When Americans think of Birmingham, England—if they think of it at all—violence comes to mind. In January 2015 a Fox news “expert” erroneously said that everyone in Birmingham was Muslim and that the city was a “no-go” zone for non-Muslims. Add to this the fact that the hit television show Peaky Blinders makes it seem as if the city is run by attractive blue-eyed thugs, and the city suffers from something of a public relations problem.
Even though I’m a born Londoner, my impressions of the city before I first visited in 2017 were colored with a vaguely negative uninformed gloss. To be honest, at the time, I was surprised and relieved that they had an international airport that I could fly to direct from Newark. I certainly could not have told you that the city has more miles of canals than Venice, more trees than Paris, gave us the wonder that is Cadbury’s chocolate, and is responsible (among other things) for the invention of the split-nib fountain pen.
If I was being candid I’d have told you that I was traveling there because I was being paid to. If I had been gambling I’d have placed money against the possibility of returning. I would have lost.
The small nugget of truth lying behind the Fox news story is that the city is “super diverse.” So diverse in fact that, according to a recent study, the city is set to become a “majority minority city” in 2020 when more than half the city’s 1.2 million population will come from non-white British backgrounds. For the traveler, the diverse migration into the city has some notable advantages; in particular when it comes to food. No one travels to Britain for the cuisine, but Birmingham’s Chinese Quarter and Balti Triangle will serve you some of the best Chinese and Indian food in the country. Birmingham is home to the ‘balti’, a kind of lamb or goat curry that is now popular throughout the U.S. or U.K. in Indian restaurants. The Balti is probably from northern Pakistan, but Adil’s of Stoney Lane, Birmingham, have a credible claim to having invented the dish in 1977. Certainly if you enjoy Balti cuisine, Birmingham is worth a look. If spice isn’t for you, you could do worse than stopping by one of the city’s five reasonably priced Michelin-starred restaurants instead.
Though Birmingham doesn’t have the glitz of London, luxury can be found in budget-friendly speakeasy style bars and hotels. Thus, if you prefer to drink your calories, then sipping cocktails at the bar at the art deco Edgbaston Boutique Hotel—a regular winner or finalist of various regional, national and international bartending awards—can be highly recommended. If afternoon tea with champagne is more your style, then the Edwardian tearooms at the Museum of Art will scratch that Downtown Abbey itch. Marvel, as you sit there, at the ease with which lone women in revealing outfits are able to obtain alcohol in a city supposedly run on Sharia Law.
The city’s diverse population isn’t just a boon for tourists. It has made Birmingham something of a medical research powerhouse because research and clinical trials can include representatives of so many different ethnic and racial groups. The University of Birmingham, which counts itself among the world’s top universities (full disclosure: I now teach there, to my 2017-self’s great surprise), boasts some of the most advanced research into bowel, brain and blood cancer treatment in the world and is the largest center for clinical trials in Europe. And if you’re not a white man, you should be glad this research taking place there. If you are and the notion of multi-ethnic drug trials pains you then try a mild over-the-counter analgesic, they were designed with you in mind.
Birmingham is a young city, but ‘young’ is a relative term when you’re talking about Europe. It grew from medieval market town to the “world’s first manufacturing town” during the 18th century. Though the city was bombed during World War II, much of the original architecture has survived including examples from the Georgian, Regency, Victorian and Edwardian periods. There’s even a Jacobean mansion that’s open to the public in the summer and is rumored to be one of the most haunted places in Britain.
If you like the pre-Raphaelites their touch is felt in various niches around the city-center. Birmingham Cathedral is decorated with stained glass windows designed by artist Edward Burne-Jones, and the world’s largest collection of his work is on display at the Birmingham Museum and Art Collection. (You’ll be glad to know that the 21.8 percent of the local population that is Muslim magnanimously allows the 46.1 percent of the population that is Christian to visit the Cathedral).
Though it was once the home of steam engines and industrial manufacture, today Birmingham is a service city; it is home to six universities (making it the largest center of higher education outside of London and, naturally, a city filled with night life), a Symphony Orchestra, Ballet, and a Repertory Theatre. For the intellectuals, the city’s public library has won awards for its design, sporting fans can watch the Commonwealth Games there in 2022.
I am not a fan of tourist traps. When I travel I want to eat, see the history, and take naps. I will make an exception, however, for Cadbury World. It is exactly what you think it is: it houses the original and still functioning Cadbury chocolate factory and what is arguably the world’s sweetest gift shop (don’t @ me Hershey World). On the way there you can enjoy the picturesque suburb of Bournville, which was originally built by the Cadbury family to house workers (houses there are now considerably more expensive), and was once considered the model garden suburb. Cadbury’s chocolate is halal. I know this because some concerned citizens have repeatedly pressed the company to reveal this information. For those who are worried about such matters, I should warn you that the air and water in Birmingham are also halal.
To be truthful, Birmingham is not as gorgeous as Oxford (though it is considerably less crowded and touristy); it has fewer museums and art galleries than the capital; and, unlike Scotland, it can’t compensate you for the lousy British weather with hard liquor. But it’s far from the den of violence or mini-Sharia State that Fox News would have you believe.