Giving London a Brum for its money: local Tim Cullen's guide to Birmingham.
 

Britain’s second city is a diverse cultural hub and on the radar as a global destination in its own right. Who better than resident Tom Cullen to show us around?

The paint-by-numbers introduction to an article about the best things to do in Birmingham might go something like this: “Everyone thought Birmingham was a bit crap but great news, we’re wrong!”

Brummies acknowledge this backhanded compliment with a trademark shrug and a wry smile. And then they move on. But this line of thinking perpetuates the theory that the city is merely improving, which is nonsense. It’s gone far beyond that, becoming a bonafide global destination for visitors and, perhaps more importantly, an unsurpassable home for more than a million people.

So much was happening here that I turned my back on a 12-year career in London’s magazine business to launch a title dedicated to Birmingham.

So, where to begin? How about on arrival at Bonehead, just 60 seconds from the new-look New Street station. A beer and chicken spot just off the rejuvenated John Bright Street, Bonehead is furnished with wooden benches, street art and fly posters, and its cooks possess quite a skill for deep-frying bird and dousing it in fiery Nashville sauces or cooling Korean kimchee. I eat alone there with somewhat worrying regularity.

Eight minutes north by foot is Ikon Gallery, the immaculate neo-gothic former Oozells Street Board School. The Japanese cherry blossoms that decorate the square on which it and its exquisite tenant, Yorks Cafe, sit are months from bloom, but the building – which comes complete with a singing lift – brings a Hogwartsian beauty to Brindleyplace. Haroon Mirza’s mind-bending Reality is Somehow What We Expect it to Be is Ikon’s current feature exhibition, on show from now until 24 February 2019.

Ikon doesn’t just stick to its own Grade II-listed walls, but makes a virtue of teaming up with other interesting locations across the city (venue collaboration is something of a Brum tradition). Right now, the Ikon team is working with Medicine Bakery and Gallery to exhibit Procession Banners – the result of artist Lucy Orta’s collaboration with female prisoners at HMP Downview to design 30 banners to mark 100 years since women won the vote. It’s on until 20 January 2019, and you can grab the city’s best cronut from the beautiful little bakery on your way in.

Ikon’s near-neighbour, the Rep, is the longest-established of Britain’s building-based theatre companies and its productions are of the calibre you would expect with that in mind. Head there with the kids to catch award-winning director Liam Steel’s reimagining of The Wizard of Oz, which runs until 13 January; or schedule in a visit for June 2019, when the indomitable Sir Ian McKellen brings his remarkable solo show to the theatre.

The Hippodrome, the UK’s most popular single-auditorium theatre, is home to the Birmingham Royal Ballet, currently performing the Nutcracker to packed-out audiences. If you’re going, stop by at Gaijin for pre or post-show sushi. It’s a restaurant that the Guardian’s own Jay Rayner recently waxed lyrical about, putting at least one nail in the theory that Birmingham has no decent mid-range restaurants. Hit up Harborne Kitchen (try the wagyu lasagne) or the new Nocturnal Animals for similar-priced eats. And of course, for those looking to spend a little more there are plenty of Michelin-starred restaurants: Simpsons and Purnell’s to name a couple.

I pedal every weekday through Cannon Hill park, a space with beauty every bit as arresting as London’s major parks, and it always warms me, even in the frosty months, to see the multicultural mix of people jogging or dog-walking, or simply sitting on a bench and being in Birmingham. My kids love this place, almost as much the new Legoland Discovery Centre, or “Nemo spotting” at the National Sea Life Centre and gooning around with the interactive water features of ThinkTank’s Science Garden.

ThinkTank is part of Birmingham Museums Trust: eight historical venues (including Aston Hall, Sarehole Mill and Soho House) that play contrary to the theory that Birmingham demolishes its most beautiful buildings.
And of course, we have history – an abundance of it. Our town hall has hosted notable speakers such as Joseph Chamberlain, Charles Dickens and Clement Atlee. Continuing its history of diverse content, it hosted the contentious Jordan B Peterson last month, three days before the less contentious Fun DMC, the UK’s only family-friendly block party. Mountaineer Chris Bonnington is in town on 5 December, and the Birmingham Town Hall and Symphony Hall is teaming up with the Hare & Hounds, one of the city’s best pubs and music venues, to host local jazz saxophonist Soweto Kinch, on 6 December. Kinch regularly puts his name to the Flyover Show, an almost annual music, art and dance event that celebrates black culture in Birmingham.

My office is based in the Victorian-era Great Western Arcade. Shoppers regularly wander in looking for the Georgian Piccadilly Arcade, and vice versa. It’s one of Birmingham’s charming mix ups, like not knowing in the 80s which shopping centre was the Pavilions and which one was the Pallasades. Whichever arcade you’re in, you’ll discover independent traders – the best in their respective fields – cutting hair, carving sandwiches and pouring coffee.
The Balti Triangle, a name that should be known globally, seems eye-wateringly overlooked as a tourist destination. Someone’s failure to signpost it, front and centre, from New Street station, really rips my naan bread. It’s the beating heart of Birmingham, which is the beating heart of Britain, and it deserves the sort of visitor numbers that the now American-owned Cadbury World attracts regularly .

Just south of town (and we always call it “town”, never “the city centre”) sits Digbeth, often dubbed “the Shoreditch of Birmingham” (never by a Brummie, though – we refuse to piggyback). Digbeth’s just Digbeth to us, and that’s how we like it. Home to Dig Brew Co, a brewery that admittedly would fit nicely in east London, and the Clean Kilo, the UK’s largest zero-waste supermarket. In October, the Sunday Times called Digbeth the coolest neighbourhood in Britain. Digbeth, greeted the compliment in typical Birmingham style. It gave a wry smile. Shrugged. And moved on.
Tom Cullen is the founder of I Choose Birmingham

For the best value tickets, with no booking fee, visit londonnorthwesternrailway.co.uk

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