If you’ve not visited brilliant beautiful Birmingham recently, you don’t know what you’ve been missing. England’s second city, home to just over a million people, has so much to offer. London to Birmingham is only 90 minutes train ride away which makes it one of the best days trips from London. Whether you’re looking for history, shopping, cultural activities or nightlife, you’ll never be short of things to do in Birmingham. The city’s sometimes been a little bashful about all it has to offer, so let me give you a local’s take on just a few of the many things to do in Birmingham.
A Guest Post By Bernadette Jackson of A Packed Life
Getting To Birmingham
This is a very easy city to reach, sitting at the heart of England. There are direct rail services from London Euston or London Marylebone, and the countrywide network of trains will take you directly to the sparkling new Birmingham New Street Station. There’s also plentiful road access via the M5 and M5 motorways. If you’re arriving by air, Birmingham Airport is a mere ten minutes from the city center by frequent train services after a quick hop on the monorail.
Where To Stay in Birmingham
With its role as a prime conference destination, Birmingham’s not short on hotel beds. You’ll find clusters of accommodation across the city, including the area around Broad Street and Hagley Road by the International Convention Centre, and in the city center itself. You’ll find that accommodation covers all budgets and all types of rooms from boutique to the economy. Highly recommended is the Hotel du Vin on Church Street, formerly the Eye Hospital and a landmark Victorian building. You can also rent an apartment in the city’s spectacular Rotunda building, just meters from the Bullring’s bull statue.
What to Eat In Birmingham
You’d struggle not to find food to enjoy in Birmingham. From Michelin-starred dining to the buzz of street food in Digbeth, there’s something for every taste and pocket. Favorites include Glynn Purnell’s fine dining restaurant on Cornwall Street, one of the city’s conservation areas. Then there’s idiosyncratic, charming and stylishly vintage Cherry Reds on John Bright Street for filling tasty food and craft beer. If you want to get out of the city center, try The Bartons Arms in Aston. It’s one of the most beautiful Victorian pubs around, complete with lots of stained glass. It serves proper beer with a rather good line in Thai food alongside.
For a caffeine break in the city center, try Faculty Coffee in the teeny and ornate Piccadilly Arcade off New Street, or 200 Degrees on Colmore Row, just past the cathedral. If you’d like something a bit different, Tilt in City Arcade has coffees, teas, craft beers, and pinball machines. For a traditional city center pub, visit the Old Joint Stock, which faces the cathedral. Or wander around the corner to Bennetts Hill, where you’ll find the lovely Wellington, with its extensive beer list, and plates and cutlery to use for the picnic you brought with you.
Things to do in Birmingham
Enjoy Birmingham’s Historic Past
At the top of New Street, you’ll find the start of a cluster of historic buildings celebrating Birmingham’s rich heritage. Here you’ll find the magnificent Council House, still the seat of local government, and the colonnaded Town Hall, which looks as though it may have been transported intact from Italy. At the Town Hall, you can find all kinds of entertainment, from gigs to the spoken word. In winter, you’ll find this part of the city bustling with the Frankfurt Christmas Market, when seemingly the whole of Birmingham takes to the streets to celebrate.
Birmingham Council House
As you approach the Town Hall, you can’t miss the incredible statuary. Queen Victoria on high overlooks a recumbent woman in a pool, a sculpture entitled The River. Originally part of a water feature, she attracted the nickname of the Floozie in the Jacuzzi. Sadly, her fountains began to malfunction, and she’s now resplendent in a bed of fine foliage. Her new name? The Flirt In The Dirt.
Enjoy Art and Discover Treasure at Birmingham Museum And Art Gallery
Just around the corner from the Council House, this rather splendid museum hosts the most important collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world, with over 3,000 paintings, drawings, prints and pieces of decorative art and design. The museum is a feast for the eyes, with beautiful and imposing spaces. Don’t forget to time your visit to allow you to feast in the Edwardian Tearooms, where you can enjoy brunch, lunches, boulangerie, and patisserie or a very traditionally English afternoon tea.
Once you’ve refueled, it’s time for treasure. In 2009 a discovery in a field in nearby Staffordshire produced the most significant collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever discovered. There are over 3,500 items, and you can see many of them on display in the Birmingham Museum. Younger members of your party can dress in Saxon robes for your visit, and there’s plenty to engage them there. Check the Museum’s website for a whole host of unique and fun things to do in Birmingham in their creative programme of events.
Explore The Library of Birmingham
Don’t think that the Library of Birmingham is a dry and dusty place. Built recently in a fantastic design that has been likened to a wedding cake in a flower cage, the Library has plenty to entertain and entrance you. Even the lifts have plenty to say for themselves, sharing their favorite quotes with you on your journey through the building.
Head up to the roof where you’ll find a terrace with great views over the city. Also on this floor, you’ll find a piece of history in this very modern building. The paneled and vaulted Shakespeare Room, a very atmospheric space dedicated to the work of the Bard, was transported here in its entirety from its previous home.
At the back of the building on a lower floor, you can track down the secret garden. Beautifully planted, and with the only sound that of the wind rustling in the leaves, this is a place to recharge before you enjoy more of what the city has to offer.
Enjoy Shopping Without Dropping In Birmingham’s City Centre
Some thirty years ago, Birmingham was mainly known for the concrete of the Bullring. The new Bullring – complete with its rather splendid bull statue – has emerged from redevelopment to form part of the shopping experience in the city center. I don’t think I’ve yet found another city with such a wide range of shopping options, all within a short walking distance.
Iconic is a word that can be overused, but there really is no other way to describe the Selfridges building, resplendent with silver discs on a blue building said to be modeled on a tight sweater. From the Bullring, you walk onwards to Grand Central, built recently as part of New Street Station’s redevelopment. At the back of the station, you’ve time to explore the Mailbox, formerly the sorting office for the Royal Mail. Now it’s full of designer shops, one of the few Harvey Nichols branches outside London (another fine venue for afternoon tea) and many restaurants.
If you want a less traditional shopping experience, then head out to The Custard Factory in Digbeth. Around 10 minutes’ walk from the Selfridges building and Moor Street Station, you’ll find this space which was previously used to make Mr. Bird’s finest custard powder. Now full of performance spaces, art and a whole lot of vintage, the Custard Factory is a real treat and one you shouldn’t miss during your time in Birmingham.
Bring On The Birmingham Entertainment
Birmingham’s not short of nightlife or entertainment venues. From the big gigs at the Genting Arena or the O2 Academy to more intimate venues, there’s something for every taste. Symphony Hall near the Library of Birmingham has a full classical programme, and you’ll also find plenty of choice at the Town Hall from music to spoken word. Try the Hare and Hounds at Kings Heath (four miles out of the center) for gigs, The Night Owl in Digbeth for Northern Soul and the Jam House (the brainchild of Jools Holland) in the Jewellery Quarter. For something more tangible, shop at Swordfish Records, one of the few remaining palaces of vinyl, run by seriously knowledgeable and passionate staff.
Birmingham’s never taken itself too seriously, and you’ll find comedy alive, well, and making the front row nervous across the city. For fun things to do in Birmingham with new and different acts, we recommend the monthly free night (first Tuesday) at the Rose Villa Tavern in the Jewellery Quarter. Get there early to grab a seat and avoid that front row anxiety. You should also catch something vibrant at the Hexagon Theatre at the MAC (Midlands Arts Centre). If you’re visiting the MAC, go early to enjoy the beautiful Cannon Hill Park that surrounds it.
If your tastes run to dance and theatre, you’ll also be spoilt for choice. Full programmes run at the Birmingham Repertory and the Hippodrome. For small theatre charm, there’s the Old Rep and the Crescent Theatre.
Enjoy the UK’s Oldest Working Cinema: The Electric, Birmingham
One of my earliest venues of choice, The Electric is still one of Birmingham’s finest places to enjoy a night out with a difference. Atmospherically red and velvety, the interior has been revamped and now you can enjoy your choice of film from sumptuously comfortable upholstery, featuring sofas and waiter service. There’s a Behind The Screens Tour letting you see exactly how the magic comes together. When you’re there for a screening, order a deli platter, an ice cream, a cocktail or even an Electric Ale, brewed by the local Two Towers brewery. Feeling brave? There’s also absinthe from a traditional fountain.
More Miles Than Venice: Birmingham’s Canals
It’s the stuff of idle banter that Birmingham has more miles of canal than Venice, but in fact, it’s correct: 35 miles in Birmingham to Venice’s 26. Birmingham’s canal network has been embraced as part of the city’s redevelopment. You can now enjoy the waterways in the city center from the Mailbox and from the area around the International Convention Centre on Broad Street. Here you’ll find restaurants and bars galore at the water’s edge.
The small but perfectly formed Ariel the Waterbus travels from Sherbourne Wharf; stops include Brindley Place, Gas Street Basin, and the Mailbox. Ariel makes her journey every half hour in the daytime. You’ll see plenty of Birmingham’s rich industrial heritage around Gas Street Basin. There are more canal trips offered by Away2Canal, including an hour-long trip that takes you to Birmingham University at Edgbaston.
Meet Hobbits, Ents, And Elves On Birmingham’s Tolkien Trail
Fifteen minutes from the center of Birmingham lies a place so serene that you’ll just hear the birds in the trees and the rustling of the leaves. Welcome to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Starting at Sarehole Mill, you can follow in the footsteps of the author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to see the places that inspired The Shire. From Moseley Bog to The Shire Country Park, you can understand how Tolkien’s imagination was captured to create his fantasy world. In the depths of either site, you’d swear that a million inhabitants of Birmingham were on another planet entirely.
The Shire Country Park and Sarehole Mill
If you want to see more of the Tolkien Trail, you’ll find his inspiration for the Two Towers in Edgbaston, along with the Oratory where he was a frequent visitor. The Chamberlain Tower at the University of Birmingham was the inspiration for the Eye of Sauron.
Have a Brief Encounter At Birmingham Moor Street Station
The cinema favorite Brief Encounter was filmed at Carnforth in Lancashire, but I can’t help but think it might have had a happier ending had the venue been the lovely Moor Street Station. Moor Street is your quintessentially English station, complete with traditional platform architecture and those brown station signs. All it needs are porters with pillbox hats and luggage barrows, and you could have stepped back in time.
Whether you’re looking for romantic things to do in Birmingham, an Instagram opportunity, or simply to catch the train to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Shakespeare’s birthplace, take time to appreciate the surprising beauty of Moor Street Station.
More of Brilliant Birmingham
There are plenty of free things to do in Birmingham. While you’re in the Mailbox, why not pop into the BBC and try your hand at TV presenting in the BBC’s Public Space. Both the Town Hall and Symphony Hall have a programme of free events. Centenary Square has an outdoor amphitheater surrounded by wildflowers; it’s a performance space for music and storytelling. Nearby, enjoy walking canal side at Broad Street, seeing the water traffic and the evidence of Birmingham’s historic past.
If this has tempted you to explore Birmingham more fully, we’ve hardly scratched the surface. There is still so much to discover, from trendy, arty Moseley, to buzzing Kings Heath and beyond. Birmingham’s also brilliantly situated for day trips to places including the Malvern Hills, Royal Leamington Spa, and Stratford-upon-Avon. You’ll find Birmingham’s official visitor site here.
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