If you’ve never even considered visiting Birmingham, England, you don’t know what you’re missing. Nestled modestly in the West Midlands, an hour and a half from London and about the same from Manchester, Birmingham doesn’t like to brag about its copious charms. Join me, and a million other locals, and let’s go explore!
First Impressions of Birmingham
When you arrive in the city, you’ll be amazed to see the contrasts within the city centre. Heading in from the south east, you’ll pass the Custard Factory, once home to Mr Bird’s famous confection, and now a vibrant arts centre full of shops, eateries and studios. Just before you reach the Bullring, you can see sweet St Martin’s Church and its cafe, all scrubbed up as befits its landmark status. Twenty five years ago when I moved here, the facade was deep brown from traffic fumes; after renovation, it’s gently autumnal beige. This is against the backdrop of the iconic Selfridges building in the Bullring. Selfridges has brilliant silver discs against a bright blue background to create a skyline said to have been inspired by a rather tight sweater. See what you reckon.
If you are heading in from the West, you’ll pass the new Library of Birmingham with its intricate floral casing. This replaces the brutalist concrete structure that dominated Victoria Square for many years. At the end of Broad Street, you’ll see the elegant War Memorial, with a group of sculptures to the left. Look a little closer, and you’ll see that they hold a series of letters in Baskerville font, this being the city of Baskerville himself. And that’s really Birmingham in a nutshell; full of unexpected things.
A quick Scamper Through Birmingham’s History
Head back to medieval times, and Birmingham was a small market town. A lack of major rivers for trade may have contributed to its modest growth. Then came the Midlands Enlightenment, when members of the Lunar Society such as Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Bolton, James Watt, Joseph Priestley, Anna Seward and John Baskerville came together to usher in a phase of major change. As you recognise the names, you start to get a sense of how quickly Birmingham moved forward at that time. And indeed “Forward” is the word inscribed on the city’s coat of arms.
The Industrial Revolution truly cemented Birmingham’s role through advances in science, technology and economic development. By 1791, Birmingham was described as the “first manufacturing town in the world” and then the “city of 1000 trades”. The industrial steam engine, which changed so much of the future world, was invented in Birmingham.
Seat of local government: Birmingham Council House is a beautiful building in its own right.
Today’s Birmingham still has much to offer:
- the second largest metropolitan economy after London
- six universities, making it the largest centre of education outside London
- a major international commercial centre
- a wide range of cultural institutions, including the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Library of Birmingham
- the fourth most visited city by foreign visitors
So what’s it got to offer the visitor? Let me show you around.
Birmingham Art and Culture
You really could spend months enjoying all Birmingham has to offer for art and culture. Let me try to offer you some tempting tasters.
If your soul is made happy by theatre, you’ll find all sorts of performances in town. From the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, to the Birmingham Hippodrome and the New Alexandra to the Midlands Arts Centre and the tiny Crescent Theatre, all kinds of experiences await. Right now, for example, you could take in Hairspray, Dirty Dancing, Miss Saigon, All In, The Tempest and The Great Gatsby.
Dance and Spoken Word
If dance is your thing, you can catch Akshayambara, the Penguin Cafe, A Positive Life, and Dystopia in the city at the moment. There are many more spoken word performances, and mime and puppetry for children. The Town Hall, with its ornate columns, sees everything from gigs to spoken word; I’ve just booked my ticket for Ray Mears in November.
The Town Hall to the left has concerts, gigs and spoken word performances. You can see the Library of Birmingham peeking through the gap in the middle between the Town Hall and the Council House to the right.
I mentioned gigs, and Birmingham has a good selection of venues of different capacities to serve your aural pleasure needs. Don’t forget Birmingham’s long track record in turning out quality acts for all tastes from the Spencer Davis Group and The Move and Black Sabbath to Duran Duran, and Steel Pulse to The Beat. Anyone remember Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag? That came out of Birmingham too. Bhangra grew in Birmingham in the 1960s; Grindcore emerged from the Mermaid pub in Sparkhill in the mid 80s and there’s still plenty of innovation in town.
I could talk for hours about the Birmingham music scene, but for now, I’ll just advise you to remember the smaller venues in the city too. From Symphony Hall to the O2 Academy, the Institute, Arena Birmingham, the Town Hall, and the Midland Arts Centre (mac) to pub and cafe venues such as the Hare and Hounds and the Kitchen Garden Cafe (both in in Kings Heath) and the Cuban Embassy (Moseley), there are more sounds than you have available ears.
Art and Museums
If you want to treat your eyes rather than your ears, there are plenty of opportunities at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in Victoria Square. Here you’ll find the biggest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art anywhere in the world, with over 3,000 exhibits. You can also see the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever discovered. Don’t think it’s at all stuffy there either; the current programme includes an Art Rave with techno rave, retro gaming and live performances.
For contemporary art, try the Ikon Gallery, just off Broad Street. This is also home to a cracking specialist art bookshop with all kinds of quirky offerings. Then there’s the Barber Institute based at the University of Birmingham, with its changing portfolio of exhibitions, including the beautiful Only Light and Shadow.
Birmingham has plenty of opportunities to treat your friends and family or indeed yourself. Taking first of all high street options, you’ll find the shopping complexes of the Bullring, Grand Central and the shops of the High Street, New Street and Corporation Street. In addition to the iconic Selfridges’ building at the edge of the Bullring, you’ll find Harvey Nicols at the Mailbox, also home to the BBC and a range of designer shops plus restaurants.
As well as high street names and bigger stores, you’ll find interesting speciality shops in Birmingham. From the collection of foodie specialists in the Great Western Arcade to the bijou and interesting Piccadilly Arcade, you’ll find all kinds of unusual choices. Don’t forget, too, the retro and arty shops of the Custard Factory, and the one of a kind shops scattered across town, like the wonderfully named Disorder Boutique in the equally wonderfully named Needless Alley or the Tokyo Toys Manga Store on Corporation Street.
From football at Aston Villa (where you can see the statue of William McGregor, founder of the football league) and Birmingham City to athletics at the Alexander Stadium and cricket at Edgbaston, we’ve got it covered. Edgbaston Priory Club is city’s home of tennis, and Moseley Rugby Club for….yup, Rugby. The rules for lawn tennis were drawn up here in Birmingham, and you can see the documents setting them out at the Library of Birmingham. Arena England hosts the All England Championships for Badminton.
Where can I possibly begin? You’ll never be bored in Birmingham. Or if you are, you must be trying very hard. A brief search (both mental and online), from the start of the year, shows me that we’ve got – deep breath, we’re going in:
Chinese New Year celebrations. Pantomime time. St Patrick’s Festival, Crufts, All England Open Badminton championships, Flatpack Film Festival, Vaisakhi, International Dance Festival. Birmingham Pride, Summer in Southside (outdoor theatre). Aegon Classic (Tennis), Brindleyplace Dragon Boat Festival, City of Colours Street Art Festival, Lord Mayor’s Show, Colmore Festival, Be Festival, Mostly Jazz Funk and Soul Festival, Shock and Gore, Birmingham and Solihull Jazz and Blues Festival, Brindleyplace Film Festival, Music For Youth Festival, Birmingham Caribbean Festival. Made Festival, Test Match Cricket, Birmingham Weekender, Moseley Folk Festival, Birmingham Chili Festival, Fierce Festival, Birmingham Literature Festival, Oxjam Brum, Birmingham Comedy Festival, Black International Film Festival, Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market, Shout, Bonfire Night.
And that’s only the annual events. You can see it’s pretty buzzing here, and we’re never short of things to do.
Birmingham For Free
You can have a great time without deep pockets in Birmingham, Here are some suggestions to enjoy Birmingham for free:
- Take a canalside walk around Brindleyplace, Gas Street Basin and the Mailbox
- Visit Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
- Try out TV presenting in the Public Space at the BBC in the Mailbox
- Visit the Library of Birmingham and try out its free app, which will send you on trails around Birmingham
- See the stained glass windows by Sir Edward Burne-Jones of the Pre=Raphaelites at Birmingham Cathedral
St Philip’s Cathedral. Visit to see the beautiful Pre-Raphaelite stained glass by Burne-Jones.
We’re Not Taking Ourselves Too Seriously
City of Canals
First off, let’s talk Venice. There’s a gag that Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice, but it’s actually true. You can travel 35 miles on the Birmingham network as opposed to 26 in Venice. While you won’t spot a vaporetto or gondola, you can pick up the Waterbus from Sherbourne Wharf or the Mailbox shopping and entertainment complex. There’s also a City Heritage Route, where you can see Birmingham from a different angle. And if you like your boats with sails or oars, Edgbaston Reservoir, just minutes from the city centre has its own sailing and rowing clubs, and makes for a pretty walk on a sunny day. The reservoir was built by Thomas Telford to top up the Birmingham canal system, and it’s still used for that purpose today.
Birmingham’s never taken itself entirely seriously, so it’s no surprise that comics such as Jasper Carrott have emerged from the city. You’ll find comedy at mac, the Glee Club, and the Comedy Loft. Keep your eyes open especially for the comedy standup at the mac; this is a culmination of a series of learning workshops for new performers, and the end of course show at the Hexagon Theatre is brilliant.
Public Art with a Twist
First there were owls, then there were bears. Three years ago, the Big Hoot – a collection of fine owls – appeared overnight in Birmingham. Designed by a variety of local artists, the Big Hoot included a walking trail, and the opportunity to buy various miniature owls before the person-sized artworks were auctioned to benefit the Children’s Hospital and create a new Rare Diseases Centre. You can see more about the project here.
You’ll find a scattering of five feet tall bears on their plinths throughout the city on the Big Sleuth trail. If you’re tired, Bearhug (centre) will offer you a warm embrace at New Street Station. Be quick, as they leave in September to be auctioned for Birmingham Children’s Hospital.
This year, art turned ursine, with the introduction of the Big Sleuth: here, bear and everywhere. For me the joy of both these exhibitions has been watching excited people pursuing owls then bears around the city. And I’m not just talking families; there are plenty of more mature lovers of these tongue-in-cheek beasts. Some have been created by artists and some by community groups. I defy you to meet Vincent the Bipolar Bear without some emotional response. They are welcome if temporary landmarks. Catch young Will Shakesbeare at the bottom of New Street and sit in the capacious embrace of Bearhug at the Stephenson Street entrance to New Street Station, but hurry up, as they won’t be here for long!
Floozie in the Jacuzzi
I can’t let the issue of affectionate humour in public art go without mentioning one of the city’s favourite landmarks. At Victoria Square, just outside the Council House and the Town Hall, lies The River, a large public artwork by Dhruva Mistry completed in 1994. The rim of the upper pool is carved with a quote from T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton.
And the pool was filled with water of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
You’ll notice I said upper pool. At first the installation featured two pools, with fountains and cascades. As a result, the beauty reclining in the top pool was named the Floozie in the Jacuzzi. Sadly, time wasn’t kind to her waterworks. (Although, perhaps because it’s a busy thoroughfare, she wasn’t subjected often to the indignity of a bottle of bubble bath poured into her workings.) From 2008 onwards, she began to have problems with water leaks, and the fountains were only turned on for special events. The water was finally turned off for good in 2013. Now the space has been filled with soil and beautifully planted.
The River: From fountains and cascades to flowers
And the Floozie in the Jacuzzi? She’s become the Flirt in the Dirt. Sadly, I can’t show you her mate, Anthony Gormley’s Iron Man, because he’s off for a scrub up.
Getting To and Around birmingam
As you’d expect from a place in the West Midlands, Birmingham’s not far off being in the centre of England. You can fly in direct to Birmingham Airport, from which it’s a ten minute hop on the (frequent) train to the city centre.
Rail from London will bring you in to Birmingham New Street Station (Virgin and London Midland trains) or Birmingham Moor Street and Birmingham Snow Hill (Chiltern Railways). If you get the chance, do look at Birmingham Moor Street; it’s opposite the Selfridges building. It’s so beautifully renovated that you feel you might spot a uniformed porter with one of those upright trolleys pushing a fine set of leather luggage to a waiting horseless carriage.
The entire city centre is compact and walkable. If you decide to head out of town, then you’ll find a network of buses. trains and even trams crossing the city and the West Midlands. Bear in mind that most buses require either a pass or exact change. Check out our guide to affordable public travel in Britain here.
If you’re enjoying Beautiful Britain, you might also like our visit to the Yorkshire Dales National Park and our road trip around Lancashire. Closer to Birmingham, you can check out the Welsh Marches, and Shakespeare’s Stratford, both of which are feasible as day trips.