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The UK's second city stands in the shadow of swaggering metropolises like Manchester and Edinburgh, but if you've not been to Birmingham, you're missing out — and no, we're not joshing. Canals, culture and pubs galore await in 'Brum' (and yes we have heard locals call it that). Here's our guide to a seriously underrated weekend break in the West Midlands.
Getting to Birmingham
Regular trains run from Euston to Birmingham New Street station, which is in the centre of town (and architecturally has something of Flight of the Navigator about it). It takes between 1 hour 16 mins and 2 hours 21 to get there (the latter journey time really making you want HS2 to get a wriggle on).
Birmingham need to know
- Getting around Birmingham: Though it doesn't have an underground system, Birmingham does have plenty of buses, and more thrillingly, trams! Ubers here are far more reliable (and cheaper) than in London.
- Accommodation: There's a decent selection of Airbnbs in the city; for our money, consider bedding down in the Jewellery Quarter — it's central, and chocca with culture. As Birmingham is a city of canals, you can also board the Boatel (where you'll presumably be rocked to sleep).
- Famous brummies: What have the brummies ever done for us? Plenty, judging by the legends who've come from these parts — including Tony Hancock (there's a memorial to The Lad Himself in the city centre), Julie Walters, Benjamin Zephaniah and John Oliver.
- BT Tower: One of the inescapable landmarks of the Birmingham cityscape is its BT Tower — that's right, they've got one too. Admittedly it's not as iconic/sonic screwdriver-esque as London's (and it never had a revolving restaurant either) but you can see it peeking over many streets, and it's a true totem of the city.
Museums and galleries in Birmingham
If you love the kind of museum that whisks you back in time, demonstrating how things were done, then boy has Birmingham got some museums for you.
Formerly the white hot core of industrial revolution-era Birmingham, the Jewellery Quarter is a peach of a neighbourhood for working heritage museums: at the Pen Museum you can try your hand at calligraphy (it took us about three days to wash the ink out) and craft your own pen nib, under the tutelage of a guy who looks like he's been there since the factory opened. (By the way, if you're scoffing at the idea of a pen factory, Birmingham used to have 129 of them!) At the ominous-sounding Coffin Works, you can watch demos from more skilled workers — this time, making coffin handles (if memory serves correctly, they never made actual coffins here). There's also a Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, although right now, that's only open for special events.
A touch south of New Street station is Birmingham Back to Backs, a corner of terraced buildings now owned by the National Trust. Guides take you through these houses (which used to be workaday abodes, but now seem quite remarkable), to a Caribbean tailors, and a second hand book shop. As we realised too late, you'll need to book this one in advance.
Elsewhere in the city, an overview of Birmingham and how it came to be one of the great industrial cities (did you know that as well as pens, the city was a powerhouse of button making?), can be discovered at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (free), although that one's closed till sometime in 2024. You can, however still admire the grand building, and others in Victoria Square — also home to Anthony Gormley's Iron:Man statue.
Dinner in Birmingham
With its rich Indian and Pakistani heritage, Birmingham is a shoo-in for cuisine from these, and surrounding, countries. On our latest trip to Birmingham, we pushed out the boat at Lasan, a plush but unstuffy Jewellery Quarter joint, which plies you with spicy cocktails, a melt-in-the mouth goat biryani, and the Bombay Mess — an exotic twist on the summertime classic, which we're still banging on about to anyone who'll listen. Lasan's website rings with endorsements from the likes of Ant and Dec and Beverley Knight... and now add Londonist to that list please. We won't list the cascade of other Southern Asian restaurants in Birmingham, because it's easy enough to find them online, although we will say we also swung by Indian Brewery Snowhill for a swift drink, and everything from the filled naans to the Indian fish and chips looked more than scoff-worthy.
We're not going to pretend we're experts in Birmingham's clubbing scene, although we can vouch for The Night Owl, a tidy little club in Digbeth where they spin Northern Soul records, and old men tell you off for taking your beer onto the dance floor. On an entirely different scale, the city is home to two stonking great arenas — the NEC and the Utilita Arena — and booking tickets to a gig in Birmingham is a great excuse to come to here in the first place. (On our second visit here, we went to see Elton John, although he won't be be there when you go, because he's now retired.) Symphony Hall is said to be one of the country's great concert halls, and alongside Town Hall, hosts a wealth of classical music (much of it performed by Birmingham Symphony Orchestra), jazz and comedy big-hitters like Russell Howard.
The canals of Birmingham
While Birmingham isn't exactly Venice (or Little Venice for that matter), it has some strands of canal well worth a recce. For a restful Sunday stroll, start out at a convenient spot on the canal in the city centre, and wend your way southwest along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal towards Edgbaston, where you'll find the paradisaical Birmingham Botanical Gardens (or, if you're there at the right time, some cricket).
If you find the notion of any exercise at all disagreeable, simply nab a table outside one of the pubs on the magnificently-named Gas Street Basin, and watch the narrowboats putter in and out. Brindleyplace is another popular spot to plonk yourself on a bench/in a boozer and watch Birmingham drift by.
An excursion to Cadbury World
Anyone with a vaguely sweet tooth will be lured by the chocolately siren call of Bournville, home to the world-famous Cadbury World*. Though it doesn't quite hit Wonka levels of enchantment (you don't actually get to see any chocolate bars coming off the conveyor belt), kids will adore it (including the Cadabra ride, where you visit a land of sentient chocolate beans, apparently unaware they're about to be crushed to death and made into Twirls), while adults should be genuinely fascinated how George and Richard Cadbury built a kind of English Elysium for their workers on the outskirts of Birmingham.
Bournville itself is a delightful — excuse the pun — chocolate box village, and post-Cadbury World, you might want to stroll off some of those calories among the half-timbered houses here. Despite the fact it was built as a teetotal model village, there are now two excellent craft breweries on its doorstep: Attic Brew Co. and Birmingham Brewing Company, both doing street food, and a good call for lunch — where you can add all those calories back on again. Speaking of which...
Pubs, breweries and bars in Birmingham
You're utterly spoiled for quaffing dens in this city, and in the name of thorough research, we can personally vouch for these smashers:
- Post Office Vaults - hop-festooned basement bar off the grand Victoria Square, where real ale is taken seriously.
- Rose Villa Tavern - surely one of the most gloriously be-windowed drinking establishments anywhere — plus it has a green glazed tiled snug, which — once you snag it — you'll never want to abandon.
- Bacchus Bar - a barmy Roman-themed pub, which, if not in possession of the world's most thrilling beer list, makes up for it with corny Vegas-styled Caesar chic, with a good deal of gothic cathedral stirred in for good measure.
- Barton Arms - this Aston pub's a bit of a tramp from the city centre, but pinky swear you won't regret it — all glazed tiles, Oakham beers on tap, and a cheap as chips Thai menu. Laurel and Hardy also once stayed here, although history does not record whether Stan had the satay chicken or not.
- Lucky 7 - this genuinely difficult to find izakaya-style speakeasy had only been open a few days when we chanced upon it, but they were already in full swing, with manga on the walls, and a sophisticated setlist of cocktails that's a far cry from your usual daiquiris (one of them had soy sauce in it).
On the list for next time...
Coming back for more? Of course you are:
- Mention Birmingham to anyone of a certain age and they'll say something sniffy about the Bullring shopping centre. Today it's the Bullring & Grand Central, and even if you've not really come all this way to see another TK Maxx, you've got to see Benoy's 2003 audacious update to the complex — a cross between a blue whale and a Dalek.
- A little show called Peaky Blinders was set in Birmingham: give into your TV tourism urges, by joining 'Edward Shelby' for the Birmingham Slogging Gangs Walking Tour.
- The Edwardian Winterbourne House and Garden resides in Edgbaston, to the southwest of the city centre, offering a reposeful half-day.
- The Black Country Living Museum is actually in Dudley, but if you've enjoyed our museum recommendations in the first section, the replica street scenes/vintage vehicles/period actors here will have you cook-a-hoop.
- Birmingham does a fantastic German-style Christmas market each year — one of the UK's biggest, sprawling down the main streets and side streets during the festive period. And if you do find yourself here at that time of year, we can personally vouch for the winter lights trail at Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
*Londonist visited on an invite, although tbh we were going to go anyway