Sunday, 18 October 2009

Birmingham: Things to know before you travel


As amazing to myself as it is to many natives, Birmingham is now a tourist destination for overseas travellers.  However, the guide books aren't always totally honest.  So here are some things to look out for:

The Good:
  1. The nightlife is very very good in Birmingham if you know where to go.  Avoid Broad Street, put Newhall Street onto your itinerary instead.  Check out the bars along here (such as The Vaults and Must) and the restaurants (I suggest Rajdoot).  It is also worth looking out for bars such as The Old Joint Stock, Pitcher and Piano and The Rectory.
  2. The best places to stay are obviously going to be hotels such as the 5* Hyatt or 4* Copthorne.  What the Copthorne lacks in outside visual appeal (owing to some bizarre architectural blunder) it remains a top hotel, very well furnished etc with probably the most central location for exploring.  It is also very good value if booked via the internet in advance.  If you are looking for budget/value then there is always the Etap.
  3. Shopping - look up the Bullring, 21st century consumer heaven.
  4. Birmingham has two football teams.  The historically successful Aston Villa, with it's superb stadium and decent Premier league team - is therefore a trip worth doing.  On the other side of the city are the local rivals Birmingham City.  The stadium (St. Andrews) and area (Small Heath) is a run down affair.  If you want to watch any football, you want to see at Villa Park. 
  5. If you are visiting near Christmas, Birmingham is host to the largest German market outside of Germany.  Naturally owing to my German ties I think I can give an honest appraisal here.  So let me put it this way; if you want a genuine Bratwurst and a real Weiss-bier, this is without doubt the only place I go. This is a great night out and I try and make a visit most weekends it's in town.  It's unparalleled elsewhere in the UK and could compete with most I've visited in Hamburg, Frankfurt and Berlin.
  6. Owing to the diverse nature of the city (somehow Liverpool was awarded capital of culture, despite being the least cultured place in Britain) you can get some amazing food.  Asian food, "curry" and "balti" is widely available.  There is a road literally known as "balti mile" where you can't really go wrong.
  7. If you are thinking of studying in Birmingham there are three very good University's.  Birmingham University is the traditional "red-brick" and boasts being one of the premier educational institutions in the country, and rightly so.  Aston University is also highly regarded along with the recently re-branded Birmingham City University (formally University of Central England).  All three have decent reputations (probably in the order listed) and have prominent campus locations across the city.
  8. The airport is very under-rated.  Birmingham International is the main hub serving the city.  It has excellent transport links.  Another virtually unmentioned airport is Nottingham East Midlands - this is about an hour away and is a genuine secret.  Ryanair and Easyjet both have bases here and serve most European capitals.  You can save yourself cash by opting to come in or fly onwards from the East Midlands and should not be overlooked if you are travelling around Europe.

The Bad:
  1. The local accent (dis-affectionately) known as "Brummy" is a slow, meandering dialect.  You will find yourself lost at times, wondering quite where the grasp of the English language has gone.  Local media tries to put a spin on this "traditional" way of speaking.  In truth it is just lazy and largely incomprehensible to even those who grew up in the area.
  2. It is best to ignore St. Andrews, the home of Birmingham City Football Club.  They own an eyesore of a stadium and have a consistently poor football team.  Avoid.  
  3. Broad Street is the main bar and nightclub area.  Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights descend into the worst sort of alcohol related mess and debauchery.  Not in a fun way.  Groups of heavily intoxicated young guys and girls in and around some of the better hotels.  God only knows what those in the 5* Hyatt must think as they look down on it.  This is an area that the Police "contain" as much as they do Police. 
  4. Social tensions.  Whilst not a major inner city problem, there are gang issues.  Unreported in travel guides, but generally covered in the mainsteam press, there are areas that should be considered "no go" for a tourist.  Specifically lock your doors should you find yourself near the areas in and around Lozells. 
  5. Public transport is quite hit and miss.  You can't really single out one genuine positive.  
    • The trains are regular, but New Street station (to be redeveloped for the Olympics) is a nightmare.  
    • The tram network is overpriced and not necessarily convenient considering the route; only towards Wolverhampton.  
    • The buses I have honestly only ever found the dirtiest way to travel around.  
    • The Underground network...oh wait there isn't one due to a high water table, this is a drawback.  
    • By car isn't as bad as non locals seem to make out.  Yes it is a big daunting if you don't know where you are going, but isn't anywhere?  One of the best kept secrets is that you can park in a lot of close to centre side streets (or at least quite cheaply).  If you are going at night you can park for free after about 7pm really close or often outside in pretty much any street outside of the very centre.  This should prove a pretty useful tip that no-one seems to take advantage, or be aware of.


Birmingham is definitely a better travel/tourist experience than Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow.  But it is certainly less of a holiday than say London, Paris or New York (obviously really).
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