These days, it’s known for its fantastic shopping and trendy canalside restaurants and bars. As well as being a cool and cosmopolitan city to visit, it proudly showcases its glorious past – and the promise of a high-tech future – in its excellent museums. Follow our museum guide and enjoy your Birmingham holiday!
You can’t miss this Grade II-listed, sprawling Edwardian building right in the city centre. With 40 separate galleries, it covers art, social history, archaeology and customs of times gone by. It’s full of fascinating archaeological finds but the star of the show is the Staffordshire Hoard – the biggest collection of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever unearthed. The 4,000-piece haul was discovered by amateur detectorists in 2009 nearby. The treasures mostly relate to warfare and are a mini history lesson in themselves.
Birmingham has been a hub of jewellery-making since the 18th century. Make like a magpie and head to the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, which brings this sparkling industry to life. You’ll learn about the rise, fall - and rise again - of Birmingham’s jewellery trade, but it’s the old building that steals the show. Occupying a former jewellery-maker’s that closed in the 1980s, the owners here just shut up shop, leaving everything intact and untouched, down to the dirty teacups.
Birmingham museums don’t get more immersive than this: you’ll step inside the real houses of the tightly packed streets known as back-to-backs. In booming 19th-century Birmingham, the demand for cheap housing spawned the back-to-back, speedily built homes around a courtyard that shared communal privies. Almost all were bulldozed in slum clearances but one set survived and has been restored by the National Trust. You have to book in advance – a week is advised - for a guided tour that winds its way through four separate homes, providing a fascinating window into the lives of 19th and 20th-century working classes.
Go full throttle and speed to the largest motorcycle museum in the world, a showcase of 1,000 British bikes, including some of the sleekest, fastest and meanest ever made. From the earliest two-wheeled machine dating from 1898 through to the powerful superbikes of this century, the museum showcases the development and heritage of UK motorcycle manufacturing. A staggering 170 different makes, from ABC to Zenith, are included in the collection, with larger manufactures such as BSA, Norton and Triumph represented in abundance.
Birmingham museums do think outside the, ahem, box. More fascinating and heart-warming than macabre, this award-winning independent museum is dedicated to the humble trade of constructing our final resting places. With the original machinery working again, it’s an up-close glimpse at operations of the Newman Brothers, the last company to build coffins in Birmingham. Masters of their trade, they produced fittings for the funerals of Churchill, Chamberlain and the Queen Mother. Take a tour to gain insights into the work that went on behind the scenes for early Victorian burials, including the coffin-manufacture process. You’ll hear lots of humorous tales about the people employed at the former workshop, too.
Step aside, Willy Wonka. Birmingham is home to world famous chocolate manufacturer, Cadbury’s, which you can learn all about in a fun and interactive experience at Cadbury World. Ok, so it’s not quite Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as you can’t enter the factory itself. But there’s still a magical atmosphere in this self-guided exhibition tour. Kids will love playing in chocolate rain, working with chocolate, jumping aboard the magical Cadebra ride and visiting a 4D cinema experience featuring Cadbury characters.
One of the other best museums in Birmingham for kids, the award-winning Thinktank science experience aims to inspire the next generation of Einsteins. Its 200 hands-on displays of science and technology are set across ten galleries inside the impressive Millennium Point building. You can find out about everything from aircraft to steam engines and intestines to taste buds. There’s also a Planetarium, a Science Garden, a Marine World Gallery, a Spitfire Gallery, emotional robots and even a few dinosaurs.
Venture just outside Birmingham to explore more than 40 carefully reconstructed shops, houses and industrial areas, at the Black Country Living Museum. Set across 26 acres, this popular open-air site tells the story of the Black Country’s roots. Visitors can learn how steam power, ingenuity and links with the rest of the world transformed Birmingham and the surrounding region into a manufacturing powerhouse. You can hear the clang of hammers; smell the smoke billowing from red brick chimneys and taste fish and chips cooked the traditional way.
The 35-mile journey north-west of Birmingham to Ironbridge Gorge is more than worth a day trip. This UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrates an area that was a cauldron of the industrial revolution. It features the world’s first iron bridge (1781), spanning the Severn Valley. There’s also a range of museums on industrial themes including Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, Museum of the Gorge, Blists Hill Victorian Town, Coalport China Museum, Jackfield Tile Museum, Broseley Pipeworks and Darby Houses.