The big idea

Work hard, play hard: if ever that maxim could be applied to a city, Birmingham would be it. After all, this is England’s second city, once known around the globe as ‘the city of a thousand trades’ and renowned for its entrepreneurial zeal and get-up-and-go.

But look beyond the ability to improvise, adapt, and grow at such an astonishing rate, and you see the fruits of all that labour: a world-class music offering, a series of firsts in entertainment, stunning architecture that blends old and new, the most diverse food offer, and… a city perfect for lovers. Lovers? Yep, read on and find out why this city literally has the lot for the perfect romantic break.

Work hard...

Birmingham has got the most fantastic heritage in making things. Over the years it’s been the world centre for metalworking, cars and aircraft, brass, guns, swords, jewellery and even bedsteads (are those last two connected?). But surely that’s only to be expected for a city dubbed ‘the workshop of the world’ and the spiritual home of the Lunar Society, effectively the inventors of much of the modern world.

But it wasn’t just the quality of the products that stood out, for the people of Birmingham had a particular knack for adapting quickly, for forging anything and for quite simply being in a hurry to do so. Always busy, always adapting, a real entrepreneurs dream.

However, it’s all very well being the best at what you do, but if you can’t get your goods to the people who want them you’re fighting a losing battle. Birmingham’s solution? A canal system that spans more miles than those in Venice that put it firmly at the centre of the UK’s waterway network. The decline of the canals and popularity of the roads could have been disastrous, but Birmingham simply came up with another solution: Spaghetti Junction. A feat of engineering that’s now infamous across the world (and still perpetually confusing to motorists – it was once voted the UK’s second most terrifying junction, after Hangar Lane in London), but again it put this city at the heart of the country’s road network.

Romantic leanings

It may not immediately spring to mind as a romantic destination, but Birmingham’s got all the ingredients as a city for lovers and those with a lust for life. Take the Jewellery Quarter, globally renowned for its excellence and still one of the best places to go for nervous want-to-be grooms looking for the perfect ring for that big question. It’s also home to Cadbury’s, world-famous chocolate-maker (and we all know that no romantic occasion is complete without chocolate). We’ve already mentioned that Birmingham rivals Venice in the canal department, and then there’s the dining – Birmingham boasts three Michelin-starred restaurants, dishes from nearly 30 countries and a vibrant café/bar scene; but if you really want to spice things up, get over to the Balti Triangle for some of the most authentic, mouth-wateringly tasty curries and Indian food you have ever tasted (the Balti was, of course, invented here).

OK, so we’ve got world-class jewellery, the home of chocolate, the beating of Venice (on canals, at least), the home of bedsteads (!) and Michelin-starred candle-lit dinners. Anything else? Oh yes, the shopping and entertainment.

...and play hard

Well of course you want to let your hair down, but first you’ll need something to wear, and you’ve definitely come to right place. Birmingham has undergone somewhat of a renaissance recently, kick-started by the amazing redevelopment of the Bullring, whose  brave yet stunning architecture make for a fabulous landmark; he Brindley Place canal-side development; and the renovation of old buildings into beautiful creations such as the Mailbox (which houses apartments, a hotel, bars, restaurants, boutiques and high-end fashion at Harvey Nichols).

They say that music is the food of love, and Birmingham can certainly give you your fill: the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is one of only two in the country to be funded by the local authority, such is the emphasis on music in the city. And as the city which gave the world Duran Duran, Toyah, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and UB40 diversity is the name of the game. But it doesn’t just stop with music. The oldest surviving repertory theatre is in the city; the Hippodrome is the country’s busiest theatre; and it was Birmingham that put on the most successful pantomime in British panto history (he’s behind you; Aladdin that is); the world-class Birmingham Royal Ballet adds to the breadth of entertainment on offer in this buzzing city.

The essence

Quite simple. Work hard, play hard

Who’s it ideal for/how it can make you feel
Of course, we’ve already established that the romantics among you would love the place, but its appeal is much wider than that: want to have a good time with friends? Come to Birmingham; love authentic food? Come to Birmingham; shopaholic? Come to Birmingham; and finally, if you’re a budding entrepreneur, or someone who’s interested in the machinations of industry, then this is the place to inspire you.
So go on, get busy.

Interesting bits in the history

The Romans had a fort in the suburb of Edgbaston, but it was probably the Anglo-Saxons in the 7th century that had created a village and named it Beormingaham, literally ‘the home of the descendents of Beorma’.

It remained a relatively small village compared to others in the area, until the 12th century when Peter de Birmingham was granted the right to hold a market: this attracted merchants and traders and the village was up-and-running, swiftly turning itself into a busy town by the 14th century. It was then the third largest town in Warwickshire after Warwick and Coventry. Little did people know what would happen though to this most industrious of towns.

The 16th and 17th centuries saw growth in the town, predominantly around the industries of wool, leather and metalwork. Ideal conditions existed in Birmingham, as the city was close to iron ore, coal and a steady water supply from all the streams. But by the 18th century it was metal that was really taking over. And for the next two centuries, boy did it boom. It’s as if anything that could be made from metal came from here. Blades, nails, pens, guns, locks, buttons – in fact visitors over time have often commented on the people’s overwhelming desire to turn their hand to anything, fast, in order to make an honest buck. Indeed it was the fastest-growing town in 18th-century Britain, as people from all over the British Isles and farther afield flooded into town. Come the turn of the century, Birmingham could boast the massive Soho Works in Handsworth, the largest and most famous workshop in the world, owned by the genius businessman Matthew Boulton.

Boulton was a leading light in a remarkable group of thinkers in Britain at the time, the Lunar Society, who all lived and met in the Midlands. This gang of industrialists, scientists, inventors and doctors helped shape the city’s development, as well as being involved in breakthrough national inventions such as the steam engine. Also at this time a certain James Brindley had a huge impact on the city by building the early canals; one industry that took advantage was the brass industry which literally transformed the western side of the town (check out the Brasshouse pub on Broad Street as a modern reminder of this huge industry, in which, as in so many other areas, Birmingham led the world).

By the 19th century jewellery had become an important industry, glass-making was thriving (one of the city’s firms created the glass for Crystal Palace) and food was becoming important, with Cadbury’s, HP Sauce, Typhoo Tipps and Bird’s custard all coming out of the city. Birmingham led the world in the production of pens, with over a billion a year by 1886 – and in 1889 this remarkably adaptive and hungry town was granted city status, the first ever without an Anglican cathedral.

Metalworking continued as the engine for growth in the city in the early 20th century, but adapting now to cars, bicycles and tyres. But in World War II, as a major manufacturing centre, the city was an obvious target, and over 2,000 people were killed during bombing raids. In the 1960s the landmark Rotunda was built, and the Bullring Shopping Centre created. But the love affair with the car continued, so much so that the Hill Street subway was the first in the land that forced pedestrians underground, giving priority to cars. And in 1953 the city was the largest city in the world without any form of electric transport.

In the latter part of the 20th century a major redevelopment of the city centre took place: the impressive International Convention Centre, a concert and conference venue, and the National Indoor Arena, an entertainment and sports complex opened in 1991, the Mailbox in 2000, and the redeveloped Bullring in 2003.


How to experience

Let’s start our tour of Birmingham at Millennium Point, what with it being one of the city’s big regeneration projects, celebrating science, technology and learning. There’s a big IMAX cinema and planetarium, and Thinktank, a hands-on science museum (and behind there, on Curzon Street is the old Curzon Street train station, the original Birmingham train station and now the oldest surviving piece of railway architecture in the world).

From here head into the city centre and the delights of the modern Bullring await. Traditionally the historic market centre of the city, it’s now home to over 160 shops, including the iconic Selfridges building, but it’s actually more than that. Comprising of traditional streets, open spaces and squares, plus the iconic Bull statue, it’s really neatly put together. Check out also the statue to Admiral Lord Nelson, Birmingham’s first public statue, and the now relatively dwarfed St Martin’s Church, the only surviving building in the city from mediaeval times.

Head off down the strangely named New Street, admiring the architecture of one of the city’s oldest streets along the way; and then take a right down Temple Street, and you’ll come to the relatively small Cathedral of Saint Phillip (it’s the third smallest Anglican cathedral in the country), it’s a really attractive Baroque cathedral, quite unique among English cathedrals and probably the smallest, and is set amongst some quite elegant surroundings. Past the cathedral check out the Great Western Arcade, a splendid Victorian delight for those niche shops and truly independent stores; a hundred years ago, it was reputed as the finest shopping arcade in the world.

We’re now on a famous Birmingham street, Colmore Row, which was named for a wealthy local family. Stroll along here and you’ll soon see, in Victoria Square, the impressive grade-II listed Council House building – Including the clock, known affectionately as Big Brum – and the grade-I listed Town Hall, with its Roman Temple-inspired design (it was designed by a young architect call James Hanson, he of Hansom Cabs fame). Both buildings are stunning architecturally, but the insides are a real treat and well worth a visit. And round the corner is the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, home to the largest collection of pre-Raphaelite art in the world. While in Victoria Square, said to be the centre of the city, check out the central water feature formally known as The Spirit of the River and known locally as the ‘floozy in the Jacuzzi’. The Iron:Man statue, by Antony Gormley is also worth look, as is the statue of Queen Victoria herself – take a closer look. Notice anything the original artist missed? (Her wedding ring...oops.)

Stroll down Hill Street, and turn right down Navigation Street; in front you’ll find Harvey Nichols and The Mailbox. This attractive and distinctive premium shopping mall has all the designer brand names, some seriously chic salons, and an attractive waterside dining offer. Previously the Royal Mail sorting office, it’s now the country’s biggest mixed-use building, and a flagship destination that really marks the renaissance of this stylish city.

From here cut along Commercial Street, cross the canal, turn right and take an amble along the Gas Street Basin alongside the canal. This takes you straight into Brindley Place, an open and stylish place to shop, eat or simply chill by the canal. There’s the Sealife Centre and the Ikon Gallery here, and a stroll over the bridge brings you right to the National Indoor Arena. Over the canal from here is the impressive International Convention Centre, the country’s first purpose-built convention centre, and the Symphony Hall with its fantastic acoustics. A short stroll along brings you to Centenary Square, including the Hall of Memory, built in memory of those killed in World War I.

Finally, if you’ve still got any money left, head for a really unique jewel. Go along Summer Row and at the roundabout head up Newhall Lane and you’re in the famed Jewellery Quarter; home to 500 retailers and workshops and the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, this place is unique. It could be a sparkling end to a sparkling visit, but if all that shopping has left you hungry there’s one final treat in store. Head back across town to the south-east of the city, and check out the Balti Triangle. Home to over 50 restaurants and takeaways this is an authentic food-lover’s paradise (be careful though, the last urban tornado in England was in the triangle in the 1930s when Hurricane Bertha blew through the area...).

When to visit

City pics