48 hours in Birmingham

In Brum, what you see is what you get and it's getting much better
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The Independent Travel

Why go now?

Why go now?

Because unlike other British cities, all the charm is there but it comes without an attitude - in Birmingham, what you see is what you get. It may be a little rough round the edges, but the city is finally becoming cool. The refurbishment of the canal-side area around the National Indoor Arena, Brindleyplace, has certainly helped, and prestigious new restaurants, galleries and Norman Foster-designed buildings all add to the buzz.

Beam downBirmingham is at the crossroads of the UK motorway (and hence the national coach) system and rail network. Direct trains operate from almost everywhere in Britain, the fastest operated by Virgin (0345 222 333, virgintrains.co.uk). From London, Bristol or Sheffield, the journey takes about 90 minutes. Cheaper options are often available from Central Trains (0121-654 1200, centraltrains.co.uk), Chiltern Railways (08705 165165, chilternrailways.co.uk) or Silverlink (01923 207258). If time is short, fly to the city's airport, 10 minutes by train from New Street station. For bus and train information, call 0121-200 2700. Get your bearingsThe centre of Birmingham feels strangely disjointed; partly due to the busy roads that carve through it and leave pedestrians to scurry through eerie underpasses or take their chances above ground, and partly thanks to the large and often empty pedestrianised areas. From Victoria Square, with the Tourist Information Centre (0121-643 2514, birmingham.org.uk) and the nearby Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, shops radiate out to the east, and bars, restaurants and galleries spill out to the south-west. Check inAmid all the regentrification, you can't help but feel that Birmingham needs a stylish new hotel for the sophisticated crowd visiting galleries, shops, bars and shows at the refurbished Rep (details, 0121-236 4455). Instead, big and brash reigns. There's the plush but poorly located Swallow Hotel at 12 Hagley Road, Five Ways (0121-452 1144, doubles from £195), the more convenient Burlington at 6 Burlington Arcade, 126 New Street (0121-643 9191, burlingtonhotel.com, doubles from £80), or the cheaper Hotel Ibis, Ladywell Walk, near the Arcadian Centre (0121-622 6010, doubles from £49.50). Take a hikeA stroll around the Jewellery Quarter may not be altogether sensible if you have a penchant for gold, since Birmingham is Britain's biggest producer of the stuff, but even if your wallet is less than bulging, this not-quite-gleaming corner of the city makes for an interesting walk. Start by getting an insight into the traditions of the trade at the amazingly well-preserved workshops of the Jewellery Quarter Discovery Centre, 75-79 Vyse Street (0121-554 3598, open 11am-5pm daily except Sunday, £2.50 per adult, £2 per child) and then wind your way through elegant St Paul's Square and past some remarkable old industrial architecture back to the centre of the city. The icing on the cakeOne of the best concert venues in Britain is Birmingham's Symphony Hall on Broad Street (0121-212 3333, symphonyhall.co.uk/symphony), mostly thanks to its top-notch acoustics. If you want to find out what makes them so good, take a 20-minute tour of the building (free, by arrangement,on non-performance days) or, better still, book in for a performance and test the sound effects at first hand. A walk in the parkThe Botanical Gardens are well worth a stroll but, for a boating lake and plenty of green space to run around on, hop on a 45 or 47 bus to Cannon Hill Park (0121-442 4226, birmingham.gov.uk/parks). If your brunch is weighing you down, you can put your feet up at mac (0121-440 3838, birminghamarts.org.uk/mac.html), the rather scruffy arts centre and cinema with a lively café and bar on the edge of the park. Bracing brunchThe Arcadian Centre is just the place to mop up a hangover. Next door to Chinatown, you'll find everything from noodle bars to continental cafés. If you want to start the day on a health drive, stop at Café Soya (Unit B106, Arcadian Centre, Pershore Street, 0121-683 8350, open Sundays 12-8pm) to slurp down a fresh mango juice and a bowl of noodle soup. Take a rideTake the train from New Street station to nearby Bournville, home of Cadbury's, where purple paint and the scent of Dairy Milk clings to everything. The factory is still running and you can visit Cadbury World (0121-451 4180, cadburyworld.co.uk), but Bournville, the adjacent village built by the Cadbury brothers for their workers, is equally fascinating. Sunday morning, go to churchSt Philips Cathedral (19) is designed on a very human scale and feels unusually welcoming. Even if it didn't, you might still find it worthy of a visit for its stained-glass windows, the work of Birmingham boy Edward Burne-Jones. It's in St Philip's Place, adjacent to the elegant Georgian buildings of Colmore Row. Window shoppingShopping is one thing that Birmingham really does well. Head for either New Street or High Street for large, well-stocked branches of Habitat, Oasis, French Connection, Karen Millen, Marks & Sparks and the smart Pavilions shopping centre - not to be confused with the dowdy Pallisades shopping centre. On your way home, pause for coffee at the fab seven-storey Art Deco branch of Waterstones. Lunch on the runBring some sunshine into your visit by stopping for lunch at the sleek Spanish café in the modern Ikon Gallery (1 Oozell's Square, 0121-248 3226, ikon-gallery.co.uk, food served Saturdays 11am-10pm, Sundays 12-3pm). Nibble on scrummy tapas like pepinillos (gherkins to us), artichoke hearts and courgette crisps (all around £1) or try something more substantial, from toasted chorizo sandwiches (£4.25) to squid-ink paella (£14). An aperitifStart your evening in one of the fine establishments of Brindleyplace. You'll find everything from swanky to skanky, plus a Pitcher & Piano and All Bar One thrown in for good measure. Alternatively, take a detour to one of the more traditional pubs on nearby Broad Street or to fiftytwodegreesnorth (Hurst Street, 0121-622 5250), a sleek modern bar in the city's other main drinking zone, the Arcadian Centre. Cultural afternoonAfter such a zesty lunch, you'll be perfectly placed to amble past the Ikon Gallery's striking contemporary exhibits (0121-248 0708, open weekends 11am-6pm, entrance free). Or to take yourself back to an earlier age at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, (Chamberlain Square, 0121-303 2834, open 10am-5pm on Saturdays and 12.30-5pm on Sundays, entrance free), with its impressive collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings. Demure dinnerTake pot-luck in the Balti Quarter, centred on Ladypool Road and Stoney Lane in Small Heath. Or, for something more upmarket but just as spicy, splash out on a posh curry at Shimla Pink (214 Broad Street, 0121-704 0344), rump of lamb with brinjal potatoes and minted yoghurt dressing at Bank (17) (4 Brindleyplace, 0121-633 4466) or crabcakes with green onion risotto at Le Petit Blanc (9 Brindleyplace, 0121-633 7333).