Birmingham may not be the first city you think of for a weekend break. London, Liverpool, Manchester maybe. But the UK’s second city has a strong independent scene, architecture that is sometimes controversial and importantly, warm and friendly Brummies. Mostly. So it’s odd that I’ve never done a city guide for my own hometown. So what would I recommend for visitors with 48 hours in Birmingham to play with?
If you’ve arrived on a Friday and are ready for a drink or two and a bite to eat, look no further than Digbeth Dining Club. It’s about a 10 minute walk from the city centre, even less if you’re arriving in Brum by National Express Coach.
If you’re venturing into Digbeth then you may as well start off at The Old Crown. Birmingham’s oldest secular building, this 640-something year old pub has olde-world charm, and a great beer garden. As tempting as the menu is, it’s just a short walk under the railway arches to Digbeth Dining Club. There’s a rotating guest list of some of the Midland’s best street food vendors, so it’s highly likely you’ll find something to please everyone. Even the fussiest of eaters. Dishes are usually around £6-£8 each and there are plenty of bars and seating areas. My personal DDC favourites are Buddha Belly, Only Jerkin and Kebab Cartel. Sugar cravings can be satisfied by The Bournville Waffle Company or Urban Cheesecake.
Birmingham’s iconic Custard Factory is just around the corner, with its distinctive street art and independent stores. If you’re after good beer sold by those in the know, pop into Roberto’s, a great little bottle shop and bar for those passionate about their beer. Or if you fancy watching a movie, check out Mockingbird, a bar/restaurant/cinema combo. There’s also Ghetto Golf, The Floodgate, Roxy Ball Room and Drop Shot if you’re after something a little more active. Digbrew is an ace taproom and pizzeria. Although if you’re after pizza, Baked In Brick is another excellent choice.
Finally. if you’ve got the urge to dance, check out Night Owl; originally a Northern Soul club it has regular club nights for disco, funk, soul, 60s, ska and alternative fans.
If you’re planning on dining out, visiting a pub or other food and drink establishments, make sure you check online or get in touch before you go as there may be COVID-19 restrictions in place.
For a great breakfast or brunch, make your way towards Ju Ju’s Cafe on Browning Street. Full English (meat or veggie)? Hash served in a skillet? Eggs Benedict? The ubiquitous Avocado Smash? You can find them all, and they’re all equally tasty. It’s a great canalside cafe and everyone – locals or newbies – get the same warm welcome.
To walk off that breakfast, you can now take a walk along the canal. Did you know that Birmingham has more canals than Venice? Brummies will share this fact with you at every opportunity. If you pop up at Brindley Place, you could pay a visit to Ozzy and Ola the sea otters at Birmingham’s Sea Life Centre. Or if you fancy a bit of culture, there’s the Ikon Gallery on Oozells Square with its ever-changing contemporary and modern exhibitions.
Back canalside, and you can walk down the Birmingham City Centre Path to the Mailbox. This is the former Royal Mail sorting office, now a entertainment and high-end retail complex. If you fancy a quick window shop at Harvey Nicks then this is your chance. There’s also numerous bars and restaurants here if the sun is over the yardarm and you fancy a quick drink. Gas Street Social is one of my favourites and a welcome break from some of the chains that have taken up residency here.
If you arrived in Brum by train then you may well have already come through Grand Central, the shopping centre which sits above Birmingham New Street. Its worth a pass through just to see the transparent armadillo which forms the glass roof and makes the atrium bright, light and airy. You can walk all the way from Grand Central to Birmingham’s famous Bull Ring without going outside by following Link Street.
You can find all the major chains in the Bull Ring, but make sure you pop outside and see the Bull. After all, have you really been to Brum if you haven’t posed for a selfie with the Bull? Whilst you’re outside, check out the controversial/much-loved (delete as appropriate) Selfridges building with its futuristic silver mirrored discs. We like a bit of quirky architecture here in Brum. Also check out the wedding cake shaped Library of Birmingham too for further “what-were-they-thinking” buildings.
If you fancy a stroll over to the Eastside of the city centre, you’ll find the Thinktank Science Museum, and an urban park which provides a peaceful haven away from the hustle and bustle. It’s close to a number of the city’s colleges and universities and it also provides a gateway down to the creative and independent hub of Digbeth.
If you’re lucky to arrive on one of Birmingham’s Hidden Spaces open weekends you may even be able to look inside the historic Curzon Street Station building – the oldest surviving railway terminal in the world – before it’s utilised as a hub for HS2. Make sure you pop into The Woodman for a quick drink, another beautiful Victorian building restored into a traditional real ale pub.
Depending on where you’re staying, make sure you pop by Tilt on the way back for coffee, cake and the chance to spend all your hard-earned pound coins on pinball. There’s also a rotating beer menu; the staff know their stuff and are happy to make recommendations.
By day, Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter is a shopping and manufacturing hub. By night its the perfect bar crawl destination with lots of food options along the way. If it’s a sunny evening, start off at The Clifden, with it’s huge beer garden. It gets a bit rowdy on some evenings but if that’s what you’re after then feel free to disregard the rest of this guide. If you’re a fan of whisky then pop into the Whisky Club. The clued up staff will guide you in the right direction if you’re not a connoisseur. They do great whisky cocktails too.
It’s back into the heart of the Jewellery Quarter and its iconic clock for the Rose Villa Tavern. It’s a traditional pub with beautiful stained glass windows. And a red phone booth. More cocktail options and a good selection of beers available, as expected from one of the city’s Bitter ‘n’ Twisted venues. The Button Factory also has a rooftop terrace for soaking up the sunshine, and it’s just a short walk from here to my personal JQ favourite 1000 Trades. Independent, craft beer, natural wines, rotating kitchen pop-ups and a showcase for the city’s artists and tradespeople; you never get the same experience twice at this bar. And their Sunday Jazz Roasts are pretty special too if you get the opportunity to revisit.
If you’re feeling a bit bleary-eyed after the night before, it’s time to get out of the city. It’s a 20 minute taxi ride or a jump on the No 50 bus to Kings Heath for a spot of breakfast at Kitchen Garden Cafe, on York Road. There’s a second Cherry Reds in Birmingham on John Bright Street in you can’t face a bus ride.
If you want a bit of fresh air and greenery to blow the cobwebs away, Cannon Hill Park is is also south of the city, with mini golf, pedalos and tennis courts if you fancy getting a bit energetic. It’s also home to the MAC Arts complex, with it’s programme of dance, theatre, music and education; you can check what’s going on at the MAC here, or just pop into the cafe for a brew. Cannon Hill is also home to Birmingham’s Wildlife Conservation Park if you want to talk to the animals. It’s a bargain £6.25 for adults and they specialise in the conservation of endangered species.
If the MAC has given you the taste for culture, it’s back into the city for the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Granted the whole area around BMAG is something of a building site at the moment whilst “Paradise” is being constructed but you can while away a couple of hours on a Sunday roaming among the Pre-Raphaelites, the Staffordshire hoard and Ancient Egyptian artefacts.
If you’ve got a couple of hours to spare before heading out of Birmingham, you might want to catch a film at the Electric Cinema. The Electric is the oldest working cinema in the UK. Don’t let that put you off though. The Electric shows both the most recent films and classics, and has sofas, a bar and waiter service.
And that brings the curtain down on a weekend in Birmingham. If you really want to live like a local, get yourself the Independent Birmingham app. This gives you discounts at loads of Brum’s best independent bars, restaurants and shops. The app is £1.99 per month, but you can cancel after your visit.
All venues have been tried and tested by yours truly and are all highly recommended. I have no professional affiliation with any of the venues mentioned.
All photos by myself or by CPF Photography, all reproduced with permission
2018 Update: Did you know you can now download this city guide through the GPSmyCity app on iOS and Android? For other related city walks and tour guides you can find all the Birmingham content here!