Britain’s second-largest city is a place of its own making – literally. Back in the late 1700s, Brum (as the locals know it) was described as “the first manufacturing town in the world”. But don’t expect the pavements to be crowded with factory workers. Today’s city has been remodelled and regenerated to fine effect, with gleaming malls and repurposed warehouses helping to shape a destination that zings with life. Home to a cosmopolitan, million-plus population, it greets its shortage of big-name sights with a shrug and lays on a buzzing cultural and nightlife scene.
A key legacy of the city’s industrial past is its canal network (Brum famously has more canals than Venice). You can experience the waterways for yourself by taking a half-mile canal-side stroll between two of the city’s key leisure developments: Brindleyplace and Mailbox Birmingham. The former is home to headline attractions like the National Sea Life Centre (book online to save up to 40% on tickets) and the free-to-enter Ikon Gallery, while Mailbox Birmingham is a shopping centre, with various discounts on its free app. It’s also where you’ll find the BBC Visitor Centre, which gives an insight into the world of TV – there’s no cost to enter, but paid tours are available too.
If you want to make the most of Birmingham’s main heritage attractions, consider becoming a member of Birmingham Museums. For one reasonable fee, you’ll be granted 12 months of free entry to seven ticketed attractions – including Aston Hall and the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter – saving a tidy sum in the process, even if you’re only visiting once. Meanwhile, the excellent Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery has no entrance fee and is particularly renowned for its hoard of ancient gold.
Step back in time on a guided 75-minute tour of the city’s historical ‘back-to-backs’ (restored 19th-century houses with shared courtyards) – you’ll need to book ahead of time, but tickets are well-priced and the houses can’t be visited independently. Walking tours of the city itself are offered on selected dates by Positively Birmingham and the pay-as-you-feel Real Birmingham – both options give an inside look into the city, without you paying big bucks.
Music fans should head to the city’s Symphony Hall, renowned for its world-class acoustics. It stages year-round ticketed events, from rock acts to classical performances, as well as putting on free jazz gigs every Friday at 5pm in its café-bar. Elsewhere, check out the eclectic musical line-ups at the Rainbow Venues or the Hare & Hounds, which sometimes has free-entry concerts.
Birmingham Airport has dozens of connections to Europe and further afield, as well as other British airports. The city’s central location makes it easily accessed from elsewhere in the UK, whether you’re travelling by road or rail. Direct trains from London take just over 80 minutes – you’ll save money by travelling at off-peak times and booking advance tickets on sites like thetrainline.com. Certain tickets even allow you 2-for-1 access to some of the city’s top attractions. By road, National Express offers cheap coach travel around the country – again, book in advance for the best rates.
Central Birmingham has some attractively priced hotels, including the Hampton by Hilton Birmingham Broad Street and the Premier Inn Birmingham New Street, and you’ll find private en-suite rooms and free breakfasts at Hatters Hostel Birmingham. Elsewhere, ibis has no less than 12 properties in the Birmingham area, and Airbnb also has a predictably good presence in the city. And as of 2017, Birmingham now has a well-located easyHotel – and as with many other properties, the earlier you book, the less you’ll end up paying.
The widely famed Balti Triangle is emblematic of the city’s multi-cultural population, and has some excellent balti (curry) restaurants – many of which allow you to bring your own beer or wine. Birmingham’s wide culinary scene is an accomplished one, with five Michelin-starred restaurants – Adams, Simpsons and Purnells are among those to offer attractive weekday lunch menus. The city takes mealtimes seriously, and the street food scene is well worth checking out: the best known market is Digbeth Dining Club, but an honourable mention also goes to the Asian-influenced Hawker Yard. Both markets run on Fridays and Saturdays.
For more information on Birmingham and the rest of Britain, head to VisitBritain.com
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