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UK City Guide: things to do in bustling Birmingham

April 28, 2017

*Long read* Often considered the second city of the UK, Birmingham has always been bursting at the seams with diversity, entertainment and great things to see and do. With the promise of fabulous food, meandering canals (did you know Birmingham has more than Venice!), superb shopping and endless entertainment it’s little wonder Birmingham’s tourism is growing from strength to strength. So, here’s a handy little guide of what’s what and where to go during your stay in Brum.

Top spots to be a tourist

1. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

The Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery or BMAG (to give it its street name) houses a sprawling, impressive collection from display art right through to archaeology it charts the social history of this fascinating city’s tale. Comprised of over 40 galleries this truly is a destination for anyone visiting Birmingham. The gallery is famed for its Pre-Raphaelite paintings – which forms part of the largest Pre-Raphaelite public collection in the world. The historical showcasing is just as notable – with artefacts spanning seven centuries of European and world history, dating right back to the Ancient Greek and Roman times. The third floor is also largely occupied by local history, featuring the ‘Birmingham: its people, its history’ gallery.

2. Thinktank, Science Museum

If you’ve got a few hours spare in Brum then you’ve got to visit the award-winning Thinktank for a fun-filled family day out at the city’s Science Museum. Packed full of over 200 hands-on interactive science and technology activities, expect to find everything from talking robots to a chocolate wrapping machine. There’s also a Planetarium and Science Garden housed in the four floors of amazing activities. You’ll find the Thinktank in the Millennium Pont building and there is usually a busy calendar of events and displays on show.

3. Cadburys Factory

Channel your inner Charlie and get down to the Cadburys Chocolate Factory – you don’t even need a golden ticket to gain entry! As you might imagine this is a chocolate-lover’s paradise. Get swooped away on a 4D chocolate adventure where you can ride the Crunchie rollercoaster and immerse yourself into a choc-tastic world. Seriously, this is all possible. You can even see a replica of the first Cadburys shop, built way back in 1824! Nice to know they enjoyed a bit of choccy in the olden days, too. You can go back even further than that as well and forage in the Aztec Jungle to learn of the origins of the cocoa bean. Once you’ve come down from your first sugar rush you can stop off at the world’s largest Cadburys shop before the tour comes to an end – what a sweet ending.

4. Symphony Hall

Did you know that Birmingham has a long-standing affinity with classical music? Well now you can explore this fascinating love affair in the most exquisite of settings. Hailed as one of the finest Symphony Halls in the country, if not the world, Birmingham’s has a proud history and musical tradition. Celebrating its 25th year in 2016, there will be numerous events taking place to commemorate the work exhibited in the Hall. Famous composers such as Elgar, Sibelius and Mendelssohn were involved in the city’s celebrated music festivals of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

5. Philip’s Cathedral

This stunning cathedral not only offers views of awe-inspiring architecture, it also acts as a gateway to the history of Birmingham. The Grade I listed building has stood since 1715 and is famed for its stained-glass windows, which were installed back in 1885. The building helped transform Birmingham from a town into the city it is today and there are guided tours of the cathedral that offer an insight into that rich history.

Ales or beers, vino or cocktails

As our Birmingham Travel Centre is so conveniently located in the heart of the city it does mean there is a wide choice of watering holes around for you to visit. Whether you’re after a nice pub lunch or fire-breathing bartenders, Birmingham’s stylish blend of dens and dwellings leaves you spoilt for choice…

For those of you who are more CAMRA than snapping cocktails with your camera; the city centre has several pubs to quaff a real ale or two. Head to Bacchus bar (they’ve got the Cask Marque seal of approval) for a variety of real cask ales. Its clandestine appearance only adds to the appeal, making it the perfect haunt to enjoy some fine beers.

Alternatively try The Post Office Vaults – the dimly lit interior is a throwback to boozers of the past but its nod to modernism comes in the form of its extensive, 300-strong, beer menu; including eight real ale pumps. Possibly one of Birmingham’s best pubs at the moment is the Brasshouse. Again Cask Marque accredited, this den could be easily mistaken for the set of Peaky Blinders. It effortlessly oozes character and charm and proudly boasts some of the best beers in Brum – expect breweries like Black Sheep, Banks’ Brewery and Wychwood to feature.

Cocktail lovers don’t panic – Birmingham’s got you covered. And how! Cosy up in one of the booths at Gas Street Social and drink in the atmosphere as well as the superb cocktails. Meticulously prepared the quirky concoctions are a delicious alternative to your bog standard vodka and coke. For a truly hot experience you can’t go wrong with a trip to Birmingham’s Tika bar, Island Bar. Hidden away in the city centre the fire-y bartenders create cocktails to your style and taste and the upstairs beach retreat is fast becoming the place to be.

If you’re happy to splash the cash and err on the side of sophistication then the Harvey Nichols Restaurant Bar is the destination for the discerning drinker. They have an elegant, extensive wine menu for the cultured palates among you, as well as beers and cocktails, and the interior simply oozes opulence making for the perfect combination for a relaxing tipple.

Ain’t no therapy like retail therapy

With the usual offering of high street shops Birmingham isn’t without its fashion conscious stores. But, in truth, if you want somewhere that offers a bit of everything then the iconic Bull Ring is the place to visit. With its distinctive appearance it is one of Birmingham’s signature landmarks; and a healthy mix of high-end boutiques and high street favourites means the Bull Ring has styles that suit all shoppers and budgets. If you do fancy splashing the cash then their Selfridges store is the place to find all the latest catwalk glamour. And with free Wi-Fi you can even Instagram your on-trend look right from the shop floor. You trend setter you! There is also a liberal smattering of restaurants so if you want to chow down on something on-the-go or opt for a more elegant eatery the Bull Ring’s got you covered there too.

Cheap eat treats

The Midlands – in particular Birmingham – is famed for its curries. So it only seems right if you want to indulge in ‘local’ cuisine that you take a wander down, and get lost in, the Balti Triangle. Located to the south of the city centre this area is bursting with Balti curry houses. It should be. It was invented there! Here you can sample foods showcasing exquisite colours infused with delicate flavours.

The trailblazing Tapas house, Rico Libre is among the best new additions to the Brummie food scene. Set up in 2014, this buzzy BYO booze spot has been winning over fans for two years now. The star attraction here has to be selecting any three dishes for £12. With favourites like patatas bravas, whitebait and calamari you’re spoilt for choice.

A short walk from the city centre will land you in the lively Digbeth area of Birmingham. Here you’ll find Digbeth Dining Club at Spotlight – a pop up paradise. The sensory overload is a delight for food lovers and there are literally truckloads of food from all over the world on offer.

Coffee breaks are generally a must when wandering through a city and taking in all it has to offer. In Birmingham, however, one man is turning a quick coffee break into a must-see destination. Jake’s Coffee Box offers customers a variety of beverages (including coffee) and sweet or savoury pastries – all from a modified red phone box. That’s one way to dial it up a notch.

Fine dining and posh nibbles

If, like us, your day is planned around meal times then you might want to treat yourself to one of Birmingham’s top tables on your visit to the city. And there are plenty to choose from.

Let’s start with a man whose reputation in the globe of gastronomy is second to none, Monsieur Marco Pierre White. His eponymous Steakhouse has been causing heads to turn and mouths to drool since opening. Located at the top of The Cube building in the Mailbox district, the restaurant offers stunning 360 degree panoramic views of the city; the perfect setting for an exquisite meal. As its name suggests meat, including 28-day dry aged British steak, features heavily on the expertly crafted menu. For a truly sophisticated experience you can also sip some bubbly in the Laurent Perrier Champagne Bar to complete your experience.

Listed in The Good Food Guide Top 50 restaurants for 2016 and with a Michelin star and three AA Rosettes to its name Adam’s is the epitome of food heaven. The joint is headed up by partners Adam and Natasha. Adam, the Chef Patron, has produced a Classic British fine dining menu that is receiving rave reviews, culminating in it being voted the UK’s number 1 restaurant in 2015 by TripAdvisor.

Next to feature on our menu is the sizeable chunk of Italian heaven, Fumo. Brought to us by the award-winning San Carlo group this ristorante serves classic Cicchetti cuisine along with hearty Italian fare. With main dishes from their Pizza, Carne and Pasta Al Forno sections priced at around a tenner it represents incredible value for money. As if that wasn’t enough good news the restaurant is open daily till 11.30pm and the bar is open till 2.30am on the weekends, serving a selection of chic cocktails. Bellissimo!

Free things to do in Birmingham

If you want to explore Birmingham without breaking the bank then you can – there is honestly loads of stuff to keep you busy during your time in the city. As we’ve already mentioned the museums and galleries we’ll consider you informed on those so here’s what else is on offer. If the weather permits Birmingham has a lot of green spaces where you can enjoy a leisurely stroll – within the city you’ll find Canons Hill Park, Kings Heath Park and Lightvale Park to name a few. If you find yourself in Canons Hill Park then be sure to visit The mac – even if it’s only because of the cool name – where you’ll find markets of the craft and food variety. You might also stumble upon a live performance ranging from dance to comedy.

Calling all aspiring TV presenters: visit BBC Birmingham at the Mailbox and try your hand (or head) at TV presenting as you experience being in front of the camera. You can also go on a 90-minute studio tour and even have your picture snapped with a Dalek or the TARDIS. Mental!

Excursions for culture vultures

With more canals than Venice – nope, that’s not a misprint – you can bet Birmingham’s busy waterways are filled with stories and rich with history. While we’ll admit there is a distinct lack of blokes serenading you on Gondolas while floating through the city (thank God), these canals certainly represent a quintessential part of Birmingham – and indeed the nation. Explore the meandering avenues of water and take a trip down memory lane to understand the importance of Britain’s waterways and the sterling work that goes in to preserving them.

Responsible for the manufacturing of 40% of the UK’s jewellery Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter is definitely worth the visit. Have a gander at the dazzling bling on display, the area houses the Europe’s largest concentration of jewellery, so you won’t be short of things that catch the eye. If you’re not taken by the jewellery on show then you can learn about its history and the rise to prominence of the Jewellery Quarter at the dedicated museum.

The Venue Menu

Welcome to our comprehensive list of venues around the city. With everything from plays to musicals, world-renowned artists to local bands – there’s entertainment for everyone in Birmingham.

  • Barclaycard Arena – live music, comedy, sport and entertainment shows
  • Genting Arena – live music, comedy and sports entertainment shows
  • O2 Academy – live music and club nights
  • NEC Arena – exhibitions and trade shows
  • Hippodrome – comedy, ballet, opera, dance and musicals
  • Crescent Theatre – local theatre productions, musical and acoustic sessions
  • New Alexandra Theatre – musicals, stage shows, plays and live entertainment

Best places for sleepovers

Value for money

  • Britannia Hotel – Wi-Fi (free in public areas), on-site bar and restaurant, pet friendly, air-con, tea and coffee making facilities
  • Premier Inn Waterloo St – free Wi-Fi, on-site restaurant, affordable rooms, power showers, tea and coffee making facilities, close to CLC World Travel Centre
  • Staybridge Suites – free Wi-Fi, breakfast included, suite rooms, 24-hour pantry, fully-equipped kitchen, fitness centre, housekeeping service

Luxury stay

  • Staying Cool at The Rotunda – central location, close to Moor St and New St train stations, free Wi-Fi, panoramic city views, stylish apartment accommodation, Sky TV, tea and coffee facilities
  • Hotel La Tour – free Wi-Fi, King-size beds, monsoon shower with White Company toiletries, air-con, well-equipped gym, Marco Pierre White’s Chophouse restaurant, on-site cocktail bar
  • Hotel du Vin & Bistro – King-size beds, monsoon shower, Egyptian bed linen, luxury spa, sauna and steam room, well-equipped gym, on-site French bistro, underground vaulted pub du Vin, Bubble Lounge bar

Jack O'RiordanView all posts

    Jack is the editor of The Leisure Lounge. Expert in the art of writing things and putting them online. Loves travelling, especially anywhere in southeast Asia. Hates mushrooms.