None of my friends could quite understand why I decided to go to Birmingham, Alabama. The only thing we remembered about Birmingham from school was the civil rights movement — which hardly makes it sound like a great place for a digital nomad to land.
Birmingham wasn’t on my radar until a house sit popped in my inbox. The house looked amazing and came with an adorable one-eyed cat. I verified that I could get groceries without a car and had something to do while I was there (check, check) and booked it.
I was looking forward to a couple weeks of uninterrupted work. I’d been bouncing between cities I knew and loved — which means cities where I had friends and work meetings and museums and shows and all of these things to do. I was keeping up with work, sure, but I longed for the space to do some deep work and focus on big projects. A small city without a dozen must-see attractions — and where I didn’t know a soul — sounded perfect.
Birmingham delivered. But it also offered way more than I expected. It didn’t just offer the bare minimum I look for in a city — Birmingham has everything you might want.
What to do and see
People might tell you there’s nothing to do in Birmingham. Don’t believe them. Birmingham has the perfect amount of things to do for someone who’s working remotely — you can enjoy exploring a new city at a leisurely pace while still keeping up with a full-time work schedule. I liked a lot of the recommendations in this article.
If you’re looking for an event, including shows at the Alabama Theatre, check out Birmingham 365 and Style Blueprint. Basically all of the coffee shops and breweries I went to host events, so you’ll probably stumble on something fun without any planning at all.
If you have a car, don’t miss the chance to drive out to Homewood to hike in Red Mountain Park.
The Market at Pepper Place
It seems like all of Birmingham is at the Market on Saturday mornings. This is a huge farmers market and craft fair, with live music on two stages. You can fill up on goodies at the market or grab brunch at one of the cafes.
Pepper Place is home to Red Cat coffee shop, Hop City, several good eateries, and a ton of local design businesses. If you’ve decided to move to Birmingham (or just want to browse), there are enough interior design showrooms to keep you busy for an afternoon.
If you’re staying downtown, walk or bike to Pepper Place along the Rotary Trail.
Birmingham Museum of Art
The BMA is in a gorgeous art deco space right downtown. It’s not some dinky local museum, it’s the largest art museum in the south eastern US. They have an impressive global collection, as well as a nice selection of works from artists from Alabama. Don’t miss the sculpture garden.
The temporary exhibitions I saw were very well done and accessible to anyone, even if you weren’t an art history major or aren’t normally super interested in art.
The museum is free, which means you can return as often as you’d like and take your time working through the collection.
Railroad Park & Rotary Park Trail
Railroad Park is part of the greenway the city is building, which will soon extend to Sloss Furnaces. As each new section of park opens, new cafes and boutiques pop up along it. The far end of the park bumps up next to Regions Field and the Good People Brewing Co, which draw their own crowds.
The park has a few urban trails, water features, and a small section for skate boarding.The amphitheater holds regular events, including movie nights. There are free fitness classes just about every day. There’s even ice skating in the winter, with free lessons.
Usually things are named for whatever they replaced, but there are trains running along Railroad park frequently. This is a great spot to stretch your legs if you’re arriving on a bus or train, since it’s just across the tracks from the transit center.
Rotary Trail is Birmingham’s answer to the High Line. It’s expertly landscaped, offers plenty of places to hang out, and even has cell phone chargers. Unlike the High Line, it’s not mobbed with tourists. You can enjoy yourself, eat lunch in the shade, and check your email.
Cities around the world are taking disused industrial sites and turning them into parks and event spaces. Sloss Furnaces was one of the first. There’s always a festival or concert taking place at this venue, which might mean there’s an admission fee, so check the calendar before you go. Even when nothing’s on the calendar, there’s still plenty to see. This is also the spot to take metal arts classes. Or see ghosts. You do you.
Just be warned that they have a strict photo policy, so check the rules before you show up with your fancy camera equipment.
Vulcan Park and Museum
The Vulcan, Roman God of fire and forge, is the symbol of the city and watches over it from the top of Red Mountain. It’s the largest cast iron statue in the world and was made for the 1904 St Louis Worlds Fair.
Vulcan Park has a small museum and you can climb to an observation deck. The museum provides a great overview of city history. You can also enjoy a two mile trail through the park.
The Civil Rights Insitute
The Civil Rights Institute is Birmingham’s big draw. The public displays don’t have any information you don’t already know (I hope!) but there’s something about seeing artifacts and the actual bombing site that’s incredibly powerful.
There are also eight routes of the Civil Rights Heritage Trail in downtown Birmingham. You can’t miss the signs as you walk around.
Birmingham is also home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, Birmingham History Center, and Negro Southern League Museum. The Museum of Fond Memories is a book shop with some serious personality. Birmingham Oddities is another shop that’s essentially a museum.
Where to work
I don’t expect much from anyplace in a strip mall, but Crestwood Coffee dispels stereotypes. Their food is legit. They have a patio, which I did not see coming. If you want to work late, there’s booze and DJs.
Red Cat has two locations, Pepper Place and Railroad Park, and they are both exactly what you expect from a coffee shop. They feel like I’m stepping back into my life in undergrad, but in a good way. Just don’t try to get a seat at Pepper Place on a Saturday morning.
If you’re prepared to nibble while you work, Birmingham Breadworks has both sweet and savory options. There’s a limit to how much I can eat, sadly, but everything I tried was delicious (and everything I didn’t try looked really good).
If you’re looking for a classic, Lucy’s Coffee is the answer. You’d expect this to be full of students, given the location, but it’s mostly UAB employees.
If you’re in English Village, Continental Bakery is a great spot. This is also the real deal if you’re looking for bread in Birmingham. The space is a little small, but there’s seating outside and there’s probably just enough room for you.
Where to eat and drink
There are a lot of breweries in Birmingham. I haven’t looked at stats for breweries per capita, but they’re certainly holding their own. I’m a huge fan of sours, so I loved the Sour Room at Avondale. My other favorites were Avondale Brewing Company, Good People, Cahaba, and TrimTab. Most of them have patios.
Rojo is a neighborhood spot that will leave you feeling like a local in no time. Taco Morro Loco is in a gas station, but don’t we know that’s a good sign? They’re the spot for cheap, tasty tacos. Avondale Common House has some of the best food in Birmingham. Be prepared to wait if you’re going there on a Friday night or for brunch. Brat Brot had only just opened when I visited, but it started off with a bang. They’re a super modern take on a beer hall and take their German food seriously.
Where to stay
Downtown Birmingham has a lot to offer. On the Northside, which is the center of the city, there are a ton of art galleries and indie stores. All the food you could possibly want to eat is at the Pizitz Food Hall. Plus, the famous Alabama Theater and most of Birmingham’s museums. You can’t help but walk the Civil Rights Trail.
The Southside has Railroad Park and Five Points. New construction abounds, so things here are pretty shiny and new. There’s a ton to do in Five Points, 24 hours a day. There are great urban hiking opportunities in the greenbelt and up Red Mountain.
People say Avondale is the Brooklyn of Alabama. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it’s a super charming walkable neighborhood of craftsman houses and tree-lined streets. You can walk to a number of bars, cafes, boutiques, and the lovely Avondale Park — where you can enjoy the wifi and catch a movie night.
Forest Park and Lakeview are more residential than Avondale, but you’ll have beautiful houses and shady streets. You’ll still be able to walk to brunch, you’ll just have fewer options. If you’re prepared to stay further out, English Village is another good spot. These neighborhoods are a little hilly, so you’ll feel the burn if you’re used to biking around a flat city.
If you want to bike around (and aren’t afraid of some hills) there’s the Zyp BikeShare. Even if you’re a wimp (like me) the downtown core is flat and the rotary trail is lovely. The roads are wide enough that you can have your own lane most of the time. Drivers aren’t expecting to see cyclists, so be careful.
Getting in and out of town
Amtrak, BoltBus, and Greyhound all take you to the new transit center right downtown, where you can connect with local bus service.
Birmingham has an international airport a quick cab ride from downtown. Many people will take the shuttle bus to Atlanta International Airport for cheaper (and direct) flights.