Baltis, Bling and the Bullring: 24 Things To Do In Birmingham

The second largest city in Britain after London, Birmingham is famous for its creativity, innovation and very distinctive accent. It started out as a small market town, one that invented the industrial steam engine and the postage stamp. The city has also given us plenty of traditional British classics over the years - and the list includes Typhoo Tea, the traditional breakfast condiment HP Sauce and Bird’s Custard. Birmingham finally became a city in 1889 and it's still the home of skilled specialist trades, particularly jewellery, and one of the most famous chocolate brands in the world - Cadbury. With more canals than Venice, one of the most visited shopping centres in the world and its own chocolate factory, here are some more reasons why you might want to visit the West Midlands.

The Bullring. Image via Hammersons
The Bullring. Image via Hammersons

1. Begin at the Bullring

Birmingham’s Bullring has held markets since the 12th century, but is now a shopping centre with around 160 shops, restaurants and bars. It's one of the most popular complexes in the country and home to the iconic Selfridges, which is decorated with 15,000 spun aluminium discs. Grab a photograph with the Bull, the 2.2m high bronze sculpture of a running, turning bull guarding the west entrance.

2. Buy some of Birmingham's famous bling

Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, has more than 500 businesses, from big-name retailers to small, independent workshops and manufacturers. Head to St Paul’s Square (a popular picnic spot) to buy your jewellery - the area is a designated conservation area with more than 200 listed buildings. There's a couple of museums to visit while you're there, like the preserved workshops at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. Or The Coffin Works takes you into the old firm, Newman Brothers, which is full of the original stock and tools - they produced fittings for the funerals of Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother among others.

3. Make a trip to a market

The Bull Ring has three council-run markets in the city centre.

4. Visit the Cadbury's factory

Cadabra. Image via Cadbury World
Cadabra. Image via Cadbury World

Cadbury chocolate and Bournville Drinking Chocolate were both created in Birmingham. Cadbury World first opened its doors in 1990 and has since welcomed over 11 million visitors. You should also visit the model village of Bournville, built by George Cadbury to house the factory workers when it was moved from the city out into the countryside.

DID YOU KNOW? It's "believed" that Cadbury Chocolate Factory inspired a certain Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

5. Find some fine dining

Birmingham has five Michelin-starred restaurants (the most outside of London). They've got plenty of top chefs as well - with Glynn Purnell among the best known, he's even got his own flagship restaurant, Purnell's, here. We also recommend Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar & Grill - go for the view or to impress a date. It’s modern hotel glitz in the sky with a celeb chef menu.

Purnell's
Purnell's

6. Bag some brunch, burgers and beef

Possibly one of the best neighbourhood pubs for breakfast, brunch or booze, rain or shine is The Plough Harbourne. The Botanist also does a nice line in all-day food and superb cocktails. One of the latest arrival on the Birmingham food scene, CAU, is the place to go for beef. The cocktails are also the stuff of legend. Visit the Mailbox for a wide range of bars and restaurants, or you can also get "bostin" burgers at the Original Patty Men in the railway arches under Moor Street Station, three mins walk from Bullring.

BOSTIN: Brilliant, fantastic, wonderful, great. From the Anglo--Saxon word "bosten" - which means to boast about. Used exclsuively in the city of Birmingham and its surrounding area: "I had a bostin night out in Birmingham".

7. Disappear into the Balti Triangle

There are more than 100 curry restaurants in the Balti Triangle. The Balti was actually invented in Birmingham in the 1970s - the name is derived from the dish it is served in. The Birmingham Mail reviewed their top best Balti houses in 2015 if you want a steer.

Round Room at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery
Round Room at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

8. Meet some mummies

The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has the largest trove of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found - and you can see the Staffordshire Hoard in its own gallery. It's also got its own Ancient Egyptian gallery and "the most important collection of Pre-Raphaelite art anywhere in the world". All the big art world names have paintings in The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, and every month there is something new going on at the free Ikon gallery and arts venue.

Ikon
Ikon

9. Visit a niche museum

If you're visiting with kids, thinktank - Birmingham's science museum - has loads going on. On the outskirts of the city you'll find the National Motor Bike Museum which has more than 300 bikes on display, including the largest collection of British makes in the country. The Pen Museum has more than 5,000 writing objects relating to the time when the Birmingham "pen" made up 75% of pens in the world.

10. See how Birmingham's buildings have evolved through time

Medieval manor

The ruins of Weoley Castle, a 750-year-old moated manor house, are a scheduled Ancient Monument of national importance.  You can see the ruins of one of Birmingham's oldest buildings (c1270) from a free viewing platform - and they hold events throughout the year.

A Tudor / Elizabethan home and pub

The timber-framed Tudor-style Blakesley Hall was built in 1590 by one of Birmingham's leading merchants, Richard Smalbroke. You can have a look round the house and gardens, and there are guided tours which can be pre-booked. The Old Crown pub is one of the oldest buildings still standing in Birmingham and it is now Grade II listed. While there has been a hostelry on the site since around 1368, the building now mainly dates back to the early 16th century.

A Jacobean stately home

Now a museum, Aston Hall, had a key part to play in the Civil War - King Charles I stayed there before heading off to fight the Battle of Esgehill in 1642. You can see the hole in the staircase made by a cannonball and former owner, Lady Holte's impressive garden at this well-preserved Grade I listed building.

Aston Hall
Aston Hall

Georgian grandeur

The white-painted 18th Century, Soho House, was once one of the most advanced homes in the country - as its owner, industrial pioneer Matthew Boulton, put in central heating and indoor flushing toilets. The house was also used for meetings of The Lunar Society (a group of leading intellectuals of the time including  Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood and James Watt).

Nineteenth century industry

Birmingham’s last surviving court of Back to Backs, is now a National Trust property. You can get a real insight into what life was like in the early 1800s in the homes and workshops by guided tour only - you must book in advance.

The Black Country Living Museum
The Black Country Living Museum

Victorian country living

They've recreated an entire Victorian village, brick by brick, at The Black Country Living Museum just outside Birmingham. There's enough to entertain you here all day, and you can see things being made, be guided by costumed characters and ride on vintage transport among other things. You might have seen it featured as a location in Peaky Blinders, 24 Hours in the Past and Land Girls.

Edwardian elegance

You'll find a great example of the Arts and Crafts movement in Winterbourne House's fixtures and fittings. The seven acre Grade II listed villa garden has thousands of plants from across the globe.

Birmingham into the 21st Century

The landmark £189m Library of Birmingham was opened in 2013 and is the largest cultural public space in Europe and houses one million books, including one of Shakespeare's First Folios. Make sure you head up to the roof garden, which has a wild flower meadow and gives you great views of the city.

Broad Street
Broad Street
Broad Street

Birmingham's music scene

Influential bands like The Move, The Moody Blues, The Spencer Davis Group and the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) were all founded in the city. Heavy metal was created in Birmingham and the Black Country by bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Led Zeppelin. Reggae (Musical Youth and UB40), Ska (The Beat), Punk (Toyah), Hip Hop (The Streets) and Indie-guitar (Ocean Colour Scene) have all had their local stars. During the early 1980s, Birmingham-born Duran Duran were one of the biggest bands on the planet. You can buy album covers and artwork from St Paul’s Gallery - which has one of the biggest collections in the world.  

11. Listen and dance to some live music

(c) The Cuban Embassy
(c) The Cuban Embassy

The Cuban Embassy has house bands playing live every Friday and Saturday. Brums best boogaloo, Motown and northern soul can be found every weekend at The Night Owl

12. See some big names in concert

You can go to the gigs of the big stars as well as emerging artists at the O2 Academy Birmingham.

13. Get a classical education

You can take a tour of Symphony Hall and find out why its acoustics are considered to be among the best in the world. The internationally-renowned City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) also have a very varied programme to choose from.

Films, theatre and books

14. Go for a vintage silver screen experience

You'll find cult movies, classic comedies as well as cake and a cuppa at The Electric Cinema in Southside. This is the UK’s oldest working cinema, first showing shorts in Station Street in 1909.

15. See a play or show

The Birmingham Hippodrome is the place to see the big West End musicals and shows, as well as dance, opera and pantomime. To see theatre of the less commercial kind - visit The Rep.

16. Visit the place that inspired The Hobbit

The 250 year old Sarehole Mill is one of only two surviving working watermills in Birmingham and you can take a guided tour and watch it in action on a milling day. This was a childhood haunt of J.R.R. Tolkien, and it provided inspiration for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

17. Time it right for one of the fifty festivals

If you visit during the summer, you should arrive during one of the many festivals the city puts on. Music wise the Birmingham & Soilihull Jazz and Blues Festival in July is big as is the International Dance Festival. Find out more and all the dates here.

Birmingham's sporting heritage

Edgbaston
Edgbaston

18. Become one of the Baggies, a Bluenose or a Villan

Birmingham has a long and proud football history, and has three of the oldest professional clubs in the world– Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion.

DID YOU KNOW: Football referee whistles were invented and then first manufactured in Birmingham. The city also crafted the original FA Cup

The rivalry between Villa and City is particularly fierce, and their matches against each other and known as the "Second City" derby. Aston Villa is one of the few British clubs to have won the European cup, and you can see their trophies as part of a stadium tour of Villa Park. You can take a tour of St Andrew's and the Hawthorns on selected dates.

19. See some boundaries hit at Edgbaston

Edgbaston
Edgbaston

Birmingham’s oldest international sports venue has been the home of Warwickshire County Cricket Club since 1886. Edgbaston is one of the few Test Match cricket grounds in the country, and you can also watch county games, T20 and One Day Internationals here.

20. Try serving at the oldest tennis club in the world

Lawn tennis was invented in Birmingham and The Edgbaston Archery and Lawn Tennis Society lays claim to being the oldest club, having added lawn tennis to its archery and croquet offerings in 1875. The club hold open days during the summer if you fancy having a go. And if you want to see the female tennis stars of the grass court season, the AEGON Classic at the Priory Club in Edgbaston is one of the biggest pre-Wimbledon warm-up tournaments.

DID YOU KNOW? The Wimbledon winners’ ladies salver was made in the Jewellery Quarter (source - The Jewellery Quarter)

21. Relive Ryder Cup glories

Just to the north of Birmingham is The Belfry, which has held golf's famous team competition, the Ryder Cup, four times. It's also the UK headquarters of the PGA and they have three championship golf courses to book tee times at if you want a round.

When the weather's nice

22. See why Birmingham is one of the greenest cities in Britain

The city's parks cover more than 8,000 acres and they have a nice blend of the old, The Lickey Hills Country Park (Beacon Hill offers great views of the countryside) and new, Eastside City Park (opened in 2013). Surprisingly close to the city centre is Edgbaston Reservoir, take a stroll or cycle ride around it (its 2.8k all the way round).

23. Potter along the canals

Canal boat - Birmingham canals
Canal boat - Birmingham canals

There are around 200 miles of canals to enjoy in Birmingham, but the Gas Street Basin near Brindleyplace is a good place to start. You can sit in a cafe and sip coffee as the barges bob by or hire one for the day and explore yourself. The towpath makes for a pleasant walk or cycle too.

24. And finally if you're visiting at Christmas

Birmingham has "the largest authentic German Christmas market outside of Germany or Austria".

The annual Frankfurt Christmas Market in Victoria Square has more than a 100 stalls to buy gifts and festive treats, and its open from the end of November.

German Christmas Market
German Christmas Market

Getting there and around

If you're travelling by train, both New Street Station and Moor Street Station are right in the middle of the city and within close walking distance of each other It only takes an hour and a half to travel there from London or Manchester by train. You can also fly there - Birmingham Airport is only ten minutes by train to the city centre.

Staying there

We've got lots of Birmingham hotels to choose from should you want to make your visit a little longer.

What are your favourite things to do in Birmingham?

Where would you advise people to go in Birmingham? We'd love to hear what your love about this modern Midlands city. Let us know by leaving a comment below

*Images via Visit Birmingham