It’s the second most populous city in the UK and attracted 42 million visitors this year. Here’s author Mike Gayle’s guide to the top things to see, eat and drink in the Midlands city.

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Birmingham may be known as the UK’s “second city”, but when it comes to my home town’s vibrant galleries, cafes, shops and Michelin-starred restaurants, it’s nothing less than first rate. Slap-bang in the middle of the country, it’s perfectly located for an easy weekend getaway. London Northwestern Railway does great off-peak return tickets at around £20-£30 – so you don’t have to book months in advance to get a good deal. And now that you’re here, let me show you some of what my city has to offer. I was born here and, after a spell in the capital, returned when I became a full-time author. It’s now where I live with my wife and daughters, aged 15 and 12. Brum, I promise, has got it all going on. So if you’ve only got 24 hours to spend here, it’s definitely going to be action packed. Here’s a rough itinerary to help you make the most of your day:

Spend the morning getting to know the city centre. It’s an often mocked but nonetheless true fact that Birmingham has more miles of canal than Venice, so why not see some of them for yourself? Sherborne Wharf offers a variety of city centre jaunts. Afterwards, get in a few quick cultural hits with a visit to the new library (stunning views across the city from the sixth floor) and then follow through to Brindley Place to Ikon, an internationally acclaimed contemporary art gallery. Here, you can also find a branch of local indie cafe, Yorks, where you can enjoy a well-earned cuppa and a slice of homemade cake.

If you’re up for a spot of retail therapy, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Head to the Bullring and Grand Central for stores such as Selfridges and John Lewis, or if you’re after something a little more cheap and cheerful, try the Rag market for stalls selling everything from sari material to vintage punk clothing. For those in the mood to splurge, head to the Mailbox for Harvey Nichols, Heal’s and Paul Smith. If shopping isn’t your thing, however, there are plenty of museums to explore, too. The Museum and Art Gallery is free to enter and now the permanent home to the world-famous Staffordshire hoard. If you prefer your museums on the quirky side, try the Coffin Works (an award-winning independent museum dedicated to the production of coffin furniture!), or the Pen Museum, the only institution in the UK devoted to the history of pen making. Peaky Blinders fans should head to the National Trust property, the Back to Backs. Here, in the city’s last surviving court of 19th-century back-to-back houses, you can see firsthand the homes that served as the inspiration for the hit show’s set designer, Grant Montgomery.

After all that exploring, you’ll probably need to refuel. If you’re on the Jewellery Quarter side of the city, head for the chilled vibes of Otto, an authentic pizzeria famous for its Neapolitan-style pizzas. Afterwards, take a stroll across leafy St Paul’s Square, the city’s only Georgian square, to wash down your lunch with the perfect flat white at Saint Kitchen. For veggies, the revamped Warehouse Cafe is a must, or if you’re looking for something more Instagrammable, 1847’s visually stunning, plant-based delights will certainly fit the bill.


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If you’re feeling ready for an afternoon nap after all that food, heading down to Digbeth will wake you up. Once known mainly for its coach station, Digbeth is now seen as one of the coolest places to live in the UK. Start in the Custard Factory, a complex of cafes, shops and galleries located within the hallowed walls of the old Bird’s Custard factory. Here, you can catch a cult film at the Mockingbird Cinema, treat yourself to a couple of craft beers from Clink, indulge in a spot of retail therapy (anything from vintage fashion at Cow Vintage to boards and accessories at Ideal Skateboard Supply), and if that’s not enough, how about a game of crazy golf with an urban twist at Ghetto Golf just around the corner?

By now, you might be in the mood for something a little different. Grab a cab and head 20 minutes south of the city to Cannon Hill park. Covering 81 hectares (200 acres), you can take a swan boat out on the lake, enjoy a woodland walk or a ride on the land train. Cannon Hill is also home to Birmingham Wildlife Conservation Park. Here, you can see red pandas, European lynx, lemurs, cranes, snakes, lizards and family favourites such as goats, guinea pigs and sheep. And if that’s not enough, Cannon Hill is also the site of the MAC, a space for galleries, cafes, theatre, cinema and concerts.

It might be a good idea to zip back to your accommodation for a quick regroup (and/or power nap). While there are tonnes of great places to stay on Airbnb, there are some fantastic independent hotels and apartments, too. Fancy a room with curved walls and some of the best views of the Brum cityscape? Head to Staying Cool at the iconic Rotunda for its one- and two-bedroom serviced apartments. In the mood for a Shoreditch-style boutique hotel? Then Saint Pauls House in the Jewellery Quarter is for you. And for those on a tighter budget, Bloc Hotel Birmingham has some great budget rooms with a designer vibe.

So you’re refreshed (or as refreshed as you’re ever going to be), but you’re not feeling hungry yet and you’ve had enough coffee to keep an elephant awake. A trip to an escape room could be just what you need. Exciting Game Birmingham comes highly recommended on TripAdvisor, as does Escape Reality. Alternatively, how about a trip to Tilt, a cool cafe bar that’s home to a collection of more than 20 working vintage pinball machines? In the mood to try something more physical? Head to Rock Up climbing centre at Broadway Plaza, or Boing Zone, a trampoline park just a short taxi ride away from the city centre.

It’s finally dinner time and you’ll be glad to know there are all manner of culinary treats to choose from. Prefer to stay in the city centre? Look no further than the Digbeth Dining Club, a ticketed street food event that takes place every Friday and Saturday, featuring music, entertainment and a rolling cast of street-food vendors. Alternatively, get yourself over to the cornucopia of delights known as the Balti Triangle. Make a beeline for the Ladypool Road area, where you’ll find mouthwatering and authentic Indian, Bangladeshi and Kashmiri cooking, of which Shababs and Al Frash are particular favourites. Most of the restaurants on this strip are BYOB, so you’ll be able to save a few quid on booze. If curries aren’t your thing, there’s Antep (Turkish), Al-Bader (Lebanese and Moroccan) or Jerk & Twist (Caribbean). And if you still have room for pudding, there are plenty of dedicated shops to chose from, Artisan desserts (run by Ali Imdad, former Great British Bake Off contestant) being one of the best.

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By now, you may be getting your second wind. If so, grab a cab and venture to York Road in Kings Heath, a great location for hip places to drink. Start off at the Juke, a bar that has a neat line of craft ales, as well as a 30-year-old jukebox imported from Chicago. Afterwards, head to organic wine specialist Grace + James and sample the orange wine and imported cheeses. And if you’re still not ready to hit the sack, Hare and Hounds, a Grade II-listed pub, is the perfect place to finish off the night. Along with a good selection of beers and wines, you’ll also find live music and top DJs.

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

Mike Gayle

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