What to Do and Where to Go: Alabama's Civil Rights Trail

Sunday, February 22, 2009

GETTING THERE: Southwest is the only major carrier with nonstop service from the Washington area to Birmingham. Planes leave from BWI, and flights can be as low as $99 each way (plus taxes and fees) with advance purchase. US Airways, Delta, Continental and other airlines offer connecting service to Birmingham. Round-trip fares start at about $244.

GETTING AROUND: To really explore the myriad offerings of the Alabama civil rights trails, you'll need a car. From Birmingham, take Interstate 65 south for 90 miles to Montgomery. Selma is 54 miles west of Montgomery, via U.S. Highway 80.

WHERE TO STAY: In Birmingham, the Sheraton is the biggest game in town, with 770 rooms and 17 floors (2101 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd. N., 800-325-3535, http://www.starwoodhotels.com). The hotel is connected to the enormous Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Complex, where parking costs about $12 a day (with in-and-out privileges). Rooms start at $179 a night, according to the hotel's Web site, although I paid $60 a night by bidding on Priceline.

In Montgomery, hotels near the city's historical landmarks include the Renaissance Montgomery, a large property connected to yet another convention center (201 Tallapoosa St., 877-545-0311, http://www.marriott.com). Rooms start at $159 a night, again according to the hotel's Web site.

WHERE TO EAT: Mrs. B's on Fourth in Birmingham has been serving delicious soul food in a no-frills atmosphere for decades (328 16th St. N., 205-801-5165). Don't miss the fried chicken with a side of greens and okra, which goes for a nifty $6.35. Other great options in Birmingham are Highlands Bar & Grill (2011 11th Ave. S., 205-939-1400), which serves an eclectic melange of French and Deep South cooking, and the Italian-inspired Bottega (2240 Highland Ave. S., 205-939-1000), where locals rave about the Parmesan souffle ($9).

Two restaurants to try in Montgomery are Martin's (1796 Carter Hill Rd., 334-265-1767), which has been offering Southern cuisine at an exceptional value since the 1930s, and La Jolla (6854 E. Chase Pkwy., 334-356-2600). The latter's fried green tomato sandwich is one of the "100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die," according to the Alabama Tourism Department.

WHAT TO DO: In Birmingham, history can be found on most street corners, especially those around the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (520 16th St. N., 866-328-9696, http://www.bcri.org). $11, seniors and college students $5, children grades 4-12 $3; free on Sundays. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 1-5 p.m. Kelly Ingram Park is across the street from the museum, and not far from that is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (1530 Sixth Ave. N., 205-251-9402), which offers tours Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Suggested donation is $5; reserve at least a week in advance.

In Selma, the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the edge of town is best traversed on foot, and the nearby National Voting Rights Museum (1012 Water Ave., 334-418-0800, http://www.nvrm.org) overlooks it through a window inscribed with the names of civil rights leaders. The Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail can be a quite peaceful drive over rolling hills and past gently sloping cow pastures (http://www.nps.gov/semo). The Lowndes County Interpretive Center (334-877-1984) is at about the midpoint of the trail, in Hayneville, and contains a moving exhibition dedicated to the 1965 march for voting rights. It is open year-round 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Montgomery has the Rosa Parks Library and Museum (252 Montgomery St., 334-241-8661, http://montgomery.troy.edu/rosaparks/museum), an experiential museum with exhibits that will fascinate visitors of any age. The relatively new Children's Wing (220 Montgomery St., 334-241-8702) has an attraction called the Cleveland Avenue Time Machine, which involves getting on a bus and "traveling" back to important moments in civil rights history, an experience accomplished with lots of kid-friendly flashing lights and projections. Admission, which affords you access to all buildings of the museum, is $5.50, age 12 and younger $3.50. Open Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-3 p.m. The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (454 Dexter Ave., 334-263-3970, http://www.dexterkingmemorial.org) offers tours of both the church and the Dexter Parsonage museum on Centennial Hill (309 S. Jackson St., 334-261-3270). Hours are Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday until 2 p.m. Tours for either the parsonage or the church are $5, children $3. Tours of both are $7, children $5.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Alabama Tourism Department (800-252-2262, http://www.alabama.travel).

-- S.V.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company