Essential Birmingham and Leicester: What to See, Eat, Drink and Do in England’s MidlandsBy Will Hawkes
England is traditionally divided between south and north, but there’s something just as interesting in between.
The Midlands, a huge swath of the country that encompasses Birmingham, Leicester and a host of other significant towns and cities, is known for its music (heavy metal, in the form of Black Sabbath and others, was born here, for example), food and down-to-earth working-class culture. It’s the heart of England.
If you spend longer than 20 minutes in Birmingham, you’ll be told that it has more miles of canal than Venice. The center of this network is the Gas Street Basin Canal, which is now home to a variety of restaurants and bars.
One of the city’s most interesting neighborhoods is Bournville, which is based around the original Cadbury factory. The area was developed by the Cadbury family as a model village in the late 19th century, and much of its Victorian charm remains.
Birmingham, the first city of the Industrial Revolution, has been remodeled a few times since World War II, but parts of its industrial heritage remain. Among them is Digbeth, a charismatic neighborhood just southeast of the city center. The jewel in its crown is the Custard Factory, a collection of post-industrial spaces now inhabited by independent shops, restaurants, bakeries and small businesses.
Another place where Birmingham’s past lives on is in the Jewellery Quarter, to the northwest of the city center. This fascinating, historic neighborhood contains Europe’s largest concentration of jewelry businesses.
Birmingham is famous for Balti, a type of curry made using a stir-fry technique and served in a metal dish. The city is full of Balti houses, as they’re known, with the greatest concentration in a southern neighborhood, Sparkhill, that is often referred to as the Balti Triangle. Try any of the longstanding local spots, you won’t be disappointed.
Street-food has taken off in Birmingham in recent years, particularly the Digbeth Dining Club. Open from Thursday to Sunday, it offers everything from jerk chicken to French-style crepes.
Moseley is Birmingham’s most bohemian neighborhood, with plenty of good pubs. Perhaps the best is the Prince of Wales, which was once a favorite of “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s been modernized since then, but it’s still a great place for beer and atmosphere.
A 10-minute walk from the city center, the Golden Mile offers a taste of the subcontinent, with dozens of traditional Indian jewelry shops and restaurants. It’s at its best during Diwali, when the streets fill up with life and a huge illuminated Ferris wheel offers dramatic views across the city.
Belvoir Castle is one of the U.K.’s most dramatic, being situated on the peak of a hill overlooking the Vale of Belvoir. Once occupied by a Norman castle, the site is now home to an elegant 19th-century structure built in the Gothic Revival style.
With six interactive galleries, the U.K.’s largest planetarium and a unique 3D SIM ride, the National Space Centre is unmissable for anyone interested in space science and astronomy. The highlight is perhaps the 138-foot-high Rocket Tower, which contains the Blue Streak and Thor-Able rockets.
Leicester Cathedral hit the British headlines in 2015 when the remains of King Richard III — discovered under a Leicester parking lot in 2012 — were reinterred here. The building itself dates back to the 11th century.
The country around Leicester is rich with edible treats, both traditional and modern. For the former, head for Melton Mowbray, home of Britain’s most famous pork pies and the Tuxford & Tebbutt creamery, one of only six makers of Stilton cheese. The Michelin-starred John’s House has a similar passion for local produce, with most of the ingredients sourced from the area.
The West End Brewery offers excellent beer brewed on the premises, including some of the U.K.’s best craft beer, in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere.
33 Cank Street will suit those who are looking for cocktails with a side of live jazz or blues.