It’s hard to believe, but summer is just weeks away. No matter how old (or how young), there is just a certain something about summertime. Just ask Olaf. Or the Fresh Prince. Freedom, adventure and relaxation. Sigh. For many families (including mine) that means hitting the road for vacation.
The beach is a popular destination, but maybe your budget doesn’t allow for a big trip. Or maybe finding time is the problem. And who doesn’t love being trapped in a car with children for hours? My husband, two-year-old daughter Madeline and I have thrown caution to the wind. We’ve gone Griswold. Our quest for family adventure has taken us on amazing road trips that are affordable, close and fun!
In this special Knoxville Moms’ series, I’ll be highlighting three of our favorites. So, in the words of Will Smith, “Put your car on cruise and lay back cause this is summer time.”
Heading into Crimson Tide territory may not be high on the list for Vol fans, but, trust me, it’s worth the risk! Birmingham is a three-and-a-half to four-hour drive from Knoxville. My family spent a fun-filled long weekend there. Perhaps I had low expectations (or no expectations), but I was pleasantly surprised around every corner. Birmingham is a cosmopolitan city with lots to offer families. For your planning purposes, Birmingham is in the Central Time Zone.
Birmingham Zoo: My daughter never tires of looking at animals so visiting the Birmingham Zoo was a no-brainer. The 122-acre zoo is easy to get around. There are several play areas located throughout which gave our active toddler plenty to do. The zoo restaurant has more sophisticated fare than most. There are signs posted that you can’t bring any food from outside the zoo, but I saw plenty of families picnicking under the sprawling, shaded courtyard. Through July 31st the zoo has a special exhibit called “Dino Discovery.” Knoxville Zoo members don’t forget to bring your membership card: You get in half price at the Birmingham Zoo!
Vulcan Park & Museum: They call Vulcan the original Iron Man. The 50-ton statue literally towers over Birmingham. You won’t want to miss the spectacular views. You can take an elevator or climb stairs to see the view from the top. If you’re afraid of heights (like me), you can still enjoy the vista from the base of the statue. Your admission (which ranges from four to six dollars), allows you to go up Vulcan and see the small museum on site. We went during the day, but I hear the view after dark is something to see, too. The park closes at 10pm.
McWane Science Center: Imagine four floors of Knoxville’s The Muse and then some. That’s what you get at the McWane Science Center. We could have spent hours just on the exhibits aimed at toddlers. (BTW, Itty Bitty Magic City was a major hit!) McWane does have exhibits for all ages, including teens. There’s even an IMAX Dome theater. Don’t forget to go to the lower level and check out the touch tank. Madeline is still talking about the rays!
Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum: Even if you’re not a motorcycle lover like my husband, you’ll still enjoy the largest private motorcycle collection in the world. The way the motorcycles are displayed at Barber looks like modern art. Madeline loved the bright colors. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to catch students at the Porsche driving school zipping around the outdoor track behind the museum. There is also a nearby Bass Pro Shop and The Outlet Shops of Grand River.
Homewood: You could easily spend an afternoon in this charming, walkable neighborhood. It’s home to the locally owned Homewood Toy and Hobby. Play is encouraged here. My husband and I took turns exploring the store with our daughter so we could each check out some of the other cool shops and boutiques. The biscuit restaurant Holler and Dash was having a private event so we didn’t get a chance to check it out. So, when you go, have a biscuit for me!
Drury Inn & Suites Southeast: We discovered this hotel chain a couple of years ago and have been singing its praises ever since. In addition to a free breakfast, Drury also offers a free happy hour. Free adult beverages and a spread of food that could easily be dinner for a tired family. Think baked potatoes, soup, salad, chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese to name just a few of the things offered. This particular Drury Inn & Suites’ location was perfect to explore Birmingham. All of destinations were an easy ten to 15-minute drive from the hotel. There’s also an indoor/outdoor pool and hot tub so our little guppy got some swim time.
MELT: This restaurant lives up to its name. Melty, gooey, and fancy (only if you want it to be) grilled cheeses. MELT is a popular spot, so be prepared to wait. There are lots of benches and even corn hole to keep you entertained before you sit down. It’s a short walk from MELT to the newly renovated Avondale Park. We were able to wear Madeline out on the playground before nap time.
Rojo: Fresh and delicious Mexican food with a cool vibe. You order at the counter and grab a table. I highly recommend the margarita/sangria. (Hey, I was on vacation after all.) Even though Rojo is a hip night spot, all the staff were super friendly and eager to help a family traveling with a toddler. The food was as great as the service!
The Heavenly Donut Company: Heaven is a donut. At least it is here. Homemade fresh every day, including the beignets. The restaurant was packed with families on Saturday morning for good reason. There are books and toys for the kiddos, lots of tables and a cozy seating area, too. I can’t claim that I discovered The Heavenly Donut Company. Alton Brown of Food Network fame was here first.
Davenport’s Pizza Palace: This palace to pizza is located in another great Birmingham neighborhood called Mountain Brook. Madeline loved watching Davenport’s cooks make the pizza and we loved eating it even more! Post Office Pies was highly recommended, but we didn’t make it there this time. And there will be a next time!
Dreamland Bar-B-Que: Dreamland says its ribs “ain’t nothing like ‘em nowhere” and my husband, a bar-b-que connoisseur, agrees. The restaurant was filled with families, couples, college kids, and police officers all hungry from the amazing aroma inside the restaurant. I tried the pulled pork sandwich which was the best I’ve ever had. (And I’ve eaten a lot of them, thanks to my pork-lovin’ husband!) Put this place on your itinerary and add Saw’s BBQ. It was highly recommended to us as well.
There’s even more to explore in Birmingham including the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. We didn’t get to see them on our first visit, so even more reason for my family to return! If you’re excited to plan your own family trip to Birmingham, be sure to download the app called “IN.” The Birmingham Convention and Visitors Center is behind this high-tech (and totally awesome) way to explore the city. I used the app to plan our trip and I referred to it constantly while we were there. It’s available for iPhone and Android devices. Whether or not your family vacation leads you to Birmingham this summer, I hope Clark Griswold’s words ring true and you have so much fun you’ll need plastic surgery to remove your smiles!