We have all done it, at least once. Planning to travel to a city and type on Google the following words: ‘what to do, what to see in…’. Most of the time, the tourist guides offered online will advise you on monuments, typical places to visit, historical sites etc. All too rarely will you find advice on how to visit something that is out of the ordinary. All too rarely will you get the promise of a truly authentic yet popular experience. This travel guide will provide you with tips on Birmingham’s must-see places and gems.
Indeed, in Birmingham, we will not be visiting the famous and impressive Bull Ring. Neither will we go and enjoy a concert in the grandiose Symphony Hall. Nor even observe a thousand creatures in the National Sea Life Centre.
After living in Birmingham for one year, photographing its industrial charm and its people, exploring its streets from top to bottom and trying to unearth the rare gems that this city had to offer, here are my findings. You will, thus, be able to experience this town as a real ‘Brummie’.
To get started, Birmingham’s hidden must-known facts
- Birmingham has more canals than Venice, with 100 miles of canal navigation.
- You can travel to 90 % of the UK from Birmingham in under four hours.
- Birmingham is the youngest city in Europe. It has some 40% of the population having the luxury of being under 25 years old.
- The Lord of the Rings is probably the most famous fantasy novel since The Bible. It is a little-known fact that the author JRR Tolkien lived in Moseley. Indeed, this book has been inspired by the places and people of this town.
- It was a Brummie University lecturer (Stuart Hall) who coined the term Thatcherism.
Must see places on a sunny day
It has been named the ‘Coolest Neighbourhood in Britain’ by the Sunday Times and, in all honesty, this area deserves its nickname. Indeed, Digbeth is an absolute golden germ of pop and urban culture. The industrial charm of the buildings will make you want to venture into the secret corners of this former place for manufacturing. Following the industrial Revolution that occurred in Europe, Digbeth has been home to large industrial complexes. Eventually, young people, entrepreneurs, video makers, musicians, chefs, etc. have dedicated their time to exploring the potential of this empty area. Little by little, Digbeth has become the hub of street food, creativity, unforgettable parties and contemporary art.
Must see street art
Stroll along the viaducts, dare to enter the old industrial factories and wander through this gigantic urban space where artists are the masters of thought. Along with your discoveries, you will be confronted with the overflowing creativity of this space. Design, sculpture, graffiti, drawings etc. you will have it all in colour and original souvenir photographs. In addition to this stroll through the neighbourhood, I strongly recommend that you immerse yourself in the Custard Factory. First built in 1906 by Alfie Bird to produce Bird’s Custard, it is today the heart of Birmigham’s creative quarter. It must be noted that there are many designers and artists working in studios behind the scenes and shops at the Custard Factory.
Britain’s Best Street Food Event
Founded in 2012, Digbeth Dining club is a multi-award-winning street food event located on famous Lower Trinity Street. The aim of this event is to provide the best street food traders in the UK to ensure customers quality, locally-sourced and affordable food. You will be delighted by the quality and the variety of the cooks. Whether it is Michelin-star chefs or a genuine yet unique chef passionate about food, you will have the choice and your taste buds will remember it. As pioneers of street food, Digbeth Dining club is also home to the most amazing atmosphere. If you are lucky, you may find yourself participating in some events. For example, you could get the opportunity to enjoy the best street food traders at Zelling Car Park while listening to the DJ, playing all day long.
Peaky Blinders Tours
We all know the famous BBC adaptation of Peaky Blinders, but did you know that the original Peaky Blinders once roamed the streets of Digbeth? Indeed, through the early 1900s, the Brummie gang was frightening fear into locals and was also using popular haunts. Some of which are still in the area to this day. If you find yourself fascinated by this gang and want to learn more about it, you will have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Birmingham’s baddest Victorian. By booking your ticket online for a tour, you will get the chance to meet with a historian, Prof. Carl Chinn MBE who will be telling the story of the gang and taking you to the Rainbow Pub close to where the term ‘Peaky Blinder” was first penned.
Enjoy a night out
The diversity of the Digbeth district’s offers does not stop in culture and catering. In fact, there is a bewildering and exciting selection of places to experience Brum’s nightlife in this majestic area.
The Old Crown is a must-visit in the summer months and will promise you an authentic experience. Indeed, this pub is Birmingham’s oldest secular building and has existed since 1368. Having stood the test of time during the English civil war, this drinking institution has retained its charm thanks to its old architecture. Don’t be afraid to venture into the pub as a mysterious door will open onto the inner garden. You will, thus, enjoy your aperitif outside in the ‘beer garden’ and take advantage of the mild British weather.
If the drinking-in-a-bar sort of socialization process is a bit redundant to you, how about playing mini golf while enjoying a cocktail? Guetto golf proposes mixing your drinks with a golf bat in a full retro atmosphere. On top of that, they take as much pride in their spectacular drinks selection as they do in their decoration. The electric and awesome graffiti art will immerse you in a universe dedicated to the most necessary activities; drinking and playing. Competition seekers, that is the place to be!
Must see places on a rainy day
You fancy being a national TV presenter or even a journalist for the BBC? Step inside the universe of television and broadcast on BBC Birmingham. This visit immerses you in a world that is much talked about, but little known. You can see with your own eyes what goes on behind the scenes in the TV news bulletin as well as BBC radio drama and so on. Find out what it feels like to present the weather in front of a green screen, or how to use your voice for radio with sound effects!
On the first floor, in the middle of the journalistic image gallery, you will have the opportunity to observe real objects belonging to well-known BBC journalists. Bulletproof vests, photo equipment, field notes etc. will make you want to know more about the job of a reporter.
In addition, it will be sent to you, your own radio recording, as a souvenir of your visit.
On top of that concrete experience, remember that the BBC Birmingham is a working building. Indeed, you will get the chance to see the BBC’s staff, which promises you a most original visit.
The Edwardian Tea Room
What about experiencing a typical British Afternoon Tea in a majestic yet hidden place?
I suggest you go inside Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to marvel at the sumptuous tearoom that will leave you breathless. Above your head, you will be given a splendid carved ceiling which also provides some natural light through the glass-paneled roof. Its location in the heart of the city centre makes it the perfect place to shelter you from the rain and comfort you from fatigue in beautiful surroundings. This room has the luxury of being visible from the interior balcony of the museum. Thanks to the charm of the historical decor and the surrounding architecture, you will get this fabulous impression of being immersed in time. This heavenly oasis will make you forget that you are sitting next to the collection of artefacts from ancient times through to the Middle Ages.
Indeed, the Edwardian Tea Rooms reconciles the weight of age and art that a museum contains with a light and friendly aspect that a space like this has to offer. This perfect balance between the modern and the old is proving so popular and authentic.
To add a final authentic touch to your experience, I recommend their carrot cake!
The library of Birmigham
It replaced Birmingham Central Library and was the largest in Europe at the time it opened.
More than just a People’s Palace filled with 2,752,770 books, this building is an ode to contemporary architecture. Designed by Mecanoo, it has an archetypical form that embodies universality, infinity, and unity. If these words may seem a little abstract and posh, you will quickly realise their importance once you enter the edifice. Visitors can move from one floor to another in a circular fashion thanks to the original design of the building. The rotundas play an important role in the dispatch through the library, which allows you to walk through the dizzying columns of books.
In 1879, the central library of Birmingham was gutted by fire. Since only 500 out of the 7,000 books from the Shakespeare Library were saved, a Shakespeare Memorial Room has been created. Thus, you’ll get the chance to approach this important collection of archives while being surrounded by an Elizabethan atmosphere.
Hidden and original books you will find in the library (according to N. Bartlam)
- The oldest book: Catholicon (Balbus), printed in 1469
- The heaviest book: Investigations and Studies in Jade (Heber R). The two volumes weigh 125lb.
- The largest book: Birds of America (Audubon). 99cm by 66cm (unopened).
If I promised you an out-of-the-ordinary experience, I will reveal my secret garden. Indeed, once you have reached the top floor, you will have the opportunity to go on the roof and observe the stunning panoramic view of (almost) the entire city. You will find your own little special place on those plant-filled terraces covering two of the rooftops (one of which is called the secret garden).
The oldest cinema in the UK
In the busy area of New Street, the Electric Cinema opened on 27 December 1909, allowing it to obtain the prestigious title of the UK’s oldest working cinema. It was Birmingham’s first cinema and predated the introduction of the 1909 Cinematograph Act.
Interestingly enough, the cinema has undergone a lot of changes from the classic News and theatre to the independent cinema it is today. It is much loved by locals of Birmingham and is being used as a wedding venue amongst other events. Getting to the heart of this cinema promises a temporal, vintage and human experience. You’ll be able to discover the latest independent and foreign films. The intimate atmosphere of the large sofas and the original red light will keep you in an exceptional cinematic bubble. This unusual place is also home to a bar, waiter service and a venue that is licensed in the theatre!
A hidden little anecdote
By the end of 2003, The Electric Cinema had closed, showing Kill Bill for the final screening. Thankfully, only a few months later, Tom Lawes bought it. The famous film director even intended to run a recording studio upstairs and reopen the main screen to the public.
Birmingham is a must-see city
If you thought Birmingham was a dull city, devoid of colour and mystery, I hope this article has proved you wrong. Indeed, it is time to pay tribute to the artists who make this city a place you wouldn’t want to leave for anything. Nothing would have led one to believe that the most influential architects in the contemporary world would take over Birmingham to make an ode to creativity and design. If the buildings that pave the streets are full of history, legends and tales, the charm lies in the way the space has been arranged. In other words, this city brilliantly blends youthful dynamism with respect for its rich industrial heritage.
Going to Birmingham means daring to step off the beaten tourist track and preferring a more subtle and authentic experience. If you have read an overview of this city, believe me, it is just a drop in the ocean of possibilities that this town offers. Each inhabitant, each person passing through will have a detail to add, a monument to visit, a pub for a night out, a restaurant to recommend, a preferred street etc. Effectively, Birmingham leaves no one indifferent, but surely gives everyone the chance to explore every corner of it, like a magnificent urban treasure hunt. The treasure being a rare pearl, here is a small (and last) list of some of the most precious ones I have found:
Pubs to drink at
- Pitcher & Piano
- The Dark Horse
- The Canal House
- Canalside Bar
- The Malt House
- Prince Of Wales
- Actress and Bishop
- The Jam House
- The Night Owl
- Eden Bar
Places to visit
- Gas street Basin
- Brindley place
- IKON Gallery
- The Jewellery quarter
- The Gay village
Stores to shop at
- City Arcade
- Cow Vintage
- Thrifty Store
- Lahore Sweet Centre
- Ladypool Road, Sparkbook