England's second-largest city flies under the radar somewhat, but manages to combine industrial heritage with urban rejuvenation and a massively under-rated food scene. Projects such as the curvingly sumptuous Bullring shopping centre and the daringly textbook-eschewing new central library have become architectural landmarks, while a trail of Tolkien-linked sites in the suburbs make it a pilgrimage for Lord of the Rings fans.
The Cadbury chocolate brand is a worldwide phenomenon, but it was born in Birmingham. Cadbury World (cadburyworld.co.uk) is part of the gigantic Bournville chocolate factory, which is the centre of the company town suburb of Bournville. The social history of Cadbury's being well ahead of its time in working and living conditions for employees is fascinating, but everyone's really here for the tours. These delve into chocolate's Central American origins, go around the packaging plant and include plenty of choc-making demonstrations.
Michelin-starred Purnell's (purnellsrestaurant.com) is the star of a seriously up-and-coming fine dining scene. There are six and nine-course tasting menus, paired with wine flights, and what's on offer changes depending on what's fresh and seasonal. That might include mussels from Cornwall, Scottish halibut with dauphinoise potatoes or venison from the Queen's Balmoral estate.
To the north-west of the centre, the Jewellery Quarter (jewelleryquarter.net) has historically been Britain's precious metals and gemstones hub. It's oddly unglamorous, but approximately 40 per cent of British-made jewellery is fashioned here. It may feel tradesman rather than showman, but it's a good place to pick up bargain gold and silver trinkets.
J. R. R Tolkien grew up in the then semi-rural outskirts of Birmingham, and Sarehole Mill (birminghammuseums.org.uk/sarehole) is the hub for a series of sites linked to the fantasy author. Tolkien grew up just across the road from the mill, and the bucolic surroundings are thought to have inspired The Shire. Displays inside talk of other landmarks he ended up using as an influence – such as the local version of the Two Towers.
Birmingham is strong on the serviced apartments front, and Staying Cool at The Rotunda (stayingcool.com) is arguably the strongest of the lot. There's a smile-raising '60s pop art with contemporary twists decor, you've got views out over the city centre and there are little touches, such as fresh oranges and juicers in the rooms. Apartments cost from £100 ($220).
The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (bmag.org.uk) offers a great primer on Birmingham's unusual history. It became an industrial powerhouse because it was never classified as a town, meaning people could set things up without being a member of a guild.
David Whitley was a guest of Marketing Birmingham. This article was brought to you by Visit Britain.