1. Where to Stay
Settle into your own Birmingham crash pad at a one-bedroom, hacienda-style cottage ($115 per night on Airbnb) in the Homewood neighborhood. Stylist Elizabeth Beeler’s 1931 pale peach home brims with worldly touches, like a tiny stone elephant table, artfully weathered driftwood branches, and plenty of chic patterned pillows. Relax on the low-slung front porch, the floor of which Beeler stenciled to look like pink Moroccan tiles. Get inspired in the sitting room, stacked with hundreds of books and magazines, a French bakery cupboard, and travel-inspired paintings Beeler collected throughout her globe-trotting.
Stay close to the action at the Hotel Highlands at Five Points South (from $129), near a cluster of solid venues and bars. The Art Deco building was built on the site of the Pickwick Club, a popular Prohibition-era dance hall that burned down in the ‘50s. The stone exterior bears Deco detailing, but the furnishings within the 63 rooms today are more contemporary funk, with boxy geometric shapes, jewel tones, and swirl-patterned bedding. Kick back on the striped sofa in the hotel’s H Bar for a dirty Martini at the end of the day, then doze off in the ultracomfy SertaPerfect Sleeper beds (the staff irons all the sheets by hand).
Make like a traveling rock star at the Redmont Hotel (from $90), whose iconic red rooftop sign has served as backdrop to many an indie show and after-party. The ornate stone and brick exterior and lacy awning belie the unfussy interior, with Spartan, comfortable rooms artists on tour love (the location in the newly hip Loft District also makes the Redmont a great hub for bopping around to shows). Choose room 907 to commune with Hank Williams’s ghost—the country legend spent his last night there before he died in 1953. This August, take advantage of the hotel’s collaboration with Secret Stages, an annual two-day indie music festival: Rates will dip down to $75 per night.
2. Where to Eat
Embrace your inner carnivore at Vittoria Macelleria, where Chef James Lewis brings Italian methods to down-home meat-eating. Lewis pots his own patés and terrines, cures his own charcuterie, and some cheeses, like a raw-milk ricotta, are handmade in the kitchen. Taste the bounty of a dozen nearby farms in dishes like risotto with spring onions and sweet peas ($8) and the smoked heritage pork belly served with a poached egg and Johnny cakes ($24), or splurge for the Ancient White Park rib eye (MP) from the eponymous rare breed of cattle enjoyed by British Royalty, Le Bernardin diners, and Lewis’s guests, among a few others. End your meal with the Alabama Getawhey ($10): housemade limoncello and lemongrass syrup shaken with whey from housemade cheese and egg white, topped off with freshly baked graham cracker crumbs.
Flash back to hipster Brooklyn at Ollie Irene, the inaugural enterprise of James Beard Award nominee Chris Newsome and his wife Anna. The wainscoted walls, weather-worn wooden tables, and mounted stuffed ducks look quite Bedford Avenue, but the gastropub is actually located in a strip mall just outside Birmingham. Perch at the convivial bar, made of 140-year-old reclaimed White Oak planks, and dig into the seasonal menu (the $15 farm egg pub breakfast is a constant favorite). Or cast your gaze upon the blackboard specials, which change almost daily and might include toasts slicked with homemade pate ($10). Better yet, make like a local and ask for the secret hamburger ($18), with bourbon-caramelized onions and a slab of black truffle butter that oozes and melts into the bun and the patty.
Nurse your postshow hangover at Johnny’s with a classic meat-and-three plate ($10.49), the staple protein plus sides format native to the South. Chef and owner Timothy Hontzas hails from a prestigious line of meat-and-three royalty, including an uncle who owns Birmingham institution Niki’s West. After toiling in the upscale kitchens of famed Southern chefs like John Currence and Savannah’s Chris Nasons, Hontzas took on the family trade, with an update: locally sourced everything. The catfish is from nearby Windy Hill Farms, veggies like fried green tomatoes and red hull beans hail from Hamm Farms, and nearly everything else on the menu traveled only a short distance to your plate. Hontzas doesn’t abandon his Greek heritage, either: There’s spanakopita ($3.50), souvlaki ($5.99), and, for dessert, creamy Yiaourti Cheesecake—a take on the thick yogurt traditionally served with honey and walnuts ($4).
3. What to Do
Look out for your favorite band at the diminutive Bottletree, which attracts high-caliber acts like Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Dum Dum Girls but maxes out capacity at 250. It’s easy to stake out a spot up front near the small stage or chill on the outdoor patio—the well-calibrated sound system means there’s no bad seat in the house. Since it opened in 2006, the venue has attracted a steady stream of nationally recognized indie bands, but also curates shows with the best of local acts, like toe-tapping machine Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires and surf-jammers OneHundreds. Let your eyes wander from the stage from time to time: Owner Merrilee Challiss decorated with thrift store finds and bric-a-brac of the most charming variety, including a hair salon sign from Asia, lending the space a fun-loving clubhouse feel.
Explore sounds at the edge of town in Birmingham’s Woodlawn neighborhood. Vinyl hounds will want to stop off at Seasick Records for new and used LPs, then see what’s playing at Sound & Page, a new venue that opened in late 2013 styled as a “listening room” for local indie acts. The slender space is lined with bookshelves and vintage radios, and there’s almost always a new art installation on the wall. Peek around the corner to hear the latest from Communicating Vessels, an indie label with a Birmingham-heavy roster, run by Jeffrey Cain of Remy Zero (of Garden State soundtrack fame) and Bekah Fox, the lead vocalist of local icons the Great Book of John. If there’s no show playing in their laid-back performance space, buy records and gear up front, including cassette tapes released by another Birmingham label, Step Pepper ($5). Just down the block, visit the raconteurs at Pipe & Gun, and be sure to pick up hipster must-haves like handmade axes ($145) and Baxter of California men’s grooming products (from $14).
Get grungy at the rawer venues in town. All ages DIY space the Forge might look like little more than a barren, cinder-block-lined storefront with a small array of amps and speakers, but it punches above its weight, getting a mix of touring bands and local acts like Younger Siblings and Grandaddy Ghostlegs. Break out your earplugs at the Nick, a graffiti-ridden dive bar with a bad-ass sound system, which it has employed to rock Birmingham denizens for over 20 years. Wait till late night before heading to the Upsidedown Plaza, which mostly sells PBRs but periodically puts on shows of worthwhile local bands like \GT// and Wray.
4. Insider’s Tip
If show-hopping inspires you to join the band, head to Homewood Musical Instrument Co., where Robert Tedrow and Jason Burns sell new and vintage guitars but also make many from scratch and upgrade well-loved instruments. Burns specializes in bench-made banjos and Tedrow is a concertina expert. Keep your eyes peeled for deals like a Godin Fifth Avenue for $800 or splurge on a 19th century squeezebox (from $500 to $4,000). Ask nicely and Tedrow might let you check out his 1928 Model-A Ford parked out front.
5. Oddball Day
After nights on your feet rocking out, step on the gas for a day of motorsports. Rent something fast like a BMW ($315 per day) or an Aston Martin ($1400 per day) from Prestige Luxury Rentals to speed up your drive time, and fuel up with a four-shot Americano at the Uptown location of Octane Coffee—all the beans are house-roasted—and a freshly baked cinnamon roll ($4). Peel out onto Route I-20 toward the Barber Motorsports Park Indy car track, 15 minutes east of town; public races are held monthly, or check the schedule for club days, when all you need to get on track is a car of a certain model, a license, and a helmet. To take it slow, tour the 1,200 vintage and modern race cars and motorcycles at the museum on site—be sure to ogle the 1960 Lotus racers. Gas up at any nearby station and pick up a bag of crunchy pork rinds, often displayed with bottles of hot sauce (a suggestion worth heeding), and take the long way to Talladega by jumping on Route 25. Considered “driving country” by car and motorcycle enthusiasts, the two-lane road’s turns, switchbacks, and horseshoe curves take you up a ridge and back down. Connect to Route 231 and ride that north to the Ark, a wood-paneled dive known for its fresh-from-the-lake fried catfish served with homemade hush puppies (from $8). Zip east on highway 34 to Talladega Superspeedway, where you can take a driving lesson on the 33-degree torqued track or just sign up for a tour ($8; call ahead for lessons). Not a daredevil? Check out the International Motorsports Hall of Fame within the complex and eyeball historic race cars as well as the vehicle Will Ferrell drove in Talladega Nights. Drive 15 minutes west on Route 20 for a pit stop at Golden Rule BBQ in Pell City, a nostalgic roadside local favorite with pull-apart hickory smoked chicken or brisket for a mere $7 per plate. Take Route 174 northwest toward Trussville and stop off at the Argo Drive-In in time for their 7:30 show ($5 per person). Thunder down Route 59 into Birmingham and pull into Garage Cafe. For 20 years, this late-night spot has operated out of a former auto repair shop; if the kitchen’s still open, ask for an off-menu pimiento cheese sandwich (from $5). Otherwise, slug one of their 100 beers, like the local Good People Brewing Company’s Snake Handler double IPA (from $3), and park it on the leafy patio out back.
Stream Jason Hamric’s brainchild Substrate Radio, the all-indie radio station that once played a My Bloody Valentine album on repeat for 24 hours.