If I tell you I’m from the UK, what immediately springs to mind? The frenetic, bustling streets of London, and the countless sightseeing opportunities it promises? The White Cliffs of Dover, that first glimpse of England you catch as you cross the Channel on a passenger ferry? Perhaps you’re thinking about the beautiful Scottish Highlands, Edinburgh Castle, Stonehenge, the Lake District or the beaches of Cornwall…one place you’re probably not thinking of, when I mention the UK, is its second most populous city: Birmingham.
“Oh, Birmingham,” you might say, “Yeah, I’ve heard of it. Isn’t it an industrial city? I can’t imagine there’s much to see…”
Well, why don’t you join me on a quick tour of my home and the surrounding area? Historic sights, amazing architecture, scenic bike rides and a chocolate factory to get lost in…I think you’ll find that there’s plenty to see in the West Midlands region, wherever your interests might lie.
Birmingham – Things to know & places to go
- Take a train from London Euston to Birmingham New Street in just 90 mins (approx.)
- Save money and take the bus – Megabus will get you from London to Birmingham in about 4 hours
- Birmingham Airport also serves domestic and international flights to millions of passengers each year
Now then, where should we go first?
First of all, you’re probably already much more familiar with Birmingham than you realise. Have you ever tasted a Cadbury Creme Egg at Easter time, or at least seen your Internet friends waxing lyrical about them on Instagram? These iconic sugary treats, and indeed anything wrapped in the famous purple of Cadbury, originate in Birmingham and are still made in their millions every year at the Bournville factory! If you’re in the area, you can take a tour of Cadbury World and learn all about its history…any free samples of chocolate are merely an added bonus, of course.
After you’ve stuffed your face with chocolate, why not head into the city centre and admire its eclectic mix of old and new architecture? There’s the Bullring shopping centre, one of the busiest centres in the country, with its must-see Selfridges building – divisive, but undoubtedly a landmark! It provides an interesting backdrop to St Martin’s church, and beyond it, the world famous rag market. Don’t forget to stop for a photograph with the bronze Bullring Bull, too, though you might have to elbow your way through his crowds of admiring fans…
After you’ve digested the chocolate and spent most of your money in the shops, it’s time to walk along New Street to Victoria Square, where you’ll find the famous “Floozie in the Jacuzzi” fountain (though these days she’s more “Floozie in the flowerbed“!). You’ll also find the Council House and, at Christmas time, the hugely popular Christmas market. Again, you’ll probably need to use your elbows to make it out alive…
From there, head past the Council House and spend an hour or so in the Museum and Art Gallery at Chamberlain Square, admiring Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces. You’re only a short walk away from another masterpiece, too, albeit a far more modern one – The Birmingham Library. It’s always reminded me of the Titanic, for some reason…don’t stop at simply admiring its striking looks, though – head inside and lose yourself in the seemingly endless collection of books. It’s a marvellous place. Another of the city’s icons is right next door – The Rep theatre. Why not see a show whilst you’re here? There’s bound to be something exciting on at the Hippodrome, too, and if that isn’t enough art and culture for one day, don’t forget that Birmingham is also home to a magnificent Symphony Orchestra, Royal Ballet company and Opera…are you quite convinced that this is a city well worth a spot on your England Awareness Radar? I really hope so!
However you choose to spend the afternoon, I trust that afterwards you’ll still have time (and energy) to visit Brindleyplace. This canalside area has many great bars and restaurants, with access to the National Sea Life Centre and National Indoor Arena, just in case you’re in the mood to feed a few otters before seeing your favourite band play a gig. It’s also well worth your time to take a walk along the canal towpaths…if you’re in the area for a couple of days, and happen to encounter a good bit of weather, getting hold of a bicycle and spending a few hours cycling is a truly pleasurable way to pass a day. You can get to Wolverhampton, a neighbouring city, in a couple of hours – you could stop somewhere for lunch, then cycle back again, negotiating the many canal locks along the way! In the summer time it’s a joy to wave at barges as they pass, and listen to the indignant quacking of ducks as they hasten to get out of the way…
Left to right: Brindleyplace, The Library of Birmingham, the Council House, Chamberlain Square
Beyond Birmingham – Where to go next
There’s more than enough to see and do in Birmingham to keep you busy. If, however, you find yourself with time to spare and a yearning to venture further afield, you’ll discover plenty more fascinating places to visit – and none of them are too far away. Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, is less than an hour’s drive away, and there are excellent rail links to other major cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and the capital. If you’d prefer to avoid the crowds of shoppers and tourists, there are a few other ‘hidden treasures’ I can wholeheartedly recommend…
You’ve already cycled to Wolverhampton – why not have a rest in the gardens of this beautiful National Trust property? Afterwards, head inside to see more Pre-Raphaelite treasures (including the most beautiful painting by Birmingham artist Edward Burne-Jones), and William Morris textiles.
Easily accessible from Wolverhampton by bus or car, this beautiful little town in Shropshire boasts a funicular railway, castle ruins, and views of steam trains departing on the Severn Valley Railway. There are lots of interesting antique shops and cafés, as well as a 17th-century town hall and gate.
Another lovely Shropshire town, Shrewsbury’s modern shops and restaurants mix with its myriad winding, medieval side streets. The town has retained many historical features, and there are lots of interesting independent traders and cafés to seek out.
Welcome to the West Midlands
Enlightened, exhausted, all shopped-out and probably still full of chocolate…I know it’s been a hectic tour, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it. These are, of course, only a few of the many highlights that Birmingham, and the wider West Midlands region, have to offer. We haven’t even touched upon the Tolkien connection, its industrial significance, Duran Duran, Aston Villa, HP sauce or Bird’s custard! Now that you’re here, you might as well stay a while longer and explore the city in its entirety, before heading off to find a few treasures of your own…I’ll leave you with a few of my favourite Birmingham facts, as compiled by the BBC, and hope to bump into you one day soon! We could meet by the Bull statue – be sure to bring a camera!
- The city’s first canal opened in 1769.
- One of Europe’s busiest motorway junctions is right next to the city centre – Spaghetti Junction!
- Ozzy Osbourne and the manufacturer Matthew Boulton are both from Birmingham.
- The Bullring area has been a market site for over 800 years.
- The city has its own distinct accent and dialect, Brummie, and there are many other bostin’ dialects to be found in the region.
Instead of saying goodbye, we’ll use a local parting phrase…ta-rah a bit!