Southeastern Roundup: Birmingham attractions

In the mid-20th century Birmingham and Atlanta seemed to be racing to become the capital of the New South, and Atlanta won, hands down.

A plethora of multinational corporations now call Atlanta home, as does the world's busiest airport. Birmingham ended up a mid-sized city with a tiny airport and skyscrapers that look like fire hydrants compared with Atlanta's.

It took a while for the former boomtown of the steel industry to adjust to the modern era, but these days Birmingham seems to be relishing the fact it isn't Atlanta. It also has become a worthy arts and cultural destination, with attractions that are more affordable than their Atlanta counterparts (even free in some cases).

Some attractions, such as Rickwood Field, Sloss Furnaces and Vulcan, don't even have an Atlanta equivalent.

Birmingham Museum of Art

If you're looking for an art museum besides the High that doesn't require boarding an airplane or shelling out money, the Birmingham Museum of Art is just a two-and-a-half-hour drive away, right next to I-20 downtown. Admission is free. The museum has a permanent collection worth seeking out and gets its share of notable exhibitions. "Spiral: Perspectives on an African-American Art Collective" will be on display until March, as will "African Artistry in Iron and Clay." The permanent collection includes works by legendary painters such as Antonio Canaletto and Mary Cassatt, as well as decorative pieces by Tiffany Studios and Frank Lloyd Wright. www.artsbma.org

McWane Science Center

What Fernbank is to Atlanta, McWane is to Birmingham. This is the place to take the kids to get excited about science through hands-on exhibits such as the Shark and Ray Touch Tank or to watch an Imax movie. Located downtown, McWane is close to other Birmingham attractions such as the Alabama Theatre, the Museum of Art and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. www.mcwane.org

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Birmingham became ground zero for the civil rights movement after the 1963 bombing that killed four little girls at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. At the end of the self-guided tour through the institute's galleries there is a small, unassuming bay window that offers a bird's-eye view of the still active church across the street. Though visitors see the church before entering the institute, the impact of seeing it from this vantage point, after a tour that begins with a display of two working drinking fountains -- one for whites, one for blacks -- is a wallop. For its sheer educational and emotional impact, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is the city's "don't miss" attraction. www.bcri.org

Birmingham Botanical Gardens

At 67 acres Birmingham Botanical Gardens is more than twice the size of the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Like the Birmingham Museum of Art, it also charges no admission. So if the weather's nice plan to roam the extensive grounds that include a Japanese rock garden and a native woodland forest. www.bbgardens.org

The Alabama Theatre

If you love Atlanta's Fox, check out the Alabama. It's a grand old theater like the Fox, but different in style and design, with tiered balconies and gas lamps reminiscent of a European opera house. Like the Fox, the Alabama is a popular site for music concerts and has a mighty pipe organ used for special performances before movie screenings. www.alabamatheatre.com

Rickwood Field

Said to be the oldest surviving professional baseball park in the country, Rickwood opened in 1910 and has played host to such luminaries of the game as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. There's not much to do at Rickwood except take it all in, but for baseball fans that should be enough. A restoration project is ongoing and games still take place. Visit rickwood.com to learn more about special events at the ballpark.

Sloss Furnaces

Sloss is a place that even many residents of Birmingham haven't experienced. This former pig iron plant is now a National Historic Landmark that some believe is haunted by the ghosts of men who lost their lives forging iron from its enormous blast furnaces. Self-guided tours are free and you can get lost in the maze of buildings, tanks, towers, train sheds, underground tunnels and industrial-sized pipes snaking throughout the grounds. Guided tours are available by appointment for a fee. www.slossfurnaces.com

Vulcan

Most first-time visitors to Birmingham inevitably ask the question, "What's that statue on the hill?" as it towers over everything else in the city. That would be Vulcan, a 56-foot cast iron figure atop an even taller stone pedestal in Vulcan Park on top of Red Mountain. In Greek mythology Vulcan was the god of the forge, making him a good representative of this former hub of the steel industry. The best view of the city can be had from the open-air observation platform at the foot of Vulcan. www.visitvulcan.com

Where to stay

Hotel Highland. Boutique hotel in the heart of the lively 5 Points district in Southside. Rates start at $98. 1023 20th St. South, Birmingham. 205-933-9555, www.thehotelhighland.com.

Redmont Hotel. Historic luxury hotel in downtown Birmingham. Rates start at $119. 2101 Fifth Ave. North, Birmingham. 205-324-2101, theredmont.com.

Where to eat

Bottega. Fine-dining restaurant serving Mediterranean cuisine in Southside; a less pricey Italian cafe known for its gourmet pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven is located in the same building. Entrees start at $10 in the cafe and $18 in the dining room. 2240 Highland Ave., Birmingham. 205-939-1000, bottegarestaurant.com.

Kool Korners Sandwiches. Atlantans who miss the Cuban sandwiches that used to come from the Kool Korners near Georgia Tech need not fret; they just have to drive a lot farther. The owner relocated to a suburb south of Birmingham. Sandwiches start at $3.50. 790 Montgomery Highway, Vestavia Hills. 205-822-4406, koolkornersandwiches.com.

Visitor information

Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau. 1-800-458-8085, www.birminghamal.org.