Second cities are often a lot more fun than a nation’s capital—they’re less frenetic and more relaxed, less cosmopolitan and more authentic, less touristy and more industrial. Birmingham, or Brum, is all of these. Although London, Liverpool, and Manchester shout loudly, Birmingham is only just beginning to herald itself as a city with plenty to offer visitors and numerous places to stay. It’s the quiet joker in the pack.
1. About Birmingham International Airport
Birmingham International Airport is small and easy to navigate. You’ll arrive on the ground floor and can pick up local currency at the ATM by WHSmith or any of the three bureaux de change. A Black Cab taxi rank and a 900 bus that goes into the city wait outside, but a faster and cheaper option is to travel the nine miles into ‘town’ by train. Head for the free Air-Rail Link on the first floor. Birmingham International to Birmingham New Street takes just ten minutes and brings you right into the heart of the city.
Check out the shiny new central train station as you pass through. Look up from the concourse to see the vast curved glass atrium roof, and the sixty-store Grand Central shopping mall all around.
2. Technology needs
Birmingham no longer has a dedicated tourist office but there is plenty of online help for visitors. Information is available on Visitbirmingham.com in German, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Russian–just click your preferred language in the top-right menu. But if you speak English and are really looking to connect with the locals be sure to load iBrummie onto your mobile. This app translates english to the local Brummie dialect and back again.
Free public WiFi access is also widely available across the city centre (look for ‘Bham Free WiFi’), in the Bullring, Library of Birmingham, cafés, and hotels. And if you want to get from one pointe to another, these Network West Midlands travel apps will make your journey easier. Just don’t forget your chargers. Note that power is supplied from UK wall sockets at 220-240 volts, so you need to check your devices. Most laptops and smartphones have dual voltage, but look for input information that says 100V-240V–before plugging in with your travel adaptor.
3. Getting around Birmingham
Birmingham city centre is small—little more than a mile across—and partly pedestrianised. It’s generally easier to walk across the city than taking public transport, although a cross-city tram is due to open in the summer of 2016 that will connect Birmingham Snow Hill to Birmingham New Street train stations. Look for the wayfinding totems dotted around to help map your journey, or download a visitor map before you arrive. Birmingham is also a great central base for travel further afield. It’s at the heart of the UK’s road, rail and canal network–in easy reach of Stratford (Shakespeare country), the Cotswolds and Peak District (walking country). And, if your’e used to apps like Uber in your home city, be sure to use Birmingham’s own take on on-demand taxi service, T.O.A Taxi, via your mobile phone.
4. Birmingham weather and what to pack
Like most English cities, the weather in Birmingham can be quite unpredictable. While the temperatures tend to be mild, between 15-20°C in summer and around 5°C in the winter months, the skies can go from blue to black in a matter of minutes. And, more often then not, you can expect rain at some point each day. December, January and February are the rainiest months of the year, but regardless of season, each month usually sees over 15 days of rain.
With the variability of both the temperatures and precipitation in Birmingham, it’s a good idea to pack many light layers. The summer months can get hot but have mild evenings, and the winter months can get muggy at night due to the high rainfall, so preparing lots of layers to take on or off will allow constant comfort. Of course a rain jacket and umbrella are must-haves, along with rain-safe footwear. Avoid trainers though, as many cafes and restaurants around town prefer patrons to have more upscale footwear.
5. Buildings to navigate by
Birmingham’s iconic buildings can help you navigate the city. West of the centre is the new Library of Birmingham, nicknamed “the wedding cake.” The upper terraces offer a good view of the city. You can see Brum’s favourite skyscrapers, Alpha Tower and Holloway Circus, from here. East of the library is the neo-classical Town Hall and Council House in Victoria Square. Head down New Street to the iconic 1960s Rotunda and perhaps the most distinctive new building of all — the curvaceous, silver-disc-encased Selfridges with a design based on a shimmering 1960s chain mail Paco Rabanne dress.
6. One of the most multicultural U.K. cities
Birmingham is not just one of the most diverse cities in the U.K.—it’s set to become a “plural” city by 2020 with no ethnic majority. Many waves of migration have brought an Irish Centre, Polish Centre, Chinatown, and Balti Triangle to the city. The result for visitors is a smorgasbord of food and festivals. Don’t miss the Frankfurt Christmas Market beginning in November. Meeting a Brummie could be the thing that makes your holiday– the locals are friendly but be prepared for their dry wit. Try Meetups, join a board game or perhaps just head for a pub and say hello.
7. There’s more to eating out than Balti
The big new thing is Brum’s diverse foodie culture, which earned it a world ranking in the New York Times. The popular Digbeth Dining Club, held under a Digbeth railway arch on Fridays beginning at 5 p.m., is a classic example. Stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Brummies eating award-winning international street food while listening to DJs and other entertainment. Check out I Choose Birmingham and Designmynight for news of pop-ups, secret supper clubs, hidden bars, and the top chefs in town. Still, the Balti is Birmingham’s most famous dish. Try it in the Balti Triangle for a real flavour of Asia.
8. City of a thousand trades
Tearing buildings down and rebuilding for the future is a city habit, but traces of Birmingham’s industrial glory days remain. Brum famously has more canals than Venice. They were built in the industrial revolution and now have been redeveloped into leisure spots such as Brindleyplace and the Mailbox. You’ll also find gunmakers’ names carved above doorways and Europe’s largest concentration of jewellers in the Jewellery Quarter. You can also smell the chocolate wafting on the breeze from Cadbury’s factory in nearby Bournville.
9. Home of metal
Brummies might not shout about it, but they have much to be proud of. Famous sons include Duran Duran, Dexys Midnight Runners, The Streets, UB40, and ELO. The heavy metal music genre was born here, blasted out by Ozzie Osbourne and Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, and Napalm Death. The big names play the Genting Arena or Barclaycard Arena, but head for The Flapper or Scruffy Murphy’s (rock, punk, metal), Jam House (blues, soul, jazz), or the Sunflower Lounge (indie) for something more “real.”
10. Shopper’s paradise
Prices have been rising as the city has regenerated and gentrified, but Brummies always take pride in getting a bargain, whether it’s a wedding ring at a fraction of the price in the Jewelry Quarter, a fancy fascinator or rare record from the Rag Market, or the frequent sales at the Bullring. The city’s tourism website publishes current offers, but you can just wander the central areas and look for signage proclaiming 2-for-1 meal deals and cocktail happy hours. The Oasis is a Brum staple for younger shoppers, offering alternative clothing and paraphernalia.
Birmingham is beginning to bask in the glow of a renaissance that even the rest of the U.K. is starting to notice. Make the most of it now before everyone else catches on and Brummies finally start to boast about how bostin’ their hometown is.