Birmingham for first-timers: what to do in the UK's second city

Richard Franks

Richard Franks

Second cities lend themselves to fewer tourists, cheaper accommodation and in many cases a more authentic look into a country's culture.

Colourful barges at Regency Wharf, Birmingham
Colourful barges at Regency Wharf, Birmingham © Jackie Davies - Adobe Stock Image

Birmingham, the UK's second city, continues the trend through a wide-ranging offer showcasing its proud industrial heritage, inviting you to sample a world-class dining scene and learn how the nation's favourite chocolate bar was invented there. Here's what to do on your first visit to Birmingham.

Where to stay in Birmingham: take your pick from hotels such as The Burlington* and Radisson Blu Birmingham*, while familiar names like IHG* and Hilton* offer various properties in and around the city.

Kayak its former industrial canals

Birmingham was once the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution, and there's no better way of learning about it than by floating along those once-thronging canals.

Now largely recreational, Birmingham's zigzagging canals once sprawled a mammoth 150 miles and boasted some 200 locks at its peak, when it was used to transport heavy materials like iron and coal.

Today, the city's central waterways span a more modest 35-mile network, that's still more miles of canals than Venice, with the now-serene atmosphere inviting use as an urban green space for kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders, joggers and cyclists alike.

Canalside exploring at Brindley Place
Canalside exploring at Brindley Place - photo courtesy of West Midlands Growth Company

Tours on water, on foot and by bicycle begin at Roundhouse Birmingham*, an iconic horseshoe-shaped building used as an outward-looking hub for exploring the city.

Sample a boundary-pushing dining scene

Did you know Birmingham holds five Michelin stars? That's more than any other UK city outside of London. Amazingly, its dining scene does fly under the radar but with the city's first two-starred Michelin restaurant, modern Indian fine dining spot Opheem, there's no time like the present to sample it for yourself.

Then there's the balti, a curry dish cooked fast on a high heat and served sizzling in the same thin wok-style pan it's cooked in, caramelised edges and all. It was invented in the 1970s by a Brummie-Pakistani restaurateur; Shababs or Shahi Nan Kebab in the famous Balti Triangle in Ladywood are your two best bets for an authentic dish.

Explore the Jewellery Quarter

Birmingham has held many nicknames but 'The Workshop of the World' is probably its most poignant. Much of the city's craftsmanship can be traced back to the Jewellery Quarter, a historic district that produced two-thirds of the world's pen nibs, the anchor and whistles used on the Titanic, and sporting trophies including the men's and women's Wimbledon singles trophies and the original FA Cup.

Chamberlain Clock in the Jewellery Quarter
Chamberlain Clock in the Jewellery Quarter - photo courtesy of West Midlands Growth Company

Forty per cent of the UK's jewellery output is still produced in the Jewellery Quarter to this day, with the district housing not just Europe's largest concentration of jewellery-related businesses, but also some of the city's best bars, restaurants and shops in its repurposed workshops and factories.

To see one of the best-preserved workshops of its time pop into J. W. Evans Silver Factory*. Hit up Hockley Social Club for the best street food all under one roof, Grain & Glass for expert tasting sessions and rare drams and The Jewellers Arms for a pint of real ale in a traditional Brummie boozer.

Dive into Cadbury World

Cadbury celebrates its 200th birthday in 2024 with a multi-million-pound refresh of its renowned tourist attraction Cadbury World* and a host of events to mark the milestone.

As part of a wider £8 million investment into the attraction, a new immersive ride called Cadbury Chocolate Quest will replace the Cadabra car ride later this year.

Visitors to the family-friendly Cadbury World, home of the nation's favourite chocolate bar, can enjoy tastings, immersive displays, live actors and even a 4D cinema experience with sounds, smells and moving seats.

Experience world-class sport

Few people know that some of the world's most popular sports originate from this very city. Take lawn tennis for example, first played in Birmingham as early as 1859.

It was invented by English lawyer Harry Gem and his friend Juan Bautista Augurio Perera, a Spanish merchant, who pioneered the game at the Edgbaston Archery & Lawn Tennis Society, the world's longest-running lawn tennis club.

Then there's Edgbaston, a cricket ground lauded by England's top players for having the best atmosphere in the country; the Ashes is due to return there in 2027.

There's the 42,640-capacity Villa Park too, home of Premier League club Aston Villa, which turns 150 in 2024, one of the founders of the English football league.

Birmingham also has a penchant for athletics; the 18,000-capacity Alexander Stadium is the UK's largest athletics stadium.

Running track inside the Alexander Stadium
Running track inside the Alexander Stadium - photo courtesy of West Midlands Growth Company

In 2022 Birmingham hosted the most successful Commonwealth Games in history, with more than 1.5 million tickets sold, more medals handed out than ever before, and viewing figures and streaming at record levels.

Birmingham 2022 was such a success that the city has subsequently been named as the host of the coveted 2026 European Athletics Championships.

Enjoy a diverse music scene

Birmingham's music scene is diverse and reflects its many cultures. This is a city that birthed new wave band Duran Duran, heavy metallers Black Sabbath, reggae group UB40, pop-rockers Electric Light Orchestra, and ska sensations The Beat, to name just a handful. Eclectic, right?

The beauty of the Birmingham sound is that no band sounds like what came before (heavy metal was invented here, after all) with newer exports like The Streets, Editors and Laura Mvula, plus a healthy grime scene featuring Jaykae and MIST, keeping the city on its toes.

The city's music venues are also as varied as its sound. From indie bar and basement venue Sunflower Lounge to the iconic Kings Heath venue Hare & Hounds, and the world-class Symphony Hall to the gargantuan Utilita Arena, you'll never be short of live music.

Don't skip a photo opportunity with the Black Sabbath bench on Broad Street, either.

Learn local history at a leading museum

With a region like the West Midlands having so many stories to tell, it's perhaps no surprise that its museums are all worth visiting.

Highlights include swatting up on 200 years of life in Back to Backs*, where the city's only remaining back-to-back courtyard houses have been meticulously preserved or visit the haunted Aston Hall, one of the country's finest remaining Jacobean mansions.

Historic Sarehole Mill in nearby Hall Green
Historic Sarehole Mill in nearby Hall Green - photo courtesy of West Midlands Growth Company

You could also explore the West Midlands Police Museum at the former Steelhouse Lane lock-up, where none other than the original Peaky Blinders were once held.

Alternatively, catch a local bus out to Sarehole Mill in Hall Green, where none other than a young J.R.R. Tolkien used to live and roam; he cites this area, the mill and surrounding woodlands as inspiration for his Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit novels. Yes, really.

Climate in Birmingham

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Maximum daytime temperature °C
Hours of sunshine (daily)
Days with some rainfall

The above guide shows the climate in Birmingham. Find out more about conditions across the country in our complete guide to the climate in England.

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Richard Franks

Richard Franks

Richard Franks is a freelance travel writer and journalist based in Birmingham, UK. Richard specialises in adventure travel, the great outdoors and music-based tourism across Scotland, the West Midlands and beyond. He writes for the likes of National Geographic Traveller, The Telegraph and The Times and he's also authored a guidebook.

Posted on Friday 19th April 2024 in: City Europe UK

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