Although the city began as an industrial powerhouse teeming with iron and steel factories and two major railroads, today, Birmingham, Alabama, is home to a diverse and cosmopolitan landscape that caters to families with an array of interests. Set at the base of the Appalachian Mountains, the city is a proverbial playground, dotted with more than 2,000 acres of rural parkland. For families in search of big city fun, the bustling metropolis’ 99 neighborhoods showcase world-renowned museums and its storied past, from its role in the Civil War to its part in the Civil Rights movement.
Spread across 122 acres, Birmingham Zoo houses approximately 950 animals from six different continents. Hands-on experiences include brushing sheep in the children’s barn, riding camels, touching rhino horns and feeding critters such as lorikeets and giraffes. For an added fee, take a spin on a carousel, embark on a train ride, cool off in the splash pads and go soaring on a zip line adventure. Although it once served as a site for mining iron, the 1,038-acre Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve now offers more than 12 miles of hiking trails where you can soak up the rugged landscape covered in wildflowers, native plants and lush forests. Include a stop at the Tree House Visitor Center, outfitted with bird viewing nooks, educational displays on the area’s history and a wildlife exhibit featuring live regional animals.
Sports and Recreation
The need for speed is alive and well at Barber Motorsports Park, a 740-acre complex equipped with a 2.38-mile multipurpose track. The site hosts marquee racing events from March through October, including superbike and Championship Auto Racing Team competitions. Break away from the action with a trip to the fan zone, outfitted with a Ferris wheel and inflatables for kids, and the on-site Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, home to over 1,200 motorcycles and race cars. Cool off at Alabama Splash Adventure in Bessemer, 15 minutes southwest of Birmingham and open to the public from Memorial Day to Labor Day weekend. Float down the park’s lazy river, fly down dark and enclosed tube slides and hitch a ride on 4-foot swells in the 800,000-gallon wave pool. In addition to water adventures, the park also has a 56-mile-per-hour wooden coaster, a miniature train and kiddie carnival rides.
Tucked away in the heart of downtown Birmingham, Railroad Park is a 19-acre green urban space dotted with 600 trees, a lake and sprawling ponds and wetlands. Picnic on the vast lawns, grab lunch at the outdoor cafe, sign up for free exercise classes or take a leisurely stroll along nearly 2 miles of waterfront paths. Throughout the year, the park hosts free summer concerts, run/walk races and family-friendly festivals, such as the Local Flavor Festival which highlights regional restaurants. At nearly 10,000 acres, Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham, 25 minutes southeast of Birmingham, is Alabama’s largest state park. Rich with recreational activities, the park includes 50 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, basketball courts and two lakeside beaches with boat rentals, fishing opportunities and a water sports park. The park also has equestrian trails and a petting farm.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute examines the city’s role in the Civil Rights Movement in a 27,000-square-foot exhibit. Expose your kids to the South’s history with displays featuring everything from black and white drinking fountains to segregated classrooms. The museum also explores the time Martin Luther King was jailed for demonstrating without a permit, a moment which led to his famed written piece, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The mission of the McWane Science Center is to provide interactive science lessons for visitors from “ages 1 to 100.” Experience wildlife hands-on at the shark and stingray touch tank, view fossil remains of dinosaurs that once roamed throughout Alabama, ride a bicycle over the lobby via a high wire course and take in a live animal show at the NatureScope exhibit. The on-site IMAX theater, with its five-story screen, shows educational science and nature shorts.