Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter from 9 stories up on a fine Sunday morning in December.
You’re in for a treat today, folks: England’s second city.
I know! You’re from Manchester and you beg to differ. It’s a tale of two cities. And since we are still in the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness, in the epoch of belief and the epoch of incredulity, these two cities battle for the title. Fortunately, I don’t have to take sides.
Before we get on with things you’ll love in Birmingham, I’ll address safety. After posting real-time photos on social media, I received a few pm’s, all from Americans, concerned about just that. Some thought I was in Birmingham, Alabama. Others referred to ‘something on the news some years ago’.
That ‘something’ was terrorism expert Steven Emerson claiming Birmingham was run by Jihadists and was a no go-zone for god-fearin’ white folks. David Cameron, then Prime Minister, set him straight (and called him a complete idiot), and Emerson the Expert (and Fox News) apologised. My favourite takeaway, though, was all the fabulous responses from the good folks of Birmingham. Search for #foxnewsfacts on Twitter, and you’ll still find a few gems, like this one:
Due to sharia law, the ‘ham’ from Birmingham was dropped years ago and the city is now known simply as Birming.
While I would hesitate to walk around Birmingham, Alabama on my own at night, Birmingham in England is a different kettle of fish. After three days and nights of wandering around this city, I can tell you it feels perfectly safe; no gun-toting extremists of any persuasion in sight. Day or night, I never saw or heard anything even the wimpiest of wimps would find threatening.
That’s anecdotal, obviously. What about stats? Well, crime is measured and reported differently (if at all) around the world, so it is difficult to compare across countries. But there are lots of indices available, mostly based on surveys. Here’s one world city safety index that covers 460 cities, more than any others I’ve found. Still subjective, naturally – but many more opinions than just mine:
Of those surveyed, Birmingham comes in way ahead of cities like Cape Town, Baltimore and New Orleans (not unexpected), but also well ahead of Oakland, Philadelphia, and Houston. Would you reconsider your trip to, say Philadelphia based on safety concerns?
(Of course, most cities can’t hold a candle to #14 on the list, Yakutsk. I have a friend who grew up in this Siberian metropolis, and happened to have a look at yr.no last Thursday. Kinda see why it’s so safe.)
Feels like -58°!
What’s a little crime, eh?
With that out of the way, it’s time to take a look at all the fun stuff on offer in Brum.
11 things you’ll love in Birmingham
Since we’re in December, we’ll start with a bit of Yuletide fun.
1. Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market
Every self-respecting city has a Christmas market these days and Brum is no exception, with the biggest one outside the German-speaking world, no less. You’ll find Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market on Victoria Square in the city centre, from early November until Little Christmas Eve (23 December). All in all, a jolly atmosphere next to the imposing Council House and Town Hall.
Why Frankfurt? I looked up Birmingham’s partner cities, and not surprisingly, Frankfurt is one. Another is Chicago, by the way. Appropriate, I think, as the wind tears through to my very bones, despite my big, warm coat. Although to be fair, I’m told this is unusual weather.
Colourful wooden toys, leatherwork, ceramics, snow globes, glass baubles, pretty crystal lamps: an eclectic mix of German and locally produced merch is for sale at the craft stalls. Drinkables and edibles include Weissbier and very, very long sausages, as well as other German fare: brezeln, roasted nuts, chocolate kisses, and Stollen: Christmas cake filled with marzipan, nuts, raisins, spices, and rum. Try some! With Glühwein.
Live music is courtesy of local and German bands – and a singing moose.
Chris Moose, the singing moose, and huge suspicious-looking sausages not in a scarlet pimpernel sauce. OK, maybe not so suspicious-looking either. But definitely huge.
Just a few metres away is another square, with a skating rink, a large fun wheel and plenty of winter cheer now in the festive season.
Centenary Square on a winter evening in 2021
2. Library of Birmingham
Centenary Square is also where you’ll find the new Library of Birmingham. Designed by Francine Houben and built according to strict environmental sustainability standards, it’s a cool, futuristic structure with the past integrated in the delightful Shakespeare Room. I adore the scent of dusty, old books – and look at that ceiling!
Don’t miss the two garden terraces: the Terrace on the 3rd floor has lots of plants, herbs, fruits and vegetables presented as a learning experience. Also the roof is constructed to provide habitat for wildlife. The Secret Garden on the 7th floor has spectacular city views.
Tourist information is located at the ground floor, and at Brasshouse Languages on the first floor, you can learn 15+ different languages – including Norwegian! I haven’t spent nearly enough time in this building.
3. Birmingham Cathedral – and Nanette’s grave
Surrounded by high-rises and snazzy bars, the baroque Birmingham Cathedral is the 4th smallest cathedral in England. It bills itself as the church that became a cathedral in the town that became a city. How’s that for taking pride in your expansion!
The cathedral grounds is a popular place to amble through, wait for the bus or just hang around, even on this chilly December night. It’s so busy, you might miss the few gravestones scattered about, and the stories they tell.
Standing all by itself, a few metres from the cathedral entrance, is the moss-covered, decaying gravestone of one Nanette Stocker, a travelling pianist, dancer and all-round superstar from the music hall era. A big personality in a small body, by all accounts: Nanette was 84 cm tall, that’s about half my size! We can only imagine the challenges she must have met in her life, and the strength and wherewithal required to overcome them. Go Nanette!
In Memory of Nanetta Stocker who departed this Life May 4th 1810, Aged 39 Years. The smallest Woman ever in this Kingdom possessed with every accomplishment only 33 Inches high, a native of Austria.
4. Birmingham New Street Railway Station
The busiest station in the UK outside of London, Brum’s new train station doubles as the Grand Central shopping centre. It’s spacious and bright, with a huge atrium and all those windows. There’s a nice selection of shops and eateries, so it’s a good stop on rainy, windy days, even if you’re not travelling. Most of all, though, it’s an interesting work of contemporary architecture, so be sure to have a look outside.
Think you’ve seen Tom Cruise here recently, in a dark suit and sunnies? You’re probably right. A few months ago, Grand Central played an airport in Mission: Impossible 7.
5. The Mailbox
The city centre has plenty to offer the shopaholics amongst us. I especially liked Piccadilly Arcade with quaint little shops like the family-run Smithsonia (found a fab green velvet scarf). Even more shopping opportunities (upscale version), as well as restaurants and a cinema, can be had in the eye-catching Mailbox.
Brightens up the cityscape, doesn’t it?
6. Everything that shines in the Jewellery Quarter
Just at the edge of the city centre, the historic Jewellery Quarter is one of the oldest and most interesting parts of town. More than 100 specialist jewellery shops and workshops are here, and you can find all the silver and gold your heart desires. This is the largest concentration of jewellery shops in Europe; even more than in Antwerp.
We stop by Shirley’s, a family-run operation on Northampton Street. Sometimes, four generations work in the shop at the same time. Today, we’re served by Shirley herself.
I know two mothers who will be very pleased with their Christmas presents.
Rather pleased with mine, too. Tree of life.
The Jewellery Quarter (let’s call it the JQ) is an anchor point in the European Route of Industrial Heritage (ERIH), a project celebrating Europe’s shared industrial past and work culture, with 100+ anchor points covering all the 50 countries. (More about ERIH in this post.)
The quarter might be famous for high quality jewellery, but you’ll also find an intriguing museum, bustling bars, cosy cafés, romantic restaurants, great galleries, and jamming jazz clubs in the 200+ listed buildings. One of those is the pretty St Paul’s Church in the middle of St Paul’s Square. Most of the times I pass by, the door is open, inviting me in for a look. The stained-glass windows are especially lovely.
In the churchyard, you can see the grave of Moses Barber, a police officer who died of consumption in 1853, aged 40, while still in service. Rumour has it, he hangs about even now, walking his beat.
7. Warstone Lane Cemetery
Also in the JQ, this interesting cemetery has rows of catacombs – and the grave of one William Edward Hipkins. Or his name on the family chest tomb, at least. What might remain of Will himself is 4 km under water, ca. 750 km from the shores of Newfoundland. He stayed in cabin C-39 of the SS Titanic, and his first-class ticket cost £50.
And is there a ghost in the cemetery? Of course there is: a lady in grey haunts the area, leaving a whiff of pear drops behind. They say the smell of pear drops is associated with arsenic poisoning. Was she murdered? It was probably the significant other. Usually is.
8. Aston Hall
Just a 15-minute drive/train journey from the city centre, is the majestic Aston Hall, a Jacobean mansion built in the early 17th century. Squirrels roam the grounds. Grey American ones. The native red squirrels have all but disappeared from the country, in part because the imported greys carry squirrelpox virus. Much like some people are more vulnerable than others to coronavirus, the red squirrel is more vulnerable to this virus.
Guides are on hand to tell us about the life and times of Aston Hall. Re-enactors demonstrate the use of weapons, a musician entertains with a variety of instruments, including an Irish bagpipe (smaller and with fewer pipes than the Scottish). It’s all educational in an enjoyable way. Naturally, ghosts reside in such a splendid old mansion, too – and night time ghost tours are organised around Hallowe’en.
Stop by next time you’re in town and dance through the hallways.
Just now it’s all done up for Christmas. That wasn’t always allowed.
The mansion is next to Villa Park, which is not a park, but a football stadium. Aston Hall is closed on days when Aston Villa plays home matches.
9. Street food
What to eat in Birmingham? We’ll begin with the most British of all: fish’n’chips. But what’s the right condiment? A forever conundrum. Should it be mushy peas, tomato ketchup, horseradish sauce, pickled egg? In Brum, it seems curry sauce is a fave, and vinegar on the chips. And not just any vinegar, but chip shop vinegar. When in
Rome the Midlands! (PS Both the curry sauce and the vinegar work well.)
Seems fish’n’chips has a competitor for the ‘most British’-award. I absolutely HAD to try a Greggs sausage roll. So quintessentially English, it’s practically a staple, I hear. It’s what everyone longs for when abroad; they can’t wait to devour that pork-in-pastry once they’re back on English soil. I imagine it’s much like Americans’ relationship with PBJ sandwiches. Or Norwegians’ relationship with matpakke – a packed lunch comprising open sandwiches on whole-grain bread, mostly with brown cheese. Back in my student days in the US, we’d frequently bake bread (since American bread is about as edible as a wet sponge) and we’d take road trips to a speciality shop in Dallas to buy that cheese. A 4-hour drive. Each way. By all accounts, it sounds like Brummies, or maybe even Brits in general, would do the same for a sausage roll.
What can I say about Greggs sausage rolls? Bearing in mind I’m not a huge fan of sausages, or pork, or baked pastry in general, it wasn’t terrible. I actually ate the whole thing. But then, I had just had a Day 2 Covid-test. (Not exactly sure how that’s relevant, but I feel it is.)
Will I try it again? I’ll be honest, probably not. I feel I’ve done my duty to this particular English culinary delight. Perhaps the veggie version…
10. Beer at home
Whilst we’re on the subject of informal eating – at home or on the street – how about beer at home? More than a century ago, Davenports brewery began a beer delivery service here in Brum, much like the milkman delivered milk. They had a nifty little jingle:
If that doesn’t bring on the holiday cheer, I don’t know what will.
And just when I’m in town, this service relaunches, starting off at the Bulls Head. Choose delivery – or pick-up if you want the 10-litre bag-in-box beer. 10 litres!!
11. Balti cuisine
Where can you find world-beating curry without leaving Europe? Why, in Birmingham of course. It’s the most ethnically diverse city in the UK, which means lots of interesting and delicious food options.
The city is home to a sizeable population of South Asian expats, and they seem to have cornered the market on great curries here since the 1970s. Most famous is Balti cuisine – South Asian food modified to appeal to European taste buds. The sauce is made with vegetable oil rather than ghee (clarified butter), thus lighter and healthier than the traditional version. And as we’re more impatient in this part of the world, it is cooked quicker over high heat, like stir-fry.
Why is it called Balti? One theory is the Hindi/Urdu word for bowl or bucket, referring to the metal wok-like dish it is served in. Another theory refers to Baltistan. Once an independent principality in the Karakoram Mountains, Baltistan is now an area in the Pakistani part of Kashmir, north by the Chinese border. The people of Baltistan are of Tibetan origin.
Baltistan, wok, stir-fry, Tibetan, Chinese, Pakistani: Perhaps Balti food is an interesting mix of all of that, adapted – in Birmingham – to western tastes? Whatever the backstory, you’ll find plenty of it here.
About 5 km from central Brum is the Balti Triangle, but you don’t have to leave the city centre to find great South Asian food.
We try Itihaas on Newhall Street in the Jewellery Quarter, and you should, too. I can recommend the Palak Murgh: chicken with pureed spinach, broccoli and mustard seeds – yum!
12. Sunday Roast at the pub
The other must-try in Birmingham is a pub lunch, preferably on a Sunday. You really can’t get much more British than a Sunday Roast in a vintage Brummie pub.
Family feast @ The Bulls Head
We check out Sunday Roast at The Bulls Head on Bishopsgate and have only good things to say about it, especially as there is also a chicken and a veggie option (delish!) Service is just the right amount attentive, and with a crackling fire going, the atmosphere is warm and cosy on a windy afternoon. It’s a great place for a meal or just for drinks and music. They have Tuesday blues nights.
The pub gives a few nods to the world of Peaky Blinders, devious and brutal street gangs here in Brum in the early 1900s.
They famously wore flat caps, supposedly with razor blades in the peaks, used for head butting and blinding their enemies, hence the name. Or so one theory goes. As always, there are alternative stories. One, less brutal, says they would sneak up from behind and pull the victim’s peak down over their eyes, blinding them so they couldn’t identify the robbers. And yet another says that while ‘peaky’ does refer to the cap peaks, blinder is Brummie slang for a stylish man. Still is.
The interior is fabulous: glass, mirrors, old photos, red velvet curtains, it all blends very well with the traditional brown pub feel. And that bar! Nothing even remotely minimalist here.
Birmingham nightlife (pubs and bars)
In addition to being the most diverse city in the UK, Brum also has the youngest population in Europe, according to Birmingham City Council. That means loads of creative energy. And loads of brilliant bars and pubs, boasting a vast beer and ale selection.
I won’t comment on the beer and ale, as I’m far from an expert. Couldn’t even tell you the difference between the two, without looking it up. But tell me the story of your place, and I’ll be happy to have a beer with you anyway. Here are a few places with quirky stories:
13. Birmingham Cosy Club
Brum seems to have a penchant for turning Victorian bank buildings into pubs and bars. Makes sense to me! One of these is Birmingham Cosy Club, famous for real ales. This pub/club is located in the former headquarters of Birmingham Banking Company, later Midland Bank, a handsome building from 1830. It is pretty handsome inside, too – with the classic grand décor preserved. Lots to look at, and friendly atmosphere. If it weren’t so full of pre-Christmas revellers this Friday night, I could easily have pictured Mr. Banks of the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, stopping by for a beer and a word of wisdom for the young:
when you deposit tuppence in a bank account – soon you’ll see
that it blooms into credit of a generous amount – semiannually
14. The Actress & Bishop
At Ludgate Hill in the JQ, this is another pub with a story (and with a fabulous name like that, how could it not be a story…): On the wall outside the pub used to be a plaque, bearing the inscription ‘Ludgate Hill was the site of the last public Hanging in Birmingham. For the unfortunate few this was for them indeed The Last Drop’.
Clever, innit? Stories of the last hanging place in Brum were gleefully told, and rumour had it, from the top of the cellar stairs you could hear an ominous sound, possibly that of a swinging noose.
Then it was discovered that the last public hanging at a Ludgate Hill wasn’t here, but at the location with the same name in London. The last public hanging in Birmingham took place at the corner of Great Charles Street and Snow Hill, and you can see a plaque there now.
So perhaps not as dramatic a story as it could have been, but a story nonetheless. Also, it’s a fun pub to visit. And that sound from the cellar stairs, what could it be? (Something as boringly normal as wind?) If you want to investigate, I suggest you don’t time your visit to a Friday night in December. Possibly not any Friday night. Tuesday is probably good.
15. The Queen’s Arms
Also in the JQ, on the corner of Newhall and Charlotte streets, is The Queen’s Arms. You might recognise it from scenes in Line of Duty. I haven’t been able to find out what might have taken place in this gorgeous, listed Art Nouveau building in earlier times, but surely something must have…? If you know, drop me a note.
16. St. Paul’s Square
We move on down Newhall Street, towards St Paul’s Square, which feels like a small village in itself. On one side of the square is The Jam House, a chill jazz club. Or so I hear. And I believe it. Chaka Khan has played here, just sayin’. Turns out, they’re closed on Sundays. Feel for me, fe-eeel for me.
Instead, we stop at St Paul’s House. It’s not a pub, but a fresh and relaxed bar, with a friendly bartender that makes great Whisky sours. Bands and a resident DJ is in charge of entertainment. Gotta say, though, I think our rendition of Blackbird is better than the performer of the night. That doesn’t mean he’s bad, exactly. Just that we’re better! Hm, maybe a temp gig…
Come hither, come hither… says that entrance
I like the place so much, I stop by for breakfast the next day, my last day in Brum. On Saturdays, they offer brunch with bottomless gin, prosecco and Bellinis. Just as well it’s Monday.
I stayed at Bloc Hotel Birmingham and had a mini-apartment with a fridge and a microwave. Loved the full-wall mirrors in the sitting room and in the shower. There’s no on-site restaurant or breakfast room, but it’s just a block up from St Paul’s Square, with heaps of good options. Great location.
The Grand Hotel (which looks similar to Grand Hotel in Oslo) is top of the bunch; your Brum splurge.
I’ll mention St Paul’s House as well: if the design and the service in the bar and at breakfast is anything to go by, this promises to be a great stay.
OK, so that’s 11 things and then some. (What can I say…, I have no limits.)
Still, only so much you can fit into a weekend. Here are a few things to discover and play with next time in Brum:
- A ghost walk
- Learning about the jewellery trade in the factory-turned-museum in the JQ
- Quirky shops and galleries in the Custard Factory in Digbeth (which also happens to be real Peaky Blinders territory), so…
- A guided walk in the footsteps of those blinders
- I know a 4-year-old who can’t get enough Freddo. We have Alex and the Chocolate Factory here on the blog; Time to move on to the next generation? Amyas and the Cadbury World next? Also, I’d like to see Bournville Village, built for the chocolate factory workers (does it look anything like New Lanark? Or like the miners’ village in Laxey on Isle of Man?)
- Canals: Birmingham has 56 km of waterways, more than Venice! Cycling along some of those kilometres would be fun, or better yet go through on a narrowboat.
- Definitely the Jam House to hear smooth jazz and drink red wine.
And daytrips? About a 1-hr drive from Brum is Warwick Castle. 1 hour in another direction is Ironbridge Gorge with more industrial heritage and gorgeous landscapes galore. Also nearby: the Cotswolds, Stratford-upon-Avon, Shrewsbury, Bath (so many places we haven’t written about here yet) – and many gems across the border in Wales, including Powis Castle and the mysterious book town Hay-on-Wye.
More library views
Disclosure: My accoms in Birmingham was sponsored by VisitBritain.no. All opinions are of course mine, all mine. As always, as ever.