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Now Leaving London: Birmingham

From the May 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

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Boats are tied up on a canal not far from the nightlife on Broad Street.

2 hours from Euston Station

Thirty years ago, Birmingham rarely appeared on travel itineraries. Though it’s the biggest metropolis in the Midlands region of England, sitting squarely at the country’s geographical heart, the city had seen better days. While the 19th century witnessed Birmingham’s emergence as a crucial engine of the industrial revolution—a workhorse of factories, forges, and provincial wealth—the 20th century brought disaster and decline: German bombs, economic stagnation, rising unemployment.

But step off the train into the Birmingham of 2012, and you enter a place that looks like the result of a TV makeover show. You don’t have to search far for evidence of its new image. Opened in 2003, the Selfridges department store has quickly become the city’s greatest landmark, with its curves sheathed in 15,000 aluminum discs.

Walk the key nightlife drag of Broad Street and you gain a glimpse of the city’s character—warm and defiantly unpretentious—in the bars scattered along this half-mile-long strip. Risa is a lively, gaudy watering hole that also hosts a comedy club, while Island Bar, nearby on Suffolk Street, is a cocktail bar where the Honey Berry Sour goes down nicely.

But there’s more to modern Birmingham than party spirit. High culture also holds court. The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery tells the city’s backstory and contains one of the world’s top collections of Pre-Raphaelite art. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, one of Europe’s finest classical companies, stirs hearts at Symphony Hall.

In Brindleyplace, an enclave of chic restaurants and shops, Café Ikon serves artisanal teas inside an art gallery. The Mailbox, a former Royal Mail sorting office, is now packed with boutique stores and hotels (including the Birmingham edition of the U.K.’s trendy Malmaison brand). The Jewellery Quarter houses outlets such as Highly Strung, a specialist in crafting bespoke dazzlers out of pearls and gemstones.

Head to Bournville, five miles southwest of the city center, and you trip over Cadbury World, an attraction centered on the famous chocolate producer, which has been based in the city since 1824. Here, you can immerse yourself in all things cocoa via exhibits, tastings, and a tour of the packing line.

Over in Balsall Heath, meanwhile, the culinary hot spot is the “Balti Triangle,” a cluster of Indian and Pakistani restaurants (including the much lauded Al Frash) that stands as a symbol of Birmingham’s multiethnic population. The district even has its own dish, the Balti: a meat curry that, served in a thin steel bowl and eaten with naan bread, was born in the city in the late 1970s.

Amid all this, Birmingham’s former life has not been forgotten. The city’s heavy-toil heritage has left it with a canal network that runs 35 miles. Nowadays, the barges that inch along the photogenic Main Line canal carry weekend cruisers rather than coal and raw metal. But order a pint of beer at the water­side Tap and Spile pub, and you can watch the past glide alongside the present all the same.

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