How to spend 48 hours in Birmingham
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As the COVID pandemic continues to impact travel plans, city breaks in Spain, Italy or even further afield feel like a distant memory. That doesn’t mean that a weekend away can’t be had though and as restrictions continue to ease in most of the U.K., a trip on home turf could be in order.
Manchester and Newcastle might come to mind before Birmingham, but with a population of just over a million and being the second-largest city in the U.K. after London, Birmingham has a lot going for it.
Whether it’s 24 hours or a weekend, here are some of the activities you should try to incorporate into a trip to the Black Country.
First though, logistics.
Birmingham is well connected. To get there by train is very easy and there are a number of train stations in the city. The fastest option from London is from Euston to Birmingham New Street with trains taking one hour and 22 minutes — and usually running very 20 minutes. At peak times, these trains can be expensive (though booking in advance can lead to significant cost savings) so a cheaper alternative can be the slower service from Marylebone to Birmingham Moor Street, taking just under two hours.
If coming from the north or even Scotland, the same service that connects London Euston with Birmingham runs all the way to (or in this case from) Glasgow and Edinburgh at certain times. In fact, Birmingham New Street is the U.K.’s busiest railway station outside of London.
Though you are unlikely to fly to Birmingham unless coming from Scotland (there are regular services from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen), Birmingham Airport is actually worth considering for trips to Europe depending on where you live — direct trains from London Euston to Birmingham International airport (BHX) only take one hour and 10 mins which might be closer for some than getting to some of the London’s outer airports like Luton (LTN) and Southend (SEN).
Walking and exploring
Start the day by walking to Victoria Square and taking in the Town Hall and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery which is housed in one of the city’s finest buildings. It is home to the largest collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings in the world as well as a range of exhibitions. Check the website for opening times.
Once done at Victoria Square, walk over to Centenary Square where you can find the Library of Birmingham, “The Rep” (the Birmingham Repertory Theatre) as well as the International Convention Centre. The latter also houses the Symphony Hall which has been voted the seventh-best concert-hall for acoustics worldwide.
The Rep has now re-opened with a programme of performances though the Symphony Hall, for now, remains closed. If you are interested in seeing performances, it’s worth checking out the websites as the government continues to ease restrictions, particularly in the arts and entertainment sector.
Afterwards, keep going — either through the International Convention Centre or past it to hit Birmingham’s canals and Brindleyplace. The latter is largely surrounded by offices but also leads to the National Sea Life Centre which can be worth a visit if with children.
The whole Birmingham Canal Navigation system adds up to 100 miles of canals (though mostly outside of the city centre). The hub is in the centre at the Gas Street Basin. The canals used to be the life-blood of the city and surrounding area for transporting trade and at the height of their popularity, gas lights were installed to permit round-the-clock operation.
Walking south-east along the canals from Brindleyplace takes you past some of the longboats on the canal, pubs and restaurants and eventually to the Mailbox — one of Birmingham’s more upmarket shopping centres. Depending on timing, stop along the canal for a bite for lunch.
Birmingham has undergone a lot of development over the years and one of the many eye-catching buildings is the Bullring development above New Street station which houses Selfridges department store.
There are no shortages of shops surrounding the New Street station area with pedestrian streets lined with boutiques and restaurants to explore.
For those preferring a less modern feel, head to the Jewellery Quarter where you’ll find over 200 listed buildings with 250 years of history. Even if not looking for jewellery, it’s worth having a nose around to take in the atmosphere as well as the local museums and galleries.
Food, bars and accommodation
Though seasonal, if you are visiting Birmingham in November and December, the city boasts the “largest authentic German Christmas market outside of Germany or Austria”. It is known as the Frankfurt Christmas Market — Birmingham is twinned with Frankfurt — and was originally brought to Birmingham from the German city in 1997.
The intention for 2020 had been to have the Christmas market run from 5 November until 23 December though it is worth checking the official website or local Birmingham press closer to the time to see if COVID-19 restrictions have impacted these dates.
For dinner, Birmingham is well known for its curries and I have had some amazing dishes there, especially in what is known as the Balti Triangle, where you’ll find a number of family-run restaurants serving some of the best curries in town.
Many are BYO (bring-your-own) meaning you can bring your own drinks. Though it’s a bit out of the city centre, if curry is your thing or if you want to try some for the first time, it’s well worth the cab or Uber ride to the Balti Triangle. I recommend Shababs — it’s an all-time favourite with locals and visitors.
Alternatively, head back to the canals around Brindleyplace and the Mailbox where there are plenty of pubs, bars and chain restaurants that will satisfy any taste. For finer dining, Birmingham is home to no less than five Michelin starred restaurants — only London beats Birmingham on that front in the U.K.
Broad Street, next to Brindleyplace, has a large number of bars on it and the street gets very lively in the evenings from Thursday to Saturday. During term-time, it’s a popular area with students too. Offerings range from a Wetherspoons to cocktail bars and a number of casinos.
For those wanting to stay the night, there is a huge range of hotels in Birmingham including all the chains. Brindleyplace itself offers a Novotel, a Hilton Garden Inn and on the adjacent Broad Street, there’s the more budget Hampton Inn, Travelodge and Jury Inn. Also within walking distance is a Crowne Plaza and a Hyatt Regency and there are a number of smaller independent and boutique hotels too. Unless there’s a big event taking place (unlikely in 2020) at the International Convention Centre, rates should be very reasonable.
‘Peaky Blinder’ tour
No visit to Birmingham is complete without getting your “Peaky Blinder” fix. The smash TV show starring Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Sam Neill was set there and definitely kick-started a renewed interest in the city. “Peaky Tours” claims it “will take you on a dark journey of discovery” and a “journey about poverty, crime and gangs which still has a resonance in the 21st century”. You start the tour in a pub then a guide will teach you all about the real gangs that terrorised the racecourses of England in the 1920s, taking in many of the sights from the show, then you’ll finish back at the pub for a typical Victorian dinner. Check the website for details.
There are loads of things to do in Birmingham. As well as pottering around the city centre, there’s Cadbury World for chocolate lovers, Villa Park or Edgbaston for football and cricket enthusiasts or the Botanical Gardens and Moseley Bog for nature lovers.
Book a trip there, you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
Featured Image by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images
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