Regeneration, renewal and grand-scale construction continue apace in Britain’s second-largest city. A state-of-the-art library, gleaming shopping centre atop revitalised New St station and beautifully restored Victorian buildings are just some of the successful initiatives of its Big City Plan, following on from the striking Mailbox and Bullring shopping malls and the iconic Selfridges building’s ‘bubblewrapped’ facade. Do not miss the following attractions when here.
Library of Birmingham
Resembling a glittering stack of gift-wrapped presents, the Francine Houben–designed Library of Birmingham is an architectural triumph. The 2013-opened building features a subterranean amphitheatre, spiralling interior, viewing decks and glass elevator to the 7th-floor ‘secret garden’ with panoramic views over the city. In addition to its archives, and photography and rare-book collections (including Britain’s most important Shakespeare collection), there are gallery spaces, 160-plus computers and a cafe. The British Film Institute Mediatheque provides free access to the National Film Archive.
Barber Institute of Fine Arts
At the University of Birmingham, 3 miles south of the city centre, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts has an astonishing collection of Renaissance masterpieces; European masters, such as Rubens and Van Dyck; British greats, including Gainsborough, Reynolds and Turner; and classics from modern titans Picasso, Magritte and others. Trains run from Birmingham New St to University station, from where it’s a 10-minute walk.
The next best thing to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory is Cadbury World, 4 miles south of Birmingham. It educates visitors about the history of cocoa and the Cadbury family, sweetening the deal with free samples, displays of chocolate-making machines and chocolate-themed attractions, including a 4D cinema with motion-sensor seats. Opening hours vary substantially; bookings are essential at peak times. Trains run from Birmingham New St to Bournville, from where it’s a signposted 10-minute walk.
National Sea Life Centre
Exotic marine creatures including otters, jellyfish, piranhas and razor-jawed hammerhead sharks swim in the Sir Norman Foster–designed National Sea Life Centre. It is suggested to pre-purchase tickets online for fast-track entry and significant discounts off walk-in rates. Talks and feedings take place regularly. Book online too for 30-minute behind-the-scenes tours offering access to otherwise out-of-bounds areas, and for one-hour tours feeding turtles, penguins or (if you’re game) sharks.
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery
Major Pre-Raphaelite works by Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and others are among the highlights of the delightful Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s impressive collection of ancient treasures and Victorian art. Excellent temporary exhibitions range from historical collections to emerging contemporary artists.
Just over a mile southeast of the city centre, Digbeth’s creative quarter centres on the Custard Factory, a hip art-and-design enclave set in the converted buildings of the factory that once churned out British favourite Bird’s Custard. The open-plan space is now full of artists’ galleries, quirky design boutiques, vintage-clothing outlets, one-off shops such as a skateboard specialist, and affordable, offbeat cafes and pop-up street-food stalls. Regular events include cinema screenings.
Situated 1.5 miles northwest of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, Soho House is where industrialist Matthew Boulton lived from 1766 to 1809. Among the restored 18th-century chambers is the dining room where Boulton and members of the esteemed Lunar Society met to discuss their world-changing ideas during the greatest technological leap forward since the invention of the wheel. Admission is by hour-long guided tour. From Priory Queensway, take bus 74 to the Rose Hill Rd stop.
Birmingham Back to Backs
Quirky tours of this cluster of restored back-to-back terraced houses take you through four working-class homes, telling the stories of those who lived here between the 1840s and the 1970s. Book ahead by phone for the compulsory guided tour. For an even more vivid impression of what life was like here, you can book to stay in basic three-storey period cottages at 52 and 54 Inge St. Guests receive a free Back to Backs tour.
Dedicated to St Philip, this small but perfectly formed cathedral was constructed in a neoclassical style between 1709 and 1715. Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones was responsible for the magnificent stained-glass windows.
Public art in Victoria Sq includes modernist sphinxes and artist Dhruva Mistry’s 1994-installed fountain, The River. Topped by a naked female figure, it’s nicknamed ‘the floozie in the Jacuzzi’ by locals. At the time of writing, the fountain taps were indefinitely switched off as leaks made it inefficient to run; feasibility studies are being carried out to determine whether it becomes a permanently dry statue instead.