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Top Things to See and Do In Birmingham, UK

By Edited Jan 27, 2016 1 0

Birmingham is an excellent shopping, live performances and nigh life destination, but the UK’s second city is not renowned for its tourist attractions. Despite this, there is lots to see and do in the city, and Birmingham is an ideal base from which to discover the best that the West Midlands has to offer.

Library of Birmingham

'Let us not forget that even one book, one pen, one teacher can change the world'

Birmingham Library
Credit: "Library of Birmingham - Dusk" by whichwould - Flickr: Library of Birmingham. Licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Birmingham’s new library opened in 2013. It is more than just a public service building; it is a visitor attraction in itself. And best of all, it's free!

The building, located in Centenary Square, a short walk west of the city centre, cost approximately £189 million to build.  In 2014, the first full year that the library was open, it received more than 2.4 million visitors, placing it among the 10 most popular visitor attractions in the country. It is reported to be the largest public library in the UK, and the largest regional library in Europe.

Architects Mecanoo and multi-discipline engineers Buro Happold, were chosen as the winners of an international design competition to design the building which would eventually replace the nearby Birmingham Central Library.

The result is a magnificent building, public space and visitor attraction. Highlights include the two roof gardens – from where there are spectacular views of the city, - the central book rotunda and the Shakespear Memorial Room and viewing gallery on the top floor.

The Shakespeare Memorial Room, located on the top floor of the building, was actually designed in 1882 for the original Central Library.  When that building was demolished in 1974, the room was dismantled and transferred into a new concrete shell at library which replaced it.  It has again been perfectly incorporated in the new building, and continues to house Britain’s most important collection of Shakespeare’s works.

The library also hosts a range of other nationally and internationally significant collections, including the large Boulton and Watt Collection, a steam engine archive from 1774 to the 1890s which includes approximately 29,000 engine drawings, in addition to books, letters, account books and order books from the partnership of James Watt and Matthew Boulton.

The library’s air conditioning utilises an eco-friendly aquifer ground source system that uses cold groundwater to regulate the temperature in the building.

The opening hours were greatly reduced in 2015 to curtail unsustainable running costs, so the library is, unfortunately, not open on Sundays or bank holidays, and is only open late on Monday and Tuesday evenings. Checking opening hours before visiting.  The roof gardens are also generally closed in windy conditions.

Winterbourne House and Botanical Gardens

Tranquillity in the heart of Edgbaston

Winterbourne Gardens
Credit: "Winterbourne Botanic Garden" by Hugo.arg - Jūsų darbas (own work). Licenced under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

Winterbourne House is a unique heritage attraction set amid beautiful gardens. This restored Edwardian Arts and Craft house, and the seven acres of botanic gardens on which it is set, is a great place to spend a quite and lazy afternoon, just minutes from the hustle and bustle of the Bull Ring and the rest of Birmingham's busy city centre.  

The house is fully restored to its Edwardian Arts and Craft best, and is full of beautiful antiques. Both the house and the gardens were designed, in the early 20th century, to the style of the Arts & Crafts movement, and have examples of local craftsmanship throughout. Winterbourne is a rare surviving example of a suburban villa and garden from this period.

The gardens contain more than 6,000 plant species from across the globe.  Features include a hazelnut tunnel, a woodland walk, and a 1930's Japanese Bridge.

The site is owned by the University of Birmingham, having been left to them by John MacDonald Nicolson, the last private owner of the house, upon his death in 1944. Plant conservation and teaching areas have since been incorporated into the historic gardens.

Entry if free for current University of Birmingham students and staff on the production of a valid university ID card.  Members of the Historic Houses Association are also eligible for free entry to the attraction.

The attraction is located a couple of miles from the main University of Birmingham campus, a fine 'Red Brick' university on the edge of Edgbaston. In addition to the central Chancellors Court and Old Joe, a clock tower which can be seen from miles around, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, is worth a visit. This purpose built art gallery and concert hall, a Grade II listed Art Deco building, was the first purpose-built building for the study of art history in the UK.  It was one of only 5 galleries outside of London to receive 5 stars for having 'Outstanding collections of international significance' in Britain's Best Museums and Galleries (Penguin Books, 2005). The gallery includes works by van Gough, Monet, Picasso, Degas and Rembrandt, among others.

Cadbury World, Bournville

A wonderful world of chocolate

Cadbury World Bournville
Credit: By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Bournville Place Cadbury World 2 Uploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The wonderful Cadbury World in Bournville, south of the city centre, is one of the city's best known attractions, and a favourite among chocolate lovers of all ages. It is one of two attractions created and run by the Cadbury chocolate company (the other one is in Dunedin, New Zealand).

The attraction, opened in 1990, is a one-way, self-guided tour, welcomes approximately half a million visitors each year. It is not a factory tour as such, but allows visitors to explore and discover the history of chocolate and learn about the origins of one of the world's leading confectionery manufactures, through fourteen multi-media zones which utilise animatronics, multi-sensory cinema, video presentations, static sets, staff demonstrations and interactive displays and activities.  As part of the experience, visitors have the opportunity to create their own confectionery in a tub of liquid chocolate.

Regular trains operate between Birmingham's New Street Station and Bournville station, located a short walk from the attraction.

The village of Bournville itself, is an interesting place. It is a model village, built by the Cadbury family, in sudo-Arts and Crafts style. Most of the buildings are originals, and the area is surrounded by considerable green spaces.

National Sea Life Centre and Other Family Attractions

One-million-litres of sea life fun

National Sea Life Centre, Birmingham
Credit: By Erebus555 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The National Sea Life Centre, located in the lively Brindleyplace, a short walk south of the city centre, houses more than 60 displays of marine and freshwater life. The one-million-litre ocean tank has a transparent underwater tunnel, and is home to blacktip reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, giant green sea turtles, a giant Pacific octopus, lobsters, sting rays, horseshoe crabs and otters, in addition to a range of tropical reef fish.  The centre also has an extensive sea horse breading programme. The recently opened Penguin Ice Adventure habitat is home to a colony of gentoo penguins.

A Sensorama 4-D Cinema, with subjects the audience to salt spray, wind, the smell of seaweed, and other sensations appropriate to the film being shown.

The Sea Life Centre can form part of an exciting day out for all the family, which could also incorporate a visit to Thinktank Birmingham Science Museum, time spent at the BBC Birmingham's Public Space at The Mailbox, or a BBC Birmingham studio tour

Thinktank is a modern and fun science museum containing ten themed, inspiring and interactive galleries, which cover everything from full sized aircraft to human taste buds.  The planetarium is also well worth a visit.  The Thinktank Science Garden has a further 42 fun zones and exhibits.  Thinktank is locate just north of the Bullring and the city centre.

At the BBC Birmingham's Public Space, you can have the opportunity to read and record the weather forecast or a news item, look into the BBC West Midlands and Asian Newtwork studios, or observe BBC Midlands Today team at work in the television gallery. Studio tours, offering an insight into television and radio programme production, can also be booked.

The Jewellery Quarter

A shopping destination and a living museum all in one

Charm Bracelet Trail
Credit: By Erebus555 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

The historic Jewellery Quarter is home to a number of interesting museums and attractions, including the Pen Room Museum, the Museum of the Jewellery QuarterNewman Brothers at the Coffin Works and JW Evans, more than 100 jewellery shops, many art galleries, and some 200 listed buildings.

The area, which grew and prospered during the Industrial Revolution, was the birthplace of many pioneering advancements in industrial technology.  Today, approximately 40% of all the jewellery made in the UK is made in this small area adjacent to Birmingham's city centre. It has the world's largest Assay Office, which, each year, hallmarks 12 million items each year.  Many of the workshops retain their 19th century appearance.

The Coffin Works is definitely Birmingham's most unique museum. Newman Brothers have produced some of the world's finest coffin furniture. Past works include the fittings for the coffins of Winston Churchill, Joseph Chamberlain, and the Queen Mother. The workshops include original tools and stock and restored and fully working original machinery, allowing you to experience day-to-day operations in this famous firm.

There are also guided tours and pavement trails through the quarter.

Get Active

Explore Birmingham's green spaces

Cannock Chase Path
Credit: "Cannock Chase Path" by Bs0u10e01 - Own work. Licenced under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

For a large, sprawling and industrial city, Birmingham has a surprising amount of green space, and a few gems. There are lots of places in Birmingham to run, walk, cycle, and do other outdoor activities.

Sutton Park, just on the edge of the city, is the largest urban park in Europe.  It has a variety of surfaces suitable for a variety of activities. Cannon Hill Park, closer to the city centre, is also a pleasant place to relax or exercise, and has a number of other attractions, including the Midlands Arts Centre and the Birmingham Wildlife Conservation Park. Pedal boats can be hired here during the summer months.  Lickey Hills Country Park, on the southern edge of the city, is also a fabulous place for a walk, and offers spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. 

Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, just north of the city, is a designated Area of Outstanding Beauty. It is home to a population of approximately 800 fallow deer, as well as a number of endangered bird species. There are also sites of historical interest, and some hiking trails through the area. The chase is a very popular mountain biking spot. The 11-kilometre, purpose-build 'Follow the Dog' cross country trail is open to all, though not recommended for complete beginners.  The 'Monkey Trail' offers more technical challenges for experienced cross-country mountain bikers.

Get out

Exploring the West Midlands

River Avon
Credit: "River Avon at Stratford-upon-Avon - DSC08973" by Rept0n1x - Own work. Licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Birmingham is surrounded by a number of historic and inviting towns and villages. Dudley, Warwick, Stratford-upon-Avon, Kenilworth and Leamington Spa are but a few of the interesting places to visit in the surroundings.

Dudley, one of the birthplaces of the industrial revolution, is located just 8 miles north-west of Birmingham. It's attractions include Dudley Castle and Zoo, the Black Country Living Museum,and the historic market place.

Dudley Zoological Gardens, located on the astle grounds, is home to big cats such as tigers and lions, giraffes, kangaroos, meerkats, lemurs, otters, snakes and a range of other reptiles, spiders and birds of prey. 

The past comes to life at the Black Country Living Museum, an open-air museum which consisting of reconstructed an original local buildings from the industrial age. Visitors can explore underground coal mines, ride a tramcar, and learn about life during the industrial revolution.

Twycross Zoo - The World Primate Centre, located north-east of the city has a large population of monkeys and apes, including the only group of bonobos in the UK.  They have breeding programmes for many endagered primate species, in addition to other animal species such as snow leopards, Asian elephants, hyena, meerkats, penguins and leopards.

Warkwick is a particularly attractive town, with inviting cafes, small museums and the well-preserved medieval castle which overlooks the town and the river Avon upon which it is built. Myths and tales, covering a thousand years of history are retold within the Warwick Castle experience, making it a particularly special day out for children of all ages. Among the attractions are the Horrible Histories stage show, the Time Tower, the castle dungeon, medieval towers and grand interiors, the world's largest working trebuchet, spectacular birds of prey shows, and daily history team tours. You can also relax in gardens designed by Capability Brown.  The entry free is a bit steep, but two for one offers are often available when you purchase train tickets to Warwick.

Stratford-upon-Avon, famous as the birth place of William Shakesphere, is another great place to relax and pass an afternoon in.  The market town, with more than 800 years of history, contains many original Tudor buildings, wonderful independent cafes and stores on quaint side streets, and numerous sites linked with the famous poet and playwright. There are nice parks and walkways by the riverside, with boat tours available up and down the Avon. Visit Shakespeare's Birthplace, Hall's Croft (home to his daughter), Ann Hathaway's cottage, Nash's House and New Place (from the final chapter in Shakespeare's life), Mary Arden's Farm (where his mother grew up) and the Royal Shakespeare company to learn more about the world's most famous writer.

Leamington Spa, a small village until the early 1800s, expanded dramatically and prospered following the rediscovery of saline springs with healing properties. The Georgian spa town has many attractions. Relax and unwind in Jephson Gardens and Victoria park, shop in the town's many independent shops, and visit the Pump Room museum and gallery

Other excursions include the National Motorcycle Museum in Solihull, the castle and gardens in Kenilworth, and Go Ape forest adventure park at Cannock Chase and Wyre Forest.

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