After my stay in Sweden, I flew to Birmingham (the one in England, that is), to visit my friend Matt. He arrived a few hours before me but, unlike me, he was planning to stay for a while. He recently accepted a job at the University of Birmingham and was moving there for good. It was my first time visiting anywhere in England outside London, and I was excited for the opportunity.
Birmingham has a reputation for being a drab, run-down industrial city. Historically there might have been a grain of truth to that, but I’d say it’s a reputation that’s out of date. That image is probably propagated, at least in part, by Londoners who look down upon their country’s second largest city (and pretty much all other cities in their country, for that matter). I found it to be neither drab nor run-down; in fact most areas I saw were nice, and seemed very livable. It’s true Birmingham doesn’t have the world-class museums and cultural attractions that London does, it also doesn’t have the $10 pints of ale and the ostentatious displays of wealth.
My few short days in Birmingham were spent helping Matt hunt for apartments in a neighborhood called Harborne, which is adjacent to the University and (conveniently) where our quaint but temporary Airbnb rental was located. Several different people told us that Harborne is the nicest neighborhood in all of Birmingham. I’m not sure whether that’s true or just an expression of local Harborne pride, but the area is definitely cute, cozy, and properly English.
The High Street (England’s version of a main street) is lined with shops, along with some very nice cafes and excellent pubs. Surrounding the High Street is a labyrinthine maze of residential streets lined with cute brick houses. It’s dense enough to be walkable, like you’d expect in a city, but relaxed enough to feel like a town or village.
From the University, Birmingham’s city center is only 6 away minutes by train. We spent a few hours wandering around and eating at a very nice pub, one that even had some local craft beers available (on previous trips to England I was surprised by the poor selection of beer available at many pubs). Maybe it’s just luck, but I came away from this trip with a much improved opinion of English beer than I had formed during previous visits. You just have to go to the right places, and apparently there aren’t many of those in central London.
I think Matt and his wife Emily will have a nice time living in Birmingham, or at least in Harborne. I’m looking forward to going back when they’re settled and see it from a local’s perspective. I can already tell it’s one of those cities that’s a better place to live than to be a tourist in, and that’s just fine with me.