10 Things to Do in Birmingham
In the last of my Visit England posts, I'm talking about things to do around my new home, Birmingham. I'll be honest, when I first moved here, I was a bit discouraged at what this city had to offer. I didn't love Birmingham and definitely thought we would be more adventurous and find more culture if we were living in London. But over the months, I've grown more fond of Birmingham and I'm really excited to share with you some of the best parts of this city today! I only ask one thing of you as you continue to read this post: If you visit Birmingham, UK, please tell me!
Unlike my 25 Things to Do in London post, which borrowed photos mostly from Instagram or my 15 Places to Visit in the UK post, which borrowed photos from Google, all of the photos in this post are my own. Over the last two months, I've doing everything on this list (except for the last one, which we did in April of 2017) in order to get the full experience to better recommend all of these activities!
Want some history on Birmingham? I had never heard of it before my first visit in May of 2016, so I'm always excited to learn more about our city. According to Wikipedia, A medium-sized market town in the medieval period, Birmingham grew to international prominence in the 18th century at the heart of the Midlands Enlightenment and subsequent Industrial Revolution, which saw the town at the forefront of worldwide advances in science, technology, and economic development, producing a series of innovations that laid many of the foundations of modern industrial society. By 1791 it was being hailed as "the first manufacturing town in the world". Birmingham's distinctive economic profile, with thousands of small workshops practising a wide variety of specialised and highly skilled trades, encouraged exceptional levels of creativity and innovation and provided a diverse and resilient economic base for industrial prosperity that was to last into the final quarter of the 20th century. Perhaps the most important invention in British history, the industrial steam engine, was invented in Birmingham. Its resulting high level of social mobility also fostered a culture of broad-based political radicalism, that under leaders from Thomas Attwood to Joseph Chamberlain was to give it a political influence unparalleled in Britain outside London, and a pivotal role in the development of British democracy. From the summer of 1940 to the spring of 1943, Birmingham was bombed heavily by the German Luftwaffe in what is known as the Birmingham Blitz. The damage done to the city's infrastructure, in addition to a deliberate policy of demolition and new building by planners, led to extensive demolition and redevelopment in subsequent decades.
Birmingham doesn't have an underground like London, but there is still quite an extensive public transportation system between trains and busses. Luke and I often use the train to get into town and we occasionally use Uber. For everything on this list, first check the trains and busses because you're sure to save money on an Uber.
Go for a Curry
I like to think of Birmingham as the Curry Capitol of England, but I haven't been many places, and Glasgow is the only other city in the UK where I've eaten at a curry house. So what do I know, right? Well, I do know Birmingham has a lot of great places to get a curry and you should go to at least one. (If you want to sound British, say you're going for a curry, don't say you're having Indian food for dinner.) There are so many different options out there. You can go to a nicer place to pay a little more and get a little less. You can check out a fairly standard curry house that will give you a good amount of food and variety for a good price. Or you can check out some of the trends going on right now like fusion and street food. I'm probably not the best person to ask for ordering advice because I don't really like spicy food and I always order Saag, sometimes with meat, sometimes with potatoes, sometimes plain. Though we do make curries at home sometimes and I really like what we've made, like Thai Red Prawn Curry (recipe coming soon to a blog near you), fish curry, and masala lamb chops. Chicken Tikki Masala and Chicken Jalfrezi are quite popular choices here, and actually, Chicken Tikki Masala was invented in Glasgow! My favourite places in Birmingham include Balti Bazaar, Mowgli, and Indian Brewery Snowhill.
Visit the Cathedral
Did you know that in order to be considered a city in England before the 19th century, it had to have a cathedral? This association between having a cathedral and being called a city was established in the early 1540s when King Henry VIII founded dioceses (each having a cathedral in the see city) in six English towns and also granted them city status by issuing letters patent. That's why you go to these tiny villages and see some of the most beautiful, ornate cathedrals you've ever seen. While that's not technically true anymore, the legend lives on and you will find beautiful cathedrals all over the country. Birmingham, actually, is to thank for that change: The link with Anglican dioceses was broken in 1889 when Birmingham successfully petitioned for city status on the grounds of its large population and history of good local government. At the time of the grant, Birmingham lacked an Anglican cathedral, although the parish church later became a cathedral in 1905. On the Cathedral's website, it says "The church that became a cathedral...in the town that became a city." So while it's not the most extravagant or ornate cathedral in the UK, it's worth visiting for its part in history alone. You can find a schedule for guided tours as well as opening hours on their website to visit for a self-guided tour.
Learn the History at the Museum & Gallery
What to know the best part? I won't bury the lede. It's free! So really you have no excuse. The museum, which combines a history museum and an art gallery, first opened in 1885 in the heart of Birmingham City Centre. According to their website, The art gallery is famous for its Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which are part of the largest public Pre-Raphaelite collection in the world. Discover the fascinating story of the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, in its own dedicated gallery. The Birmingham History collections feature prominently in the 'Birmingham: its people, its history' gallery, which covers the majority of the 3rd floor. You can also see art and objects spanning seven centuries of European and World history and culture. This includes Greeks & Romans and Ancient Egypt. While you're there learning about the city and viewing the art, stop off at the Edwardian Tea Rooms for breakfast, brunch, or afternoon tea.
WHAT TO KNOW
Hang out at the Bull Ring
The Bull Ring is a mall connected to the train station and probably where I've personally spent the most time in town since moving out of the city centre (after two weeks of living in Birmingham). It really looks like your run of the mill American mall, and I personally prefer the shops located in the station itself since they're less likely to be found in an American mall. But the Bull Ring is right by New Street (the high street), St. Martin in the Bull Ring, a beautiful church surrounded by very modern buildings, and a great spot for people watching any time of day. There are a lot of restaurants and shops--both chains and local establishments--to choose from and most likely where you'll go if you forgot something on your trip. My favourite stores in and around the Bull Ring include Fatface, Tiger, Cath Kidston, and Muji. If you watch Peaky Blinders, you've probably heard of the Bull Ring. I haven't seen the show, but if you have, you might also like the Peaky Blinders tour or to see The Old Crown, Birmingham's oldest inn, just down the road from the Bull Ring.
Take in the Views at the Top (of the Library or of the Cube)
I firmly believe the best way to see a new city is to get up high. One of the best things we ever did while travelling was to go to the top of the Berliner Fernsehturm in Berlin on our first day in the city. We were able to map out the rest of the trip after getting an idea of where things were in relation to each other, not to mention seeing the incredible views. In Birmingham, there are two good options to get to the top. At the library, you can go the Shakespeare Memorial Room or the rooftop garden, which are both free. Even though there's a lot of construction below the library right now, on a clear day, the views of the sprawling city below are incredible. Alternatively, you can go to the top of the Cube, where you'll find the Marco Pierre White restaurant. We ate here for lunch after our legal marriage ceremony and it was pretty great. It's a fantastic steakhouse that also offers an afternoon tea and has a great bar and lounge. So maybe you want to hang out here for a bit, have a drink or tea, or enjoy a nice meal up in the clouds.
Stroll Along the Canals
When you think of European canals, do you think of Amsterdam or Venice? Yeah, me too. But actually, Birmingham has 35 miles of canals compared to Venice's 26 miles. The city is much larger, so they're not as prominent and they're not really as picturesque, but there are still some really great stretches. We've spent a lot of time on the canal near Gas Street and Broad Street, which is near our church. It's a lovely walk and there are a lot of things to do--well, mainly places to eat--along the canals. One of my favourite things about my first British summer was sitting on the patio in the sunshine along the canal enjoying a Coke with friends. You can also do a canal tour, though I've never done one before.
Tour Selly Manor
I've only ever been on the grounds of Selly Manor, never inside, but it's a sight to see even from the outside. Selly Manor is a Tudor-style house that dates back to 1327. I read somewhere that it's one of the oldest buildings in Birmingham, but now I can't find where I read that! Originally the manor house of the village of Bournbrook in Worcestershire (Bournbrook is now a suburb in the modern day Selly Oak ward of Birmingham), it was relocated to the nearby Bournville district in the early 20th century. According to their website, Made up of two beautiful buildings, Selly Manor Museum is in the heart of Bournville village in Birmingham and has a fascinating history. Step into Selly Manor to discover how the Tudors cooked, dressed and lived over 500 years ago.
WHAT TO KNOW
£4.00 for adults and £2.00 for children (4-16)
Yes, they offer family, student (16+) and senior (60+) discounts with ID
They also offer discounts when you show a Cadbury World ticket
Treat Yourself at Cadbury World
Admit it, you love Cadbury eggs at Easter. Personally, I prefer the caramel over the cream. But one thing you can't argue is Cadbury knows how to make chocolate. I've visited twice, but I've never paid for a tour. It's a shorter visit, but you get access to the shop (the best part) and there is a free exhibit where you can read the history of Cadbury and peer into part of the factory. Cadbury World opened in 1990 at the Bournville manufacturing site. Whilst not a factory tour, Cadbury World offers its visitors the opportunity to explore and discover chocolate's history, and to learn about the origins and story of the Cadbury business, which is part of Mondelez, the world's second largest confectionery manufacturer. It's not too far from where we live and we actually stopped by the shop one day before Christmas to pick up our Christmas chocolate. Fun fact: You can also do an afternoon tea at Cabury World.
WHAT TO KNOW
£16.15 for adults and £11.88 for children (4-15) online
£17.00 for adults and £12.50 for children at the door
Yes, they offer family discounts, and student (16+) or senior (60+) discounts with ID
Check online for varied opening times, allow for at least 1.5 hours on a self guided tour, but up to 4 hours, depending on how quickly you move
Spend an Afternoon in the Park
Last summer, Luke and I visited Sutton Park amidst my bear hunting, when I had to get some bears in nearby Sutton Coldfield. We took a picnic lunch, including some tea and biscuits and hung out in the park soaking in the sunshine and playing cards. I remember wishing I had worn more practical shoes since we were totally out of the city and it felt like we were walking through a forest in search of a good picnic location. It was a great day out and truly felt like we were far outside the city. If you want to stay near the city centre, check out Cannon Hill Park. I first visited this park in search of bears, as well. It's a lot busier since it boasts quite a few more attractions, like a mini golf course, a train, and pedal boats on the lake. Cannon Hill Park is also home to The Golden Lion, a old pub built in 1520, moved to the park in 1911. It is believed that the first complete English Bible was printed inside the building by John Rogers, the first protestant Martyr burnt at the stake by Queen Mary. It has been boarded up since the 1980's and is now held up by scaffolding, but there are hopes it could be restored one day. Right next to Cannon Hill Park is the Birmingham Wildlife Conservation Park. Birmingham is the second greenest city in England (in terms of green space, not environmental friendliness), so there's plenty of opportunity to get out in the great outdoors!
Go Back in Time at the Black Country Living Museum
I first heard of the Black Country Living Museum on posters while riding the train. It reminded me on Colonial Williamsburg, which I've visited twice and quite enjoyed, but I forgot all about it until a woman at Lush suggested I add it to my list. The museum is one of the country's largest open air museums, spanning 26 acres, made up of rebuilt or relocated historic buildings. Our plans to go were twice postponed because of rain, but when we finally made it, it was a great day and we had a great time! (Unfortunately quite a few people also had their plans postponed apparently so it was fairly busy.) We spent about four hours wandering around the museum, going into as many shops as we could, but seemingly missing all the demonstrations and tours. We stopped for lunch at the fish & chips shop, which might have been some of the best fish & chips I've had in the UK and well worth the 30 minute wait to get to the counter. If you're interested in going back in time to the industrial age in Birmingham, you will love it. Or if you love Peaky Blinders, you'll love it because they've filmed a number of scenes on location here.
WHAT TO KNOW
£17.95 for adults and £8.95 for children (3-16)
Yes, they offer family, student (16+) and senior (65+) discounts with ID
Bonus: See Old Joe
Luke said it wasn't worth taking a spot in my list of 10 things. I disagreed, so here we are at a bonus. Old Joe stands in the heart of the University of Birmingham Edgbaston campus at 100m (328ft) tall, making it the tallest free standing clock in the world. One might even claim that it's the tallest known free standing clock in the universe. The clock is named after the university's first Chancellor, Joseph Chamberlain. Students attending UOB believe it's bad luck to walk under Old Joe until graduation. Some people enjoy touring college campuses (like me!) and you might feel Old Joe is worth visiting campus to see (like me!) But if you go to the top of the Cube or the library, you'll see it towering over the trees since Birmingham is so flat.
Bonus: (Get out of town and) Visit Warwick Castle
Since it's not technically in Birmingham, I'm counting it as a second bonus. Take it or leave it, I'm doing it. When I visited Luke in April of 2017, I begged him to take me to a real castle. I had never been to one before! We visited Warwick Castle on a chilly, rainy day, but it was still fun. I kind of think of the castle as history meets Renaissance Festival because so much of it, in terms of attractions and activities, reminded me of what I saw at the annual Renaissance Festival in Colorado. It's kind of like a fun way to experience history, and Warwick Castle has plenty of it. According to Wikipedia, Warwick Castle is a medieval castle developed from an original built by William the Conqueror in 1068. Warwick is the county town of Warwickshire, England, situated on a bend of the River Avon. The original wooden motte-and-bailey castle was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century. During the Hundred Years War, the facade opposite the town was refortified, resulting in one of the most recognisable examples of 14th century military architecture. It was used as a stronghold until the early 17th century, when it was granted to Sir Fulke Greville by James I in 1604. Greville converted it to a country house and it was owned by the Greville family, who became Earls of Warwick in 1759, until 1978 when it was bought by the Tussauds Group. We very easily spent an entire morning there and we didn't even do it all! I would also recommend getting a ticket that include the dungeon, which was my favourite bit, and worth the extra few pounds.
WHAT TO KNOW
From £9.50 online
£19.00 for adults and £17.00 for children (3-11) at the gate
Yes, they offer senior (60+) discounts with ID
10:00-16:00 or 17:00 (check online for daily hours)