36 Hours: Birmingham, England
By MARK VANHOENACKER
Published: January 26, 2012
IN terms of respect, Birmingham is the undisputed Rodney Dangerfield of British cities. Ask a Londoner about the city, and you’re likely to receive either the blankest of stares or an unkind rendition of Birmingham’s memorable accent. American travelers, too, have mostly ignored England’s second-largest city, aside from the view from their London-bound flights. But with an only-in-Britain tapestry of vividly multiethnic neighborhoods, a postindustrial urbanity that’s gentrifying before your eyes and a food scene that can’t be ignored, Birmingham is no longer simply flyover country. Welcome to England’s heartland metropolis: big-shouldered, friendly and fun.
Travel Guide: Birmingham
Andrew Testa for The New York Times
Andrew Testa for The New York Times
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1. MORE CANALS THAN ...
Birmingham was a hotbed of the Industrial Revolution, a cityscape of soot and furnaces once described as “black by day and red by night.” Heavy industry has left the city center, but the canals that carried the city’s coal and fortunes remain. It is said that there is more watery mileage here than in Venice. Start your canalside explorations at the mixed-use Cube, a Lego-like structure housing shops, a hotel and apartments. From here follow the canal northwest through the heart of the new Birmingham, turning right at the big canal intersection, past innumerable old locks and tollhouses. Feel your gentrification compass start to spin as postindustrial chic slowly gives way to just plain old postindustrial: the city’s regeneration of its abandoned industrial byways is still a fascinating work in progress.
2. HAPPY HOUR
For waterside drinks on a chilly evening, head to the Malt House (75 King Edwards Road; 44-121-633-4171; originalpubco.com), where President Bill Clinton downed a pint (£2.60, or $3.90, at $1.50 to the pound) during a G8 summit.
3. A TASTE OF KASHMIR
Birmingham has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any English city outside London, so haute cuisine — blessedly free of the hauteur — is often on the menu. But the city’s most vigorous kitchen tradition is the Balti, a Kashmiri curry imported and adapted by Birmingham’s South Asian communities. Stroll Ladypool Road in the so-called Balti Triangle to find a spot amid the shops selling Korans and package tours to Mecca. Al Frash (186 Ladypool Road; 44-121-753-3120; alfrash.com) has many fans, though taxi drivers favor the chicken Karahi (£5.50) at Lahore Village (202-208 Ladypool Road; 44-121-766-8477). Few restaurants in the Triangle sell alcohol — some will let you bring your own, while others, like Lahore Village, are dry. Or try a lassi (£1.80), a refreshing mocktail of chilled yogurt and spices.
4. LOCAL BREW
You can start your day at Urban Coffee (The Big Peg, Warstone Lane; 44-121-233-1599; urbancoffee.co.uk), recently opened on the site of two former jewelers. With a hugely successful operation on Church Street since 2009, the owners, Simon Jenner and Amir Belkhelladi, have opened a second front in their mission to bring London-style independent coffee houses to Birmingham. With its spacious rooms, clean-lined décor and beanbags, Urban Coffee is an eclectically stylish cafe. Try the delicious latte-like flat white (£2.50).
5. BIRMINGHAM BLING
From the windows of Urban Coffee you’ll see several of the hundreds of jewelers that fill Birmingham’s remarkable Jewellery Quarter. Jewelry factories are a centuries-old tradition here, and there are plenty of retail shops where you can find locally made pieces. Or follow the Heritage Trail to see where the Scottish inventor and engineer James Watt lived, and where Washington Irving wrote “Rip Van Winkle.” Don’t miss the guided tours at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter (75-79 Vyse Street; 44-121-554-3598; bmag.org.uk/museum-of-the-jewellery-quarter; £4). When this factory closed in 1981, the staff turned the key and walked away, leaving everything in place, including gold dust in the floorboards.
6. TIME FOR TEA
Before you leave the museum, stop by its Tearoom for lunch. Save room for the Victoria sponge cake (£1.95) — a raspberry jam, cream and sponge creation that was a favorite of Queen Victoria’s — and, of course, the tea (£1.40). If the weather’s good, you can eat in the charming courtyard.
7. THE BEAUTIFUL GAME
Birmingham is just a scone’s throw from Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace. But soccer is arguably England’s most popular contribution to humanity. Before you can take in the roaring, high-stakes exuberance of an afternoon match, though, you’ll face the same Manichaean choice as every Birmingham native: Aston Villa (Villa Park, Trinity Road; 44-121-327-2299; avfc.co.uk), which counts Prince William and Tom Hanks among its fans, or Birmingham City (St. Andrew’s Stadium; 44-844-557-1875; bcfc.com)? Their 133-year-old rivalry took on a hint of Shakespeare-caliber drama last year when Birmingham City’s manager, Alex McLeish, defected to Villa. (But check schedules first; not all games are on Saturday.)
8. SWEET VICTORY
You can drown your sorrows — or toast your victory — at the Fighting Cocks (1 St. Mary’s Row; 44-121-449-0811; thefightingcocksmoseley.co.uk) in the nearby suburb of Moseley. With stained-glass windows scattering late-afternoon light over dark wood and some very busy bartenders, it’s the quintessential British pub. Try the locally brewed Pure UBU ale (£3.35). For top-notch modern pub food, don’t budge from that barstool: the Fighting Cocks’ Wensleydale pastry tart with fig, goat’s cheese, pecan and roasted squash (£9.00) is as tasty as it sounds. Otherwise head to Deolali (23A St. Mary’s Row; 44-121-442-2222; deolalirestaurant.com) where the Anglo-Indian cuisine, warm service and swank Tudor-style surroundings summarize everything that’s gone right with British restaurants in recent years. Try the searingly seasoned lamb Jalfrazi (£9.50), if you dare.
9. THE LAND OF OZZY
Birmingham is the birthplace of heavy metal: Ozzy Osbourne and company formed Black Sabbath here in the late 1960s. Judas Priest and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and John Bonham have roots here, too. More recently it’s the city’s world-class symphony, stewarded by Simon Rattle in the 1980s and ’90s, that’s lifted the city to a different genre of worldwide renown. To hear what’s next in Birmingham’s busy music pipeline, head upstairs to the Bull’s Head pub (23 St. Mary’s Row; 44-121-256-7777; bullsheadmoseley.co.uk), where live gigs and clinking glasses fill the air most evenings.
10. NEW BIRMINGHAM
To see the full scope of Birmingham’s downtown revival, start at the Central Library. In the town where J. R. R. Tolkien spent much of his early life, this is an architectural Mordor. Contemplate the lines of its upside-down ziggurat while you can; construction on the £189 million replacement, the glittering Library of Birmingham, is expected to wrap up in 2013. Then walk along New Street to the Bull Ring, a retail mecca as lively as any in Europe. Its crown jewel is Selfridges (44-113-369-8040; selfridges.com), part department store, part architectural representative for the new Birmingham. Its four fabulously fluid stories, overlaid with thousands of silvery disks, will make you stop and stare. Nine years after its unveiling, it still looks like the future.
11. RETAIL THERAPY
When you’ve finally torn your gaze away, head inside where you’ll find nearly every star in the galaxy of global couture. For lunch, head to nearby Spiceal Street, a collection of restaurants that opened in November. You may be familiar with Jamie Oliver from his stateside television forays; here’s your chance to try his osso buco (£13.95) at Jamie’s Italian (Middle Mall, Bullring Shopping Center; 44-121-270-3610; jamieoliver.com/italian). If you’re here on a Friday or Saturday, just below it is the Rag Market (Edgbaston Street; 44-121-464-8349; ragmarket.com), a boisterous collection of retail stalls selling vintage clothing, hats and jewelry.
12. SUNDAY BEST
Grab a coffee and a bench in quiet St. Paul’s Square, where families, jewelers and the occasional vicar amble past the 18th-century stone church and the red-brick structures that frame this gorgeous quadrangle. It’s urban England at its Sunday best.
IF YOU GO
Staying Cool (Rotunda, 150 New Street; 44-121-285-1290; stayingcool.com/birmingham) is right above the main train station. The round floor plan of this 1960s-era former office tower has been sliced into pie-shaped rooms, each with excellent views and ’60s décor. There are no bellhops nor a gym at this apartment-hotel: instead you get a Mac Mini, free Wi-Fi, an espresso machine and a juicer (oranges included). Rates start at just £95 ($143).
The Bloc Hotel (St. Paul’s, Caroline Street; 44-121-212-1223; blochotels.com) opened last year, offering 73 tiny but pretty much perfect rooms in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter. You saw it in Birmingham first: a cross between a seriously upscale design hotel and a Japanese pod, miraculously coming in at Motel 6 prices (from £30).
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 29, 2012
A picture caption on Page 11 this weekend with the 36 Hours column, about Birmingham, England, reverses the identification of a bar scene at the Bull’s Head and the Rag Market, a collection of retail stalls. The Rag Market is at the left and the Bull’s Head is at the right.