By Debi Lander

I’d made the mistake of overlooking Birmingham, Ala., until a recent trip.  I found the city packed with delightful surprises ranging from an extraordinary culinary scene to the poignant Civil Rights history to a mammoth statue of Vulcan.

Birmingham earned the title “Dining Table of the South” for a good reason. James Beard Award winners and nominees are everywhere, and their creations taste yummy. Chef Chris Hastings, a most hospitable man and owner of the Hot and Hot Fish Club, creates innovative dishes such as the Fish in a Fish in a Fish. Trust me — just try it. Frank Stitt, known as the iconic “Godfather of Southern Cuisine,” appeared as a caring, dedicated, and soft-spoken chef. He and his wife own and manage four top city restaurants, including the Highlands Bar and Grill, known for its exceptional service. Stitt employs award-winning pastry chef Dolester Miles, who makes the super scrumptious coconut cake at Bottega Café. Another vivacious foodie, Becky Satterfield, makes magic happen at Satterfield’s Restaurant. Pick any of these dining establishments for dinner and you won’t be disappointed. 

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The city attracted many Greek residents over the years, and they tended to start breakfast and lunch eateries. Don’t miss Demetri’s Barbecue for breakfast. Yes, you can order BBQ in the morning, but I preferred the feta and tomato-filled Greek omelet. For lunch, try Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood for their beloved Greek-inspired brunch/lunch menu run by Chef Tim Hontzas. 

Sadly, Birmingham’s past includes horrific civil rights conflicts, including the tragic 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young African American girls in 1963. I toured the site studying the educational timeline, and watching the documentary film in the church basement. Directly across the street, you’ll find the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a must-see modern museum. The facility houses interactive displays, archives, and videos, so plan on spending a few hours. Kelly Ingram Park fronts both sites, the former staging area for non-violent demonstrations where participants were besieged by police dogs and powerful fire hoses.

For a calm respite, head to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Roam the 67 acres, free to the public, or bring children and let them run. The Japanese Garden, a highlight, contains a traditional tea house, waterfall, bamboo groves, and Japanese maples. The seasonal changes make return trips to this tranquil setting worthwhile. 

One of the fun spots in the city, at least for me, was Vulcan Park. I was astounded to learn that Birmingham was founded after the Civil War. The abundance of limestone, coal, and iron ore provided jobs and made steel manufacturing possible. These industries attracted so many workers that the population grew quickly; indeed, so fast that the Magic City nickname arose as Birmingham appeared on the map almost overnight.

The city wanted to make its presence known at the 1904 World’s Fair so they commissioned sculptor Giuseppe Moretti to create the largest cast-iron statue in the world. Vulcan, the mythological Roman god of fire and forge, was such a hit the city kept him, and the burly, bearded statue now overlooks downtown. Tour Vulcan Park Museum to learn about Birmingham’s and the statue’s history. You can also ride an elevator to the top of the monument for a panoramic view; however, the only picture of the 56-feet tall casting you can see from on high happens to be his rearview! 

On Saturday morning, I took in the Farmers Market. I enjoyed many murals and Civil Rights markers downtown. Still, I did not have time for the McWane Science Museum or the Museum of Art. Like a magician, the Magic City brought me surprises and if you haven’t been, put it on your list.  For more information:

Visit to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.

Photo courtesy Debi Lander
16th Street Baptist Church.

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