Birmingham, UK: Why you should visit Britain's new city of 'cool'

According to Britain's  Office for National Statistics, in the year to June 2013 almost 60,000 thirtysomethings left London looking for a better work/life balance – and the majority of those went to Birmingham.

The word's out beyond the UK, too: the Rough Guides' annual list of the top 10 places to visit this year includes New Orleans, Hamburg, Yangon and … Birmingham.

In Birmingham, it said "creative hotspots are beginning to emerge in the urban sprawl … like the old industrial district of Digbeth, where vintage shops and street food stalls have begun to appear in and around the old Victorian buildings. Head to the old Bird's Custard Factory for vintage kilo sales and live music performances".

You've only to walk around the city to catch the buzz, the feeling that, finally, Birmingham is about to take its place, if not in the sun (this is England, you fool) then in the limelight.

This is, after all, the city with the biggest, sexiest new library in Europe – the £188 million  gold and blue-steel cubular belle in Centenary Square. It is quite simply a pleasure to take the escalators up through the magnificent, beautifully lit space-age spiral of the central atrium to the top-floor balconies for the view across the city and the extraordinary Elizabethan-style Shakespeare Memorial Room (see

For more classical fare there's the Museum and Art Gallery nearby, looming imperiously over Chamberlain Square and home both to one of the largest collections of pre-Raphaelite art in the world and the amazing Staffordshire Hoard, the biggest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found in Britain and  described by one expert as "the metalwork equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells" (see

Back over the other side of Centenary Square, past the Walkabout bar (where Australian cricketer David Warner punched England's Joe Root in 2013 and where Thursday night is Kylie's Beach Night) a left-hand turn will bring you to (a) the Tap and Spile pub, and (b) Gas Street Basin where a flotilla of narrow boats cuddles together and awaits hire.

Birmingham is the hub of the country's canal network and historic Gas Street Basin is slap-bang in the middle of that. From here you could take a narrow boat all the way to London – but most people make do with day trips, dinner cruises and longer  three, four and seven-day journeys floating serenely into the heart of the English countryside. Gill Smith, owner of the Away Group canal boat company, says short B&B stays on the boats are also becoming popular with the conference crowd (see 

And then there's the Jewellery Quarter, a Georgian-era conservation area at the heart of the city full of listed buildings, jewellery businesses, funky shops, quirky bars and a residential property market that, compared to London, is magnetisingly cheap (see


The annual Christmas market in Birmingham spreads across Victoria Square, New Street and Chamberlain Square – a sprawling, sparkling bauble of more than 180 stalls festooned with festive lights and selling everything from handmade wooden toys to bratwurst, beer and gluhwein.

Each year the streets around the town hall and the art gallery are busy with locals and tourists alike. It's even started to spill over into Centenary Square on the other side of Paradise Forum, where oddly inappropriate reindeer burgers can be found among the tinsel and fairylights.

And it's a throng that's only going to get bigger as more young people relocate from London to the UK's long-derided and much-neglected second city. 




British Airways, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Cathay Pacific operate frequent flights between Sydney and Melbourne and London. Birmingham Airport is serviced by many low-cost carriers. 

Birmingham's New Street Station has frequent rail services to London's Euston station and National Express coaches connect the city (at Digbeth Coach Station, just a few minutes from the city centre) to London Victoria station, with links to Heathrow, Gatwick, East Midlands, Stansted and Luton.


The Hyatt Regency, 2 Bridge Street, Birmingham, is right in the middle of the city, with fabulous views over the canals and the city and is within walking distance of most major attractions. Rooms start at about $180 for two,  twin share. See

The writer was a guest of VisitEngland and British Airways.