Student cities: studying in Birmingham

Student cities: studying in Birmingham
Big, culturally diverse, with plenty to do – is Birmingham your ideal student city?

Birmingham is home to over one million people, including 65,000 university students. Its scale means that it’s pumped full of things to keep you entertained when you’re not in lectures.

Free and cheap stuff to do in Birmingham

Birmingham is very diverse and so are its events. Its largest single-day gathering is the St Patrick’s Day parade, which is Europe’s second largest. Birmingham Pride for LGBT people and friends attracts up to 100,000 visitors each year. The Vaisakhi celebrations at Handsworth Park tie in with a key Sikh holy day and are open to everyone.

One of the city’s best festivals is run by students from the University of Birmingham. Called ValeFest, the free one-day music event has six stages, dance tents, music workshops, comedy, open-air cinema and fire breathers.

If you want to spend a bit of money, the tickets are cheap for October’s OxJamBrum. Moseley Folk Festival is pricier but has some good headliners, not all of them folk acts. Birmingham Comedy Festival has top stars such as Jimmy Carr, Peter Kay, Jason Byrne and most recently Romesh Ranganathan. You have to pay to watch them but the festival has two free afternoons where you can see breaking acts.

‘Urban’ music needs an urban setting, surely? No problem: if you’re about in August, The Flyover Show is a one-day festival of hip-hop, ragga, retro-soul, jazz, graffiti and breakdancing – put together by jazz saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch – that takes place under the concrete pillars of Birmingham’s Hockley Flyover. It pulls in acts such as Reuben James, who is piano player for Sam Smith. The jazz and reggae acts at Music in the Square are free to watch.

There’s no admission charge at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery or The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, with old masters at both. The contemporary art in Ikon Gallery is also free to see. Mac Birmingham has films, plays, dance and comedy, which do have a charge although its art galleries don’t.

There’s quite a connection between the city and J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. If you’re as tight-fisted as Gollum, you’ll be pleased to learn that you can download a free copy of The Birmingham Tolkien Trail map, which will guide you round key sites that influenced his novels. The towers at Edgbaston Waterworks and Perrott’s Folly inspired the ‘two towers’ of the rings trilogy. In part, Tolkien’s ancient forests are based upon Birmingham’s Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog.

There are Tolkien-themed resources at the very popular Library of Birmingham, which was opened in September 2013 by Malala Yousafzai, a teenager who was treated in Birmingham after being shot by the Taliban. The library has a café and fine views of the city from its rooftop terrace.

There are over 600 parks in the city and other picnic spots. One of the nicest is Edgbaston Reservoir near the city centre.


The city hosts the largest German Christmas market outside of Germany and Austria. Wrap up in winter and admire its festive decorations and heaps of Pretzels, schnitzels, bratwursts, and knoblauchbrot (German garlic bread). All-year-round markets include Birmingham Rag Market, which has 350 cheerful stalls and lots of fabric for sale, and a craft market and food market at the Mac arts centre.

There’s a sci-fi look to the branch of Selfridges in Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre. So cutting edge is the store’s façade of 15,000 anodised aluminium discs, it became a desktop background theme in Windows 7. The facade was inspired by a fabulous sequined dress by fashion designer Paco Rabanne but it also resembles Dalek body armour. It depends upon your point of view.

As well the Bullring, Birmingham’s other mainstream shopping centres are Pallasades, Mailbox, and Fort Shopping Park, which has been known have a pop-up beach in summer. Great Western Arcade is where you’ll find posh, independent stores. The Custard Factory has alternative stores, as does The Oasis. Trawl them to net some quirky memorabilia, a can of unusual beer or a tattoo.


Broad Street and the canalside development at Brindleyplace have a nighttime buzz. Closer to the Bullring, there’s a lot going on around Digbeth, with the Chinese Quarter and the Gay Village nearby. There are a number of late-night pubs in the Irish Quarter.

There are good student deals at DJ-bars Revolution, Walkabout, Players and Dechu. Gosta Green has a huge beer garden and two-for-one pizza deals on Wednesdays. Popworld has the colour scheme of bouncy castle and, indeed, does occasionally have a bouncy castle on its dancefloor. The club is a big hit with students.

The Old Contemptibles is a great name for the characterful, high-ceilinged, oak-panelled pub that sits on the corner of Edmund Street near Birmingham New Street train station. Bacchus Bar is another old establishment and has an eccentric décor which combines Greek mosaics and medieval arches with the styles of a Georgian library and an Egyptian tomb. The Lord Clifden in the Jewellery Quarter describes itself as ‘an urban art bar’ and is cool and trendy.

Birmingham is the birthplace of the Balti curry, which is cooked and served in a steel bowl. Try one in the Balti Triangle covering Sparkhill, Balsall Heath and Moseley. Or have giant fishfinger sandwich at comedy club Glee.

There are strong music traditions in Birmingham – for heavy metal and bhangra in particular. But all tastes are catered for in venues as diverse as Eddie’s Rock Club, Cuban Embassy or The Rainbow, which hosts all-day raves with Annie Mac. There’s variety too in types of venues. The Hare & Hounds is the go-to medium-sized haunt where some big acts perform. At the opposite end of the scale are the giant Barclaycard Arena and the Genting Arena. Read our round up of top universities for music lovers in England for more detail on the music scene in Birmingham, including student music and dance societies at the University of Birmingham.

The Electric in Station Street is the UK’s oldest working cinema and has sumptuous leather seats. Birmingham has leading and innovative theatre companies such as The Rep, plus plenty of theatres. You can also catch the train to Stratford-upon-Avon to catch a Royal Shakespeare Company show.

If you’re looking for work experience

Birmingham has long been a home to many manufacturing firms but it’s also the country’s biggest centre for employment in public administration, education and health. It ranks third as a centre for financial and business services.

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