Why go now?
Hurtling along at top speed on a hamster wheel of regeneration, Birmingham is constantly pulling out new attractions that make it a worthy weekend destination. Long regarded as a drab place and teased relentlessly for its distinctive accent, today’s fast-evolving city will surprise you with its innovative, eye-popping modern architecture and new attractions.
This month it hosts the Commonwealth Games 2022 – just one sign of its emerging place on the world map. Plans for a Clean Air Zone and a whole calendar of festivals and events ‒ from art exhibitions to heritage walks and urban treasure hunts ‒ are leading it into the future. And you won’t go hungry, either: from diverse street food and proper curries to elegant Michelin-starred nosh, Brum’s gastronomic offerings are sure to give you eyes bigger than your stomach.
Get your bearings
Many of the top attractions, new developments and shopping hotspots in Birmingham are clustered within easy walking distance of each other and the central transport hub, New Street Station. The historic Jewellery Quarter in the northeast portion of the centre is replete with architectural gems (pun intended) from Birmingham’s industrial past ‒ this area is thought to produce 40 per cent of all British jewellery. To the west, canals find a sophisticated neighbour in the Brindleyplace development, with its glass-fronted cafes and summer deckchairs. For a more creative, arty vibe, head to Digbeth and its start-up magnet Custard Factory, where arts, street food and live music collide. South of the centre, you’ll find impressive green spaces to relax in like Cannon Hill Park and the Botanical Gardens.
Take a hike
To get a first taste of the city’s vibe and architecture, start at the ultra square, love-it-or-hate building: The Cube. Cross over the bridge to Gas Street Basin, and keep along the towpath to stroll past moored narrowboats. Nip under the arch of Broad Street Tunnel, and continue on to Birmingham City Centre Path. Turn left when you hit the Pitcher & Piano to explore the streets and squares of the masterfully redeveloped Brindleyplace, where relaxed eateries sit alongside the award-winning Ikon Gallery (currently collab-ing with Paris’s Palais de Tokyo on a major contemporary installation) and rows of blossom trees that shroud the Japanese-inspired Oozells Square in pink during springtime.
Return to the canal path, then cross the canal via the suspension bridge. Walk straight through the ICC conference complex into Centenary Square, where you’ll be confronted by the Library of Birmingham – a bold and blocky modern affair with yellow tiers and a lacy metal shell. Cross Paradise Circus Queensway via the walkway, bearing right and then left onto Fletchers Walk. Here you’ll spot the Neoclassical columns of Birmingham Town Hall ahead; wander behind it to enter Victoria Square, home to the grand Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Keep heading northeast onto Colmore Row, and eventually you’ll hit St Phillip’s Cathedral and square.
Lunch on the run
With its exposed brick walls and caged Edison bulbs, 200 Degrees on Colmore Row exemplifies Birmingham’s burgeoning indie coffee culture. They’re so serious about coffee that there’s even a barista school in the basement. Head in at lunchtime for expertly crafted brews and chunky gourmet sandwiches with inventive fillings like roasted broccoli, coffee-rubbed sweet potato, and Stilton with prosciutto.
You’ll find everything and the kitchen sink in the neighbouring Bullring, Mailbox and Grand Central shopping centres. These complexes cover all of the popular high street stores, and the Bullring also hosts Selfridges in a futuristic, disc-clad building. More independent boutiques line the charming Great Western Arcade nearby: be tempted by the cheerful, handcrafted macaroons from Miss Macaroon, and if cheese is your vice, have a good nosy at the well-stocked cabinets in Anderson & Hill.
For a sultry, loft vibe and Japanese-inspired creations, head for Bar Ikigai in the Jewellery Quarter. Exposed brick and whitewash rub up against jewel-coloured, velvet sofa nooks, where you can sip a mango-and-passionfruit-inflused Pixellated Punch or a Talisker whisky cocktail jazzed up with caramel, apple and nori (dried seaweed).
Dine with the locals
An offshoot of legendary local food venture Digbeth Dining Club, Hockley Social Club is Brum’s sensory-overloading answer to London’s street food scene. Open Thursday-Sunday evenings, its chefs serve up Asian rice bowls, pizzas, tacos and sweet waffles while live bands and local DJs generate a party atmosphere.
Out to brunch
Start the day with some canalside calm at Ju Ju’s Café, consistently rated as one of the best brunch spots in Brum. Nab a table out in the sun and choose from a menu packed with hearty brunch options done exceptionally well. From Lebanese flatbreads with avocado, feta and za’atar to paprika-dusted “eggs in purgatory”, Ju Ju’s serves brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 10am-4pm.
Take a ride
Birmingham is well serviced by a bus network, and trips can be paid for on board with cash (exact change required) or by tapping your contactless card. It’s also worth noting that Birmingham pips Venice when it comes to the overall length of its canals, so you may wish to admire the historic sights by narrowboat. Hour-long City Heritage tours start at the International Convention Centre moorings. Canal Boat trips depart from the International Convention Centre Quayside daily from Easter to end of October (11.30am, 1pm, 2.30pm and 4pm). Weekends only throughout November, January, February and March.
Birmingham’s industrial past is central to its character, and two museums in particular offer immersive glimpses into life during the city’s boom years. Book guided tours in advance to learn about Birmingham’s metalworking and jewellery heritage at Coffin Works, open Friday to Sunday 10.45am-4pm (£8.50), and the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, which is currently only open for special events such as Kids’ jewellery workshops.
A walk in the park
Perhaps surprisingly, Birmingham is one of the greenest cities in the UK. Cannon Hill Park in south Birmingham boasts over 200 acres of green space, and it’s also home to the Midlands Arts Centre and Birmingham Wildlife Conservation Centre. In recent years, massive investment projects have transformed the park into a top leisure spot. A mini funfair operates at the weekend and you can also get active on a vast mini-golf course (£11.90 for 36 holes) or a giant swan pedalo.
The icing on the cake
After London, Birmingham has the second greatest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK, with five total. Book well ahead of time for memorable tasting menus at fine establishments including Purnell’s, the eponymous restaurant headed up by Solihull local Glynn Purnell, Simpsons, a top chef training ground and star holder since 2000, and Carters of Moseley, with a menu focusing on unusual ingredients, wild game and foraged herbs.
Due to its position in the heart of England, the best way to get to Birmingham is by train. Fast and frequent services from all over the country arrive at three main stations: the recently refurbished New Street Station, with its divisive tinfoiled exterior, and the rather less shiny Moor Street and Snow Hill stations.
Located in the Jewellery Quarter, a 15-minute walk from New Street Station, BLOC Hotel (0121 212 1233; blochotels.com) offers minimal but sleek rooms with monsoon showers and super-fast wifi. Doubles from £88 room only.
The red-bricked Hotel du Vin (0121 794 3005, hotelduvin.com) is a Victorian beauty with a convenient central location, home-style French bistro and uniquely styled rooms. Doubles from £109, room only.
St Paul’s House (0121 272 0999, saintpaulshouse.com) in the Jewellery Quarter overlooks Birmingham’s last remaining Georgian square. Rooms are contemporary and casual with a free mini-bar, but there’s a public bar and a modern European restaurant on site should you wish to emerge at some point.