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Birmingham 2016

Originally published on 29/01/2016 - Filed under: Home » City Guides » Home » City Guides » Europe »

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Christopher Beanland explores the fast-changing UK city

1. Westside

Birmingham is big but its centre is small. Everything in this four-hour guide can be seen easily on foot. Start at Gas Street Basin, the Spaghetti Junction of the UK’s canal network. Once grimy, it has now been smartened up, but it is still charming – with its working locks and narrowboats – and harks back to an older “Brum”, as the city is affectionately known.

Brindleyplace sits just above the basin (north of Broad Street, the city’s main nightlife area) and comprises offices and shops around a pleasant plaza. Its most important attraction is the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham’s prestigious art venue, which hosts rotating exhibitions by contemporary artists working in print, video, paint and photography.

Until April 3, it is showcasing the creations of US photographer Janet Mendelsohn, Vietnamese video artist Dinh Q Le and Canadian artist Kelly Mark. It’s housed in a wonderful old converted Victorian schoolhouse and also has a café and shop. 1 Oozells Square, open Tues-Sun 11am-5pm; free entry.

2. Jewellery Quarter

Cross the canal via the footbridge and walk through the International Convention Centre and past the city’s Rep Theatre. The Library of Birmingham has a free terrace at the top providing great views. Cross Sand Pits Parade and on your right you’ll see the mess where the city is (foolishly) demolishing its fine Brutalist 1974 library.

Now you’re in the Jewellery Quarter. One of Britain’s leading centres for the manufacture of jewellery in artisan workshops since Victorian times, it is still home to dozens of small, quaint workshops and courtyards steeped with history.

One of the area’s oddest new attractions is an old coffin factory that has been turned into a museum, the Coffin Works. Owned by the Newman Brothers, it was once one of the most important funereal factories in the UK, producing the brass handles and other decorations for the coffins of the rich and famous of the Victorian era. Tours take place hourly, 11am-3pm Wed-Sun, but booking is advisable. 13-15 Fleet Street;

Continue along Fleet Street, then left into Newhall Street, and right into Charlotte Street and you’ll glimpse the wonderful Georgian St Paul’s Square, with the church of the same name at the centre of it.

3. City centre

Retrace your steps to Newhall Street and continue south-east towards the city centre. At the junction with Colmore Row, you’re right in the centre of the legal and financial district, which is packed with handsome Victorian banks and offices.

Turn right into Colmore Row and almost immediately on your left one of these former banks has become new bar and eatery Nosh and Quaff. This burger and lobster joint is run by Jabbar Khan and Aktar Islam, two local entrepreneurs who set up the acclaimed modern curry house Lasan in the Jewellery Quarter in 2002, and several other restaurants since then.

Nosh and Quaff is an ideal spot for a business lunch, with its stripped-down menu, small plates, industrial aesthetic and signature cocktails. Open daily, food served 11am-11pm. 130 Colmore Row; tel +44 (0)121 236 4246;

Walk past Antony Gormley’s Iron Man sculpture and down Pinfold Street and you can see the freshly refurbished New Street railway station, with a new shopping mall, Grand Central, perched on top. Birmingham’s John Lewis department store is located here.

4. Eastside and Digbeth

Trams have come back to Brum – a new extension will see them running on the tracks outside New Street station, up Corporation Street to Snow Hill, the city’s other main station, and out to Wolverhampton. Walk north along Ethel Street then east along New Street passing the fabulous Rotunda, which looks like a giant Coke can. It used to be offices but is now a Staying Cool serviced apartment property.

Chop through the Bullring shopping centre, towards the Nelson Statue, with Selfridges on your left. Keep going straight, down the stairs on to Digbeth High Street. At the junction with Floodgate Street, you pass the incredible Kennedy Mural, made by Kenneth Budd to honour John F Kennedy in 1968. The sheer artistry and effort that went into placing the thousands of coloured mosaic tiles on the wall is breathtaking. It was moved here from a subway several years ago so it was easier to see.

Continue to the Custard Factory on Gibb Street, where Birds Custard was once made. It’s now a hipster enclave of vintage shops, gig venues, street-food vans and record stores. Asos, Maverick TV and the BBC have started up new operations in the area.

5. Around the Mailbox

Turn round and walk back up Digbeth High Street. Digbeth will soon be transformed because on your right hand, beyond the railway viaduct, is where the city’s new High Speed 2 station, Curzon Street, will be located. Go left on Upper Dean Street and you’re in Chinatown.

Turn right on to Pershore Street/Dudley Street and follow this as it becomes Station Street. On your left is the Electric Cinema. This is the oldest working cinema in Britain with an arthouse programme, bar and café.

Go right into John Bright Street, left on to Navigation Street, then on to Royal Mint Street, where you will find the chic Mailbox. The huge mixed-use building reopened in October following a £50 million refurbishment. Inside the former Royal Mail sorting office is a Malmaison hotel, a Harvey Nichols store, the BBC’s Birmingham studios and a slew of restaurants. At the back is access to Gas Street Basin, where the walk started.

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