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Birmingham, England: City of Industry, Culture and Public Squares

Birmingham, the second largest city in England, has an enjoyable downtown area with architectually significant buildings and extensive pedestrianized areas. The city has a long history as an industrial center as well as a place of culture, and you are constantly reminded of these facts as you stroll the city center’s broad streets and squares.

At its heart is Centenary Square, which was given this name in 1989 to mark 100 years since Birmingham achieved city status. This huge open space is home to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, a building that was opened in 1971 and extended in 1991, and can seat hundreds of people. The theater company itself is older, having been around since 1913, and enjoys a high international reputation.

The International Convention Centre stands on the same square. Opened in 1991, it has hosted thousands of conferences and events, including a G8 summit in 1998. It has distinctive blue exterior windows and an open-plan interior with uncovered walkways connecting its various halls.

Another large square, Chamberlain Square, is slightly further east. It’s named after Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), a politician and businessman who spent many years in the city, running a screw-making company and serving as city councilor and mayor. A neo-Gothic structure standing on the square is a memorial to him, and was erected in 1880. Chamberlain himself was present at its inauguration. On one side of the square is Birmingham’s Central Library. It has a wide series of steps in front of it, on which you can sit and watch the world go by.

On nearby Victoria Square is Birmingham Town Hall. It is modeled on a Roman temple and has been here since the 1830s. Despite its name, it is not a venue for government meetings but has always served as an entertainment venue. Charles Dickens gave readings of his works here, some of Mendelssohn’s compositions were premiered here, and the hall has seen concerts by The Beatles and Bob Dylan. It has a famous 6,000-pipe organ which is as old as the hall itself.

An even grander building on Victoria Square is Birmingham City Council House, where the council and mayor do their work. Erected in 1879, it’s a neo-classical building that looks like a royal palace. Fountains and statues adorn its front staircase, and there is a mosaic above the main entrance. There is even a museum and art gallery built into the same construction, together with a mighty clock tower nicknamed Big Brum.
Extending east from Victoria Square is New Street, a major shopping thoroughfare that is closed off to vehicles. Clothes, sporting goods and books are just a few of the things that can be found in the numerous stores on this half-mile street. As if that weren’t enough, get to its eastern end and you reach the Bull Ring, one of the biggest and busiest shopping centers in the UK.

For a glimpse of the older Birmingham, head for the canals that start in the western part of the city center. Now rather quiet and mostly frequented by pleasure-trippers in painted barges, in the 19th century these canals were an essential backbone of industry, ferrying goods and materials between Birmingham and other towns in the area and throughout Britain.

A little south from the city center, in the suburb of Edgbaston, is the University of Birmingham, one of the UK’s leading academic establishments. It has attractive red brick buildings, several topped with domes, arranged around a clock tower known as Old Joe – another tribute to Joseph Chamberlain. Part of the university complex is an Art Deco building that houses the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, an outstanding art museum that has works by Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rembrandt.

There are at least two foods that need to be tasted during a visit to Birmingham. Balti is a type of curry prepared in a flat-bottomed wok, served since the 80s in restaurants run by Pakistani and Indian immigrants. Though it resembles dishes from their native cuisines, the immigrants invented this particular delicacy right here in Birmingham.

And then there is the world-famous Cadbury’s chocolate, made since the 19th century in Bournville, a southern suburb. The company runs a museum right by its factory, named Cadbury World, where you can learn about the history of chocolate and the Cadbury business. From several streets away, you can smell the delicious, delightful aroma of fine chocolate in the Birmingham air.

Written by and Photos by David Hill for

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