Now the second largest city in Britain, with a thoroughly multiracial population of over one million, BIRMINGHAM has long outgrown the squalor of its boom nineteenth-century years as a "city of 1001 trades". A recent revamp of the city centre has included an extravagant face-lift to the Bull Ring and the opening of any number of chic and trendy bars, clubs, shops and restaurants clustered together in stylish canalside developments around the Gas Street Basin and Brindley Place. The city has also launched a raft of cultural initiatives, enticing a division of the Royal Ballet to take up residence here, and building a fabulous new concert hall for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
It has to be said though that Birmingham lacks unmissable sights. The city's finest museum is the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, with its stunning collection of Pre-Raphaelite art, while the enterprising Ikon Gallery is a great venue for exhibitions of contemporary art. Otherwise there are consumer delights aplenty in the Gas Street Basin development, the prettiest part of the city's serpentine canal system, in canalside Brindley Place, and at The Mailbox, the immaculately rehabilitated former postal sorting office with yet more chic bars and restaurants.
Unlike the more specialist industrial towns that grew up across the north and the Midlands, "Brum" – and its "Brummies" – turned its hand to every kind of manufacturing. It was here too that the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution – James Watt, Matthew Boulton, William Murdock, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) – formed the Lunar Society, an extraordinary melting-pot of scientific and industrial ideas. They conceived the world's first purpose-built factory, invented gas lighting and pioneered both the distillation of oxygen and the mass production of the steam engine. Thus, a modest Midlands market town mushroomed into the nation's economic dynamo with the population to match: in 1841 there were 180,000 inhabitants, three times that number just fifty years later.
Welcome to Birmingham, the UK's second city. It's a city of mixed cultures, creeds and lifestyles and has recently become the fashionable place to set up a business or to hold a conference. But it still retains great pride in being a city built on industry. Listed below are the most important and well-known areas of Birmingham, encompassing business, baltis and entertainment.
Bournville - Chocolate, cricket and manicured lawns — is there anything else needed for a better world? The village is truly beautiful and inhabitants have to adhere to the rules of the Bournville Village Trust, eg keep a tidy, well-kept garden, in order to keep the area this way. What's more, because of the Methodist origins of the Cadbury family who founded this suburb, there is not one pub to be found here. You can find, however, Cadbury World with its history of chocolate, work reforms and idealism. It's quite a family-oriented district, although tens of thousands of visitors pass through yearly.
City Centre - The place to dine, shop, visit the theatres, go clubbing etc. The city is now widely pedestrian-friendly and has everything within easy walking distance. At the Chamberlain Square end, students, trendies and clever types sit on the steps outside the library chatting, eating or swotting for exams. The popular Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery shows its scrubbed façade and imposing doors to the world, containing works by Rodin, some major Pre-Raphaelites and a breathtaking selection of Japanese armour. The glorious Town Hall and Council House face outwards to Victoria Square where the statue fondly known by all Brummies as "the Floozie in the Jacuzzi" takes centre stage on the steps that lead down to New Street. Broad Street, with its hotels, pubs, clubs and restaurants, leads to the canals - Birmingham has more canals than Venice as any local will only too readily point out. Along with numerous theaters, the International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall can be found here, facing a square whose pavement is designed to look like a Persian carpet. Also, there are two cathedrals, both of which are beautiful, although St Philip's is probably the easiest to find.
Digbeth - Recently, cash has been invested in this district and one result has been the Custard Factory - this is a venue for younger people to eat, drink and watch/perform drama, music and dance pieces.
Edgbaston - Loads of interesting places here, including one of the excellent King Edward Schools and the BBC Pebble Mill TV and radio studios. There's a wonderful and popular reservoir near Birmingham University where you can find the Barber Institute , which also has a fine collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. Expect to find the well-heeled, the student set and young families in Edgbaston. And you'll find Cannon Hill Park too, perhaps the best-loved and most adventure/culture-packed park in the city. Edgbaston Cricket Ground, home to Warwickshire CCC is found opposite the park. Edgbaston also boasts the Botanical Gardens where you could practically spend the whole day. Hotels and pubs can be found on the Hagley Road, which stretches from Five Ways to seeming infinity.
Hall Green - This green and lush residential area has a famous Greyhound Stadium which, surprisingly enough, is quite popular with students as well as the hardened greyhound lover. Sarehole Mill is Hall Green's working, water-powered corn mill constructed in the 18th century. This was the place where The Hobbit author J.R.R. Tolkien spent much of his time as a child.
Handsworth/Aston/Lozells - Often, if a Brummie thinks about one of these areas, the other two spring to mind. Aston has a large and beautiful Jacobean house, Aston Hall , built in the early 1600s and the area is also home to premier league soccer club Aston Villa FC, as well as the popular Science Park and Aston University (with excellent scientific courses). It's also the home of one of the best-loved radio stations in Birmingham — BRMB. Handsworth Wood was once an area full of sought-after property and still retains some of its large houses. Every year in Handsworth there was a carnival to (semi) rival that of Notting Hill, now known as the Birmingham International Carnival . A large ethnic community and one of the largest Sikh temples in the city can now be found in Handsworth — in the evening the temple is lit up with neon decorations splitting the night. The Soho Road is great for Indian sweet centers, West Indian bakeries and Asian grocers.
Harborne - The beautiful Blue Coat School, for boarders and day pupils, sits on the outskirts and there are numerous other excellent schools nearby. It's also home to some great restaurants, like Valentinos and Henry Wong . Some have called the suburb the "Chelsea of Birmingham."
Hockley - Not far from the city center, this is the place to learn about Birmingham's jewelery industry at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter . Get your trinkets and treasures here at cheap prices. A carefully restored workshop that's 100 years old is now a visitor center, informing you in depth about the rise and fall of the jewelery trade. Cafe bars and restaurants are springing up too in order to attract the casual visitor.
Moseley - Home of UB40 and Ocean Colour Scene, Moseley is popular with students as there are quite a few bars, pubs, good cheap restaurants and areas of cheap accommodation. The Jug of Ale is a very popular pub here, where bands like Oasis, Blur and Ocean Colour Scene played before they experienced super-stardom. An area of contradictions, Moseley village has some pretty little boutiques and cake shops and some large houses which has made it a bit of a trendy place for the moneyed, younger Brummie to live.
Small Heath/Sparkbrook/Balsall Heath - Run down and not really famous for its scenery, but the baltis here are beloved by all, not just Brummies but people from far and wide. Top food critics often visit these restaurants. Popular with lots of different cultures and peoples during the evening, there was hope and some talk of the council spending a little cash to renovate and beautify these areas - this hasn't happened as yet, though. Small Heath is the home of the "Blues" aka Birmingham City FC and the Ackers Outdoor Activity Centre which has, amongst other things, its own inner city artificial ski slope.
Sutton Coldfield - Darling! The absolute height of well kept gardens, big cars and oodles of pounds. 2,500 acres of parkland are to be found in the form of Sutton Park . It's a beautiful area filled with families and retired company directors.
Yardley - Popular with locals because of the Swan shopping center. Yardley is close to the airport but here you'll also find a 16th century merchant's house hosting a stunning collection of country pottery.
Birmingham city centre offers a first-rate selection of places to dine. Evenings and weekends see locals, students and visitors gravitate towards the centre of town looking for gastronomic fulfillment, and the choice on offer will not disappoint. Practically every nationality is represented by restaurants to suit any budget and new establishments are opening all the time. Amongst the most successful of these recent arrivals is the ultra-sophisticated Thai Edge . Balti restaurants – serving up deliciously spicy and aromatic curries – are especially strong in Birmingham, both in number and quality, and indeed the city lays claim to giving birth to the dish.
Broad Street and the surrounding roads give you the pick of the bar and restaurant bunch. From pub grub to haute cuisine, you can find it on Broad Street — a pint of ale or a five-course meal. Treat your tastebuds in the highly-rated Shimla Pinks , a chic, award-winning Indian restaurant. Broad Street is home to many highly popular chains such as the lively Edward's cafe-bar or the ever popular brasserie Cafe Rouge . Being less than a stone's throw away from the ICC and a very short walk from the NIA and the city centre, Broad Street makes the perfect location for that "swift pint". The area boasts several popular pubs such as the Brasshouse . The Brindleyplace development off Broad Street gives diners and drinkers a vast choice in the way of waterfront entertainment, with sushi on offer at the Shogun Teppan-Yaki and a taste of the high life at Bank restaurant.
If chow mein and stir-fries stir up your appetite, head straight for Birmingham's Chinatown – found roughly in and around the Arcadian Centre and on Thorp Street. The flavour of the Orient is captured in traditional Cantonese restaurants such as Chung Ying Garden and the knife-throwing Japanese art of preparing Teppan Yaki cuisine is available in the restaurant of the same name. Some excellent, and accordingly very popular, bar/restaurants are also found in the Arcadian. Perhaps the best of the bunch is the Sobar .
Digbeth, home of the famous Sanctuary nightclub, has a growing reputation for drinking and dining possibilities, although it has been slow to shake off a rather insalubrious image. However, new development The Custard Factory is now home to many forms of entertainment as well as the Cafe des Artistes cafe-restaurant. This offers a trendy environment in which those with a more sophisticated palate can enjoy their contemporary cuisine.
Hockley is known chiefly for its jewellery trade but it is now developing a thriving cafe culture. Come here for a vast choice in restaurants, bars and pubs, and for a romantic evening as much as for a fun and furious night out. St Paul's Square, home of the trendy Saint Paul's Bar & Restaurant favoured by professionals and students alike, will leave you spoilt for choice whereas the Jam House mixes eclectic dining with terrific live music.
All this said, it is still balti restaurants for which Birmingham is rightly famous and no visit to the city is complete without trying one. Some of the best establishments are found south-east of the city centre on the Stratford Road. These may not look much from the outside, but for value for money and exquisiteness of cuisine they can not be faulted. Particularly well-respected examples are the Royal Naim and the Royal Al-Faisal Tandoori & Balti . The amount of award-winning Indian and Pakistani restaurants in Birmingham would impress even the most hard-nosed food snob — make no mistake, Birmingham's baltis are not to be sniffed at.
TOUR 1: Birmingham Children & Chocolate Morning Birmingham is definitely a city that caters for children, striving to educate them in a way that is fun and enjoyable. A superb place to take the children is Birmingham Botanical Gardens ; marvel at the pagodas or rest on the benches and inhale the roses. There are rock pools and garden walks, historical gardens and 19th century glass houses and a cottage garden with its own museum (to name but a few sights!). You'll smile with delight as you see your children gaze in wonder for the first time at the tiny trees in the Bonsai collection; you probably won't want to leave.
Cannon Hill Park off Pershore and Edgbaston Road is the most famous park in Birmingham. There's a bandstand and concert area, a boating lake, and the Midland Arts Centre , which has a cinema, a theatre and regular exhibitions. There's a nature centre with animals, spiders and snakes and often there are activities for children during the summer including an excellent puppet theatre. If you have access to a bike, then you can ride through the park and Rea Valley. Great all-round entertainment.
Lunch This can be had in the park itself. There's a cafe bar where you can sit inside watching the world go by, or you can be adventurous, taking one of the much coveted outside tables and feel as though you are experiencing first hand the fun of the boating lake. Many people like to take a picnic, so the park has thoughtfully provided benches and picnic tables, and trees! If you are in the Botanic Gardens, there is a sun trap where you can relax in the warmth and "Eat your butties" as we say in Brum.
Afternoon Birmingham, Bournville specifically, is the home of Cadbury's and CHOCOLATE! Cadbury World is a great place to "take the children" (that would be my excuse anyway). There's an organised tour on which you can learn about the history of Cadbury's, the purpose of their Quaker village and the part the Cadbury family played in Birmingham's social reforms. You can also learn about the history of cocoa and chocolate and the chocolate-making process. However, the most enjoyable part of the tour for most is the opportunity to try free samples of chocolate and a discount shop (very popular at Easter and Christmas). Here you can buy your favourite choccies at greatly reduced prices. Cadbury World is a definite winner of a place for everybody and a great way to bribe the children to be good first thing in the morning. It's easy to get to, just hop on a train or bus to Bournville Station and signs will direct you from there.
It's strange, but true that some children don't actually like chocolate! Take them instead to the National Sea Life Centre in Brindleyplace, which is just off Broad Street. Sea Life Centres are always a great way to introduce children to the Big Blue and sea-life. The centre cost around 5 million pounds to build and has an aquarium, touch pools and feeding demonstrations. There are tanks filled with sting-rays, flat fish, cod etc (to some people cod are exotic fish!). The showcase of the centre, however, is the 360° glass tunnel which makes you feel as if you are actually standing in the middle of the ocean, while sharks swim above your head, to the side of you and underneath you too. Many buses pass along Broad Street on the way to the city centre or Five Ways, just ask the driver to put you off at the stop nearest the Sea Life Centre.
Dinner Take the children into town for dinner, well, just off Broad Street. Head towards Five Ways and after about five minutes you will see the Novotel on your right. Turn right on the street at the side of Novotel and you'll find that you are on Sheepcote Street and close to being fed. Friendly staff and continental pub grub awaits you and your offspring in the restaurant, as well as live music which can be classical, jazz or folk. For something with a more transatlantic feel, T.G.I Fridays is an American restaurant that will also suit most needs. Although by no means peculiar to Birmingham, it offers a varied selection of burgers, steaks, steak sandwiches and Mexican cuisine; it also "makes it their business" to look after your children. Kids will love the atmosphere, and you'll love the personal attention that you get from your waiter/waitress. You can take a bus from Bournville or the city centre and find it easily, since it's on the Hagley Road — one of the most well known thoroughfares in the city.
The great thing about having dinner off Broad Street is that you can take an evening stroll down by the canal. This can either be a romantic time — just the two of you strolling hand in hand watching the barges and evening revellers — or it can be a time to really enjoy the company of your children. Either way you can take stock of the day and perhaps plan your next adventure for tomorrow, if you have the energy.