York? What’s in Alabama?”

But the truth is, there’s plenty in Alabama, in Birmingham itself and throughout the state. Once called the “Magic City,” Birmingham indeed has the power to enchant, and makes a wonderful travel destination. We began our trip in the suburbs, near a large, upscale and unremarkable mall that could’ve been anywhere in the United States due to my speaking engagement.

Once on our own, we discovered a wonderful city with a splendid museum, tasty cheese grits, interesting parks to explore, and a history to embrace. You probably won’t be hampered with the gaff I committed: I was picked up to get to my suburban location, and the next morning was Sunday, a day many car rental facilities were closed locally; and due to a vast number of conventions besides my own in town, I would not be able to pick up a car back at the airport until evening. I didn’t want to waste the time, so we took a long cab ride to Birmingham proper and having walked industriously through New York, we hoofed it here, too.

Vulcan statue in Birmingham Alabama

The kids favored the posterior view of the giant Vulcan statue in Birmingham.

The Vulcan Statue

We began our exploration at the Vulcan Statue, an enormous iron depiction of the Roman god Vulcan, who as forge-god is an apt symbol of Birmingham, whose iron making furnaces were big business in the late eighteen hundreds. Commissioned for the 1904 World’s Fair as a symbol of Birmingham’s pride in its industry, the statue now sits on top of Red Mountain, a rise significant enough to offer a great view of Birmingham’s city sky line. You can go to the top of Vulcan for the view, and let your kids wander the pleasant green space surrounding the statue. Just be prepared for giggles over and photos of Vulcan’s bare posterior. In the gift shop, they’re going to want their own replica, and there are plenty to choose from – pencil sharpeners, mini-statues, soft rubber replicas.

The Vulcan is about a half hour from downtown Birmingham on foot, but nonetheless we walked down the hill rather than taking another cab- with cars honking at us, I might note, probably wondering what those crazy people were doing until the sidewalks commenced again. We found it pleasant – and found a patch of wild violets to pick en route, but if you have a stroller you’ll want to be in a vehicle as part of our path included bumpy roadside grass.

Birmingham Alabama and the Vulcan Monument grounds

We enjoyed walking around Birmingham and the Vulcan Monument grounds. Lots of green space everywhere.

We rewarded our walk with a wonderful pit stop for brunch at Highlands Bar & Grill. A touch of elegant French cuisine inhabits a decidedly Southern menu, my kids loved their first taste of grits. Stone ground and baked with mushrooms and Parmesan cheese, these were awesome and unique. It was also our first taste of sweet tea, something which became ubiquitous for us in Birmingham – probably because the delicious, caloric beverage is secretly addictive to sweet tooths like ours.

Birmingham Museum of Art

Our next stop was the Birmingham Museum of Art. The museum has a wonderful collection of modern art, from internationally acclaimed artists like Salvador Dali to local artists. A black and white photography collection is also impressive. We were most interested in the regional art displayed and a stellar collection of African art. Over sixteen hundred pieces contain sculptures and carvings, ceramics, musical instruments, and costumes from throughout the continent. The museum itself is airy, modern, and spacious; when we were there a jazz trio was playing wonderful music in the atrium, where a Sunday brunch was just winding down at Oscar’s at the Museum – it looked like another good dining choice. We stopped in just for more of that addictive tea and to listen to the music. Small children dancing – no problem.

The museum is about to open a splendid new hands-on gallery for families. Interactive displays will include, we were told, the ability to use your body to create a large, abstract painting. I hope they will provide wet wipes for easy clean up, afterwards.

Founded in 1951, the Birmingham Museum of Art resides in the City’s cultural district, with lovely fountains in a park across the street and a beautiful garden on the museum grounds providing beautiful outdoor space to run off all the sugar from that delicious sweet tea.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Our next stop was a very different museum, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This well laid- out museum thoughtfully presents the story of the civil rights movement in Alabama and throughout the south. It offers a sober but hopeful perspective on both how far Birmingham itself and the United States as a whole has come in regard to civil rights in the last decades. It stands directly across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which is the site of the bombing which killed four young girls in the early nineteen sixties. The church is open for Sunday services, and offers tours mid-week. Will children be welcome at the Civil Rights Institute? The answer is yes, and we saw toddlers and babies in strollers. For elementary age children, the exhibits here are a must-see, and are accessibly presented.

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling. www.geniedavis.com

Tags: Reviews, Travel Excursions

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