Once a smoky industrial powerhouse known as the “City of 1000 Trades,” Birmingham in the 21st century is vibrant, diverse city that’s home to a plethora of distinctly local attractions.
Whether you’re exploring Digbeth’s jaunty street art, sampling some of the country’s most unique gastronomy or strolling the city’s colorful canals, it’s the creativity and warmth of its people that brings out the best of Birmingham.
Conveniently located smack-dab in the center of the UK, Birmingham is easy to reach – but much harder to leave. Here’s how to make the most of your time in Britain’s second city.
Stroll Birmingham’s finest stretch of canal
Birmingham was built around its vast network of canals, but if you want to see them at their finest then take a stroll along the meandering 45-minute stretch between Gas Street Basin and the University of Birmingham.
The lively waterside bars, bistros and restaurants of Brindley Place and The Mailbox are ideal for refreshments but once you walk down the Old Line canal past Five Ways, the towpath turns into a bucolic cornucopia of overhanging foliage and sudden tranquility. The elegant university grounds are a treat to explore too, as is the underrated Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
Stay at a Grand institution
Once host to the likes of Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin, the Grand Hotel was the most opulent of Victorian Birmingham’s hotels, later falling into disrepair before closing for good in 2000. After a 20-year slumber, this local institution on Colmore Row re-opened in May 2021 following a £45m facelift.
Originally opened in 1879, this Grade II-listed building still retains some of its wonderful period features, including the famous grand staircase furnished by gilded marble columns and the extraordinary Louis IV-style grand ballroom. The hotel’s stylish rooms also offer impressive views of the St Phillips Cathedral grounds (known locally as Pigeon Park).
Uncover Digbeth’s street art
Digbeth sprawls out from the city center’s southwestern fringes and is crammed with some of Birmingham’s liveliest bars – and it’s impossible not to be struck by the quality and volume of the neighborhood’s extensive street art and graffiti. The rough-and-ready industrial streets around the Custard Factory form a perfect canvas for the city’s talented creatives to display their work.
The scene is driven by superb local artists such as Annatomix and gent48. Make sure to head to Floodgate Street, Gibb Street and Lower Trinity Street for some of Birmingham’s boldest street art.
Experience Victorian Birmingham at the Back to Backs
Talking in dramatic terms about Birmingham’s industrial past is easy; conjuring the feel of daily life from this era is hard. Except, that is, at one corner of the city center where you can get a vivid sense of working-class Birmingham’s living conditions over 100 years ago.
Located on lively Hurst Street, the Birmingham Back to Backs are the last remaining example of the city’s 19th-century back-to-back terraced houses. Today, you can take guided tours led by passionate locals who will evoke the challenges – and joys – of life in these dense buildings. Make sure to book ahead of time – and don’t miss the 1930s-era sweets shop on the corner.
Enjoy the view from the secret garden
With curvaceous oddities like the Bullring and the Rotunda giving Birmingham one of the UK’s more distinct skylines, it’s worth finding a spot to take it all in from above. The best viewing platform in the city isn’t in a skyscraper, but rather humbly located on the 7th floor of the Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square.
What the library’s Secret Garden lacks in towering height, it more than makes up for with genuinely panoramic outdoor views, plenty of room to wander and a beautiful elevated green space for summertime relaxing above the hum of the city.
Try a Balti in its hometown
Birmingham has more Michelin-star restaurants than any other city in the UK outside of London, yet the dish at the heart of the city’s character is a humble one-pot stew: the Balti. Devised by Birmingham’s Pakistani community in the early 1970s, the Balti is a fiery curry cooked quickly with the freshest ingredients over a searing hot flame.
While you can now find Baltis on menus across the city, the Balti Triangle neighborhood a couple of miles south of the city center is the dish’s spiritual home. Head to original pioneer restaurant Adil’s or modern favorite Shababs on the Ladypool Road for a taste of the Balti at its best.
Get outdoors in the Lickey Hills
With more than 8000 acres of award-winning green spaces and parks, Birmingham is one of the greenest cities in Europe. But if you want to combine that green space with gorgeous panoramic views and charming woodland trails then head out to the Lickey Hills Country Park.
Just 10 miles southwest of Birmingham city center, the hills are easily reached by train, bus or car and are ideal to walk at any time of year. Make sure to head up to the almost 300m-high summit of Beacon Hill, where you’ll be treated to stunning views of Birmingham’s skyline to the north and the distant Malvern Hills to the south.
Drink the Stirchley beer mile
Stirchley’s rise as craft-beer haven has been as pleasant as it is unexpected. With several splendid pubs and taprooms conveniently spaced apart, intrepid craft-beer aficionados can take on Stirchley Beer Mile and sample the finest this south Birmingham neighborhood has to offer.
From Cork and Cage at the north end to GlassHouse in the south, with stops at vibrant taprooms Attic Brew Co and Birmingham Brewing Company (to name but a few) along the way, there are a plethora of spots to enjoy IPAs to your heart’s content.
Trace Birmingham’s diverse musical heritage
From the reggae beats of UB40 to Black Sabbath’s pioneering heavy-metal sound and Duran Duran’s bouncy new-wave pop, few cities in the UK have produced music as diverse as Birmingham.
Whether locals know it or not, every neighborhood has contributed to the richness of the city’s music heritage. Musical Routes aims to bring that to life with their gorgeous 3D wooden relief maps located at 30 train stations across Birmingham. Whether it’s artists, record shops, venues or recording studios, these unique artworks enumerate each depicted area’s special cultural contribution.
If you want to spark an always-feisty debate in Birmingham, ask a local their opinion of the now-demolished Central Library. But whether you thought the city’s famous brutalist building was iconic or not, what took its place at Chamberlain Square makes an impression, too: Paradise Birmingham.
Amid gleaming new office towers, the cleaned-up square boasts a pleasant white sheen and has attracted quality restaurants such as Dishoom and Rosa’s Thai Cafe. The volume and color have now been turned up further with the fresh addition of Albert’s Schloss, a boisterous Bavarian-style bar and restaurant set across two floors.
Learn about how Birmingham became a jewelry capital
As a manufacturing powerhouse during the Industrial Revolution, Birmingham had many strings to its bow – with one of the most enduring bring the jewelry trade. Much of that was centered around the Jewellery Quarter, a handsome neighborhood that to this day produces 40% of the UK’s jewelry.
With its immaculately preserved workshops and live demonstrations, the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter is a fascinating time capsule into Birmingham’s heritage. Make sure to explore the quirky bars and restaurants of the area too, including the aptly titled 1000 Trades and the enigmatic The Wilderness.
Hit the arcades
Birmingham isn’t a city short on shops, with the Bullring, Grand Central and The Mailbox offering a veritable smorgasbord of brands and boutiques. For a more evocative shopping experience, take a stroll through the city’s historic arcades.
Located across from Snow Hill Station, the Great Western Arcade is an ornate Victorian delight filled with independent sellers, while the Piccadilly Arcade across from New St Station has an even more interesting story. Dating back to 1925 and containing a lavishly painted ceiling fresco, this arcade was once an Edwardian cinema – which explains the sloping floor.
See an epic cathedral
Just a short 14-mile train ride north of the city in the nearby town of Lichfield lies one of the most unique cathedrals in the entire country.
Dating back to the 14th century and soaring over 250ft above the town’s skyline, Lichfield Cathedral is one of only three three-spired cathedrals in the UK and is the only one that dates back to the Middle Ages. Spend time touring the charming cathedral grounds before finishing at award-winning chef Tom Shepherd’s sublime new restaurant Upstairs.
Escape the city by kayak
Sitting quietly on Sheepcote Street and backing onto the Birmingham Canal Old Line, The Roundhouse has been a fixture on the canal towpath since 1874 and once housed stables and stores. Derelict for many years and now freshly renovated, the Grade II-listed building runs sustainable guided city and canal tours.
Take the Green Escape Kayak Tour to get a new and eco-friendly perspective on Birmingham’s waterways and green spaces.
See a real “Peaky Blinders” set
Led by the indomitable Tommy Shelby, the popular BBC crime drama Peaky Blinders has brought Birmingham (and its memorable local accent) to a global audience. Even though the show isn’t shot on location in the city, you can see an authentic historic Peaky Blinders set at the Black Country Living Museum.
As well as seeing the famous canal-side and yard filming locations, visitors can explore a painstakingly recreated 19th-century industrial landscape. Fans of the show should try to time their visits with the regular Peaky Blinders Nights.
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