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Secret City: Birmingham

The City Council House in Victoria Square, Birmingham

19 March 2014

The place: the West Midlands, England
The contacts: three students from around the world with insider knowledge to share
The time: any time you like.

If you want to get to know the UK, ask an insider. We’ve tracked down international students from cities and campuses across the country to let us in on their tried-and-tested tips, and help you get the best from the UK student experience. 

Birmingham: Key facts

Location: West Midlands, England
Population: 1,085,400 (City and Metropolitan Borough) (2011 Census)
Famous for: The Bull Ring shopping centre, the home of Cadbury’s chocolate, the ‘Brummie’ accent, the London and Birmingham Railway, car manufacturing, science and industry, Birmingham Comedy Festival
Famous people from Birmingham: Neville Chamberlain (Prime Minister 1937-1940), Barbara Cartland (novelist), Richard Hammond (Top Gear presenter), Tony Hancock (comedian and actor), Mark Yates (football manager).
Birmingham musicians: Black Sabbath (and notorious frontman Ozzy Osborne), Jeff Lynne, Roy Wood, Jamelia, Judas Priest, UB40, Duran Duran, The Streets, Dexys Midnight Runners
Major football teams: Aston Villa F.C., Birmingham City F.C., West Bromwich Albion F.C.
Closest airports: Birmingham Airport, East Midlands Airport, Gloucestershire Airport
Train to London takes: Approx. 1 hour 20 minutes
Train to Edinburgh takes: Approx. 5 hours

Meet the insiders

Name: Stacey Fullwiler
From: Redlands, California, USA
Age: 37
Studying: MSc Organisational Behaviour at Aston University
What Birmingham means to me: Easy access to arts and culture, an amazing canal system, and the people of Birmingham who have been so welcoming and helpful. And the cool weather! I’ll miss that when I’m roasting in the California heat!

Name: Ishan Vij
From: Dehradun, India
Age: 20
Studying: BA (Hons) Business at Birmingham City University
What Birmingham means to me: A journey. For the first time, I had to manage everything on my own, but at the same time it will completely change and transform me into a man from a child.


Name: Nyimanding (Nyima) Jobarteh
From: Banjul, The Gambia
Age: 41
Studying: BSc (combined honours) in IT with Business and Management at Newman University
What Birmingham means to me: A diverse culture where everyone fits in, no matter what background or country they came from; friendly people who are willing to help.

Best thing to do in Birmingham on a sunny day

Ishan: England feels like a completely different place in the summer – the sun seems to have a fantastic effect on this country, especially in Birmingham. If you’re around from July 24 to August 28, check out the Wow! Festival at The Public arts centre. There are performers and theatre groups who put on on all sorts of street theatre – dance, live music, circus, magicians… it’s so diverse.

Stacey: Get out and enjoy the city and the fresh air. Go for a walk through the historical cemeteries near the Jewellery Quarter, admire the architecture (especially pretty on a sunny day), go around Edgbaston Reservoir or catch the bus to the amazing Cannon Hill Park.

Nyima: Take a stroll along the canal from the cosmopolitan Brindleyplace to the stylish Mailbox, be on TV at the BBC's Public Space or have a picnic with friends in Cannon Park. 

Best thing to do in Birmingham on a rainy day

Ishan: Birmingham looks gorgeous in the rain – and watching it from a café with your friends, chatting and sipping hot coffee, is the way I like to see it.

Stacey: The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in the city centre is PHENOMENAL and it’s free, though it's nice if you can make a small donation at the entrance, and there’s sometimes a small cost for special exhibitions. It has a world-class collection – I’ve still not seen it entirely even though I stop in about once a month. I feel very fortunate to have access to such a great museum.

Nyima: Whatever you do, don’t forget your wellies or your umbrella!

Best food in Birmingham

Ishan: I love to go to Broad Street, where there are restaurants serving Indian, Mexican, Chinese, English, Australian and many other types of food. But the best food I’ve had in Birmingham? A shawarma – Indian bread called roti filled with vegetables and chicken. Truly delicious.

Stacey: I stop at the Boston Tea Party café on Corporation Street for a cream tea (a cup of tea and a scone with jam and clotted cream) about once a week, and I've had lunch meetings there several times with classmates. The club sandwich and the burgers are excellent, and the atmosphere is really nice. 

Nyima: A proper English roast lunch at the Toby Carvery in Hall Green wins it for me. Meat served with homemade Yorkshire pudding, chipolata sausages and stuffing, accompanied with a choice of freshly prepared vegetables with other toppings... yummy! Or lunch at the restaurant chain Nando’s. Their chicken is lovely – I can’t get enough of it!

Top tip for students on a budget

Stacey: Go to the theatre at the Birmingham Hippodrome at least once – and feel good about yourself, because lots of the theatres offer discounted student tickets or cheaper tickets the day of the performance. I saw the Nutcracker Ballet and the Snow White pantomime show this Christmas and they were both amazing.

Ishan: Get an NUS (National Union of Students) card, which is available for students studying here. It allows you to buy a lot of day-to-day items at a discount, so it’s well worth it.

Nyima: A cheap student bus pass – look at FirstGroup.com. It can reduce your fare by around 70%.

Best way to make your stay memorable

Stacey: Use the web to look for local events. I went on a Halloween ghost walk in the Jewellery Quarter led by West Midlands historian Dr Chris Upton, and it was a really fun way to see places I otherwise would have missed, and learn some fascinating Birmingham history.

Ishan: Go out, have fun, have a few drinks, socialise. Going to different bars and pubs is common here and you end up meeting lots of people on one night.

Nyima: Get involved in culture so you can get along with the people – and get the most out of your university too. As Nelson Mandela rightly said, 'Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’

For more information about events and attractions in Birmingham, go to VisitBirmingham. Find courses and scholarships with the Search tool at the top of this page.