Historic homes and exciting discoveries
Maintaining its position as the country’s fourth most visited city for the tenth consecutive year, in 2017, Birmingham welcomed the highest number of visitors on record, with tourist numbers reaching 41.8 million, and tourism revenue hitting an all-time high of £7.1 billion, a nine per cent increase on 2016. You can understand why. Whether you have a few days to fill or just a couple of hours, there’s plenty in and around Birmingham to keep you occupied soaking up the culture, exploring the past or just seeing the sights.
If old buildings are you thing, then there’s Blakesley Hall in Yardley, which dates from 1590, is a unique example of the timber-framed buildings once common in the West Midlands while Aston Hall (in Aston, obviously) was constructed between 1618 and 1635 for Sir Thomas Holte, and was one of the last great Jacobean mansions to be built. Fully restored to its original grandeur, the Great Stairs still bearing the cannon ball marks from Cromwell’s siege during the English Civil War.
During the Industrial Revolution, thousands of cheap back-to-back houses were built around courtyards to provide homes for the workers. Only three that have survived and, as the Birmingham Back To Backs, they now recreate life across four different periods between 1840 and 1977, telling the stories of those who lived and worked here. The industrial past, present and future come together in family-friendly state-of-the-art science museum Thinktank at Millennium Point.
Housing a purpose-built digital Planetarium, as well as a marvellous nostalgic collection of Brum memorabilia, themed galleries take visitors on a fascinating technological journey from the early days of steam engines to mankind’s ventures into space. We Made It features more than 20 interactive manufacturing-themed exhibits demonstrating how and why Birmingham became known as ‘the workshop of the world’ while in Marine Worlds Gallery you can discover the Thinktank Ichthyosaur, an almost 200 million-year-old giant sea monster from the time of the dinosaurs, as well as explore other animals from the past and present that have adapted to life in the sea, including the walrus, penguins and prehistoric marine crocodiles. There’s also special display dedicated to celebrate the iconic Spitfire. At the entrance to the building you’ll find the Science Garden, the only project of its type in the UK, which is divided into three zones, Energise, Mechanise and Mobilise, and features such specially designed features as the first ever logic-defying square wheeled people wagon, a giant weighing station and a ‘pulley me up’ exhibit.
If old buildings are you thing, then there’s Blakesley Hall in Yardley, which dates from 1590, is a unique example of the timber-framed buildings once common in the West Midlands while Aston Hall (in Aston, obviously) was constructed between 1618 and 1635 for Sir Thomas Holte
Cadbury World or Coffin Works
Adjoining Millennium Point is Eastside City Park, Birmingham’s first new City Centre Park in 130 years and the largest single piece of public land in Birmingham City Centre. Featuring 310 trees, lawns, public squares and a canal feature the park also incorporates a Science Garden featuring 14 interactive science exhibits designed to encourage children under seven and their families to explore science while having fun playing outdoors.
Head out towards Hockley and you’ll find yourself in the Jewellery Quarter, which, dating back some 250 years, is a designated conservation area with over 200 listed buildings and remains today Europe’s largest concentration of businesses involved in the jewellery trade, producing 40 per cent of all the jewellery made in the UK. You can trace its history in the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, former winner of Visit England’s prestigious ‘Best Told Story’ accolade, but the area has more to offer than gold, silver and fine gems, for example, the celebrated Pen Museum. That’s something to write home about!
If your tastes run to the slightly macabre, there’s also the nearby Coffin Works offering a historical tour of a Victorian to 1960s factory that made shrouds and coffin accessories, including the fittings for the funerals of Joseph Chamberlain, Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother. Birmingham is, of course, the home of Cadbury, now owned by Mondelez International. On the same site as the factory, Cadbury World traces the origin of chocolate in the Aztec rainforests through to the birth of Cadbury in Victorian England, audio visual presentations telling how Cadbury grew from a small shop to a giant company while The Bournville Experience details the philanthropic thinking that led to the creation of the Bournville workers village. It even has the original pestle and mortar John Cadbury used to create Cadbury drinking chocolate in 1824.
One of the most recent attractions is the Cadbury World 4D Chocolate Adventure, a cinema experience, complete with motion seats, that plunges you (not literally!) into a bowl of liquid Cadbury Dairy Milk and into the skies in a Cadbury Creme Egg airship piloted by the Caramel Bunny! While in Bournville, take a look at Selly Manor. First mentioned in court rolls of 1327, it’s a fine example of oak beam construction and was moved here from its original location in 1907 by George Cadbury. In its grounds also stands Minworth Greaves, a medieval hall house that was also saved for the nation by the Cadbury family.
One of the most recent attractions is the Cadbury World 4D Chocolate Adventure, a cinema experience, complete with motion seats, that plunges you (not literally!) into a bowl of liquid Cadbury Dairy Milk and into the skies in a Cadbury Creme Egg airship piloted by the Caramel Bunny!
Activities for all the family
If you’re big kid (and have some smaller versions in tow as an excuse), you’ll want to visit the recently opened LEGO Discovery Centre at Arena Birmingham, featuring 4D Lego cinema, Miniland (built with over 1.5 million bricks) and the Kingdom Quest ride. Situated opposite in Brindleyplace, The National Sea Life Centre is one of the West Midlands’ best-loved days out, where the fascinating marine life includes giant turtles, seahorses, blacktip reef sharks, nurse sharks and a two-metre bowmouth guitar shark, a species that’s part ray, part shark, as well as jelly invaders, which features five fascinating types of jellyfish, a species that is older than the dinosaurs! Following the opening of the Penguin Ice Adventure, inhabited by a colony of Gentoo penguins, a recent addition is the Octopus Hideout, home to Beverley, a giant pacific octopus, one of the smartest sea creatures in the animal kingdom and a master of disguise, although it has a head the size of an adult’s hand, because they have no bones they can fit through a hole the size of a £1 coin!
Still on a nature theme, flora and fauna devotees will find much to explore amid the tranquillity of the Botanical Gardens, founded in 1829, in Edgbaston, with its Tropical House (built in 1852 to house the famous tropical water lily, Victoria amazonica and rebuilt in the early 1990s), cactus gardens, woodland walk and butterfly house. Elsewhere, both the Birmingham Wildlife Conservation Park, with its red pandas, lemurs, reptiles, meerkats, otters, birds and wallabies, and neighbouring Cannon Hill Park are great places to relax on those rare sunny days.
If you happen to be a Tolkien devotee, you can’t come to Birmingham and not visit Sarehole Mill in Hall Green, an inspiration for both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, featuring displays based on the author’s childhood. The Mill is also the only working survivor of Birmingham’s many mills.
The National Sea Life Centre is one of the West Midlands’ best-loved days out, where the fascinating marine life includes giant turtles, seahorses, blacktip reef sharks, nurse sharks and a two-metre bowmouth guitar shark
Hidden treasures and Peaky Blinders
One of the city’s hidden treasures, Winterbourne House & Garden, near Birmingham University. Built for John Nettlefold, a pioneer of early housing reform in Birmingham, it is one of the best surviving examples of an Edwardian Arts and Crafts suburban villa garden. Set within seven acres of botanic gardens, it’s home to over 6,000 plant species and includes a woodland walk, hazelnut tunnel, and a 1930s Japanese bridge. It also houses several 19th-century printing presses with demonstrations given on Fridays.
There are plenty of different tours if you want to be guided round, one of the most popular, mostly among the men, being the Brewery Tour. Led by experts in local history, professional brewers and ale connoisseurs, it tells the stories behind some of Birmingham’s best real ale brewers including Aston Brewing Company, Two Towers Brewery, Edmunds Brewhouse, Froth Blowers Brewing Company, Digbeth Brewing Company and Moseley Beer Company. The Real Ale Brewery Tours also include the Hockley Loop Real Ale Trail, where you get to taste some of the country’s finest ales.
Other tours include Birmingham ghost walks, murder walks and haunted heritage tour, canal tours and the City Of A Thousand Trades tour around the Jewellery Quarter. You can also get to take a look behind the scenes at BBC Birmingham or even have a go at making your very own radio play. For some indoor fun, and lots of head-scratching, give yourself an hour at Escape Live in Henrietta Street where, in teams of between two and six, you have to escape from a locked room with everyone working together to find the clues and solve the puzzles!
And, finally, let us not forget the television sensation that is Peaky Blinders. Having captured the imagination of viewers, the series, set in Birmingham during the Industrial Revolution, has become a tourist magnet, to which end it has its very own Peaky Tours, a walking tour around Digbeth in collaboration with Birmingham historian Carl Chinn. That pretty much caps everything!
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