The UK’s second city with a population of just over a million, Birmingham is bursting with things to do and see. Even better, a lot of them are free or nearly free. From activities to culture and history to future possibilities, here’s your guide to the best free things to do in Birmingham. Plus a few nearly-free things to enjoy too.
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- 1 Things You Might Not Know About Birmingham
- 2 Free Things To Do In Birmingham: The Fun Stuff
- 3 Free Things To Do In Birmingham: Seeing The Historic City
- 4 Things To Do For Free in Birmingham City Centre
- 5 Free Things To Do In Birmingham’s Green Spaces
- 6 Unexpected Free Things To Do In Birmingham
- 7 More To See And Do In Birmingham?
- 8 How To Get To Birmingham
Things You Might Not Know About Birmingham
When I first arrived in Birmingham, it blew me away for being totally not what I had expected. Unexpectedly beautiful and full of quirky interesting places, with lots to explore, it’s a hidden treasure. It also has a surprising number of interesting things hidden up its sleeves. Did you know that Birmingham:
- was the hub of the Industrial Revolution
- is known as the City of 1000 Trades
- is where lawn tennis began
- was the world centre of pen manufacturing in the 19th century
- makes 4 in 10 pieces of jewellery bought in the UK
- was home to the founder of the football league, William McGregor, whose statue now stands outside Villa Park
- inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to create The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings
- has more miles of canal than Venice
- retains the tree marking the edge of Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, which sits in the middle of (unsurprisingly) Arden Road
- invented the Balti, a type of curry found in the Balti Triangle
Free Things To Do In Birmingham: The Fun Stuff
Peaky Blinders, The Tardis and The BBC
If you’re a fan of Peaky Blinders, you’ll know of its links to Birmingham. You can see more, including costumes, at the BBC in Birmingham’s Mailbox. There’s also a chance to explore The Tardis. Fancy seeing yourself on the small screen? That’s possible too. Want to give your views on Strictly Come Dancing? You can get behind the famous desk. And you can view all the live broadcasts at the BBC Visitor Centre. That everyday tale of farming folk, The Archers, is recorded here too. Take Part is the BBC’s offer to be on the screen, whether as an audience member or taking part in shows from Only Connect to The One Show and Wanted Down Under.
Enjoy More Canals Than Venice
Birmingham might not present you with a gondolier (there’s a Water Bus to do that job), but there are indeed more miles of canals than Venice. 100 miles of canals with 13 waterways make up the Birmingham Canal Navigations. With the heart of the network at Gas Street Basin and Brindleyplace in the centre of Birmingham, you’ll find the towpaths giving way to scores of restaurants and bars. Plus some great canalside walks of course, with plenty of opportunities for narrowboat spotting, known as gongoozling.
Birmingham Will Make You Laugh
Brummies – the inhabitants of Birmingham – don’t take themselves too seriously. And fine comedy can be had in the city without digging too deep into your pockets. Watch out for comedy class shows at the Hexagon at the Midland Arts Centre (the MAC) and monthly shows at the Rose Villa Tavern. But remember never to sit at the front unless you intend to be part of the show.
Birmingham Will Make You Sing And Dance
I can’t begin count the number of free things to do in Birmingham that I have enjoyed through gigs and musical events. Time your visit well, and you could enjoy open air or lunchtime concerts from members of the CBSO (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) or a gig anywhere around Victoria Square. This week you could have enjoyed jazz funk for free in Symphony Hall. For bargain concert tickets, enjoy the CBSO’s Mystery Seats; you won’t know where you are sitting until the performance. The annual Birmingham Jazz Festival (July) takes in all kinds of venues from the Black Country to Solihull. And you’ll catch many more genres than just jazz.
Free Things To Do In Birmingham: Seeing The Historic City
If you’ve not visited Birmingham before, and you’re thinking concrete, you are SO in for a surprise. The City of 1000 Trades built its reputation on its Victorian big thinkers, so it’s inevitable that there are magnificent reminders of that time in the city. Here’s my shortlist of the best free things to see in Birmingham city centre. Be prepared for a lot of terracotta wonderment and some stunning buildings.
Birmingham Council House
The area around Victoria Square has some splendid buildings, including the fabulous Council House. Designed by Yeoville Thompson on land previously occupied by the ancestors of author J.R.R. Tolkien, the building is in the classical style. It includes a clock tower – nicknamed Big Brum – and extensions which incorporate Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Gas Hall. Walk around the building past the museum entrance and you’ll see the “bridge of sighs” connecting the building to part of the museum. Look above the main entrance, and you’ll see a Venetian mosaic by Salviati Burke and company. It shows Britannia receiving the many traders and merchants of Birmingham.
Just outside the Council House, you’ll find a magnificent sculpture. Formally known as The River, it had fountains filling large pools. Its central figure therefore become known as the Floozie in the Jacuzzi. Despite strenuous efforts to fix some plumbing issues with the fountains, they were eventually drained. The main figure is now surrounded by a mass of wonderful flowers. Her new nickname? The Flirt In The Dirt. Don’t forget to walk around her intense beauty to read the poem inscribed in the stone.
Birmingham Town Hall
Now a concert and spoken word venue, the Town Hall is all columns and angled roof. It was built in the Roman revival style. Opened in 1834, the design is based on the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum. It has always been a music venue, and most of us resident in Birmingham can trace our gig-going history there. Now you’ll find everything from jazz, folk, rock and pop to comedy and dance taking place there.
Birmingham School Of Art
This red brick Victorian spectacle is located on Margaret Street, just behind the Council House. It is considered to be architect J. Chamberlain’s masterpiece. If you love Gothic, this will fill you with delight. Built in the Venetian style and with naturalistic decoration including a band of tiled lilies and sunflowers, this building is simply beautiful. No wonder it inspired many alumni including architects Rose Connor and Rosemary Stjernstedt, the watercolourist Helen Allington and painters David Prentice and John Walker.
Tip from a local: Take a walk around nearby Waterloo Street and Cornwall Street where there are lots more wonderful buildings to enjoy and some independent shops and cafes nearby.
Methodist Central Hall and Victoria Law Court
Situated at the far end of Corporation Street (across the roundabout past the House of Fraser store), these two buildings are magnificent examples of Victorian civic pride. You can spot the tower of the Methodist Central Hall from the lower part of Corporation Street. Currently awaiting renovation, the building stands opposite Victoria Law Courts, home to Birmingham Magistrates’ Court. Built of terracotta clay from Ruabon in north Wales, the foundation stone for the court was laid by Queen Victoria. It is possible to access the court building during working hours – passing through security – to see the beautiful interior, including stained glass panels featuring Birmingham’s Victorian leaders.
Explore Moor Street Station
The second busiest station in Birmingham (after New Street), Moor Street station was opened in 1909 to serve the Great Western Railway. Now linked to London Marylebone and services to the west and east of the city, the station retains its early charm. Fully restored after local campaigning in the 1980s, you’ll find typical station buildings, historic brown platform signs and a sense that a uniformed porter with a smart hat might be hiding around the corner ready to whisk your bags away. It’s so atmospheric, I’m constantly surprised it’s not Insta-famous.
Things To Do For Free in Birmingham City Centre
See The Pre-Raphaelite Stained Glass At St Philip’s Cathedral
For a big city, Birmingham’s central cathedral is surprisingly small. That’s because it was originally a parish church, built in 1715. It became a cathedral in 1905. Inside its small but perfectly formed spaces, you’ll find stained glass by the pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones. The green space outside is often home to art works, notably the temporary collections of the Big Hoot (owls) and the Big Sleuth (bears).
Find Anglo-Saxon Gold At Birmingham Museum And Art Gallery
With an entrance to the side of the Council House, the Museum and Art Gallery holds a fine collection of pre-Raphaelite art. The building also contains a large exhibit from the Staffordshire Hoard, a collection of Anglo-Saxon treasures, surely one of the most impressive free things to do in Birmingham. Young visitors might enjoy the opportunity to dress up in full Anglo-Saxon costume here. The building itself is a delight, all full of airy spaces. Don’t forget to stop off at the Edwardian Tearooms for lunch or an afternoon treat or two.
Meet The Bull In The Bullring
Even if you’re only in the mood for window shopping, there’s a lot to be said for exploring Birmingham’s shopping streets. Head across from Moor Street Station to The Bullring, and you’ll be immediately captivated by the iconic Selfridges building. Said to be modeled on a tight sweater, the outside is marked by a collection of silver disks on a blue background. Equally glorious by day with the sun turning the building into chainmail, or under the lights at night, it’s a big brave spectacle. The Bull himself can be found on the way to New Street station. Often climbed by small guests, he has been known to don winter attire. But his wardrobe is nowhere near as capacious as the Mannekin Pis in Brussels.
Explore St Martins In The Bullring, Timekeeper For The City
As an interesting contrast, next door to Selfridges you’ll find welcoming St Martin’s in the Bullring. The current Victorian church replaced its 13th century predecessor. In 1547, St Martin’s was the timekeeper for Birmingham, “keeping the clocke and the chyme” for four shillings and four pence a year. Keep your eyes open for fine clocks scattered around the city and its suburbs, marking the skilled work undertaken in the Jewellery Quarter.
Take A Self-Guided Walking Tour
WalkRunCycle Birmingham takes you on a variety of routes across the city. You can enjoy the Digbeth Graffiti Art Walk, a tour of Edgbaston or the Jewellery Quarter Walk. There are also walking and cycling routes here.
Download the app GPSMyCity and you’ll find 5 self-guided walks in Birmingham. Covering Birmingham’s architecture, museums and galleries, religious buildings, daily life and a city orientation tour, they’ll take you to the main sights with ease.
Want a guide? Try the Real Birmingham Free Walking Tours. Run as a social enterprise by two locals, the two hour Saturday walks raise funds for local charities.
Visit The Custard Factory And Digbeth
Not far from Moor Street Station, you’ll find this collection of contemporary spaces including the building where Mr Bird made his rather fine custard powder. Now this is a thriving vintage shopping area, art and event space and in general a fine spot for a wander around. Nearby under the railway arches, you’ll find Digbeth Dining Club, packed with street food. Want to shop zero waste for your food? The UK’s largest zero waste supermarket The Clean Kilo is just over the road in Gibb Street.
Free Things To Do In Birmingham’s Green Spaces
The city centre in Birmingham is wonderfully walkable. All its key places can be accessed quickly. This means that you’ll find most of its green spaces – with the exception of the Green around St Philip’s Cathedral – slightly further out of the centre.
Grown From Kew Gardens: Cannon Hill Park
Opposite Edgbaston Cricket Ground, Cannon Hill Park covers 250 acres of green space. Donated to the city by Louisa Ann Ryland, it has formal parkland, conservation areas, a lake for boating and fishing plus space for sports and picnicking. Seeds and plants from Kew Gardens were donated to establish the park. There’s a traditional bandstand, a beautiful bridge over the lake and plenty of wildfowl to observe. Fancy a park run? That’s your Saturday morning sorted. Next door Birmingham Wildlife Conservation Centre is mainly home to small mammals.
Really Wild Sutton Park
You can really get your wild on at Sutton Park. Most of the park is a National Nature Reserve, with heathlands, wetlands, marshes, lakes, ancient woodlands, cafes and golf. There’s also a Visitor Centre by the Town Gate and a playground. Brought along your small flying objects? There’s a space to fly model planes, helicopters and kites. There’s a preserved Roman road – part of Icknield Street – and Roman coins and prehistoric flint arrowheads have been discovered in the park. Skeleton Hill is popular with mountain bikers and there are plenty of runs in the park. Like a bit of an adventure? Two orienteering trails are here – get your maps at the visitor centre. Fishing, rowing and sailing are also hosted here.
Lickey Hills Country Park For Walks And Views
A fabulous spot to watch the seasons change, the Lickey Hills are ten miles south of central Birmingham. Here you’ll find diverse wildlife, fantastic views and a Visitor Centre to help you make the most of your time wandering the woodlands, heathlands and grasslands.
Free Things To Do Beyond Birmingham City Centre
Near City Hospital, Edgbaston Reservoir is a home for boating, sailing, running and walking. Originally a small pond, it was enlarged by famous engineer Thomas Telford to provide water to the canal network. In 1873, Charles Blondin crossed the reservoir on a tightrope. There’s a statue high above the nearby Ladywood Middleway road to commemorate the crossing. The reservoir site itself is a great walking spot, and if you visit during a particularly chilly winter, you might even see it frozen.
Cadburys and The Chocolate Factory
Although entry to Cadburyworld isn’t free, it still makes this list for the amount of things to do on site included in the price of your entrance fee. Regularly featuring as a place to take our godchildren, it’s a big experience. Start off at the entrance with your first offerings of chocolate, then roam through the history and origins of the delectable treat, as told by avatars. The chocolate factory itself lets you see how things are made via live demonstrations from a skilled and friendly team. You get to custom build your own pot of chocolate at the end. (I’ll take the crispies.) A sneaky train ride moves you between experiences. You could spend all day here, emerging rather stickily in the late afternoon. Leave room to stock up at the factory shop.
Unexpected Free Things To Do In Birmingham
The Library Of Birmingham
This modern contribution to the city’s treasures is located near the Town Hall. Built in tiers, like a flower corseted wedding cake, it’s a credit to its architect Francine Houben. She describes it as the People’s Palace, and I can entirely get that take on this magnificent building. In addition to the things you would expect – books, archives and all that – there are some fabulous extras. Step into the lift, and you’ll be greeted with some fine literary quotations. Find the right floor, and you’ll be treated to a secret rooftop garden with splendid views over the rooftops of Birmingham. And crowning the top of the building is the Shakespeare Room. Intricately paneled and with an intricate barrel ceiling, you’ll find homage to the Bard here.
Sarehole Mill, The Shire and Moseley Bog
Want to visit the land of hobbits, ents and elves? Author J.R.R Tolkien grew up in the city living in Hall Green and Edgbaston. Now you can take the Tolkien Trail in Birmingham to see the places that inspired Middle Earth. Sarehole Mill, still a working Grade II listed watermill, sits opposite The Shire Country Park. This is possibly my favourite of all the free things to do in Birmingham. Take a wonderful walk here to meet the ents, and to forget you are in a city of a million people. Wander alongside the River Cole to the sounds of birdsong, leaves rustling and the scampering of squirrels in the trees. Moseley Bog is studded with boardwalks, making it a less muddy experience than you’d imagine.
Find Perrott’s Folly
Also part of the Tolkien Trail, this is one of the Two Towers, the other being Edgbaston Water Tower (now Severn Trent Water) nearby. The folly is 29 metres tall and was built in Rotton Park in 1758. There are many theories as to the reason for its commissioning by John Perrott. It has been suggested that it was used to survey his lands, view his wife’s grave, located 15 miles away, or to spot animals for hunting. For a century it was used as a weather recording station. It is not currently possible to access the folly.
Read more: Follies in England: Buildings Made For Pleasure
Arrive at Bournville by train, and you’ll be met with a glimpse of a very familiar colour on the station signs: Cadbury purple. The Bournville factory is here, but also the lesser known Bournville Village. Established by George Cadbury in 1900 as a place to house both factory workers and others in comfort, Bournville Village is a delight. In keeping with Cadbury’s ideals, there were affordable houses for rent, which became known as the Sunshine Houses. These homes are still available at an affordable rent today. Surrounding a village green, you’ll find a clock tower, a rest house and a cricket pavilion. George Cadbury carefully dismantled and reconstructed 14th century Selly Manor and rebuilt it here. Think a smaller version of Port Sunlight and you’ll get the idea of this amazing space and a totally unexpected contributor to our free things to do in Birmingham.
Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market
You’ll need to visit in November or December for this one. And yes, you did read that correctly. Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market arrives each year from Germany stuffed with traditional crafts, mugs of steaming gluhwein and roasted chestnuts. Occupying the New Street area of the city, it’s full of festive spirit and happy locals taking in the spectacle of bright lights, furry reindeer, potential presents galore and lots of filling snacks. Even if your default setting is Scrooge, I guarantee you’ll emerge from the experience smiling.
More To See And Do In Birmingham?
Step this way! For plenty of date ideas, check out our collection of romantic things to do in Birmingham. (Reader, it worked. I married him.) Then there’s my local’s guide to Birmingham, and more information on taking the Tolkien Trail in Birmingham.
Venturing a little further afield? We’re just a short journey from Shakespeare country and Stratford-on-Avon. There’s England’s happiest place to live – Royal Leamington Spa – full of Regency charms and with an intriguing spa town history. Things to do in Coventry include exploring the medieval heart of the city and getting your petrolhead on at the Motor Museum. Head west and you’re in the borderlands of the Welsh Marches and ready to explore the historic town of Ludlow and its castle.
How To Get To Birmingham
Situated in the West Midlands, Birmingham Airport is approximately 10 minutes from the city centre using frequent trains from Birmingham International Station. You can also travel by train from London Euston or London Marylebone, with journeys taking between 1.5 and 2.5 hours depending on the service and route selected. The M5 motorway brings visitors from the south, with the M40 and M42 forming the route from Oxfordshire. Visitors from the north will arrive via the M6.
With a host of conference venues, Birmingham is well served for accommodation, including student halls during vacation time.
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