Today the beautiful and talented Kendra Thornton shares a few of her favorite things about her home city of Chicago, and I give my take on good stuff in Birmingham. Kendra is a former communications director at Orbitz, a travel advocate, TV spokesperson, PR businesswoman, and mom of 3.
photo by Jais Stanfield
Why I Love Birmingham
I moved to Alabama almost 20 years ago after spending 3 years traveling all over the country fulltime. Of all the places in the lower 48, I chose to settle in Birmingham because of a long list of practical and poetic reasons. I’ve not regretted it for a day. Besides its amiable climate, lush and mountainous terrain, easy to navigate layout and amazingly friendly people, there are a host of excellent things to do.
It surprises people to know that Birmingham is home to a few of the very best restaurants in the country. Chefs Frank Stitt, owner of Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega, and Chez FonFon, and Chris Hastings, owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club are ranked in the top 5 chefs in the country virtually every year. Their popular restaurants attract foodies from all over the country who visit Birmingham for the weekend just to get a taste of these restaurants’ modern Southern cuisine.
For another take on local food, try all three of Mike Wilson’s restaurants: Saw’s Barbeque, Saw’s Juke Joint, and Saw’s Soul Kitchen. They are so good there are lines out the door almost all the time. And they’re worth the wait.
Not to be missed on a trip to Birmingham are the attractions that set it apart from other places and help tell the city’s story. The steel industry facilitated the birth of Birmingham, and a few places pay homage to the glory days of steel with artfulness and intrique. Vulcan Park is the home of the largest iron sculpture in the world, a 56 foot, 50 ton rendition of the Roman God of the Forge. Vulcan is Birmingham’s Eiffel Tower, and a trip to the top of his head affords the best view in the area. The park also has a museum that gives a non-boring history of the beginnings of steel in Birmingham. Sloss Furnaces is an abandoned iron works factory, and visitors can wander among the old blast furnaces and weird mechanical formations that make up the National Historic Site. It’s a personal favorite.
Another important part of Birmingham’s history is the Civil Rights Movement, and this unforgettable part of the city’s history is memorialized in the Civil Rights Institute. It’s displays and artifacts are incredibly moving. The museum sits adjacent to Kelly Ingram Park (where the infamous dogs and fire hoses were used to stop protestors), and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where the 4 girls were killed in a church bombing. Visitors are in for a life-changing experience.
Arts and Culture
The Birmingham Museum of art boasts not only a world-class facility to exhibit art, but a strong permanent collection and vibrant temporary exhibits. I never tire of taking a few hours at BMA. Birmingham also is home to one the largest motorcycle collections in the world, displayed in a museum that is as dazzling as the sleek machines it exhibits. The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum also has a racetrack that hosts races of vintage cars. Even if you’re not a motorhead, the Barber Museum is a fascinating and entertaining way to spend an afternoon.
One of the more charming features of Birmingham is the little pocket shopping villages throughout the city, nestled among the more upscale residential neighborhoods. Small shops selling everything from clothes to cupcakes fill these villages, and get neighborhood dwellers and visitors out walking, exploring, and visiting. Homewood, Mountain Brook, Crestline, and Forest Park all claim a version of these villages, and all promise something unique and delightful.
I recommend the historic Tutwiler Hotel in downtown Birmingham for a luxurious treat. It still has its original old-world charisma, but has been fully modernized for the ultimate comfortable experience. It’s my favorite “stay-cation” destination.
For many reasons Birmingham is an unexpected gem of a city. It retains its Southern traditions but has a surprising flourish of culture and sophistication. The people tend to be unpretentious, uncommonly friendly, and are perhaps the most memorable part of a visit here. There are a lot more great things about Birmingham than I’ve listed. A whole lot. And I’m still discovering them. Come join me!
Why I Love The Windy City
I've traveled the world for many years now, and could fill an entire book with the sights and sounds that are a must see in every city. But one city keeps calling me back, and I am fortunate enough to call it my home: Chicago. I've been to numerous restaurants and attractions in this beautiful city, and I still can't get enough. Below you'll find some of my personal favorite spots to frequent, with everything from fantastic restaurants to beautiful shops.
Chicago is one of the greatest destinations for shopping, thanks to its eclectic mix of designer stores and local mom-and-pop shops. Two of my favorite neighborhoods are Bucktown and Wicker Park, both of which feature a huge variety of stores. You can spend an entire day just window shopping and gazing at the beautiful clothes in these neighborhoods. Both areas feature high-end shops like Nanette Lepore, as also these areas are home to a number of local stores run by wonderful people. Check out Akira, it's always a first on my list and the selection is great!
Arts and Culture
Chicago is home to many fantastic museums, and thanks to the city's wonderful artists, many are filled with art produced by locals. The most pleasant museum to visit for kids is undoubtedly the Museums of Contemporary Art, Chicago, better known by locals as the MCAC. The museum is located downtown in the center of the Magnificent Mile. Take a full day to explore all the wonderful works of art the museum has to offer, and be sure to grab a souvenir from the gift shop on your way out. Afterwards, head on over to one of the numerous restaurants on the Magnificent Mile and enjoy a great meal.
When coming to Chicago, you will find out right away how beautiful the downtown scene is. With great outdoor parks, and a skyline second to none, you will quickly fall in love. One of the most important factors to consider when visiting Chicago is what hotel to stay in. The city is home to hundreds of hotels that fill ever niche, from small and cozy to large and extravagant. If you plan to move around the city a lot during your stay, it's best to find a hotel centrally located. In my experience, the best way to find your perfect hotel is to use the website gogobot. This site offers the best prices and also lists some of the most beautiful and historic hotels you might not find elsewhere.
Where to Chow Down
Chicago has long been known as one of the country's best dining destinations, thanks to its world-class chefs and unique food options. After a long day of shopping at the city's best stores, why not grab a stylish dinner at a fair price at RL, the Ralph Lauren restaurant? Situated downtown directly next to the world's largest Polo store, RL serves up classic American fare made from delicious wholesome ingredients. The ambiance and decor is classy and old school, and will make you feel like you are in a classic movie of years past. Make sure to Lobster Club sandwich with Truffle mayonnaise, it can only be described as divine.
So there you have it, some of my favorite things to do and eat in the wonderful Windy City of Chicago. Whether you are visiting for a day or a week, the city will be happy to entertain and feed you as you enjoy its beautiful sights. Remember that no travel list is complete, so be sure to go out and explore on your own. I guarantee you will find something great.