Birmingham, Alabama, may not be easy to reach (there are no direct flights from Boston), but it’s easy to like. Devotees of craft beer can satisfy their thirst in the city’s lively taprooms and brewpubs. Baseball fans can kick back at a minor league game in a spiffy new ballpark. Arty Anglophiles can admire the finest collection of Wedgwood outside England at the Birmingham Museum of Art. And everybody will warm up to the friendly, laid-back vibe that permeates the Magic City, a place where strangers nod hello or even say “Good morning.”
Given that Alabama is the only state whose official drink is an alcoholic beverage, it’s ironic that Birmingham’s thriving craft-beer scene is less than a decade old. But there’s a good explanation: From the end of Prohibition until 2009, all beer sold in the state was strictly limited to an alcoholic beverage volume (ABV) of six percent or less. For years, beer aficionados had to cross the border to buy the good stuff in neighboring states, then truck it back home. Finally, after a “Free the Hops” grass-roots lobbying movement gained steam, the government increased the maximum ABV to 13.9 percent, and the Brewery Modernization Act eased other restrictions the next year.Start your visit by checking in at a conveniently located hotel. The elegant yet homey Tutwiler (officially known as the Hampton Inn & Suites Birmingham Downtown Tutwiler) offers historic cachet and modern comforts, including a shuttle that’ll not only take you to and from the airport , but also around town, plus a complimentary hearty breakfast: eggs, bacon, grits, waffles, fruit, yogurt and, if you’re lucky—or if it’s Sunday—homemade biscuits.
Today Birmingham boasts five craft breweries: Avondale, Cahaba, Ghost Train, Trim Tab and Good People Brewing Company, the last of which, according to the Beer Advocate, brews five of the 20 highest-rated beers in the South. In its industrial, concrete-floored, warehouse-style taproom, genial and well-informed beer-tenders pour four seasonal beers and six year-round brews. (If you enjoy a substantial, stick-to-your-ribs beer, the full-bodied Coffee Oatmeal Stout is for you.) Tours are available on Saturdays and Sundays, and the $10 charge includes a pint and a collectible glass.
Good People makes a great pregame stop, as it’s located across the street from Regions Field, home of the minor league Birmingham Barons. The ballpark recently introduced a beer garden featuring all five local breweries, and you won’t get stuck with a cliched hot dog here; food offerings include a Dreamland BBQ stand. You won’t get bored between innings, either. Entertainment is plentiful and hokey: A “fast-food race” sends runners decked out in hot dog and taco costumes in clumsy pursuit of victory, and “Name That Air-Freshener Scent ” has a host waving pine-tree-shaped fresheners under the noses of blindfolded contestants. What’s more, it’s a beautiful ballpark, with fine views of the city—and with tickets running only about $10, it’s fun to see if you can spot a contender for the Chicago White Sox roster.
If it’s a late dinner you’re looking for, the Paramount, set a few blocks from the hotel, is open until 1:30 am. The decor in this cozy dive is mostly license plates and the menu is mostly burgers, but the food—including the Alabama Hummus, made from boiled peanuts, and the Shanghai Tacos, filled with Chinese roast pork—is excellent. Be sure to pay a visit to the game room with its own beer bar in back. Those with more upscale tastes can make a reservation for lunch at Oscar’s in the Birmingham Museum of Art, located in the heart of the cultural district and likewise close to the hotel. Here, the humble shrimp and grits is given a makeover with the addition of coconut milk, mushroom broth, peppered bacon, crunchy cashews and a shower of Asian slaw, all surrounded by grilled Gulf shrimp. After your meal, explore the fine holdings of European and American paintings, the country’s largest collection of African ceramics and, yes, that extensive collection of Wedgwood, featuring more than 1,400 objects that run the gamut from Jasperware to Majolica to modern, experimental pottery that you’d never guess bears the Wedgwood name. Don’t miss the china service for 50 (952 pieces!), custom-made for Catherine the Great of Russia…bless her heart, as they say in Birmingham.Whether spelled barbecue, BBQ, or BAR-B-Q, meat cooked low and slow is serious business in Birmingham. For a menu that goes way beyond pulled pork on white bread, check out Jim ’N Nick’s Community BAR-B-Q, a short cab ride from the Tutwiler. There, you’ll find pulled pork (classic and Carolina-style), brisket, hot links, smoked ham and both chicken and turkey with white sauce. Meats are tender, smoky and piled high, whether you order a sandwich or a plate. If you want to save room for the fabulous banana pudding or a huge wedge of coconut cream pie, you can hedge your bets with the Pig in the Garden Salad, topped with warm pulled pork.
-Although Birmingham may be best known for historical landmarks such as the Civil Rights Institute, it’s also home to Vulcan Park and the world’s largest cast-iron statue, whose naked buttocks inspired its nickname: “Moon over Homewood.”
-If you’re renting a car, it’s worth the half-hour drive from the Tutwiler to see the Barber Motorsports Museum, which is famous for “the world’s largest and best motorcycle collection.”
Barber Motorsports Museum, barbermuseum.org; Birmingham Museum of Art, artsbma.org; Good People Brewing Company, goodpeoplebrewing.com; Hampton Inn & Suites Birmingham Downtown
Tutwiler, hamptoninn3.hilton.com; Jim ’N Nick’s Community BAR-B-Q, jimnnicks.com; Paramount, paramountbirmingham.com; Regions Field, milb.com; Vulcan Park & Museum, visitvulcan.com