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Birmingham: Britain’s Best Kept Secret

A view of a canal

Today's guest blogger, Jill Martin Wrenn, lives in Atlanta (you may remember her last guest-blog post about The Georgia Aquarium). So when she tells people she went to Birmingham, they think she's talking about the city in Alabama and not the one England. But Jill, who lived in London for seven-and-a-half years, is most certainly talking about her recent trip to the British Birmingham — or as the locals call it, Brum. She also writes a blog, Reverse Culture Shock, about readjusting to life in the U.S. after spending so long abroad.

When you think of countries with canals in Europe, you don't always think of Britain. At least I didn't. But Birmingham, the country's second largest city, has more than 100 miles of them — that's more than Venice.

And according to Birmingham's tourism office, the city has more trees than Paris. (I didn’t count them, so I’ll have to take their word for it).

I was impressed by how wide and walkable the streets flanking the canals were. When my family and I went to Birmingham on a recent wintry day, we were able to walk alongside and over the water, thanks to the copious bridges and walkways.

There are plenty of pubs and restaurants alongside the canals, so you can drink in the sights.

A windy day It was a rainy, windy day in late November when we visited. And because we were traveling with two toddlers, we spent less time watching the water and more time seeking shelter (no one would suggest visiting any UK city for the weather).

But there were plenty of places to duck into when the drizzle began. We went to Nando's, the quick, tasty, family-friendly chicken chain that's located in the Birmingham Central Library complex. The Library is undergoing a massive renovation, so it will look as modern and glossy as most other parts of the city.

My husband grew up just outside of Birmingham, and remembers when it earned its reputation as a grim, gritty place.

It spawned some eclectic musical talents, though, like Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, as well as Steve Winwood and Ozzy Osbourne. The Black Sabbath singer turned reality star was inducted into Birmingham's version of Hollywood's Walk of Fame — the Walk of Stars — in 2007.

Birmingham Town Hall1

Now, the city now has a similar feel to London: it's got bustle, diversity, and heavy pedestrian traffic. But in many ways, it's more accessible. We visited the National Sea Life Centre, the Central Library and a Christmas market, without having to wait in a queue.

And it's a great blend of the old and new. The walkways are modern; so are the storefronts that line the canals. But Birmingham City Council House (pictured right), which was built in 1879, offers a bit of history to the skyline — and reminds you that you're in Europe.

Birmingham is relatively easy to visit. It's in the middle of an extensive rail network, has a major airport nearby, and motorway access. There are lots of other spots to see in the region, too: Shakespeare's hometown, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwick Castle, and Cadbury World are all short drives away.

So if you're in the neighborhood, or even if you're not, Birmingham is worth a visit.

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6 Responses to Birmingham: Britain’s Best Kept Secret

  1. Caitlin @ Roaming Tales
    Twitter: Niltiac
    January 14, 2010 at 1:17 am #

    I acutally did know that Birmingham has more canals than Venice – the Brummies don’t let you forget it when you go there. It’s somewhat missing the point to focus on the number of canals though! And while it’s not that bad, I can’t say it’s top of the list of must-go places in the UK.

  2. Caitlin @ Roaming Tales
    Twitter: Niltiac
    January 14, 2010 at 1:18 am #

    PS No way does it have a “similar feel” to London. Sure, pop in if you’re in the region, but really – don’t go out of your way! That’s just my opinion of course. :-)

  3. Alan Webb January 16, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    Birmingham is a lovely and interesting place to visit and i reccommend anybody to visit.

  4. jen laceda January 16, 2010 at 11:23 pm #

    You’ve convinced me that Birmingham is worth visiting!

  5. Felicity January 17, 2010 at 12:24 pm #

    You’ve shown me another side to Birmingham and I’m British!

  6. Emily @ Maiden Voyage January 17, 2010 at 1:53 pm #

    Birmingham sounds wonderful! I’ve been to London and several other English cities, and while I have heard of Birmingham, I didn’t know anything about it. I am really surprised to hear that they have so many canals! It looks beautiful — I need to check it out next time.

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