Even though I live less than 50 miles from the UK’s second largest city, I’d never explored Birmingham beyond its shopping streets and live music venues. So, when I received an email challenging me to explore my local city and to write a blog post about it, my interest was piqued into delving into exactly what Birmingham has to offer tourists; into showcasing its attractions and uncovering some of the city’s hidden gems.
As Birmingham is only a 60-minute train journey away from my hometown of Shrewsbury, it made sense for me to explore it in a day, but if you live further away and need to factor in an overnight stay, I’ve also included some of the best and most affordable hotels in Birmingham at the end of this post.
If you’re wondering what to do in Birmingham and exactly why you should pay the city a visit, read on.
But first, a few fun facts about Birmingham that you may not be aware of:
- There are 35 miles / 56 kilometres of canals in Birmingham, most of which are navigable. This is more than Venice (a city arguably more famous for its canals), which has 26 miles / 42 kilometres.
- Birmingham is home to five Michelin star restaurants (second only to London in the UK), all recognised in the 2018 Michelin Guide. These are Adam’s, Peel’s at Hampton Manor, Purnell’s, Carters of Moseley, and Simpsons.
- The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter produces 40% of all jewellery made in the UK.
- Birmingham is one of the UK’s greenest cities, with over 8,000 acres (32 square kilometres) and 600 parks and open spaces. According to Birmingham City Council, that’s more than Paris!
- There are five universities in the city, accommodating over 73,000 students.
- 90% of the UK is within a four-hour journey from Birmingham.
- The Birmingham Hippodrome is the busiest theatre in the UK, seeing over 520,000 visitors per year.
- J.R.R. Tolkien grew up in Birmingham, and it is widely acknowledged that parts of the city and its inhabitants inspired scenes and characters from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It’s possible to walk the Tolkien Trail to discover more about the author’s life.
What to do in Birmingham in one day
The itinerary I put together for my day in Birmingham is obviously based around my own interests, but I have tried to include a diverse range of sights and activities in the city (some that are free of charge and others that carry an admission fee), along with some useful suggestions for places to eat and drink.
Here’s how I chose to spend my money in this cool, culturally diverse, constantly evolving city.
1 | Breakfast at Yorks
This place is located literally a stone’s throw from New Street Station. As I wanted to be able to review some of the city’s fantastic eateries, I decided to skip breakfast at home in favour of grabbing some in Birmingham as soon as I arrived.
Opened in 2012 and recognised as one of the top brunch destinations in the country by both the Sunday Times and the Observer, Yorks brew their own coffee and bake their own cakes on site and offer creative menu items (inspired by the travels of their team) such as Arabian buttered eggs and creamy za’atar roasted mushrooms. I rooted for a firm favourite of mine – hot-smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, sourdough toast, dill, crème fraiche.
Decor is ‘hipster’ with floor to ceiling windows on the upper floor and loads of stripped back wood, metal and concrete, which the staff say reflects the stripped back, soulful food they love to serve.
Address: 29/30 Stephenson Street (second location adjacent to the Ikon Gallery) | Opening times: Mon-Fri 07:30-19:00 hours, Sat 08:30-19:00 hours, and Sun 09:30-17:00 hours.
2 | Gas Street Basin
You can’t beat a relaxing stroll along Birmingham’s picturesque canal tow paths after breakfast. I started my walk at The Cube, a love-it-or-hate-it (I loved it!) 25-storey structure designed by Ken Shuttleworth of Make Architects that contains 135 flats, offices, shops, a hotel and a ‘skyline’ restaurant.
It’s part of The Mailbox development, which I walked through in order to reach it.
I then headed along the Gas Street Basin in the direction of the Broad Street Tunnel and Brindley Place. It was so nice to see a side of Birmingham that I’d never experienced before, away from the crowds that flooded the streets around New Street Station.
I’d inadvertently arrived in the city during the colourful Pride celebrations, and whilst I love the atmosphere and energy that such celebrations promote, it did make sightseeing a little more tricky than usual and made me even more grateful for those moments of quietness and solitude I found along the canalside.
3 | Oozell’s Square and the Ikon Gallery
Spring is the best time of year to visit Japanese-inspired Ooozell’s Square, when the cherry blossom is in bloom. Unfortunately I visited too late to catch that, but it’s still a really pretty square regardless, and one of my favourites in Birmingham.
It’s located in Brindley Place – an area that’s famous for its tree-lined squares, swanky restaurants and enviable canalside location.
On the edge of Ooozell’s Square you’ll find the Ikon Gallery. Housed inside a Grade II listed neo-gothic former Oozells Street Board School, Ikon is an internationally acclaimed contemporary art venue. The gallery features a number of temporary exhibitions showcasing work from a variety of artists around the world.
The pieces I’ve photographed below will be on show until 2 June 2019.
Ikon Gallery opening times: Tues-Sun 11:00-17:00 hours
4 | Library of Birmingham
When I saw photographs of the outside of this building, it was the one that I was most excited about visiting in Birmingham. Designed by Mecanoo and attracting 10,000 visitors daily, the 31,000 square metre building opened on 3 September 2013 and encompasses a research library, archives, exhibition space and theatres.
The design of the structure also gives rise to the addition of two outdoor terraces – known as “secret gardens.” I love the way in which Mecanoo has brought nature – and a sense of peace and tranquility – to the very centre of this busy metropolis. It’s the perfect place to relax and read a couple of chapters of your book, while admiring some of the best views across the city.
5 | Victoria Square
At the end of one of Birmingham’s major shopping precincts, Victoria Square is where you’ll find the neoclassical Town Hall, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Council House.
Victoria Square also currently houses (until 5 June 2019) the striking 8.23 metre tall Knife Angel sculpture. Commissioned by the British Ironworks Centre in Oswestry and constructed from 100,000 potential weapons sourced from knife amnesty bins across the country, the sculpture is a memorial to all of those who’ve lost their lives as a result of knife crime.
6 | St. Phillip’s Cathedral and Square
Another beautiful green space in the middle of the city, St. Phillips Square houses the cathedral of the same name. As there were no services or events on when I dropped by, I took a peek inside.
7 | Lunch at 200 Degrees
I wasn’t really that hungry after my late (and large!) breakfast, but I did fancy a coffee and 200 Degrees – housed inside a beautiful Victorian building opposite St. Phillip’s Square – are well known for serving great tasting coffee. So named because they roast their coffee slowly and at a lower temperature than normal (200 degrees) for a smoother taste, 200 Degrees also sell a selection of delicious salads, soups, sandwiches and cakes. The brownies looked so moist and squishy that I was tempted into ordering one to accompany my coffee.
Not only can you drink their coffee at one of their six coffee shops nationwide, you can also buy their coffee online.
8 | Great Western Arcade
A Grade II listed Victorian Shopping Arcade, the Great Western Arcade is located right in the centre of Birmingham, just around the corner from St. Phillips Square. Championing independent retailers and restaurants, it’s a great place to shop (and eat) away from the major high street chains.
The stylish vegetarian haven, Bistro 1847 (pictured above) is also located here.
9 | St. Paul’s Church
You’ll find this church in the middle of a pretty Georgian square in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, around a kilometre north of the centre of the city.
Known also as ‘The Jeweller’s Church,’ St. Paul’s is the only survivor of the town’s 18th-century churches and one of the few churches in Birmingham to retain its box pews complete with their enamel number plaques.
The doors were locked when I visited, so I can’t tell you want the inside is like, but outside is a lovely place to relax away from the buzz of the city just minutes away.
10 | The Coffin Works
I wanted to tick one slightly obscure attraction off my list of Birmingham attractions, so a museum housed inside the Newman Brothers’ coffin furniture factory full of original stock and machinery seemed to fit the bill. What I hadn’t realised before arriving was that entry is permitted by guided tour only, and that the guided tour would last well over an hour.
As a result I didn’t have time for the other Jewellery Quarter sights I had on my itinerary – namely the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) and the Pen Museum.
I would recommend the tour, but perhaps not if you only have one day in the city. Unless you’re really into that sort of thing.
Address: 13-15 Fleet Street | Opening times: Wed-Sun tours on the hour from 11:00-15:00 hours | Entry: £7.70 (including gift aid)
11 | Street Art of Digbeth
Unfortunately I arrived here after most of the shops inside The Custard Factory were shutting up for the day, but the street art alone was well worth a wander over to this part of the city (around a kilometre south east of the centre).
On a Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening from 5pm, you’ll also find the Digbeth Dining Club (DDC) here. Founded in 2012, Digbeth Dining Club is a multi award-winning street food event, where you can pick up some cheap eats from various cuisines around the world. There are also bars on site and DJs spinning some tunes.
I imagine it’s a great place to come with a few friends, but as a solo female traveller I found the crowds rather overwhelming and decided to find somewhere a bit quieter for dinner.
Address: Lower Trinity Street | Entry: £1
12 | Spanish Tapas at Ocho
I was tempted by the Latin American street food menu at Bodega, but in the end my stomach decided it wanted Spanish tapas for dinner so I missioned it back to the Jewellery Quarter to grab a table at newly-opened Ocho.
The head chef here is Tomek Iwanicki (formerly of Michelin star Purnells ) so as you can imagine the menu contains some top quality Spanish and Portuguese inspired dishes. I ordered the prawns, fennel and spinach salad, and the whole sea bream off the specials board. Both the prawns and the sea bream were cooked perfectly and the flavours were spot on. I also ordered a large glass of delicious rioja to wash it all down with.
It’s a bit out the way but worth the walk.
Address: 19 Pitsford Street | Opening times: Wed-Sat 17:00-23:00 hours
I arrived back at the train station just in time to catch the 8pm train home.
There are a few other sights and attractions I’d have loved to have made it to, but as I discovered, a day is simply not enough.
- Back to Backs. The city’s last surviving court of back-to-back houses. Entry is by guided tour only and you need to book a week in advance (I only researched my trip the evening before I went).
- Birmingham Botanical Gardens. These were founded as far back as 1829 and are located 2.7 kilometres south west of New Street Station.
- ThinkTank – Birmingham Science Museum. An award winning museum that contains four floors of hands-on exhibits and historical collections.
Where to stay in Birmingham
Seeing as though I am mostly a budget traveller, the majority of my recommendations are on the cheaper end of the scale, however I have included a couple of more expensive options, because sometimes it’s worth splashing out every once in a while.
Whenever I have an early morning flight from Birmingham airport, I always choose to stay at the Ibis there. I find Ibis hotels offer excellent quality and comfort while still being incredibly affordable. Their breakfasts are amazing and the food I’ve ordered in the past from their attached restaurant has always been well worth the price I’ve paid for it.
If you’re looking for a cheap, reliable, no-frills place to stay in the centre of Birmingham then you can’t beat the Easy Hotel. When I was contemplating an overnight stay in Birmingham, in order to make my visit part of a longer trip away, this is the hotel I had earmarked. It’s one of the most affordable in the city (under £100 for a double room on a Saturday night over a bank holiday weekend) that also has good customer reviews.
I stay at the Staycity Aparthotel near Hayes and Harlington railway station in London whenever I need to fly in or out of Heathrow airport during the early hours of the morning or late hours of the evening. Staycity Aparthotels represent incredible value for money and offer all the benefits of a hotel and apartment combined. This one’s conveniently located between the city centre and the Jewellery Quarter.
Mid-range and Luxury Hotels
Located right by the Bullring Shopping Centre and offering incredible city views, the Rotunda is a really smart but affordable choice. Like the Staycity Aparthotel, Staying Cool at the Rotunda offer serviced apartments, which means that you’ll have your own kitchen and cooking facilities but there are staff on hand whenever you need them.
Centrally located in The Mailbox and close to Victoria Square, Broad Street, and the Bullring Shopping Centre, Malmaison is a modern and trendy choice.
If you’d like to read about any of the other UK city breaks I’ve taken, I currently have posts about Liverpool and Canterbury written, but I am constantly adding to these. Check out my ‘where I’ve been’ tab for a list of the UK destinations I’ve covered.
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