48 Hours In: Birmingham

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Simon Calder gets into the festive swing with a weekend in the city at the heart of England

Why go now?

The city's now-traditional Christmas Market opens for the festive season this weekend – centred on Victoria Square (1) and Centenary Square (2). It adds some welcome frivolity to Birmingham's renaissance.

Luftwaffe bombing, combined with disastrous post-war planning, devastated the city at the heart of England. But the painful process of regeneration has been sealed by the completion of the spectacular Library of Birmingham (3) – the city's answer to Bilbao's Guggenheim, only more useful.

Touch down

With Birmingham at the heart of Britain's rail network, the train is the obvious way to arrive. You can catch direct trains from all corners to New Street Station (4) – with the most frequent services from London Euston. Chiltern Railways offers competition from London Marylebone to the handsome Moor Street Station (5) and the ugly Snow Hill Station (6) (the original Great Western Railway building was demolished as recently as 1977). Schedules and fares are available on 08457 48 49 50 or at nationalrail.co.uk.

Birmingham airport is 10 miles east of the city centre, with frequent trains to New Street (4) taking as little as nine minutes.

The Visitor Centre (7) is at the junction of New Street and Corporation Street (0844 888 3883; visitbirmingham.com; 9am-5pm daily, Sunday 10am-4pm).

Get your bearings

The core of Birmingham is a diamond formed from the dual carriageway, the Queensway, that wraps around it. The city's "high street", New Street, runs from Victoria Square (1) to the Pavilions (8) shopping mall. Much of the recent development has been to the west, in the shape of landmark structures such as the ICC and Symphony Hall (9), The Mailbox (10) and the adjacent Cube (11) shopping malls, and the canalside Brindleyplace complex (12).

Check in

Birmingham has perhaps the UK's highest concentration of budget chain hotels, with Premier Inns and Travelodges galore, but there are still individual properties that combine comfort and character – led by the beautiful Hotel du Vin (13) on Church Street (0844 736 4250; hotelduvin.com). The property's origins as an Eye Hospital are still in evidence, with much of the elaborate decoration preserved. It is overlaid with indulgence, with bedrooms and public rooms that invite you to rest after your exploration. The double-room rate for next weekend, booked in advance, is £180 including breakfast. The sofa-strewn lounge is worth a visit for tea (£3.50) even if you stay elsewhere.

Of the new and shiny properties, the four-star Hotel La Tour (14) on Albert Street (0121-718 8000; hotel-latour.co.uk) is the most interesting: acutely angular, hi-tech and comfortable. A double-room rate of £142, including breakfast, is often available if you commit in advance.

Day One

Take a view

The exterior of the new Library of Birmingham (3) resembles a stack of Christmas present. Inside, it is a bibliographic masterpiece that offers great views (0121 242 4242; libraryofbirmingham.com; 9am-5pm Sat; 11am-4pm Sun; 8am-8pm weekdays). The visitor is funnelled upwards on suspended escalators through orbits of books. From Level 4, a cylindrical glass lift rises to Level 7,w here the "Secret Garden" reveals a panorama of the city. Go up two more floors to the Shakespeare Memorial Room and the Skyline Viewpoint,

Take a hike

From the Library (3) head through Paradise Forum to the Museum and Art Gallery (15) (0121 303 1966; bmag.org.uk; 10am-5pm daily; free). It has an impressive collection of Pre-Raphaelites, plus municipal history from the city's medieval origins to Duran Duran.

Thread through the Christmas throng on Victoria Square (1) and along New Street. Turn left along Corporation Street. Cross Old Square (16) with its giant monochrome sculpture of local comedian Tony Hancock.

At the handsome fine Victoria Law Courts (17), bear right to the campus of Birmingham Metropolitan College (18), centred on a wildlife-rich lake, and Eastside City Park (19) to see the layers of industrial boom and bust.

Lunch on the run

The Warehouse Café (20) at 54 Allison Street (0121 633 0261; www.thewarehouse cafe.com; noon-8.30pm Mon-Sat, noon-3.30pm Sun to Christmas) is run by Birmingham Friends of the Earth and was the city's first vegetarian restaurant. Soup (£4.50), millet salad (£6.50) and tea (£1) should do the trick.

Window shopping

Birmingham appears to have reached retail saturation point with its many shopping malls. Yet independent stores are flourishing – notably in the Digbeth area, where you'll find the Custard Factory (21). The Gibb Street premises of the former custard king, Alfred Bird, are now filled with shops and galleries (0121 224 7777; custardfactory.co.uk).

More conventional is The Mailbox (10) which contains Harvey Nichols and Armani.

Cultural afternoon

BBC Birmingham, also in The Mailbox (10), is home to The Archers – and the Corporation's most visitor-friendly base. Test your aptitude as a weather presenter, meet a Dalek and see BBC WM and the Asian Network live on air at the free Visitor Centre (open 9.30am -5.30pm daily, Sunday 11am-5pm). Or book online at bit.ly/Ambridge for a 90-minute guided tour inside the newsroom and studios, price £8; free to Blue Peter Badge holders.

An aperitif

Turn left out of the BBC, right at the Cube (11) and walk north beside the canal to the Malt House (22), a former maltings. Or try the classic Victorian Craven Arms (23) on Upper Gough Street.

Dining with the locals

Eat between 6-7pm on a Saturday at Opus at Cornwall Street (24) (0121 200 2323; opus restaurant.co.uk) for the set price Market Menu (£9.50 for one course, £3 for each additional course; Monday to Friday, no time restrictions). The dishes depend on what is available at the local wholesale markets.

Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

St Philip's (25) is a 1715 Baroque parish church thatt became a cathedral in 1905. The highlights are the Burne-Jones stained-glass windows at either end of the nave (open 8.30am-5pm weekends, 7.30am-6.30pm other days; Choral Eucharist is at 11am on Sunday). For more Burne-Jones – assisted by William Morris – visit the lofty St Martin in the Bullring (26). The 12th-century origins are hard to identify, but the effigies of the "de Bermingham" family are easy to spot.

Out to brunch

A few yards from Cathedral Square, step from Newhall Street into Greenwich Village. Industrial-chic Yorks Bakery Café (27) serves Birmingham's best brunch between 9.30am to 4pm on Sundays (earlier on other days). After a small vat of porridge, try shashuka (peppers, baked eggs and tomatoes), price £5.75.

Take a ride

The canalside entrance to the ICC (9) is the departure point for daily narrow-boat tours of Birmingham's canal network – touted as more extensive than Venice's. Decide if it is also more alluring on a one-hour, £8 City Heritage tour (0121 451 6163; sherbornewharf.co.uk; 11.30am, 1pm, 2.30pm and 4pm, weekends only in winter). There is also a £16.50 lunch cruise on some Sundays.

Walk in the park

The Botanical Gardens (28) are 1.5 miles south-west of the city at Westbourne Road in leafy Edgbaston (0121 454 1860; bit.ly/BrumBloom; 10am-5pm; £6). Buses 22, 23, 24 and 29 stop outside. The former farm has a fine collection of Victorian glasshouses and a modern aviary. Warm up in the Tropical House or the Pavilion Tea Room.

Icing on the cake

The Christmas Market (10am-9pm daily until 22 December; 0121 303 3008; bit.ly/BirXmas) celebrates Birmingham's twin city, Frankfurt. The market stalls in Victoria Square (1) and Centenary Square (2) offer local crafts plus German beer and the best wurst in the Midlands.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas