Birmingham: the UK’s most underrated weekend break?

by James Hendicott
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As perhaps the most affordable major UK city to visit for a weekend, and with its highlights underreported next to other major cities, it really is time you gave Birmingham time of day

“I’ve heard very bad bad things about you Birmingham people,” goes one of Peaky Blinders’ finest lines. The capital of the English Midlands, a city of a similar population to Dublin, is, it’s fair to say, not a corner of the UK with a glistening reputation.

The last couple of decades, though, have been transformative. The construction of the iconic hyper-modern shopping centre of the Bullring and its neighbour Grand Central have utterly changed the feel of the urban centre, into a place that while still working class and affordable, has a real tinge of fast-rising modernity.

Nearby, the canals – locals love to tell you there are more than Venice, and many are beautifully reformed – stretch between gorgeous bars, offering extended walks, the kind of quirky independent businesses that only pop up in affordable areas, and a sense of a city at peace with its own identity. Birmingham is not Liverpool or Manchester, and it’s certainly not London, but it is worthy of your attention.

Our trip starts, as many do, with Cadbury’s. Bourneville is a unique suburb, a dry corner of the city with historical quaker links that was built, originally, entirely to service the large chocolate factory. Now accompanied by a large tourist spot in Cadbury’s World, something akin to Dublin’s Guinness storehouse for the sweet-toothed, it takes you from the Aztec Jungle and chocolate’s origins, to the city’s central Bull Street years ago, as well as touring through a replica of the factories. The whole place smells beautifully sweet, and the shop – especially the bargain broken chocolate pieces – is a must raid.

Not too far away, pubs clutter around the outside of Bourneville’s dry zone, and the best of them form a stumbling trail that’s become known as the Stirchley Beer Mile. The eight-stop route a short distance from the city really is an aficionados’ paradise, featuring several 14th Century pubs, three different breweries, and a specialist wine bar for variety.

Digbeth, built up around an eclectic venue known as the Custard Factory, has a reputation as being a bit hipster, but is in fact a fantastic area championing tiny imaginative businesses. As well as global food and products, entertainment includes The Floodgate (a bar/ eatery packed full of all sorts of games), Ghetto Golf (a bit like crazy golf, but tipsy and daft), karting, art galleries, and rugged urban watering holes.

Shopping wise, Birmingham is home to the world’s largest Primark (which is Penney’s, to us), but it’s the more unusual stuff that draws you in. Record shopping is still massive here, with huge, varied stores including defunct-in-Ireland HMV, while quirky Japanese and Korean offerings in the Bullring drew us in, as did the traditional jewellery quarter and its preserved Georgian buildings and indie hideaways.

While we were over, the art galleries of the deceptively large and shiny Mailbox were hiding the less-touted artistic work of Bob Dylan and Johnny Depp, free to see on display, and an oxygen bar sat next to an outdoor taco stand by the iconic Black Sabbath Bridge was buzzing on a weekday evening. Unfashionable, in cases like this, can also mean original and un-corporate, as well as easy-going and welcoming.

For sporting types, Bear Grylls has set up on the outskirts of the city, and offers both snorkelling and scuba diving with sharks in a local aquarium, as well as obstacle course activities. The local Premier League club Aston Villa are hard to get tickets to now, selling out most games as their revival continues, but it’s not impossible to chance it on game day, and the tours unveil one of the finest old stadiums the UK has to offer.

For families, the massive Sea Life Centre, which has turtles, sharks and jellyfish, is sat just across the canal from the Legoland Discovery Centre, a small but engaging version of the larger West London theme park.

Our smaller highlight came in finding the tiny Middle Eastern coffee chain Damascena, a place with a diverse, otherworldly coffee and snacks menu that whisks you through Damascus and Beirut on pungent scents and unfamiliar flavours.

It’s hard to touch the sides, then, of a city of over a million often dismissed off hand as a tourist destination: it has far too much to do to squeeze into any kind of weekend break, offers plenty of luxury, and is comparatively affordable with it, by both Irish and London standards.

Of course, you can also blow the budget out of the water with a sublime €80 Argentinian steak in Gaucho followed by a series of fiery cocktails at Aluna, but, with dozens of shiny highlights to be found scattered across the city, we’ll leave that call to you.


Stay: We crashed at the four-star Hyatt Regency Hotel in Central Birmingham, €240 a night for a towering hub with views, complete with a plush breakfast (try the selection of healthy smoothies or the Bloody Mary bar), spa entry and easy access to the city centre and canal system.

Fly: Birmingham is one of the cheapest spots in the UK to fly to from Dublin, with weekend return trips regularly going for as little as €30. Birmingham Airport is located on a major train line, a 15 minute journey from the city centre.

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