Sara Turner discovers charming waterways, balti curries and a hoard of gold in the West Midlands city
Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
Start at Chamberlain Square, dominated by the Palladian-inspired Town Hall and the fussier Council House. This corner of industrial-era splendour, surrounded on three sides by dual carriageways and concrete, offers a reminder of the commercial powerhouse Birmingham was in the age of steam and the wealth it brought to the area.
In the square is the entrance to the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (BMAG), which has a superb collection of art by the Pre-Raphaelites, numbering some 2,000 pieces. It also has more contemporary work on show, such as Francis Bacon’s Figures in a Landscape. The Staffordshire Hoard exhibition, the largest stash of Anglo-Saxon gold treasure ever found, moved to a new gallery at the end of July, with never before seen items now on display.
BMAG is undergoing an extensive refurbishment that is due to be finished by early 2013, so the top floor is out of bounds. Entry is free. Open Mon-Thurs and Sat 10am-5pm, Fri from 10.30am, Sun from 12.30pm. Tel +44 (0)121 3032 834; bmag.org.uk/birmingham-museum
Museum of the Jewellery Quarter
Birmingham is a primary manufacturing centre of jewellery – some estimates say nearly 40 per cent of all British-made jewellery comes from here. To see this industry in action and pick up some bargain bling, visit the Jewellery Quarter. It’s about a 20-minute walk – head north from Chamberlain Square to Summer Row, on to Parade, Sand Pits and then up Newhall Hill.
The Museum of Jewellery is in the heart of the area. It has three galleries, one of which has an interesting exhibit on the various materials the craftsmen use in their work – from coral to kingfisher feathers. The real draw, however, is the original factory, which you need to be on a guided tour to see – it takes an hour and offers a rare insight into the industry. The Smith and Pepper wholesale factory remains exactly as it was when it closed for business in 1981, right down to a tub of Marmite left behind and a wall of 1,000 stamp designs. Entry is free. Open Tues-Sat 10.30am-4pm (last tour 2.30pm). 75-79 Vyse Street; bmag.org.uk/museum-of-the-jewellery-quarter
Canal boat ride
Birmingham has been called the Venice of Britain – more for the sheer amount of water that runs through it than its architecture, granted – but the peaceful canals with hanging baskets of flowers are genuinely charming. When they were first built, the waterways were busy with horses pulling boats along and people loading them up with cargo. The first to be constructed, in 1772, was to Wolverhampton, a busy coal route. Previously served by horses and carts on bumpy tracks, the advent of the canal made the moving of coal so easy that the price dropped by half almost overnight.
The best way to see the canals is from the water, and Sherborne Wharf runs one-hour trips four times a day, leaving at 11.30am, 1pm, 2.30pm and 4pm (daily Easter to October, weekends only in winter). The trip starts outside Symphony Hall and takes you around abandoned wharves, now earmarked for development, to the pretty Gas Street Basin. Drinks and snacks are available on board, and the company also has boats for day hire or for corporate events. Tickets cost £6.50. International Convention Centre Quayside; tel +44 (0)121 4556 163; sherbornewharf.co.uk
If you miss the start of a tour, you could always pass the time exploring Brindleyplace, with its cafés, restaurants and bars, and the Ikon Gallery (see next stop).
This contemporary art gallery, located in the Brindleyplace development, hosts temporary exhibitions of work by pioneering artists. The most recent show, “This Could Happen to You”, presents a retrospective of Ikon’s exhibitions from the seventies, while a new display (Sept 22 to Nov 14) is of woodblock prints by 19th-century Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro.
The show is being curated by artist Julian Opie – known for designing the cover of Blur’s Best Of compilation – and Timothy Clark, head of the Japanese section at the British Museum. Considered to be one of the masters of woodblock printing, Utamaro is particularly known for his studies of beautiful women, or bijinga.
Over the same period, there will be an exhibition of furniture and drawings by the minimalist designer Donald Judd. Ikon also has a shop selling art books, literature by local novelists, including The Rotters’ Club by Jonathan Coe, and limited edition prints. Entry is free. Open Tues-Sun 11am-6pm. 1 Oozells Square; tel +44 (0)121 248 0708; ikon-gallery.co.uk
Wander back to BMAG and down New Street for a spot of shopping at the Bullring. The city’s historic market centre since the 12th century, in the 1950s it was home to the largest Woolworths of its time, and the following decade the inaugural Bullring shopping centre opened. It was one of the first self-contained malls in the UK, and one of the biggest outside the US.
A new, innovatively designed centre opened in 2003 – Selfridges is housed in the distinctive “bubble-wrap” section. Other brands include Apple, Ben Sherman, DKNY Jeans, Molton Brown and North Face. Open Mon-Fri 9.30am-8pm, Sat 9am-8pm, Sun 11am-5pm; bullring.co.uk
Check out St Martin in the Bullring church, which dates from 1873, although the previous one stood on the site since the 13th century. Nearby markets sell fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, meat and fish.
The Balti Triangle
Birmingham is the home of the balti curry. Much disagreement surrounds which restaurant was the first to serve the dish and whether it originated in India or Pakistan, but it has become so popular here that an area south of the centre has become known as the Balti Triangle – a taxi will cost less than £10.
Established in 1977, Adil’s is one of the eateries with a claim to “first balti” status, and serves up a delicious balti chicken bhindi for £5.80. The best way to eat it is with naan bread rather than rice – try a tandoori garlic naan for great flavour. The original Adil’s is being renovated, due for completion early next year, so it is temporarily housed at 353-355 Ladypool Road, Balsall Heath. Bring your own alcohol. Tel +44 (0)121 4490 335; adilbalti.co.uk; baltitriangle.com
A good stop for a caffeine pick-me-up is the Floating Coffee Company, housed in a canal boat called George moored opposite the Sherborne Wharf boat tour departure point.