Birmingham is a large and diverse melting pot, and the nation’s second largest city after London. The city’s long industrial heritage may have given way to the service sector in recent years, but many of its former industrial buildings remain. Birmingham is in the process of overseeing a steady re-generation that has meant substantial city centre redevelopment in recent years. It is a busy and bustling conurbation that is packed with shops, conference centres, top hotels, restaurants, museums and bars, with a cosmopolitan feel that reflects its diversity.
There are a number of nicknames that give a glimpse into the nature of this energetic and vibrant West Midlands city. Its significant role in the Industrial Revolution led to it being named ‘the workshop of the world’ and the ‘city of 1001 trades’. All kinds of manufacturing and creative activities were carried out in the area during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The population grew considerably during this time too, with 180,000 inhabitants in 1841 compared to 60,000 50 years previously. The pioneers of the industrial revolution were collectively known as the Lunar Society. They were responsible for dreaming up the world’s first purpose-built factory, inventing gas lighting, pioneering the distillation of oxygen and, perhaps most importantly, the mass production of the steam engine. The likes of magnetron, custard powder and Brylcreem also came out of Birmingham at this time. This really was an immensely important era in the city’s history.
Although Birmingham is almost as far away from the sea as it’s possible to get, it is home to the flagship National Sealife Centre. This is a great day out for families visiting the area. It features an ocean tank filled with one million litres of water and all kinds of sea creatures. The centre is home to more than 1,000 creatures and there are feeding demonstrations throughout the day, interactive exhibits where you can hold crabs and starfish, and a 4D cinema.
Off the beaten track
In the 19th century Birmingham’s population grew rapidly, which put a strain on its housing. Working class people were packed into small houses referred to as Birmingham’s back to backs, some of which have been restored thanks to the National Trust. Based around a central courtyard, these houses were one room deep and two or three storeys high. These days visitors can take a step back in time and witness what life would have been like for these normal people from the 1840s through to the 1970s.
Food and drink
The likes of Typhoo, Bird’s custard, Cadbury’s chocolate and HP sauce all originate from Birmingham. The city’s overwhelmingly cosmopolitan flavour is inevitably expressed in its food offerings, to the extent that foods from 27 nations are represented here. Asian cuisine is most notable, centred around the so-called Balti Triangle that has developed since the 1970s. You’ll also find a plethora of restaurants, bars and clubs in areas such as Brindleyplace and the Arcadian Centre. Further, there are three Michelin-starred restaurants in the city, which is the most of any UK city outside of London.
On the east side of the city you’ll find Birmingham Airport, which is around 10 minutes on the train from the centre. The airport is just off the M42. which hems the city in to the south. To the west is the M5 and to the east and the north is the M6. The road links to the rest of the UK are good, but busy.
If you’re travelling to Birmingham by train it’s likely you’ll enter through New Street train station at the city’s heart. Moor Street train station is set near the Bullring, while Snow Hill is ideal for those heading to the business area. The Midland Metro is a light rail system that helps visitors get around the city centre. It also connects with Snow Hill and Wolverhampton.
Canals have been present in Birmingham since the 1820s and while they once ferried cargo from A to B they are now part of the nation’s leisure canal network.
The centre of the city is home to typical shopping streets, some of which are pedestrianised, such as New Street. It is the shopping centres that have helped propel Birmingham to its highly regarded reputation for shopping though. The Bullring shopping centre’s flagship store is Selfridges, which is very futuristic from the outside with its unusual silver disc appearance. There are 160 stores in total at the Bullring including Debenhams, Hollister and Apple.
The Mailbox is a sophisticated alternative with 50 stores, restaurants and cafes. Fashion, home and lifestyle shops are among the options here, with Harvey Nichols and Bang & Olufsen just two of the high profile names.
Out of town
The ever-popular Cadbury World is set in Bourneville, around six miles from the centre of Birmingham. It is a great day out for chocolate lovers. Here you can discover how the lovely brown stuff is made, create a taste sensation and play in chocolate rain. The centre is great for families and indeed people of all ages. In total there are 14 zones with interactive displays and presentations, which tell the story of one of the world’s largest confectionary manufacturers.
Did you know?
Birmingham is well known for its Balti Triangle but the word balti is though to refer to the bowl from which the curry is eaten as opposed to a type of curry. It originates from the Urdu word balty which translates as ‘bucket’.
Another nickname for Birmingham is the ‘curry capital of the UK’, revealing something of the city’s reputation for Asian cuisine. From the 1970s onwards a series of curry houses began to open in and around an area now popularly referred to as the Balti Triangle. Around the city, food from over 20 nations is represented, which adds a wonderful richness to local culture. There are several restaurants, bars and clubs around the modern and sophisticated Brindleyplace, which named after James Brindley, an 18th century engineer responsible for many early British canals.
Birmingham’s nightlife and shopping is also worthy of note. The centre of the city is home to a several comedy clubs and bars. For a more refined experience there are theatres such as the Birmingham Hippodrome and the 1834-built Town Hall. This is also the home of the Royal Ballet and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Two contemporary shopping centres have sprung up in recent years. The glamorous Bullring took the place of a former less attractive shopping centre. The sophisticated Mailbox is set in the former postal sorting office and features more than 50 stores and restaurants. The busy pedestrianised area around New Street also has plenty of shops to explore.
The city isn’t packed with stunning sights and enthralling architecture, but there are plenty of things to do. The National Sealife Centre is a great day out for families. The Ikon Gallery is home to intriguing contemporary art, while the famous Jewellery Quarter features 100 shops and the informative Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. The Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is also a popular place to visit. Birmingham has become popular for tourism, but the likes of the National Exhibition Centre, the National Indoor Arena, the International Convention Centre and the Colmore district have helped the city become a major international business centre.