Birmingham


Craig Goch Dam overflowing on a sunny day in the Elan Valley

The city's now-traditional Christmas Market opened for the festive season – centred on Victoria Square and Centenary Square. It adds some welcome frivolity to Birmingham's renaissance. Luftwaffe bombing, combined with disastrous post-war planning, devastated the city at the heart of England. But the painful process of regeneration has been sealed by the completion of the spectacular Library of Birmingham – the city's answer to Bilbao's Guggenheim, only more useful.

Get your bearings
The core of Birmingham is a diamond formed from the dual carriageway, the Queensway, that wraps around it. The city's "high street", New Street, runs from Victoria Square to the Pavilions shopping mall. Much of the recent development has been to the west, in the shape of landmark structures such as the ICC and Symphony Hall, The Mailbox and the adjacent Cube shopping malls, and the canalside Brindleyplace complex.

Take a view
The exterior of the new Library of Birmingham resembles a stack of Christmas present. Inside, it is a bibliographic masterpiece that offers great views (libraryofbirmingham.com). The visitor is funnelled upwards on suspended escalators through orbits of books. From Level 4, a cylindrical glass lift rises to Level 7, where the "Secret Garden" reveals a panorama of the city. Go up two more floors to the Shakespeare Memorial Room and the Skyline Viewpoint.

Take a hike
From the Library head through Paradise Forum to the Museum and Art Gallery (bmag.org.uk; 10am-5pm daily; free). It has an impressive collection of Pre-Raphaelites, plus municipal history from the city's medieval origins to Duran Duran. Thread through the Christmas throng on Victoria Square and along New Street. Turn left along Corporation Street. Cross Old Square with its giant monochrome sculpture of local comedian Tony Hancock. At the handsome fine Victoria Law Courts, bear right to the campus of Birmingham Metropolitan College, centred on a wildlife-rich lake, and Eastside City Park to see the layers of industrial boom and bust.
Lunch on the run
The Warehouse Café at 54 Allison Street (www.thewarehouse cafe.com; noon-8.30pm Mon-Sat, noon-3.30pm Sun to Christmas) is run by Birmingham Friends of the Earth and was the city's first vegetarian restaurant. Soup, millet salad and tea should do the trick.

The Birmingham Eye at Night




Window shopping

Birmingham appears to have reached retail saturation point with its many shopping malls. Yet independent stores are flourishing – notably in the Digbeth area, where you'll find the Custard Factory. The Gibb Street premises of the former custard king, Alfred Bird, are now filled with shops and galleries (custardfactory.co.uk). More conventional is The Mailbox which contains Harvey Nichols and Armani.
Half timbered buildings


Dining with the locals
Eat between 6-7pm on a Saturday at Opus at Cornwall Street (opus restaurant.co.uk) for the set price Market Menu (£9.50 for one course, £3 for each additional course; Monday to Friday, no time restrictions). The dishes depend on what is available at the local wholesale markets.

Go to church
St Philip's is a 1715 Baroque parish church that became a cathedral in 1905. The highlights are the Burne-Jones stained-glass windows at either end of the nave (open 8.30am-5pm weekends, 7.30am-6.30pm other days). For more Burne-Jones – assisted by William Morris – visit the lofty St Martin in the Bullring. The 12th-century origins are hard to identify, but the effigies of the "de Bermingham" family are easy to spot.

Out to brunch
A few yards from Cathedral Square, step from Newhall Street into Greenwich Village. Industrial-chic Yorks Bakery Café serves Birmingham's best brunch between 9.30am to 4pm on Sundays (earlier on other days). After a small vat of porridge, try shashuka (peppers, baked eggs and tomatoes), price £5.75.

Take a ride
The canalside entrance to the ICC is the departure point for daily narrow-boat tours of Birmingham's canal network – touted as more extensive than Venice's. Decide if it is also more alluring on a one-hour, £8 City Heritage tour (sherbornewharf.co.uk; 11.30am, 1pm, 2.30pm and 4pm, weekends only in winter). There is also a £16.50 lunch cruise on some Sundays.



Walk in the park
The Botanical Gardens are 1.5 miles south-west of the city at Westbourne Road in leafy Edgbaston (bit.ly/BrumBloom; 10am-5pm; £6). Buses 22, 23, 24 and 29 stop outside. The former farm has a fine collection of Victorian glasshouses and a modern aviary. Warm up in the Tropical House or the Pavilion Tea Room.

Icing on the cake
The Christmas Market (10am-9pm daily until 22 December; bit.ly/BirXmas) celebrates Birmingham's twin city, Frankfurt. The market stalls in Victoria Square and Centenary Square offer local crafts. 

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