Birmingham: the English second city spanning chocolate to Lord of the Rings

My kind of place: David Whitley's guide to Birmingham, a direct Emirates route.
The Bullring is among the major shopping attractions in Birmingham. The centre includes a visually arresting Selfridges store. Bill Allsopp / Loop Images / Corbis
The Bullring is among the major shopping attractions in Birmingham. The centre includes a visually arresting Selfridges store. Bill Allsopp / Loop Images / Corbis

Why Birmingham?

England’s second city tends to keep its head down and not make a fuss. It’s always been a place where things get done, not crowed about. But Birmingham’s impact has stretched around the world in many an unlikely manner. It’s the birthplace of industrial metalworking and heavy-metal music, Cadbury’s chocolate and Lord of the Rings – many sites in the southern suburbs were thinly transformed by local boy J R R Tolkien into parts of Middle Earth.

Behind that undemonstrative demeanour, however, is a city that quietly confounds expectations. A friendly streak seems to run through it – people routinely strike up conversations at bus stops. And big changes over the past 20 years have made a city that was once a byword for horrific urban planning into somewhere with an understated, but tangible, buzz.

A comfortable bed

Staying Cool at the Rotunda (www.stayingcool.com, 0044 121 285 1290) does the serviced apartment thing so well that it should be studied in textbooks. The decor is 1960s pop art meets contemporary, the location is absolutely central, and in-room inclusions include board games plus fresh oranges and juicers. Apartments cost from £99.50 (Dh616).

The Indigo (www.hotelindigobirmingham.co.uk, 0044 121 643 2010) has more celebrity sparkle, with an eye-popping cube theme, a Marco Pierre White steakhouse with killer views and a pool on the lower levels. Doubles from £98.50 (Dh609).

If on a budget, Bloc (www.blochotels.com, 0044 121 212 1223) trades off space – rooms are aimed at those not spending much time in them – for the things that matter. From £30 (Dh183), you get a good bed and shower, free Wi-Fi and a sense of style in a prime location.

Find your feet

There’s plenty of joy to be had just strolling through Birmingham, looking at the often-jarring architectural mishmash. Strutting 19th-century grand statements mix with ultra-modern glass bar-raisers and utter horrors of the 1960s concrete-monstrosity genre. Victoria Place is the logical heart, home to the Roman temple-esque Town Hall and fussily decorative Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (www.bmag.org.uk, 0044 121 348 8007). If on limited time in the latter, head to the displays on Birmingham’s history. “I never knew that” snippets include the city becoming an industrial powerhouse because of not being classed as a town – hence, people didn’t have to become members of restrictive guilds – and that three-quarters of everything handwritten in the 19th century was produced with a Birmingham-made pen nib.

Keep heading east to encounter the city’s extensive canal network. Venetian romance is in short supply, but there’s much blissful strolling to be done. Walking maps can be found at the West Midlands Waterways’ Cambrian Wharf office. Diversions include contemporary art at the Ikon Gallery (www.ikon-gallery.org, 0044 121 248 0708) and the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter (www.bmag.org.uk/museum-of-the-jewellery-quarter, 0044 121 554 3598), delving into Birmingham’s jewellery industry.

Meet the locals

It cost a lot of money and looks suspiciously like a monument that a Central Asian dictator would build as a shrine to himself, but the city library building (www.libraryofbirmingham.com, 0044 121 242 4242) has become an instant landmark. It only opened in September, but it’s already become a meeting place and cultural hub.

Book a table

Birmingham’s major contribution to the culinary map comes courtesy of Pakistani immigrants – it’s the birthplace of the Balti, and you can’t go too far wrong in the Sparkbrook area. But city-based curryholic friends insist that the unassuming, central Royal Bengal (www.royalbengalbirmingham.co.uk; 0044 121 643 8127) is the best – the £6.90 (Dh43) lamb Balti’s perfectly spiced richness suggests that they have a point.

In recent years, Birmingham’s fine-dining scene has come on in leaps and bounds. Purnell’s (www.purnellsrestaurant.com, 0044 121 212 9799) is arguably the best of the crop. Its £95 (Dh588) “Now” tasting menu changes regularly, focusing on seasonal produce, while the six course, £65 (Dh402) “Reminisce” menu rounds up the chef’s long-standing signature dishes, including carpaccio of beef with sour cream and sweet-and-sour onions.

Shopper’s paradise

Relatively recent urban rejuvenation projects have made shopping in central Birmingham much more appealing. The Mailbox (www.mailboxlife.com) – formerly a massive Royal Mail sorting office – hosts the likes of Harvey Nichols and Armani. The 160-plus-store Bullring (www.bullring.co.uk) is more mid-market, but its Selfridges store is an arresting architectural marvel.

The Jewellery Quarter (www.jewelleryquarter.net), to the north-west of the centre, is the place for gold, silver and sparkly decoration. About 40 per cent of the jewellery made in the UK comes from here.

What to avoid

Canalside Brindleyplace is yet another regeneration project, but if friends suggest eating there, consider getting new friends. It falls prey to a common scourge of regional British cities – wall-to-wall mediocre chain restaurants.

Don’t miss

The journey from small tea shop to one of the world’s most recognisable chocolate brands is covered at Cadbury World (www.cadburyworld.co.uk, 0044 844 880 7667), seven kilometres south of the city centre. The origins of chocolate, tours around the packaging plant and choc-making demonstrations are included – but it’s the social history that’s most interesting. The surrounding Bournville suburb was built by the company, which was way ahead of its time in terms of employees’ working and living conditions.

Getting there

Emirates (www.emirates.com; 600 555555) flies direct to Birmingham from Dubai, with economy return flights from Dh4,705.

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Published: May 14, 2014 04:00 AM

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