While most tourists head straight to London, only a few visit United Kingdom’s sleeping giant, the unique Birmingham. It is just 90 minutes by train from London and the second largest city in UK. Birmingham is a historic city and played an important role during the Industrial Revolution. Although the city’s industrial past is evident, a long and successful reconstruction project has gradually transformed Birmingham into a vibrant and modern city. The sights of the city are many, interesting and unique. Birmingham also has an important cultural scene, while its culinary scene is very active and refreshing (it is the city in the UK with the most Michelin stars). In our article we try to present a guide for your first visit to the city in an effort to present the most significant highlights.
Every visit to downtown Birmingham begins at Victoria Square. During the 1990s and after its pedestrianisation, the square was transformed from a busy traffic junction into the lively epicentre of the city. The most prominent installation in Victoria Square is “Floozie in the Jacuzzi” – officially known as The River – which was a working fountain until 2013, but due to irreparable faults caused by the water, now houses hundreds of plants. The square is surrounded by many prominent buildings. On the west side is the Town Hall (which houses an impressive concert hall), on its north side is the Council House, on its east side is 130 Colmore Row and on the south side is Victoria Square House. The square also hosts every year the largest authentic German Christmas market outside of Germany.
Right next to Victoria Square, creating together a huge pedestrian area, is Chamberlain Square, home to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The Museum has over 40 galleries displaying art, social history, archaeology and ethnography. However, its art gallery stands out and is famous for the collection of works by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and has the world’s largest collection of works by Edward Burne-Jones. Also, the Museum has a gallery dedicated to the Staffordshire Hoard. Discovered in the village of Hammerwich in 2009, it is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found. Spend at least two hours in the Museum for a quick look at its treasures before continuing your walk downtown. Admission to the Museum is free and you could find information on opening hours and other exhibitions at the official website of Birmingham Museums.
Cross Centenary Way from Chamberlain Square and continue to Centenary Square, home to the impressive modern building of the Library of Birmingham. The construction of the Library was completed in 2013 and was considered the emblematic project for the regeneration of the city. It is an impressive building that is designed as an open space of cultural and social interaction. There are two outdoor garden terraces, children’s spaces, and a panoramic viewing gallery at the top, where visitors could enjoy unique views from one of the highest points in the city. It has been characterised as the largest public library in the country and the 10th most popular visitor attraction in the UK. If you want to visit the Library’s interior, you could find opening hours and other information on the website of the Birmingham City Council.
At the end of Centenary Square enter the International Convention Centre, cross its impressive mall on the ground floor with many interesting shops, cafes and restaurants and exit at the other end. This is where the area of the city’s canals begins. Birmingham has 35 canal miles, which is said to be longer than Venice. They are enjoyed by walkers, cyclists and narrowboat owners and are reminiscent of a unique industrial history. During the Industrial Revolution, the canals were busy with waterways carrying coal, iron and other heavy goods. The centre of the district is dominated by Bridleyplace, which is a large canalside development project with various buildings, which house offices, theaters, restaurants, bars and many other facilities. Pitcher & Piano, our favourite pub restaurant in town, is also in Bridleyplace. In a lively and well-kept environment, you could try all their classic dishes at any time of the day. Try their signature “P&P burger” or “beer-battered fish & chips” (The Water’s Edge, Brindleyplace).
After a break at one of Bridleyplace’s cafes and restaurants, continue your journey a mile north to visit the city’s most diverse neighbourhood, the Jewellery Quarter (JQ). The Jewellery Quarter is Europe’s largest cluster of jewellery businesses, which produces 40% of all the jewellery made in the UK. Almost 700 jewellers are located here along with a lively food scene. It is an area with an incredible history, beginning in the 16th century and continuing during the Industrial Revolution, and one of the UK’s most unique destinations. Start your visit at the Chamberlain Clock – an Edwardian, cast-iron, clock tower – which is the landmark and symbol of the Quarter, and get lost in the streets of the neighbourhood, where most of the workshops retain their 19th century appearance. A highly recommended restaurant in the area is The Button Factory (25 Frederick Street), a unique combination of trendy and traditional, located in a restored Georgian building.
Listen to a podcast from History West Midlands about the Quarter’s history:
After an exciting morning in the historic city centre, you should visit Bullring for relentless shopping. Bullring is a major shopping centre, which when it connected with Grand Central (via a link bridge) it became the United Kingdom’s largest city centre based shopping mall. The area of Bullring has been an important feature of the city’s life since the Middle Ages when its food and livestock market was held here. The area was first known as Corn Cheaping because of the corn market on the site. The name Bull Ring (which later became a word) referred to the ring, which was a hoop of iron to which bulls were tied here for baiting before slaughter. The current shopping mall was the busiest in the country in 2004 with 36.5 million visitors and houses one of only four Selfridge’s department stores in the UK. Visit the official website for more information.
After shopping, you have two options for a perfect night out. The first is Digbeth, the former industrial quarter of Birmingham, whose factory buildings have been transformed into a hub of culture and creativity with galleries, nightclubs, pubs and restaurants. From Bullring follow Digbeth Road and you will end up in the centre of this lively neighbourhood. Two recommended places here are the Custard Factory (the former custard factory which has been converted into a complex of different buildings with independent shops, restaurants and event spaces), and of course the Old Crown (Birmingham’s oldest pub which first opened in 1368) with an authentic atmosphere and excellent cuisine.
Your second option for a perfect night out is of course the famous Balti Triangle, an area of balti houses (approximately 40) pilled up along Ladypool Road, Stoney Lane and Stratford Road, south of the city centre. Birmingham is the original home of the Balti, which is a type of lamb or goat meat with curry served in a thin steel wok called a “balti bowl”. The name may have come from the metal wok in which it is cooked, rather than from any specific cooking technique. Immigrants from Pakistan who relocated to Birmingham opened their first restaurants here – which became known as “balti houses” – in the 1980s and developed the balti cooking style. No visit to Birmingham is complete without tasting these wonderful flavours. The oldest surviving balti house is Adil’s (148-150 Stoney Lane) but Shababs also stands out with the quality of its dishes (163-165 Ladypool Road).
Hotels: Birmingham offers many great accommodation options. Clayton Hotel (Albert Street Birmingham B5 5JE) is a 4-star hotel close to the city centre and Aparthotel Adagio (131 Digbeth, Birmingham B5 6D) is a comfortable modern apartment hotel located between Bullring and Digbeth. In the Jewellery Quarter two great options are Hotel Du Vin (25 Church Street, Birmingham B3 2NR), a luxury boutique hotel housed in a renovated Victorian building and Selina Birmingham (92-95 Livery Street, Birmingham B3 1RJ), a modern hotel with each private room individually decorated.
It is hard to cover all aspects of such an interesting city in one article. We only scratched the surface from the interesting things you could do and taste in Birmingham (for example we did not mention anything about the canal tours). Let this article be the motivation to visit Birmingham and discover it for yourself.
Finally, this is a map with two suggested itineraries that include all the places that are mentioned in our article :