If we told you that Birmingham, the industrial powerhouse of the UK in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, had more than six million trees, you probably wouldn’t believe us.
If we said it had more parks than any other European city, you might question our judgement.
But you had better believe Birmingham holds some surprising secrets. And the greenery in this West Midlands city is just one of the many reasons that it’s our December city break of the month. Here’s the lowdown on where to eat, sleep and shop ‘til you drop in Birmingham.
Because it’s on the up – and it has been for a while. We chose Birmingham as a top city to travel to in 2015 for its burgeoning creative quarter and major railway station renovation. Now the New Street Station redevelopment is complete and Digbeth, the city’s artsy epicentre is as eclectic and colourful as ever.
It’s not the grey, industrial landscape you might imagine it to be. There’s plenty of green space, novel use of old warehouses and some innovative architecture – see the Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square, or the exterior of Selfridges, which is decorated with 15,000 aluminium discs.
If you’re into art and museums, there’s the excellent Barber Institute of Fine Arts on the Birmingham University campus – stop by The Plough in Harborne for a hearty breakfast first – or, in the centre of town, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has over 40 exhibitions ranging from social history, archaeology and ethnography.
But, arguably, the biggest attraction in Birmingham is its shopping. You can find retail giants and high-street shops in the enormous Bull Ring Shopping Centre, plus the newly-opened Grand Central, which has over 40 shops and sits directly above New Street station. The city is also famous for its eclectic and historic markets – it was the first city in England to legally hold a weekly market. But there’s far more to retail in this city than big labels and fruit stalls…
Take a tour of the Jewellery Quarter, northwest of the centre, where inside over 200 listed buildings silversmiths and jewellers make hand-crafted jewellery to specification. It’s a wonderfully preserved area, where the streets are lined with charming, old red-brick houses and shops, and the city’s last-remaining Georgian square provides a peaceful escape from the busy centre. There are over a hundred independent specialist jewellery retailers, ranging from the more traditional to contemporary, cutting-edge designers.
Southeast of the city centre, it’s a rather different affair: the old industrial Bird’s Custard factory in Digbeth has been turned into a burgeoning arts space. The factory and its outbuildings have been renovated, painted and are now home to an independent cinema, bars, shared office spaces, vintage shops and a crafts gallery, set up in what used to house the cows that supplied milk for the custard. Nearby, vintage and retro emporium Cow Vintage Clothing is your one-stop shop for all things yesteryear.
This December sees the return of the largest outdoor Christmas Market in the Britain on Birmingham’s high streets, and Digbeth’s own A Winter Less Ordinary (12–13 December) – a multi-faceted event, showcasing independent art, fashion, crafts and food in the creative quarter.
If you’re arriving on a Friday night, the first place you need to go is the Digbeth Dining Club. This street food festival-come-nightclub showcases five of the city’s best food vendors each week, from chicken kebabs cooked under the hood of a Mini Cooper to succulent chili beef brisket. Set in a warehouse on Digbeth’s industrial estate, there’s a bar with picnic tables and huge leather sofas (which becomes a nightclub after 11.30pm), the food hall and a live music and cabaret venue – plenty to keep you entertained until the early hours.
Birmingham’s nightlife is one of the best in Britain and its live music offering is excellent. Head to The Jam House for jazz, funk, blues and swing in a great atmosphere. For an unruly introduction to Birmingham’s after-dark antics, head to the “Gay Village”, the city’s LGBT quarter – south of New Street Station and west of Hurst Street – where there’s an eclectic mix of bars and cabaret clubs.
As in most big cities, accommodation options and quality vary. Birmingham has all the big-name hotel chains, but for a clean, simple and reliable budget option the Bloc Birmingham is conveniently located in the Jewellery Quarter.
For a heritage stay, try Back to Backs House – a refurbished pair of the nineteenth-century workers’ houses that were hurriedly built as a solution to Birmingham’s exploding population during the industrial boom. The ‘cottages’ are fitted with Victorian-style furnishings just as they would have been in the 1800s, but also have ensuites and self-catering facilities.
Birmingham water canal network - famous Gas Street Basin © Tupungato/Shutterstock