Birmingham city guide: How to spend a weekend in the UK’s second city

Forget everything you thought you knew about Brum – explore this cool, contemporary city with our ultimate 48-hour guide

Julie Zhang
Wednesday 03 April 2019 14:59
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Why go now?

Hurtling along at top speed on a hamster wheel of regeneration, Birmingham is constantly pulling out new attractions that make it a worthy weekend destination. Long regarded as a drab place and teased relentlessly for producing a singsong accent, today’s fast-evolving Brum will surprise you with its innovative, eye-popping modern architecture and new attractions that infuse contemporary flair into the city’s industrial character. And you won’t go hungry, either: from diverse street food and proper curries to beautiful Michelin-starred nosh, Brum’s gastronomic offerings are sure to give you eyes bigger than your belly.

Get your bearings

Many of the top attractions, new developments and shopping hotspots in Birmingham are clustered within easy walking distance of each other and the central transport hub, New Street Station (1). The historic Jewellery Quarter (2) in the northeast portion of the centre is replete with architectural gems (pun intended) from Birmingham’s industrial past, and the area is thought to produce 40 per cent of all British jewellery. To the west, canals find a sophisticated neighbour in the Brindleyplace (3) development. For a more creative, arty vibe, head to Digbeth (4) and its Custard Factory where arts, street food and live music collide. South of the centre, you’ll find impressive green spaces to relax in like Cannon Hill Park (5) and the Botanical Gardens (6).

Day one

Take a hike

Start at the ultra square, love-it-or-hate building called The Cube (7). Cross over the bridge to Gas Street Basin (8), and keep along the towpath to stroll past moored narrowboats. Nip under the arch of Broad Street Tunnel, and continue on to Birmingham City Centre Path (9). Turn left when you hit the Pitcher & Piano (10) to explore the streets and squares of the masterfully redeveloped Brindleyplace (3), where relaxed eateries sit alongside the award-winning Ikon Gallery (11), and rows of blossom trees that shroud the Japanese-inspired Oozells Square (12) in pink during springtime.

Return to the canalside path, then cross the canal via the suspension bridge (13). Walk straight through the ICC (14) into Centenary Square, where you’ll be confronted by the Library of Birmingham (15) – a bold and blocky modern affair with yellow tiers and a lacy metal shell. Cross Paradise Circus Queensway via the walkway, bearing right and then left onto Fletchers Walk (16). Spot the neoclassical columns of Birmingham Town Hall (17) ahead, then wander behind it to enter Victoria Square, home to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (18). Keep heading northeast onto Colmore Row (19), and eventually you’ll hit St Phillip’s Cathedral and square (20).

Lunch on the run

With its exposed brick walls and caged Edison bulbs, 200 Degrees (21) (200degs.com) on Colmore Row exemplifies Birmingham’s burgeoning indie coffee culture. They’re so serious about coffee that there’s even a barista school in the basement. Head in at lunchtime for expertly crafted brews and chunky gourmet sandwiches with inventive fillings like roasted broccoli, coffee-rubbed sweet potato, and Stilton with prosciutto (£4.95 each).

Birmingham’s refurbished New Street Station (Getty Images)

Window shopping

Find everything and the kitchen sink in the neighbouring Bullring (22), Mailbox (23) and Grand Central (24) shopping centres. These complexes cover all of the popular high street stores, and the Bullring also hosts Selfridges in a futuristic, disc-clad building. Independent boutiques line the charming Great Western Arcade (25) nearby. Be tempted by the cheerful, handcrafted macaroons from Miss Macaroon (missmacaroon.co.uk), and if cheese is your vice, have a good nosy at the well-stocked cabinets in Anderson & Hill (andersonandhill.co.uk).

An aperitif

A short stroll away from the main shopping area leads you to the bright orange façade of Island Bar (26) (bar-island.co.uk) on Suffolk Street. Locals love this tropical, rum-heavy paradise of the West Midlands, where bartenders skillfully mix more than 70 varieties of the pirate’s favourite tipple into classics such as the Mai Tai (£7) and house specialties like the Polynesian Girl (£6). Pop in from 5-8pm to enjoy a wide range of cocktails at the happy hour price of £4.50.

Dine with the locals

Open every Friday and Saturday from 5pm-late, the Digbeth Dining Club (DDC) (27) (digbethdiningclub.com) is Brum’s sensory-overloading answer to London’s street food scene. The brainchild of local lad Jack Brabant, DDC hosts a range of traders to suit everyone’s tastes while live music and local DJs generate a buzzy atmosphere.

The iconic Bullring shopping centre (Getty Images)

It would also be criminal to visit Birmingham without dipping your fork into a balti or two. This curry is so central to Brum’s culinary DNA that an entire area is aptly designated as the Balti Triangle. Visit Al Frash (28) (alfrash.com) on Ladypool Road for the kind of no-frills-yet-sublime curry that will keep your wallet happy too.

Day two

Out to brunch

Start the day with some canalside calm at Ju Ju’s Café (29) (jujuscafe.co.uk), consistently rated as one of the best brunch spots in Brum. Nab a table out in the sun and choose from a menu packed with hearty brunch options done exceptionally well. The luxury breakfast sandwich is a vertiginous pile-up of brioche, sausage, bacon, hash brown, fried eggs and Ju Ju’s “lush hollandaise sauce” (£10.99). Ju Ju’s serves brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 10am-4pm.

Take a ride

Birmingham is well serviced by a bus network, and trips can be paid for on board with cash (exact change required) or by tapping a pre-paid Swift Pay As You Go card (networkwestmidlands.com). It’s also worth noting that Birmingham pips Venice when it comes to the overall length of its canals, so you may wish to admire the historic sights by narrowboat. Hour-long City Heritage tours (£8) start at the International Convention Centre moorings (30) (sherbornewharf.co.uk) and depart every 90 minutes from 11.30am-4pm; weekends only in winter months.

Birmingham has a longer network of canals than Venice

Cultural afternoon

Birmingham’s industrial past is central to its character, and two museums in particular offer immersive glimpses into life during the city’s boom years. Book guided tours in advance to learn about Birmingham’s metalworking and jewellery heritage at Coffin Works (31) (coffinworks.org), open Wednesday to Sunday 11am-3pm (£6), and the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter (32) (birminghammuseums.org.uk/jewellery), open Tuesday to Saturday 10.30am-5pm (£7).

A walk in the park

Perhaps surprisingly, Brum is one of the greenest cities in the UK. Cannon Hill Park (5) in south Birmingham boasts over 200 acres of green space, and it’s also home to the Midlands Arts Centre (macbirmingham.co.uk) and Birmingham Wildlife Conservation Centre (birmingham.gov.uk/conservationpark). In recent years, massive investment projects have transformed the park into a top leisure spot. A mini funfair operates at the weekend and you can also get active on a vast mini-golf course (£8.90 for 36 holes) or a giant swan pedalo.

The redeveloped Brindleyplace boasts relaxed canalside eateries

The icing on the cake

After London, Birmingham has the second greatest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK. Book well ahead of time for memorable tasting menus at fine establishments including Purnell’s (33) (purnellsrestaurant.com), the eponymous restaurant headed up by Solihull local Glynn Purnell, Simpsons (34) (simpsonsrestaurant.co.uk), a top chef training ground and star holder since 2000, and Carters of Moseley (35) (cartersofmoseley.co.uk), the city’s newest entrant to the Michelin ranks.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Due to its position in the heart of England, the best way to get to Birmingham is by train. Fast and frequent services from all over the country arrive at three main stations: the recently refurbished New Street Station (1) with its divisive tinfoiled exterior, and the rather less shiny Moor Street (36) and Snow Hill (37) stations (nationalrail.co.uk).

Staying there

Located in the Jewellery Quarter, a 15-minute walk from New Street Station, BLOC Hotel (38) (0121 212 1233; blochotels.com) offers minimal but sleek rooms with monsoon showers and super-fast Wi-Fi. Doubles from £60, room only.

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The red-bricked Hotel du Vin (39) (0121 794 3005, hotelduvin.com) is a Victorian beauty with a convenient central location, home-style French bistro and uniquely styled rooms. Doubles from £109, room only.

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The Edgbaston (40) (0121 454 5212; theedgbaston.co.uk), a six-room luxury boutique hotel in the leafy Edgbaston area southwest of the city centre, has elegant art deco rooms and a top-notch afternoon tea. Doubles from £145, B&B.

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