12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Birmingham, AL
Birmingham was once an industrial center fueled by the steel industry, but today it is a lively cultural center full of rich history. It is home to several important Civil Rights landmarks, which saw pivotal moments in the movement, as well as the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which provides deeper insight into the numerous barriers that African Americans faced in the past and continue to struggle with today. Birmingham is full of things to see and do, from art museums and botanical gardens to great family attractions like the McWane Science Center and the Birmingham Zoo. Birmingham is also home to several lovely parks, including the urban oasis of Railroad Park; Ruffner Mountain Nature Center; and Red Mountain Park, home to the city's iconic statue of Vulcan and excellent views over the city. Find the best things to do in the city with our list of the top attractions in Birmingham.
See also: Where to Stay in Birmingham
1. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights District
On Sunday September 15, 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. The bombing resulted in the death of four girls. This act brought a nation together and played a big part in ensuring the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The church was restored and reopened in 1964 with the help of donations from around the world. Today, it is a major tourist attraction as part of Birmingham's extensive Civil Rights story.
Birmingham's Civil Rights District is one of its most visited areas, and a guided tour of Birmingham's Civil Rights landmarks is the best way to see the major sites while learning about the important role that Birmingham played in the fight for desegregation and equality. Among the many sites visited on this small-group tour are the Sixteenth Street Church, Kelly Ingram Park, Boutwell Auditorium, and the sight of the attack on the Freedom Riders. Transportation is provided via an air-conditioned bus, and the knowledgeable guide will help add context to the city's Civil Rights story.
Address: 1530 Sixteenth Avenue North, Birmingham, Alabama
2. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Located at the junction of Sixth Avenue North and Sixteenth Street, the Civil Rights Institute forms the cornerstone of the Civil Rights District. Its mission is to promote civil and human rights worldwide through education, and it contains exhibits pertaining to the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and human rights struggles through to the present day. The center features permanent exhibitions, guiding visitors through various events and experiences with multi-media presentations. Galleries focus on four main topics, including the broader scope of human rights, the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century, confrontations, and segregation. The museum also contains galleries dedicated to special temporary exhibitions.
Address: 520 16th Street North, Birmingham, Alabama
Official site: www.bcri.org
3. McWane Science Center
McWane Science Center in Birmingham allows visitors to experience the world through science adventures and interactive exhibits, and it is a top family attraction for both locals and tourists alike. A wide variety of topics are explored, from dinosaurs to space exploration. Hands-on displays feature motion, energy, light and sound, and kids young and old will find many exciting things to see and do. The center's top level is home to traveling exhibits from other museums, special events, and an exhibit about the relationship between art and technology. The lower level offers an interactive aquarium exhibit, which features habitat tanks of aquatic creatures. Visitors can make waves on an eroding shoreline, check out salt marsh creatures, and explore the story of water and what it means to us. The science center is also home to an IMAX theater, which presents a variety of films daily.
Address: 200 19th Street North, Birmingham, Alabama
Official site: www.mcwane.org
4. Birmingham Museum of Art
The Birmingham Museum of Art is home to more than 20,000 works, from ancient to contemporary and originating from all parts of the globe. The largest of the museum's collections, in fact nearly half of the items, are European decorative arts. The American decorative arts collection contains more than 2,000 pieces, and together these collections include a wide variety of items, such as porcelain; vases and vessels; and metalwork like fine silver, furniture, and textiles. The museum's Asian art collection is also impressive, consisting of more than 4,000 examples, which range from ancient earthenware and bronzes to works on paper and in multimedia. The African art gallery houses nearly 2,000 pieces, consisting of detailed beadwork, headdresses, vessels, furniture, and figures. The collections also include an array of European art, with notable artists like Dali, van Rijn, and Pissarro, as well as both American and contemporary art. On the museum grounds is the Charles W Ireland Sculpture Garden, a multi-level area that features the Red Mountain Garden, Lower Gallery, and the Upper Plaza.
Address: 2000 Rev Abraham Woods, Jr. Boulevard, Birmingham, Alabama
Official site: www.artsbma.org
5. Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum
Founded by race driver George Barber, the Vintage Motorsports Museum is a result of his passion for cars and motorcycles. First opened in 1995 with an assortment of vintage motorcycles, the collection soon gained notoriety after several vehicles were lent to the Guggenheim Museum for a major exhibit, "The Art of the Motorcycle," which also toured to Chicago and Bilbao in Spain. Barber continued to grow his collection as he developed a large complex that is now home to a 2.38-mile racetrack and a proving ground. The facilities, in the midst of the beautiful 930-acre park, are regularly employed by major auto manufacturers including Mercedes Benz and Porsche, used for testing, product reveals, and commercials. The facilities area is also open to the public, where you will find the Porsche Driving School, demonstrations, and other activities.
The museum itself has an impressive collection of motorcycles, totaling more than 1,400 in all, and about half of them are on display at any given time. They span a wide range of both time and origin, representing more than 200 manufacturers and nearly two dozen countries. There is also a car collection which includes several Lotus and rare race cars.
Address: 6030 Barber Motorsports Parkway, Birmingham, Alabama
Official site: www.barbermuseum.org
6. Birmingham Botanical Gardens
The Birmingham Botanical Gardens adorn a 67-acre park, which is also a center for horticultural education. Visitors will first see the impressive glass conservatory when arriving through the Queen's Gates, as it sits behind the stunning Formal Garden. The majority of gardens here are categorized by plant type, referred to as the Gardens of Collections, and among these, you will find two dedicated to rhododendrons; one formal rose garden; and others containing varieties of lily, iris, hosta, and more. The Gardens of Nature focus on native local plants, and the Gardens of Culture are home to a wide variety of flora, each representing various design styles. Among these you will find a Japanese garden, a herb garden, and many other themes.
Address: 2612 Lane Park Road, Birmingham, Alabama
Official site: www.bbgardens.org
7. Birmingham's Railroad Park
In the middle of downtown Birmingham, the Railroad Park is an oasis of green space and water features, offering a retreat from the bustle and heat of the city. It covers 19 acres, laid out to include plenty of lawn space, trees for shade, flowers, and a variety of streams and ponds. The park is also home to a small lake and offers several trails for walking or running, with the three-quarter-mile Rail Trail offering excellent views of the city. For younger kids, there are two playgrounds, and active teens will be excited about the three skate bowls. The park also hosts various cultural events, family activities, and concerts, and is monitored 24/7 by security cameras and rangers. Restrooms and dining facilities are also available on-site.
Location: At the western end of 1st Avenue South, Between 14th and 18th Streets, Birmingham Alabama
8. Birmingham Zoo
Birmingham Zoo is a popular attraction for families and kids of all ages, home to a wide variety of birds, reptiles, and mammals from around the world. Of the zoo's 950 residents, there are numerous endangered species represented. Throughout the day, visitors can enjoy a variety of shows and events including the sea lion show, sea lion training session, and reptile feeding. For a small fee, kids can take a ride on the animal-themed carousel or ride the Red Diamond Express, and even get the chance to meet a giraffe up close. Those who want to see the inner workings of the zoo and meet some of its residents can also purchase an animal encounter, available for sea lions, Komodo dragons, rhinos, and American black bears. The botanical exhibit features hundreds of butterflies from more than 20 species, all of which are native to Alabama. Within the Birmingham Zoo is the Hugh Kaul Children's Zoo, dedicated to the urban and rural animals of Alabama. One of the newer additions to the zoo is the Dino Discovery exhibit.
Address: 2630 Cahaba Road, Birmingham, Alabama
Official site: www.birminghamzoo.com
9. Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark
The Sloss Furnaces began producing pig iron in 1882 and continued for almost 90 years. Today, the Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham operate as a museum of industry with the massive furnaces, a web of pipes, and tall smokestacks still standing. The blast furnaces and buildings of Sloss Furnaces Historic Landmark highlight the history and industry of the area. Tourists will want to begin at the visitor center, where you can pick up a self-guided tour brochure and learn about the site's history from its short film and exhibits. There are guided tours available on the weekend or by request. This is also the site of many excellent photo-ops, however those using professional photography equipment will need to obtain permission prior to shooting.
Address: 20 32nd Street North, Birmingham, Alabama
Official site: www.slossfurnaces.com
10. Ruffner Mountain Nature Center
Ruffner Mountain Nature Center offers opportunities for hiking, bird-watching, and for outdoor enthusiasts to explore and learn. The wildlife sanctuary is home to raptors, snakes, turtles, frogs, salamanders, and mammals. Mining sites, quarries, and mining equipment remain on Ruffner Mountain from the many iron ore mines that dotted the landscape from the 1880s to the 1950s.
Another mining site-turned-park is Red Mountain Park, which has several historic iron ore mining sites and a system of 15 miles of trails. This is an excellent place to go hiking in Birmingham, with several trails leading to breathtaking overlooks of the city below. Mountain biking is allowed on all of the trails as well, and there are two miles of flat walking trails, which are ideal for strollers and wheelchairs. Red Mountain Park also offers those with mobility issues a chance to explore the full range of trails thanks to a pair of off-road wheelchairs, which can be reserved in advance.
Address: 1214 81st Street South, Birmingham, Alabama
Official site: http://ruffnermountain.org/
11. Vulcan Park and Museum
This 56-foot statue of Vulcan, Roman god of fire, was originally built in Birmingham for an exhibit at the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Made of 100,000 pounds of iron, it is the largest cast iron statue in the world. Today, it stands watch over the city of Birmingham from the top of Red Mountain, an enduring reminder of the city's early industrial roots. Tourists can enjoy amazing views of the city from the observation deck, and on-site there is also a good history museum, which features interactive exhibits about the city and the statue's history. In addition to the views, visitors to Vulcan Park can enjoy a picnic on the grounds, view an art exhibit at the Linn Henley Gallery, and enjoy a panoramic view of Birmingham's skyline.
Address: 1701 Valley View Drive, Birmingham, Alabama
Official site: http://visitvulcan.com/
12. Southern Museum of Flight
The Southern Museum of Flight is home to a variety of exhibits and historic aircraft. The indoor section of the museum uses life-size dioramas to illustrate various topics, many of which relate to the history of aviation in the military. The Korean War Jets exhibit features the two most infamous fighter jets of the era, the MiG-15 and F-86 Sabre. Other military exhibits include the WWII era with the Tuskegee Airmen exhibit and the recovered Lake Murray B-25, as well as the Vietnam War Helicopters exhibit. The Little Pilots Playroom is perfect for entertaining the smallest visitors, and older kids will love the Experimental Aviation Association Classroom where aspiring engineers can try out their ideas using Legos, Mega Blox, and Kinex. For kids ages 12 and up, including the kids-at-heart, there are fully functional flight simulators, staffed with real flight instructors. Outdoors, visitors can walk among the planes, including an early-model commercial plane once used by Delta Air Lines, an A-12 Blackbird, and a Stealth bomber. The Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame is also located here, with aviation art, photographs, and murals.
Address: 4343 73rd Street North, Birmingham, Alabama
Official site: www.southernmuseumofflight.org
Where to Stay in Birmingham for Sightseeing
If you are coming to see the sights or just to have some fun, the best place to stay in Birmingham is right downtown. At the northern end of the downtown core is the new Uptown entertainment district, where the Birmingham-Jackson Convention Complex is located. Farther south, the Five Points South dining and entertainment district is a lively area, with the University of Alabama campus nearby.
- Luxury Hotels: The Westin Birmingham is in the trendy Uptown area, within walking distance to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. The hotel has a rooftop pool affording fabulous views over the city. The Residence Inn Birmingham Downtown is in the heart of the Five Points South area and offers suites with kitchens and an outdoor pool. The Hampton Inn & Suites Birmingham Downtown - The Tutwiler is in a fully renovated and restored 1914 heritage building, less than a kilometer from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
- Mid-Range Hotels: At the top end of mid-range and featuring well-appointed rooms, the Courtyard Birmingham Downtown is in a good location, with the restaurants of Five Points South a short stroll away. About 12 kilometers south from downtown on Highway 280 is the well regarded Drury Inn & Suites Birmingham Grandview. Several good chain restaurants and the Summit Mall are only a short walk away. About three kilometers farther out, the Homewood Suites is a good family option, with two-bedroom suites, kitchens, and an outdoor pool.
- Budget Hotels: About 20 kilometers outside of downtown, in a quiet location, the Hampton Inn & Suites offers rooms with breakfast at a fair price. Less than 12 kilometers to the southwest, easily accessible off Interstate 65, the Best Western Plus Carlton Suites has an indoor pool and free appetizers and beverages Monday through Thursday. In the same area, the Candlewood Suites has recently been renovated and offers free laundry service and an outdoor grilling gazebo area for its guests.
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Civil Rights History: Tourists interested in visiting additional important landmarks related to the Civil Rights Movement will find nearby Montgomery, just an hour and a half from Birmingham by car, full of historic spots. Among Montgomery's numerous places to visit, the city is home to a striking Civil Rights Memorial, as well as the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Among the significant Civil Rights museums are the Dexter Parsonage Museum, the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, and the Freedom Rides Museum. Those who are willing to take a slightly longer road trip can reach Atlanta, Georgia in a little over two hours. Among Atlanta's top attractions are the National Center for Civil and Human Rights; the Martin Luther King, Jr. Birth Home; and the King Center.
The Gulf Coast: Tourists enjoying an Alabama vacation will find plenty to do in the state's coastal region, an area full of history and charm. The city of Mobile is known for its broad variety of tourist attractions, many of which highlight the city's historic significance. Among the top attractions are the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, Fort Conde, and several period museum homes. Alternatively, tourists can head to one of the excellent resorts in Gulf Shores for a beach vacation on the Gulf of Mexico. There is something to do for everyone in the Gulf Shores, from sedate dolphin-watching to thrilling zipline rides, popular with teenagers.