I say U.K., you say London. Although Birmingham is the UK’s 2nd-largest city in terms of population, it gets relatively little love in travel magazines and tourists often seem to skip right over the city, despite the rich history and sheer number of activities to enjoy in Birmingham.
Whether you want to shop or go for a hike, study geology or dance the night away, Birmingham’s size and history has given it the chance to evolve plenty of culture. Even catching the latest Hunger Games flick in this city can be an activity that’s rife with cultural and historical significance. Perhaps best of all, most of Birmingham’s cultural and educational experiences are not only free, they’re fun. Skip the London smog and the pickpockets, as well as the high prices in the U.K.’s capital city, and try Birmingham on for size. Here are 12 things to see and do to get your vacation planning started.
12. Explore the Lickey Hills
The Lickey Hills, or “the Lickeys” as they’re known locally, are a range of hills located 11 miles south-west of Birmingham. Until 1888, the hills were part of a large royal hunting ground. After 1888, various groups began purchasing and donating the individual hills to the city of Birmingham. Public access began shortly thereafter, and the hills remain a popular picnicking and country park area even today.
The Lickeys are composed of 2 hill ranges, with a variety of geological rock formations of different ages. The Lickey Hills Country Park covers 525 acres of land and includes a golf course. The Lickey Ridge is the lower range and has 3 quartzite hilltops: Rednal Hill, Bilberry Hill and Cofton Hill. The higher range also has 3 peaks: Rose Hill, Stock Hill and Beacon Hill, which rises 298 feet. All of the hilltops offer panoramic views of the surrounding area, making the location ideal for photographers. Beacon Hill was once part of a country-wide system of beacons used before modern communications. Today, a toposcope stands atop Beacon Hill.
11. Tour the Jaguar Assembly Factory
What’s more quintessentially British than a slick sports car? Jaguar has been operating in the U.K. for almost 90 years, since its inception, and it takes pride in its British heritage and operations. The assembly plant at Castle Bromwich in Birmingham is one of the largest employers in the area. Three models are made at this plant: the F-type, the Jaguar XF and the Jaguar XJ. The plant employs 2,000 people and also supports businesses in the area.
Tours of the facility are available, although you must book in advance and the number of places in a tour is extremely limited. Nonetheless, if you’re a car buff, this is an opportunity you can’t pass up! The Alive Tour, as the company calls it, offers visitors the chance to see the entire assembly of a Jaguar vehicle—and to experience the first “roar” of the engine when the new vehicle is powered on and fires all cylinders for the first time.
10. Experience the Lord of the Rings
In 1896, a young boy moved to Birmingham. His father had died in South Africa and his mother had no income, so she was forced to live with her parents. In the intervening years, the family moved and, in 1904, the mother died, sending her children into the care of a devout Catholic, Father Francis. The boy would go on to write some of the most beloved fantasy novels of all time—The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The boy was, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Since Tolkien spent much of his childhood in Birmingham, there are many areas in and around the city that are supposed to have inspired scenes in Tolkien’s works. Sarehole Mill, Moseley Bog and Perrott’s Folly are a few of the places that young Tolkien could be found playing. Pay a visit and see if you can envision one of the epic battles between the creatures and peoples of Middle Earth!
9. Tour Cadbury World
Who likes chocolate?! If you answered with a resounding “me!” then there’s an exciting adventure waiting for you in Birmingham. Global chocolate giant Cadbury was founded in the city in 1824 and is still one of the city’s major employers and a driving force in its economy. In 1990, the Cadbury World museum opened to the public, illustrating the history of chocolate and the Cadbury Company.
The tour is one-way and self-guided. It isn’t a factory tour, but instead, it offers a respected education program, in line with the educational interests of the company’s founders. During the tour, visitors have an opportunity to learn about the history of chocolate and chocolate production. They are also provided with information on the history of the Cadbury Company, one of the largest confectionary companies in the world, and the development of their product line. As an added treat, visitors are given the opportunity to create their own confectionary concoction in a tub of chocolate! No wonder the attraction sees 500,000 visitors annually, making it one of the most popular in Birmingham.
8. Take Part in the Nightlife
Nightlife is mostly associated with London, but Birmingham has a lively scene with a few different districts offering up different nighttime experiences. In the Irish Quarter of the city, you can expect to find late-night pubs, while the Chinese Quarter, Hurst Street Gay Village, St Paul’s Square and the Jewellery Quarter all boast vibrant party scenes. Digbeth has several large clubs and bars, including the Medicine Bar and Rainbow Pub.
In the past, nightlife was concentrated on Broad Street into Brindleyplace. Although scenes are no longer clustered solely on Broad Street, due to the popularity of other clubs and the closure of several bars on Broad Street, this remains the center of Birmingham’s nightlife. One of the most interesting clubs is Flares, which is located in a converted Presbyterian church. Outside of Broad Street, the Acadian is one of the most popular clubs in Birmingham. On Bristol Street, O2 Academy provides a venue for those who are looking for live shows and indie bands.
7. Visit the Lapworth Museum of Geology
The Lapworth Museum of Geology is located at the University of Birmingham. It was opened in 1880 and named after Charles Lapworth, an English geologist. It is located in the Aston Webb building at the university and retains its original Edwardian architectural features even today. More fascinating, however, is the museum’s 250,000 specimens, which include not only geological maps, equipment and models, but an extensive zoological collection as well. Specimens come from all over the world, including Brazil, Italy, Lebanon and the U.S.
Over 15,000 minerals are documented in the geological collection. Many were taken from old coal mining fields around the U.K. Also on display are the Wenlock Limestone from Dudley and the Solnholfen Limestone from Germany. The Burgess Shale from British Columbia, Canada, is also on display. All the rocks contain fossilized animals and insects. In 2009, the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s natural history collection moved to the Lapworth, with plans to expand the displays. The Lapworth also runs a series of lectures during school terms. These take place on Mondays at 5 p.m. and are free and open to the public. Schedules of lectures and speakers are available from the museum.
6. Explore an Art Museum
Art buffs don’t need to travel to the Louvre to see great works of art by the masters of bygone ages. Birmingham may not seem like a prime destination for art or art history but the city has a long-standing relationship with art and artists, even having its own movement from the 1760s to the 1850s. Birmingham produced a number of notable landscape artists working in a distinctive style, now known as the “Birmingham School.” In the 20th century, the Birmingham Surrealists emerged as a major force in European surrealism.
Birmingham takes pride in showcasing not only its own art history, but the history of Europe as well. The Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery has won recognition for its impressive collection of pre-Raphaelite artists. Its collection includes major works by Bellini and Rubens. It also features an excellent collection of 17th-century Italian Baroque paintings and English watercolors, in addition to its design holdings, which are a renowned collection of ceramics and metalwork. In nearby Edgbaston, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts houses a collection of Western art dating from the 13th century to the present. It is regarded as one of the best small art galleries in the world.
5. Catch Aston Villa FC vs. Birmingham City FC
What other sport could you possibly pick if you want to catch a match during your trip across the pond? Football (or soccer, in North American terms) is incredibly popular in most European countries, the U.K. included. The citizens of Birmingham are no exception to the rule; they love them some football! In fact, football is so popular in Birmingham that the city supports not 1, but 2 professional football clubs: Aston Villa FC and Birmingham City FC. Aston Villa also has the distinction of being one of the first members of the Football League, the world’s first football competition, which was founded by Birmingham resident William McGregor.
Aston Villa was founded in 1874 and Birmingham City was founded a year later, in 1875. The teams compete in separate leagues, with Aston Villa in the British Premier League, but the rivalry between the clubs is fierce nonetheless. If you happen to be in town, try to score tickets to the teams’ showdown, the Second City derby—although the event last happened in 2011! The teams showdown against other rivals though, so you can see a thrilling match almost any time.
4. Enjoy the Forest of Arden
Much of Warwickshire, where Birmingham is located, was once heavily forested. This forest was known as the Forest of Arden. No Roman roads were built through it in Roman times. During the medieval period, after the Norman conquest, the Arden family retained much of their land in the area—although the forest became a protected royal forest. The Knights Templar once had their headquarters in the middle of the forest; the Hospitallers were awarded the stronghold after the Templars were suppressed, until the Reformation of the 17th century.
One prominent member of the Arden family was Mary Arden, the mother of William Shakespeare. The play As You Like It is set in the Forest of Arden, although Shakespeare was influenced by the actual forest as it was in his day, as well as fictional accounts and a highly romanticized version from his youth. In Birmingham, the forest has all but largely disappeared, although many of the districts retain the “-ley” root, indicating they were once woodland clearings. The city has many old oaks, which offer shade, and hark back to the forest’s glory days. Take a stroll through one of Birmingham’s many parks and enjoy.
3. Catch a Movie at Electric Cinema
Cinemas generally aren’t all that exciting; in fact, they’re pretty standard. Sure, going to the movies is fun, but we can all expect to have about the same experience: state-of-the-art screens and sound, comfortable seats and, lately, 3D glasses.
The Electric Cinema in Birmingham, however, has a little bit of character—character it’s gained in its 100-plus years of showing films to the public. The Electric first opened in 1909, showing its first silent film on December 27. In the 1930s, it was remodeled in an Art Deco style and became an amusement arcade, then a news theater. After World War II, the popularity of news theaters declined. The cinema then changed hands several times through the latter 20th-century, finally re-opening in late December 2004. The current theater has been restored to its 1930s look. The Electric is now the oldest working cinema in the U.K., which makes catching a flick there something of a special occasion. The Electric is also used as a sound recording studio.
2. Visit Blakesley Hall
Birmingham is an old city, having been settled since prehistoric times. A settlement in the area was present during Roman times as well. The city as we know it was established in the Middle Ages and it’s been there ever since. Despite that, there’s very little left of medieval or Tudor Birmingham. The relatively few buildings that are left are considered historic sites.
One of the few remaining Tudor buildings is Blakesley Hall, which was built in 1590 by Richard Yardley. It’s a timber-framed farmhouse that shows the typical architecture of the era, with darkened wood accents and wattle-and-daub infill. The hall became a museum in 1935, but was extensively damaged by bombing during World War II. The museum re-opened in 1957 with the addition of newly discovered paintings from the 1590s and so-called Moorish decoration on the walls and timbers of what is now the “painted chamber,” which were revealed during renovations after the bombing. Many of the original architectural features remain even today, including an original herringbone floor.
1. Go Shopping at the Bullring Shopping Centre
Most people automatically think of trendy London shops when they think about shopping in England, but Birmingham’s Bullring Shopping Centre is the busiest in the U.K., attracting over 36.5 million visitors a year. Many of them come from all over the world, as the shopping center houses 1 of 4 Selfridges department stores, the 4th-largest Debenhams and Forever 21. Other shops include H&M, Topshop, Zara and Victoria’s Secret. The shopping center also has several restaurants and cafes, including a franchise location of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
The Bullring is now one of the largest city center shopping centers in Europe. The site has been used as a market square in Birmingham since medieval times, when local landowner Peter de Bermingham asked the reigning monarch to grant a Charter of Marketing Rights. The Bullring has been an important center of commerce for the city ever since. The current center is also home to apartments, which are housed in the Rotunda, and to a number of works of art.