Whilst the thought of having to spend time in Birmingham was once a daunting inevitability, the city now boasts a surprising array of enjoyable things to do.
Despite it being the second largest city in the country, you can travel within the city on foot as nowhere is more than around 25 minutes’ walk away from anywhere else.
Stepping out of the gleaming New Street Station, you will immediately be confronted by the high street hellishness of the Bullring. This is to be avoided at all costs if you are seeking a good experience during your time in Birmingham. If shopping is on your agenda, descend the staircase (a large cylindrical tower seemingly made out of bathroom windows) to the right of the Bullring entrance, and head to the Rag Markets. Here you will find the most diverse and vibrant shopping experience in the area which has the possibility to satisfy any shopping list, due to the vast range of products on sale – from spices to vintage clothing to fruit and veg (if you step outside). “But hey! I read online that ‘COW vintage’ is really good” is a popular opinion held by many, and an incorrect one. ‘COW’ is a vulture preying on students and vintage lovers, robbing them blind by pricing their adequate quality items ridiculously highly, all whilst a Smiths record plays (again) on a turntable in the centre of the shop.
For a quick drink, there is no coffee shop more enchanting than the Arabian delight of ‘Damascena’. Facing the third smallest cathedral in the country, it is located on Temple Row, only a couple minutes’ walk from New Street. Stepping in, you are immediately met with gorgeous aromas of cardamom and cinnamon, before walking through to the main event – a seating area that transports you to a world that would not feel out of place in Istanbul. ‘Damascena’ is always teeming with people, but its unique ambiance never dies away due to the quality of their hot beverages and the criminally low pricing of them. If you become peckish during your time in this fascinating teahouse, turn your attention to their menu, where huge Meze platters take centre stage, but a host of smaller, cheaper and equally heavenly Arabic delicacies share the stage.
If your time in Birmingham happens to be extended, visit two of the most important galleries in Britain – Ikon and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Located just off of the nightlife nightmare that is Broad Street, the Ikon Gallery is almost tucked away, yet it is beautifully encased within the neo-gothic former Oozells Street Board School. Ikon is an internationally renowned venue where modern art has flourished for the last 50 years, regularly housing excellent exhibitions by contemporary artists that vary wildly in style and substance. By contrast, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery mines its displays from the more distant past, housing both the most important Pre-Raphaelite collection in the world and the Staffordshire hoard. Situated in the grand Victoria Square, it is flanked by the imposing Town Hall and the Council House, adding to the Victorian grandeur of this splendid institution.
Finding yourself in the city for a few hours, the option of film is ever present. For a boutique cinema experience, ‘The Electric’ is perfection; Seat service, independent films, and much more besides breathes life into the oldest working cinema in the country. The prices reflect the experience, with general admission averaging at around £10 – more if you desire sofa seating. Ease of access is premium if you don’t wish to travel far, as the cinema is a 30 second walk from Grand Central. If your budget is tighter than ‘The Electric’ permits, journey towards the Custard Factory in Digbeth and spend time in ‘The Mockingbird Cinema and Kitchen’, who regularly host box office films for £5 and classics for £1. Laid back staff, fine food and cheap film all contribute to its consistently filled seats in its singular screen.
Should an insatiable lust for food come upon you during your time in the second city, make a beeline for ‘Original Patty Men’. Housed under the arches of the Moor Street railway track, ‘… Patty Men’ is typical of Digbeth style; Edison bulbs hang from exposed scaffolding, graffiti is liberally applied across the walls, and a chalk board displays specials named after Golden-Era rappers – all create a fitting environment to devour the most delectable burgers in town. If by some tragedy, you find yourself in Birmingham and hungry on a Friday or Saturday night, head to Lower Trinity Street in Digbeth and sample the finest street food in the country at ‘Digbeth Dining Club’. A rotating cast of leading vendors park their business in the courtyard of the venue, and hundreds of starving individuals descend on the area, all vying for a taste of the best British street food on offer.
Birmingham has more to offer than initially meets the eye. If you look beyond the grey concrete flatness that constitutes the façade of the city, a lively and vibrant core exists. I promise.
Eat: Original Patty Men, Digbeth Dining Club
Visit: Ikon Gallery, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Do: The Electric, Mockingbird Cinema and Kitchen
Be: Canals, Brindsley Place (behind Ikon)
Shop: Rag Markets