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There are lots of ghosts in Birmingham. Not the scary kind, mind you; but a constant reminder of this city's famous -- and infamous -- past.
Alabama's largest city was, after all, the center of an epic civil rights struggle in the 1960s, its legacy preserved in the Birmingham Civil Rights District. But Alabama was also the home of sports greats like Hank Aaron and Joe Louis, not to mention musical legends Lionel Hampton and Nat "King" Cole -- all of whom have places of honor in Halls of Fame here. Sloss Furnaces is another reminder of the city's past (iron production once fueled the local economy).
These days, however, Birmingham is a hub of science and technology -- it was recently named the "Most Livable City in America" by the U.S.Conference of Mayors. Like many reborn smokestack cities, that also means it's now a great place to take the family. You can ride in a fake rocket at the science museum, or gorge on coconut cake at Irondale Cafe. And keep your eyes peeled... you might even see a ghost.
For a peek into Birmingham's past, start at Sloss Furnaces downtown. This gritty attraction once pumped out 400 tons of pig iron a day. Now, it's a unique National Historic Site, complete with a museum of industry.
Take a few minutes to view a short historic film, then allow an hour to tour Sloss' surreal landscape of gargantuan blast furnaces, mazes of pipes, and towering chimneys. You'll hear oral histories and see company housing for the mostly African-American workers who labored here from 1882 through the middle of the 20th century.
These days, a few furnaces still get fired-up, as is on view in the building's sculpture garden (with picnic tables).
Next, leave this hulking symbol of the city's past behind, and rocket into the future at the McWane Center -- a kid-friendly museum of science housed in a former department store -- a five-minute car ride from the furnaces. There are marvels for kids of every age here.
In the Science Quest section, kids can stretch out on a bed of nails or strum a laser harp. Young astronauts take a rattling ride on the Morphis Motion Simulator, then "do launch" at the Challenger Learning Center, where they can fire a probe into a comet entering the solar system. Toddlers can scurry through "Just Mice Size," a learning and play area with a 10-foot milk carton, a fence made of giant crayons, and a soda bottle the size of a bus.
Kids learn different lessons in the Birmingham Civil Rights District, a six-block area downtown. The struggle for civil rights in America was played out on these streets. Now, four major sites make up a "living monument" to human rights.
Ready for a change of pace? The Alabama Sports Hall of Fame is the perfect pick-me-up for sports fans. Bear Bryant, Jesse Owens, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Joe Louis, Joe Namath, Satchel Paige -- the list of Alabama sports heroes memorialized here is astounding. More than 4,000 pieces of memorabilia, life-size dioramas, and interactive, touch-screen exhibits on three floors make this one of America's leading hall-of-fame museums.
Make the Birmingham Children's Theatre another stop. One of the largest kids theaters in the U.S. attracts more than 450,000 children each year. Your squirmers will actually sit still watching shows like The Bridge that Brought Us Over, a dramatization of the lives and struggles of African-American leaders and innovators, as well as classics like Charlotte's Web and Beauty and the Beast.
Type of trip: Educational, cultural, historic
Best ages: 4 and up (older kids will appreciate the Civil Rights district)
Ideal trip length: Day trip or weekend
Distance: Montgomery (91 miles), Atlanta (147 miles), Nashville (192 miles)
Best time to go: Winter, for lower room rates and fewer crowds
Weather: 51/33 degrees in January, 90/70 in July. Summers are sticky.
Lodging: From downtown budget hotels to the elegant Tutwiler, a Historic Hotel of America.
Squirm factor: Some, to a lot
Sloss Furnaces 20 32nd St. Phone: 205-324-1911
McWane Center 200 19th St. North Phone: 205-714-8300
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute 520 16th St. North Phone: 205-328-9696
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church 1530 Sixth Ave. North Phone: 205-251-9402
Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame 1631 4th Ave. North Phone: 205-254-2731
Kelly Ingram Park Sixth Ave. North at 16th St.
The Alabama Sports Hall of Fame 2150 Richard Arrington Blvd. North Phone: 205-323-6665
Birmingham Children's Theatre #3 Civic Center Plaza (corner of 11th Ave. and 19th St. North) Phone: 205-458-8899Contact:
Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau Phone: 800-962-6453
Favorite local spot: Irondale Cafe 1906 First Ave. North, Irondale (10 minutes east of downtown) Phone: 205-956-5258 Did you read (or see the movie based on) Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg? Well, here's the restaurant that inspired it, started decades ago by Flagg's great aunt Bess. The down-home spot dishes out real Southern cooking, with fried green tomatoes, peas, and fried okra. Don't miss Papa Mc's Coconut Cake.
Local food: Birmingham is big on steam tables. Perhaps because of its industrial history, the city is full of serve-yourself lunch spots. A stick-to-your-ribs "meat and two" (two veggies, that is) is available at the Social Grill Cafeteria, 231 23rd St. North, 205-252-7081. For barbeque (an art form in Alabama) we like Dreamland, 1427 14th Ave., South, 205-933-2133.
Best souvenir: A pig-iron paperweight shaped like a bunny or an iron bar, cast and stamped by the artists at Sloss Furnaces.
Traffic alert: If you're traveling here from Georgia, don't forget to set your watch back an hour when you cross into Alabama.
These enormous caverns of DeSoto Caverns Park sheltered prehistoric Native American dwellings and Prohibition-era moonshine stills. Wander through the Great Onyx Cathedral, a cave that's bigger than a football field and about 12 stories high. In the rowdy outdoor playground, kids can burn off extra energy running through a 3/4-acre maze, beaning each other on the water balloon battleground, or shooting bows and arrows (at targets, not each other). 5181 DeSoto Caverns Pkwy, Childersburg (36 miles southeast of Birmingham on Hwy 76), 800-933-2283.
Reviewed April 2004.