By Tara Massouleh McCay
Minus four years down the road in Tuscaloosa at The University of Alabama, I’ve spent my entire life in Birmingham, Alabama. Founded in 1871, Birmingham experienced a meteoric rise in the early 20th century as the iron and steel industries took off and it became a hotbed for production. Not so long after, the city found itself once making headlines, this time as a major battleground in the Civil Rights Movement.
At a public school about 20 minutes outside of downtown, I learned about Birmingham’s history, but the implications its origins have had on making the city what it is today were largely lost on me. Sure, I wrote Birmingham as my return address and claimed it as my hometown, but we may as well have been perfect strangers.
It wasn’t until I graduated college and returned home that Birmingham began to unfold to me. I spent humid summer evenings sweating and sipping beer at local breweries. I took midday walks through the pink muhly grass at Railroad Park in early fall. And I dined at countless restaurants—of both the white tablecloth and picnic bench variety—where I began procuring a list of all the places that now taste like home.
Working for a city magazine gave me a backstage pass to the passion and people behind the city’s renaissance, and when it came time to choose a place for my husband’s residency four years later, Birmingham was the only choice. Sure, we toyed with the idea of venturing out west, but the tug of the Steel City eventually won out. It has continued to anchor me here ever since. Here are my favorite places to spend time in the city I call home...
My Favorite Places to Eat & Drink
Birmingham is no newcomer to the national dining scene. It’s received plenty of attention for standouts like Frank Stitt’s James Beard winning Highlands Bar & Grill and Southern institutions like longtime meat-and-three Niki’s West, but there’s much more to Birmingham’s food story than meets the eye. In a state full of great barbecue, I always recommend SAW’s Soul Kitchen for melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork and fall-off-the-bone smoked wings, but also the most tender, delicately fried whole okra you’ll find anywhere. Birmingham is a melting pot of cultures and cuisines, so my other top picks for a casual meal include Eugene’s Hot Chicken for Nashville-style hot chicken, The Rougaroux for Cajun po’boys, and Blue Pacific, where you can find authentic Thai dishes in a converted gas station. If you can, visit on a Tuesday or Thursday and order the beef or pork noodle soup special.
When I’m looking for a date night spot, few places match Bottega Café’s quality, service, and value. The Southern-Italian menu means you can slurp up a plate of indulgently simple spaghetti carbonara or marvel at the masterpiece of a perfectly cooked pork chop with collards, polenta, and a seasonal fruit relish. Sit at the bar and order one of the best deals in town—half a wood-fired pizza, plus a side salad and a local beer for $15 flat. For a post-dinner drinks, I love the charming courtyard at Juniper. The whimsical gin bar in historic Forest Park also has a killer happy hour featuring $6 jasmine gimlets and Spanish-style gin and tonics. A new favorite is Continental Drift, an eclectic cocktail bar in the heart of downtown. Run by two of the city’s favorite bartenders, the bar is known for its rotating menu of cocktails inspired by a country or region around the world.
My Favorite Places to Spend Time
There’s no place where I feel the heartbeat of the city more than in Railroad Park. This is Birmingham’s backyard, where everyone comes together to celebrate a sunny day, to take a lunchtime stroll, or to attend a free evening yoga class. One of Birmingham’s biggest draws is its abundance of parks and preserves. I grew up hiking around the boulder outcroppings in Moss Rock Preserve and still love spending time there today.
Summer isn’t summer without attending a Birmingham Barons baseball game at Regions Field—especially on a Thursday night when beer is only $2 a tallboy. In recent years, Birmingham has upped its sports ante, and I’ve enjoyed watching both Legion soccer games and Birmingham Stallion USFL games at the newly built Protective Stadium. I’ve found that cheering on my home team is fun no matter the sport.
On weekends, you'll find most Birminghamians hanging out at one of the city’s 10-plus breweries, each with their own character and lineup of craft beers. At Back Forty, enjoy sprawling outdoor seating and one of the city’s best burgers. Hipster hangout Trim Tab is known for delighting zythophiles with small-batch series like their popular Beach Club fruited sour ales. In mild weather, there’s no better place to while away an afternoon than at The Garage, a beer garden populated with garden antiques, hanging wisteria, and plenty of locals.
On Saturday mornings, you can usually catch me at Pepper Place, one of the city’s biggest success stories. The commercial revitalization project transformed 350,000 square feet of former warehouses and manufacturing facilities into a vibrant entertainment and retail district. I start my morning with a spin class at local fitness studio Ignite Cycle, then follow the twang of banjo music to Pepper Place Market, a giant farmer’s market that brings farmers, craftspeople, and vendors from across the state to town every Saturday morning. It’s the best way to start the day in my favorite place.
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