Updated: Dec 17, 2020
A couple weeks ago in late September would mark my 5 year anniversary while on exchange to the University of Birmingham in England, reminding me of a time when I was truly happy. Every time that I think about travel, I feel strong emotions of nostalgia because I don’t know when I will ever get that opportunity again, and when I do, I know that I will be in a different place in my life and that emotions I feel will be a bit different. When I was 20, I went on exchange as care-free 20 year who sought to explore,love, and learn openly, without any restrictions or personal baggage.When I was on exchange, I focused mostly on learning and exploring the cities and people that I didn’t have enough time to blog about the things that I was exposed to : the culture, the people, the food, the history, and most of all- the amazing sights of the amazing cities that I encountered to my life.
In the article, I want to share my experience and recommendations for travelling after the pandemic to places that you might find hidden, or might not have know about. Birmingham is one of those cities that is quite hidden from the rest of the better known cities in the UK, such Manchester or Leeds, but its history, culture and industrial and engineering ingenuity is quite a lot to marvel at. Once known as the “City Of A Thousand Trades," Birmingham’s growth model is focused on moving forward through engineering and design. When I first arrived in Birmingham and England in particular, I didn’t quite know what I was expecting in terms of culture and norms. But over time, I began to appreciate it’s emphasis on open spaces, winding canals, combined with modern architecture that seeks to incorporate both history and modern ingenuity into a co-existing sphere coupled with a distinct British capacity of housewarming new guests.
Birmingham is known as the second largest city in England, located about 110m northwest of London, and is famous today for it’s expansive train network concentrated at Birmingham High Street - Grand Central Station, connecting the city of Birmingham to the rest of England. It rose to prominence in the late 18th century as an industrial powerhouse at the centre of the Industrial Revolution and was home to engineers such as James Watt, the inventor of the modern steam engine. After the Second World War, lot of its architecture was destroyed but it quickly rebuilt itself with many modern and diversified buildings you can now see in the Georgian-style inspired buildings .Today, its well diversified infrastructure mix focuses on both forward-thinking design and concentration of trades in the diversity of its industrial base -focusing on metal and engineering.
Must See Attractions
During my time in Birmingham, I spent quite of time within the bounds of the University of Birmingham of campus, however I did take time to explore the wonderful open spaces, diverse arts and culture of the city.
The University of Birmingham is a must see attraction in the district of Edgbaston, Birmingham encompassing a large area surrounding the famous Red Joe clock tower. There are various attractions on campus, including the Winterbourne House and Garden, the famous Old Joe clock, and The Barber Institute of Fine Arts among others. The various residences at the University of Birmingham all have a distinct design, from older buildings such as Ashton Hall, to new residences such as Chamberlain and Victoria Hall. Canals and even a small lake lie in the perimeter of the University of Birmingham, and the University even has its own train station. Many times I would jog or walk around the perimeter of the university, and be amazed at the scenery of the canals and waterways so close to campus. Recently, the campus has completed several projects with an emphasis on green space, including the state-of the art library, a dedicated student hub and a world-class sports hub.
No visit to Birmingham would be complete without visiting the Georgian-inspired Victoria Square.Located just several blocks from the train station at New Street, Victoria Square is a product of Victorian architecture that lies in the City Centre of Birmingham. Named after Queen Victoria, this public square houses the Grand Council House, and is seen as the central point of the city. Known for it’s famous German Christmas Market during Christmas, at this special time Victoria Square and the surrounding Birmingham City centre is transformed into a wonderful winter wonderland offering treats, german beer, and other local delicacies.
3. Birmingham Library
The Library of Birmingham is one of the signature cornerstone projects of the City of Birmingham’s investment in Arts and Culture in the city. It hosts one of the largest libraries in the UK, and had opened just for 2 years when I visited in 2015.The Library of Birmingham provides a outstanding showcase for Birmingham's internationally important collections of its history with state-of the art facilities including a modern gallery space,flexible studio theatre and an outdoor amphitheatre, emphasizing it’s pioneering design and dedication to minimalism in modern architecture.
3.National Sea Life Centre
The National Sea Life Centre is located in the district of Brindley Place, a romantic canal-side district with tree-lined squares, international cuisine, and friendly atmosphere that has over 60 displays of freshwater and marine life. A great educational journey for families with kids, the Sea Life Centre achieves its goal of successfully transporting viewers into an underwater discovery channel meant to educate and inspire.Built around the historic canals of the city, the district of BrindleyPlace has over 27 bars and is known for hosting the Birmingham Film Festival. I enjoyed the lovely atmosphere of BrindleySpace, open dining options, and a wide selection of international cuisine options. Come here for the food, and leave with a sense of greater appreciation for history, nature and scientific endeavour.
The Bullring is probably one of the most recognizable locations in Birmingham, with 1,000,000 square feet and home to both local and contemporary designers. I loved shopping at the expansive 2-story Selfridges on the first floor and dining at the small creative restaurants both inside and outside the mall. When you exit the mall, there is a culinary street called Spiceal Street, home to popular eateries such as Jamie’s Italian, Chaophraraya Thai Restaurant and many others. Also quite a close walk from the Bullring is the city’s Chinatown, which hosts a unique assortment of classical Chinese food. The Bullring’s convenient location to Grand Central Station also makes it a popular shopping destination for many travellers in the UK from even far away as Scotland.
5. Black Country Living Museum
The Black Country Living Museum is a wonderful living testament to the mining culture of Birmingham’s industrial revolution. A make-shift town is reconstructed to reflect the living society of the late 18th century miners with barber shops and various local shops that catered to the daily needs of the miners. Don’t forget to take the narrow boat into an animated canal of lights and stories told by your tour guide, reminiscent of the actual experiences of miners when they headed into mining expeditions.Families and everyone would be delighted to see the performances by some of the staff to reflect the culture norms of such a particular age.
A British City by nature, Birmingham encompasses conventional British tradition, however is surrounded by a large asian and east asian population, which incorporate their cultural influences into society, adding to Birmingham’s cultural influence. The people of Birmingham are known to have a regional dialect of English known as the Brummie Dialect, which distinguishes it from many of the other regional dialects in England. One cultural difference that caught me by surprise was the way that the supermarket attendant at Tesco would call someone darling, or other pet names, which I slowly became accustomed too. In terms of fashion,a classic trench coat is popular staple that one should have in England, known for its convenience and style over the ages.
Insider Tips and Recommendations
1. The neighbourhood of Selly Oak is very good for fried chicken and East Indian Curry and also serves as a great hangover hangout for college students after coming back from nightlife venues in the city centre.
2. Hidden Canals and Waterways
Birmingham is not particularly known for it’s canals as Venice is, but it actually has more canals than Venice, a byproduct of the Industrial Era. For example, the campus area surrounding the University of Birmingham as I walked from Victoria Hall, where I lived to the residences surrounding the Vale and Chamberlain consisted of miles of scenery, lakes, and canals. The region where the National Sea Life Centre is located is also located near a pretty canal. The canals are also a great way to see Birmingham by boat, which one can consider when touring the city.
3. Use Grand Central Station as your travelling start point and you can easily travel to many places that are reachable by train in less than a couple hours. The city of Birmingham’s central location offers it many luxuries in terms of time and convenience. For example, London is only around an hour away, and Scotland is a couple hours north by train. If your under the age of 25, be sure to look for a student travel train pass discount which allows you to travel to many locations during a certain range.
4. Birmingham City Centre hosts a lot of festivals including St.Patricks Day, Octoberfest, and sometimes the entire down city centre is converted into an festival playground, which is the case during the German Christmas festival in December where there is even an ice skating rink and a Ferris Wheel located on site.
Chelsea: Stars 4.5/5
Although I may be biased for giving this review, I do so with having done my research, living in the city for over half a year, and by understanding the people and the culture to a certain extent. A city will lose its pride and dominance if it doesn’t keep reinventing itself and moving forward. The city of Birmingham has long adopted and adjusted to embracing change, from it’s focus on trade and engineering developments during the Industrial Revolution, to embracing green spaces and modern approaches in the 21st century.
Many events have dramatically changed the landscape in Birmingham since the last 5 years - from the vote on Brexit, to the refugee migration situation, to changing intergovernmental guidelines - since I studied in Birmingham,but despite the changes, I’m happy to see that new architecture and investments in infrastructure, green technology, and design with an enlightened focus on preserving Birmingham’s rich history factor into the new expansion. Keeping updated on Instagram and other social media channels helps me keep this memory alive, for one day I hope to visit and see all the familiar places that I once went to — and to marvel at the new infrastructure and see Birmingham’s transition over time, even as I am no longer that care-free soul I once was — as a lasting testament to my youth.