In search of: Birmingham chic

It's not all motorways and vast concrete tower blocks. The designer shoe, not the commuter car, is the mode of transport du jour
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The Independent Travel

Come off it. Birmingham is not so much the Second City as our second-rate city

Come off it. Birmingham is not so much the Second City as our second-rate city

You haven't been there recently, have you? Lay aside those prejudices and look. Can you really imagine Raymond Blanc or Harvey Nichols setting foot in the Birmingham of your nightmares? Well they're there now. So is the Halcyon gallery chain, which has just moved into Harrods, and Hotel du Vin, which has never been known to venture north of the M4 before.

Yes, but what are they doing there? Slowly going bankrupt?

No. Harvey Nicks always acts like a rich-babe magnet, pulling in the seriously affluent, while Raymond Blanc hardly sees himself as a social worker for depressed inner-city areas. Suddenly, a reason exists for the chic set to move into Brum, because £300,000 apartments are being created out of every canalside tenement. Take flats in The Mail Box, for example. Not only do you have shops such as Tim Little Shoes downstairs (£610 for your first pair of handmade brogues), but also a sushi bar and Emporio Armani. Birmingham even has its own outlet for every man's ultimate status symbol, the Belstaff jacket, which is available from Autograph. Believe me, some of the best addresses these days are to be found canalside in Birmingham.

I thought Gas Street Basin was just miles and miles of open sewer

True, the canals are still pitch black and covered in an oily film, but the days of watching dead dogs and industrial effluent float by are long gone. These days glass-topped pleasure boats putter past the Convention Centre. Meanwhile, restaurants are fighting over the chance to open up waterside decking so we can all enjoy the vista. Better still, the towpaths have been restored, allowing pedestrian access to most of the west end of town along these brick-built waterways.

But are the roads still notorious?

Perhaps the greatest challenge to Birmingham was Prince Charles's invective against a city which put the needs of cars above people. Birmingham took this royal complaint to heart and started sticking cars underground instead, thus enabling Brummies to emerge blinking from the urine-soaked underpasses into a beautifully pedestrianised new world.

The result has been a golden mile and a half of streets and piazzas, previously hostage to the motor car, now returned to the public. No longer crowded on to pavements, locals can step back and get a perspective on their surroundings. The Council House, a superb piece of imperial grandiloquence, has been revealed in all its glory. The old Post Office opposite has a gothic roofing worthy of Pevsner's notebook, which no one had stopped to take in for 50 years. Moreover, modern architecture is at last taking its cue from these splendours instead of trying to pretend they are not there. Look at the superb new neoclassical brickwork of Brindley Square, complementing the old Victorian brickwork of Oozells St School (now the Ikon Gallery).

But is there any culture worth speaking of?

Oh, goodness yes. You virtually fall over sculptures in Brum. "The Floozy in the Jacuzzi" (as Dhruva Mistry's water feature is locally known) has made Victoria Square a new focal point for the City and the "Pink Blancmange" (another local name) in Centenary Square has become a local landmark with its idiosyncratic 3D interpretation of the city's growth.

There are plenty of contemporary galleries, too, supplementing the City Art Gallery in Chamberlain Square with its unrivalled collection of Pre-Raphaelites. And, of course, there's the music. Sir Simon may have quitted Birmingham for Berlin, but he has left behind one hell of a legacy at the Symphony Hall.

I suppose there are great hotels, too?

Well, the Hyatt is well worth a visit if only to see the bridge over Broad Street that was commissioned to link the Symphony Hall and its glass-coated Hyatt neighbour. Unbelievably, someone got the measurements wrong and you can still spot the extra section that had to be added so that chic hotel visitors wouldn't have to pole-vault from the Hyatt into Sir Simon's concerts. Hotel du Vin in the old Church Street Eye Hospital is quite remarkable, too, and is pioneering Ecole du Vin weekends, when visitors can spend two days learning about wine in comfort under the direction of Gérard Basset (voted Best European Sommelier 1996). Not exactly Crossroads Motel, be honest.

What about night life? I heard Ronnie Scott's was closing

Sadly, the Midlands' premiere jazz venue is quitting after 10 years in Broad Street. But it's being replaced by The Rocket Club, which will be offering, so I hear, a heady cocktail of insightful cabaret and satirical lap-dancing. Then there's The Glee Club, in the Arcadian Centre on Hirst Street, which is where future Jasper Carrots are harvested, and Bobbie Brown's in Gas Street, which was going strong as a nightclub long before the canalside became a premiere address.

Anything for the children?

Well the National Sea Life Centre at Water's Edge is both educational and fun. Imagine walking through a Perspex tunnel of sharks to the music of Barry White, or indeed shelling out £3.50 to have your photo taken with a giant octopus. Is this or is this not different?

OK, I'm convinced. How do I get there?

Virgin Trains (08457 222333; www.virgin trains.co.uk) calls at New Street Station (not the best welcome to Birmingham) and National Express (0870 580 8080; www.nationalexpressgroup.com) at Digbeth Coach Station (even worse). Until these two termini are replaced, the seriously chic would be best advised to drive and use hotel parking. For further information, contact Birmingham Tourist Information (0121-693 6300; www.birmingham.org.uk).

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