On a perfect summer day, I set out to explore downtown Birmingham. There are so many amazing neighborhoods all over town that are filled with unique shops and restaurants that most of us don’t even know exist. So in the spirit of self-education, I chose one—downtown—and decided to check it out. After all, Birmingham is quickly becoming a hot destination for great music, progressive food, contemporary shopping and much more, with a focus on providing a distinctive experience.

My excursion led me to five spectacular spots definitely worth investigating. After chatting with the owners and managers at the various downtown shops and restaurants, I noticed a collective theme: each offers something unique, rooted by a strong desire to impact the local community. Creative places like these are further defining the “New Downtown Birmingham.” Don’t believe me? See for yourself!

The Abbey

131A 41st St. S., Birmingham • (205) 703-9538

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Abbey in downtown Birmingham

The Abbey in downtown Birmingham

The only way to start my day is with a great cup of coffee. The Abbey, located in the heart of Avondale, is a warm and inviting spot to grab a cup of joe and light fare. But that’s not all. They play great music, feature beautiful artwork by local artists each month and provide access to the Episcopal Church in a casual, comfortable atmosphere that fosters great community.

The Abbey, open since Valentine’s Day, has received a warm welcome from its neighbors. Kelley Hudlow, a district attorney, and Katie Rengers, a priest at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, are the “mothers” of the idea, which was started by a grant, and they partner with many local organizations. For example, they roast Red Bike Coffee from Irondale and sell beautiful Prodigal Pottery handmade at Kings Home. They are open seven days a week and offer Eucharist every Sunday at 4 p.m.

Check out the art at The Abbey, available for purchase.

Check out the art at The Abbey, which is available for purchase.

The Abbey

Get a visual education on coffee via the chalkboard above the register.

Prodigal Pottery on display at The Abbey is made at Kings Home

Prodigal Pottery on display at The Abbey is made at Kings Home

Donated books for sale along with Red Bike Coffee - local coffee from Irondale that they roast at The Abbey

Donated books for sale along with Red Bike Coffee – local coffee from Irondale that they roast at The Abbey

I enjoyed the vibe at The Abbey as much as I enjoyed my coffee. Big windows with tons of natural light paired with the light blue walls provide an open and relaxing environment. And there is fabulous artwork on display. Next time you’re jonesing for some java or looking for a spot to relax and reflect, stop by The Abbey.

Naked Art Gallery

3831 Clairmont Ave., Birmingham • (205) 595-3553

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Just a few blocks from The Abbey, nestled in the funky Forest Park neighborhood, is this wondrous gem! Naked Art Gallery takes you on a whimsical journey from the moment you walk through the door. With beautiful French music playing, vibrant colors and fabulous, unique pieces at every turn, it’s easy to see why local artists have been displaying their work here for 17 years.

Naked Art Gallery is the vision of owner Veronique Vanblaere, better known as Vero. Vero came here years ago as an exchange student from Belgium and decided this was home. She is an artist who always dreamed of having a studio to create and sell art, as well as provide a place where other artists could do the same. Every piece is local, functional, wearable or recyclable. They sell everything from magnets to night-lights, jewelry, clothing, prints, paintings and much more.

Naked Art Gallery owner Veronique Vanblaere, aka Vero

Naked Art Gallery owner Veronique Vanblaere, aka Vero

Birmingham metal art on display

Birmingham metal art on display

So many things to look at!

So many things to look at!

Ninety-five percent of the pieces in the gallery are local. Vero loves that she can allow others to show their work. Best of all, each piece is affordable, handmade and comes with an artist bio. They have two art shows right now, Yard Art and The way of the dodo. The next art show, Divine Debris, starts June 19. Whether you’re looking for a gift or a conversation starter for your next party, you’ll be sure to leave with a fantastic, one-of-a-kind treasure!

Jewelry art for sale at Naked Gallery

Jewelry art for sale

We love these adorable nightlights!

We love these adorable night-lights!

Show some home-town pride with Alabama art. Or perhaps you'd prefer a beautiful piece of pottery?

Show some hometown pride with Alabama art. Or perhaps you’d prefer a beautiful piece of pottery?

El Barrio restaurante y bar: Progressive Mexican Food

2211 Second Ave. N., Birmingham • (205) 868-3737

Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.

By late afternoon, it was time for a margarita and some guacamole. The first place I thought of was El Barrio, located in a prime spot on Second Avenue North. This thriving area seems like it developed overnight. There is always a new shop or restaurant opening nearby, but in my opinion, this is one of the best!

El Barrio is a creative concept that makes all five senses pop with excitement. As soon as you walk in, you can’t help but notice the vibrant mural covering the entire left wall, the urban decor, distressed wood and unique fixtures. The tone is set with great music, enticing smells from the kitchen and mouthwatering food and drinks that are sure to make your taste buds explode!

What you may not know is that El Barrio is one of three concepts in downtown Birmingham owned and operated by a stellar group of guys. Brian Somershield, Chris Cullen, Geoff Lockert, Neville Baay and Ben Smith are making things happen at El Barrio, Trattoria Centrale and Paramount. After Brian trained at The Culinary Institute of America, he worked with Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar and Grill. A couple of years later, Brian developed the concepts for all three restaurants. Centrale opened first, then El Barrio and most recently, Paramount.

They love what they do and would love to expand with additional concepts downtown. The goal has always been to provide really great food in a casual atmosphere at a great price point. If you haven’t tried El Barrio, head downtown to grab a margarita and some fresh guacamole … it won’t disappoint!

Check out this mural at El Barrio

Check out this mural at El Barrio

A margarita and guacamole ... just what the doctor ordered!

A margarita and guacamole … just what the doctor ordered!

Check out the well-stocked bar at El Barrio.

Here’s the well-stocked bar at El Barrio.

Sojourns—Adventure.Art.Peace: A Fair Trade Store Providing Hope & Dignity

2017 Third Ave. N., Birmingham • (205) 323-5680

Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

I was en route to my last stop when I stumbled upon Sojourns, a darling little shop on Third Avenue North. The bright white exterior with dark wooden accents drew me in to discover what they have to offer. I was immediately greeted by owner Melissa Kendrick, and I was fascinated by the beautiful treasures they have. Everywhere you look, there are bright pops of color, beautiful hardwood floors and exposed brick walls.

Welcome to Sojourns!

Welcome to Sojourns!

Handmade dog collars

Handmade dog collars

Woven baskets are perfect for collecting or display.

Woven baskets are perfect for collecting or display.

Sojourns is a fair trade store that has been in business for 10 years,and provides hope and dignity with every purchase. They have items from 57 developing countries, and 60 percent of the artists are women. Melissa believes her items are a gift that gives twice. She says they have a little bit of everything from a little bit of everywhere, including jewelry, clothing, toys, soap, dog collars, pictures, pottery, baskets, decorative items and more.

Bright colors and comfortable fits make the clothes at Sojourns a great buy.

Bright colors and comfortable fits make the clothes at Sojourns a great buy.

Pick up something for your favorite niece or nephew.

Pick up something for your favorite niece or nephew.

We love the jewelry!

We love the jewelry!

Reed Books—The Museum of Fond Memories: Antiques.Books.Collectibles

2021 Third Ave. N., Birmingham • (205) 326-4460

Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

When I reached my final destination for the day, I was really excited because I love to read, and I love everything about books and the stories they tell. To me, there is something wonderful about the way an old book (or any book for that matter!) smells. The moment I walked into Reed Books, I knew it would be a memorable experience. As far as the eye can see, there are books upon books stacked on the floor, on shelves, everywhere. Sporadically throughout the store, you’ll notice carefully placed collectibles, antiques and vinyl records.

Treasures are everywhere!

Treasures are everywhere!

Reed books

Jim Reed founded Reed Books in 1980. He is also a writer who writes about “real stuff,” “real life.” His goal was to do what he loves and be his own boss, so he opened Reed Books. He loves seeing the customers, browsers and pickers come through his store, and says that they provide great material for his writing, because everyone’s got a story to tell.

Reed Books has current books, books dating back 500 years and everything in between. They deal all over the world, with 50,000 items online and a quarter-of-a-million finds in-store. At Reed, a book is never thrown away. They dig for books and items at estate sales, as well as go through truckloads of books that arrive at the store. Reed’s staff selects what’s right for the store and gives the rest away. Jim says, “This is the only museum that allows you to look, touch and buy if you want.”

This book is 500 years old!

This book is 500 years old!

The Mark Twain section

The Mark Twain section

Meet Jim Reed, owner of Reed Books

Meet Jim Reed, owner of Reed Books

Curious, I asked about the rarest book he had. It’s a small, beautiful, worn book that is 500 years old, bound by goatskin, written in Greek and Latin. I held this unique book with no title and no author and flipped through the pages. It was like going back in time. I then asked Jim what his favorite book is. The answer: Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. I haven’t read that one yet, but plan to put it on my list. Reed Books is the kind of place you could lose yourself for hours. I can’t imagine a better way to spend an afternoon!

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I thoroughly enjoyed my day in downtown Birmingham. Every place I visited offered something special with an emphasis on local community. Every conversation I had was intriguing and thought-provoking. The best part is that these are local places with real people right in our own backyard. It doesn’t get much better than that!

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