Join me as I fall in love with Birmingham's best winter offerings: the Christmas market and the canal side cafés, and find my preconceptions of Birmingham to be wholly incorrect!
I don't know about you, but Birmingham has never really featured on my top ten list of places to visit. While I've heard good things about the Bullring and have heard a lot about the recent regeneration of the city as a whole, I didn't exactly have it marked as the perfect spot for a romantic mini-break. Nonetheless, one budget-hotel sale later, I was on the train eager to see what Birmingham had to offer.
We stayed in the Campanile, which is slightly outside the centre of the city. It's a wonderful budget option, allowing you to walk into the city centre in about twenty minutes or take a taxi costing about £5. It's not the most luxurious place but the rooms are reasonably sized, the beds comfortable, the en suites clean and the staff are friendly enough. There are conference facilities, a bar and a restaurant on site, all of which received good reviews, although unfortunately we didn't manage to sample them.
The most pleasant way to make your way into Birmingham is to find your way on to the canal path and follow it into the city at a leisurely pace. There are strategically placed maps, if you find yourself walking in the wrong direction (although I'm sure most of you have a better sense of direction than us!) and you'll encounter a surprisingly peaceful and scenic walk into the centre.
On arrival into the city centre, it might be time to stop for a cup of tea or some lunch. The Bullring is packed with most of the big chain cafés and restaurants and is probably the most convenient place to stop. Café Rouge is a nice place to escape from the chaos, managing to maintain a peaceful and sophisticated atmosphere despite its central location (Bullring Upper Mall West, Birmingham, West Midlands, B5 4BG; 01216 161463).
From there, embark on your adventure in the Bullring. I'd advise you to find a leaflet containing a map (or print one online at www.bullring.co.uk) and make a plan of action, as this place really is huge! When you've exhausted all that these shops have to offer, why not wander into the indoor and outdoor markets on Edgbaston Street? Here, you'll find something of a more traditional approach to shopping and you might just pick up a few bargains!
When hunger strikes once more, head on to New Street to explore what the Frankfurt Christmas Market has to offer (www.birmingham.gov.uk/frankfurtchristmasmarket). Reported to be the largest German market outside of Germany and Austria, it really is an impressive sight. Just try to control your appetite amidst the delicious aromas of mulled wine, gingerbread and candied almonds and save yourself for Victoria Square, where the party gets into full swing! There's a carousel and a helter-skelter, alongside a German beer hall and various 'bars' set up to sell German beer and mulled wine. The roasted ham and the burgers come highly recommended although, personally, I'd prefer to fill up on handmade chocolates (the apple pie flavoured one really tastes like apple pie!), cakes and sugared almonds! The square is a lovely place to while away an evening. There's enough to keep the kids entertained and the variety of wintery alcoholic drinks available should keep the adults happy too!
In the morning, take another leisurely stroll into the city or cheat, as we did, and take a taxi for just £5. You'll need all the energy you can gather to conquer Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Chamberlain Square, Birmingham, B3 3DH; 0121 303 2834; www.bmag.org.uk). It's free to explore and is a lovely way to spend a morning. In fact, you could probably spend all day there - the museum is MUCH larger than you can possibly tell from the outside. There are traditional displays of pottery, jewellery, sculpture and paintings, alongside interactive exhibitions for the kids (and young at heart!) and informative social history sections about the local area. After spending the day there yesterday, you may be eager to hear the history of the Bullring and BMAG does not disappoint. There's an interactive exhibition with lots of interesting information, alongside games, quizzes and opportunities for dressing up.
Now that you have worked up an appetite, head over to the canal side Broad Street area and find your way to my favourite spot in the whole of Birmingham, the Canalside Café (35 Worcester Bar, Gas St, Birmingham, B1 2JU; 0121 248 7979). While I have done my best, the wonderfully cosy atmosphere is hard to capture on film and it is difficult to find words to describe this delightful little establishment. The staff are friendly and helpful, the venue is small, quaint, warm and comfortable and the food is just declicious. Stumble across this café on a rainy November afternoon and you'll struggle to leave. Try the vegetable soup to warm up, or maybe the nachos. The cakes are great too! The menu is quite limited but the dishes it does offer are guaranteed to be homemade and tasty. This café is a perfect example of the old saying that it's quality not quantity that matters and it's definitely worthy of a visit.
If you have managed to tear yourself away from the Canalside Café, take a wander along the canal itself and consider a canal cruise (www.shernornewharf.co.uk). Alternatively, wander along to the Jewellery Quarter (www.jewellery-quarter.net) and dream about how you'll spend your lottery millions....one day! It is a fairly long walk but is accessible by bus if you take No. 8 Inner Circle City Route and get off at Ickneild Street.
In the evening, head back to the Broad Street area and choose a spot for your evening meal and some drinks. The Birmingham Central Travelodge is ideally located to explore this area, so would be another good budget option, particularly if there is a sale on! There are lots of the reasonably priced chain restaurants in this area, especially cheap if you can find a money-saving voucher online before you go! The Pizza Express is very nicely located (1 The Waters Edge, Birmingham, West Midlands, B1 2HL; 0121 643 2500) and the nearby Pitcher & Piano is great for drinks afterwards (Brindley Place, Birmingham, B1; 0121 643 0214). Don't be put off by the proliferation of chain bars and restaurants, this really is a beautiful area to spend the evening.
For us, the end of our evening was the end of our break in Birmingham but for those there for a longer visit or with a slightly higher budget, visit Millennium Point (www.millenniumpoint.org.uk) or the Bodies Revealed exhibition at the Custard Factory (www.bodiesrevealed.com). We would've loved to but just didn't have the time!