Britain’s ‘second city’ is its own world, with unique customs. Get to know the unspoken lay of the land with Guardian writer Sarah Sahim.

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The Gas Street Basin at dusk, Birmingham Canal looking towards Brindleyplace viewed from the Worcester Bar Bridge. Photograph: Chris Hepburn/Getty Images


There’s a whole country outside your window, waiting to be explored. That includes the nation’s second city; the crown jewel of jewellery making, and my home: Birmingham.

Brummies know that our city can be underestimated (it was once described as “very desolate everywhere” by Queen Victoria), but learn its ways and you too will discover its magic. These 10 unwritten rules will equip even the most insular traveller with the skills to become an honorary Brummie.

Remember, Brummies and Yam Yams are different
Brummies are from Birmingham. “Yam Yams” are from Dudley.

This fundamental difference is a matter of life of a banishment from the West Midlands. Locals don’t take well to being categorised among those who don’t share their postcode. The DYs and the Bs matter.

The accent is supposedly different, but I don’t hear it much. I’d advise you to pretend to acknowledge their differences. Though engaging in a cold war, the Yam Yams and Brummies have shared a unified history from the height of the Industrial Revolution … and a unified aversion to the south. Also, don’t attribute the Industrial Revolution to Manchester. Not if you want to be invited back.

When it comes to shopping, no stress allowed

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The iconic bronze bull at Birmingham's Bullring shopping centre

No pushing, no shoving, and no jostling in the shopping areas – that’s not how we do things here. With more than a million residents, the city can feel busy and vibrant, but in our malls – The Mailbox, The Bullring – you won’t find hour-long queues and customers cramped up. It’s all very classy in Birmingham, so much so you can even pause for a snap in front of some art while you shop – that is Laurence Broderick’s iconic bronze bull statue (known as The Bull) outside The Bullring which has been named one of the world’s greatest works of public art.

For the best bars, avoid the main drags

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The wall of gin at 40 St Pauls. Photograph: Jack Spicer Adams/40 St Pauls Birmingham 

Keep away from main roads, otherwise it’s main road prices (who wants to pay £10 for a cocktail?), and what a waste that would be. Birmingham is one of the few cities with an affordable nightlife – the average price of a pint is £2.90 – and some great places to start the night are Suds ‘n’ Duds, a quasi-speakeasy disguised as a launderette, 40 St Pauls, a specialist gin bar, and Jekyll and Hyde, which boasts cocktails inspired by its namesakes’ creativity.

Travel by rail to enjoy the best of the city’s nightlife
Getting into Birmingham couldn’t be easier, with London Northwestern Railway running trains to and from London and Liverpool – with stops at major towns and cities including Milton Keynes, Coventry, Wolverhampton and Crewe. The train will drop you at Birmingham New Street, slap-bang in the city centre and the perfect place to start your trip. Don’t battle for parking or against traffic – Birmingham is all about the peace and love – and instead, enjoy a tipple and let the train driver do the work.

Do not argue about who birthed rock. It was Birmingham
This is an indisputable fact. You can even walk the road Ozzy Osbourne walked down to get to school. Although, for a music hit that’s a little more creative, visit Nick Drake’s grave in Tanworth-in-Arden or John Bonham’s in Rushock instead.

You don’t have to spend a fortune to have a good day out

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Cannon Hill park, Ikon gallery and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery are all must-sees and they’re free to visit, too. There are optional paid extras, such as access to dedicated exhibits, or a ride on the swan boats in Cannon Hill park, but you can have a great day out without breaking the bank.

Real Brummies venture outside the city

There’s plenty to do outside the city centre itself. Spook yourself out at Wychbury obelisk and its accompanying forest, home of the infamous mystery: Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? You could also check out the Black Country Living Museum, where Peaky Blinders is filmed. And The Red House Glass Cone in Stourbridge is a bittersweet tribute to long-dormant artisanal glass-blowing that the town was famous for in its heyday.

Do not miss Soho House (no, not that one)
Readers of celebrity magazines might be familiar with London private members’ club, Soho House. But Birmingham’s answer is even better heeled. Soho House is a tranquil Georgian home to refresh your mind and learn something while you’re at it. Along with the standard afternoon tea opportunities that come with stately homes, Soho House hosts talks on the textile industry, women of the Lunar Society and Cafe Scientifique, an informal science debate featuring guest speakers.

Watch out on the escalators

Londoners, are you tired with order confining you to the right-hand side of the escalator? Lucky for you, the West Midlands operates on a free-for-all basis. Want to stand in the middle and have no one attempt to push past you? Want to lean on the left-hand side? Revel in it and stand wherever you want. Want to get past someone? It’s anyone’s game at this point. Godspeed, dear reader.

Birmingham has more canals than Venice

Sorry, Venice. You might have narrow cobblestone streets and lavish architecture, but we beat your paltry 26 miles of canals by nine, with 35 miles in total. What can you do with these canals, you ask? Well, you can go for a relaxing walk along them or take a canal tour. Unfortunately, you won’t find any gondolas …

For the best value tickets to Birmingham with no booking fee, visit

Paid for by London Northwestern Rail and originally published in as part of a joint partnership on Thursday 29 Nov 2018.