From biryanis to baltis, arts, culture and fun activities, the city of Birmingham is a great choice for visitors, writes Kevin McIndoe.
Contrary to popular belief, the national dish of the UK is not fish and chips. It’s actually curry, and Birmingham – Britain’s second-largest city – is where to indulge in all manner of biryanis and baltis.
The city can also boast a cultural and arts scene unrivalled outside London having brought up some of the world’s biggest rock stars of all time
Despite this, and its outstanding contribution to the UK-led industrial revolution, Birmingham tends to be overlooked. And this often occurs with a soupcon of the “southern arrogance” (a sense of superiority [unjustifiably] expressed by inhabitants of the UK’s London and south-east region).
This is unfair, because the city is one of the friendliest, most vibrant and multi-cultural cities in the world.
Home to 927,000 people, its identity crisis could be because of where it is. As the largest city in the English region of the West Midlands, it is neither “the north” nor “the south” so tourists wishing to visit major UK cities other than London tend to gravitate to Liverpool or Manchester.
But they would be missing out. The city, known as Brum for short, is bursting with A-list shopping, Michelin-starred restaurants and an annual calendar packed with artistic events, exhibitions, concerts and theatre productions. It also has more museums, art galleries and places of historical interest than any other UK city outside London.
Birmingham has become a hotspot for business (try booking a hotel at short notice), new technology and (wait for it) architecture. Yes, that’s right. The city howled at for hideous 1960s carbuncles has had them cleaned up or cleared out. It is no longer Britain’s ugliest city (Reading, anyone? Aberdeen?) but now, actually, one of its most appealing. The city is also the perfect place to base yourself for a visit to nearby Statford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace) or Warwick (with its magnificent castle).
My favourite place Gas Street Basin. Once the heart of England’s canal network in the Victorian age, this area would have reverberated with the sound of coal, glass, timber and foodstuffs being loaded and unloaded as surly barge handlers jostled for space along the canal’s edge. From the basin, a five-minute walk along Broad Street will take you to Brindleyplace. It’s a delight: full of shops, restaurants and cafes that radiate a cosmopolitan air in an area replete with industrial heritage. Here, you are in the centre of things; with New Street rail station just five minutes’ walk away.
Highlights Birmingham really is the city to come to in Britain to eat curry (with Bradford its closest rival in the curry stakes). The city boasts more than 100 balti houses that serve more than 20,000 discerning diners every week. The city’s “Balti Triangle”, an area around the suburbs of Moseley, Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook, is a must-visit. You can get vindaloo cooked with lamb; or sample chicken chetinad (chicken simmered in a sauce of black pepper, roasted coriander and curry leaves), all kinds of kebabs, and katlama (a deep-fried, mince-stuffed pastry). Y’s regular Taste Testers Allen and Alvin Thomas would be well-satisfied here, and would easily order seconds (and probably thirds).
Birmingham gave the world Typhoo Tea, Bird’s Custard, HP Sauce, Bournville cocoa and Cadbury’s chocolate. George Cadbury started making chocolate in 1824 and you can visit Cadbury World, which is one of the UK’s top attractions. And no wonder, it’s the closest you can get to Roald Dahl’s fictional chocolate factory; with the “4D chocolate adventure”, a chocolate “rain” for the kids to play in, a magical Cadabra ride, and a journey into the Aztec jungle (the source of the cocoa bean). Cadbury World is an odyssey of all things chocolatey. With so many museums on offer, it’s hard to pick a highlight but the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter is a bit of a gem. Nowadays, the Jewellery Quarter (in the Hockley area of the city centre) has given way to affluent urban living but still has more than 200 listed buildings and more than 500 jewellery businesses. It has also been described by as “a national treasure” by English Heritage. The museum recalls the factory that it once was before its closure in the early 1970s; from ancient lathes and “battleship” typewriters right down to a spartan staff canteen complete with grubby tea mugs and jars of Marmite.
Lowlights Don’t drive there. The infamous “Spaghetti Junction” (a very complicated motorway interchange) might force you to give your visit the “Brum’s” rush (ie forget all about it).
Souvenirs Who would have thought that a giant anvil-shaped building covered in silver discs would be Selfridge’s? Yes, this is a futuristic gem housing one of Britain’s top stores and offers plenty of choice under one roof.
Getting there Emirates and Qatar Airways offer flights to Birmingham International Airport from Muscat (via Dubai and Doha, respectively). Flight time is about 10 hours and 20 minutes.
Where to stay There are many, many options in Britain’s second-largest city. But hotels here are hubs for conference business so book early, on sites such as Booking.com and Hotels.com.