City wars: Birmingham vs Manchester

Written by on 2nd August 2012
Category: City guides

Ding ding! It’s round one of our city wars, fought between two former industrial powerhouses: Birmingham and Manchester.


Let’s face it, Manchester has a lot on its side. This city doesn’t really care how it compares to London – it’s too busy doing its own thing. Its confident swagger is embodied in its architecture (Victorian neogothic combined with skyscrapers and stadiums); its energetic nightlife and the breathtaking coup it staged in 2011 when the BBC moved five of its departments to Salford Quays.

The city can boast of a musical history that has altered the course of British music and it still has a thriving arts scene, from the small bars and gig venues that play host to up-and-coming bands, to the Manchester International Festival, major theatres and some outstanding art galleries.

Manchester’s large student population gives the city a constant buzz, particularly around the busy Oxford Road area, but the city centre also has plenty to offer business visitors and tourists with more refined taste, from high-end restaurants such as Michael Caines at Abode to exclusive canalside bars.

It’s great to look at, too: its innovative use of old industrial spaces is embodied in Salford Quays, a regenerated area which houses BBC staff and other media organisations, as well as the Lowry arts centre and the Imperial War Museum North. Many of the serviced apartments in Manchester are within restored buildings, such as The Loft and Princess Street Apartments.

Thanks to all this, and the city’s famous football teams (you know who they are), it’s the third most visited city in the UK after London and Edinburgh.


OK, I must admit bias here (I’m from the Midlands). But even I can see that this hub at the centre of England has a bad reputation. I think this mainly stems from aesthetics: Birmingham isn’t pretty, particularly in the streets around the station, and there’s no elegant Victorian architecture here.

However, the city’s willingness to embrace contemporary architecture to some extent makes up for this. In particular, there’s the playful Mailbox (as the name might suggest, a square, postbox-coloured building) and the Bullring, including the futuristic blue and silver blob that is Selfridges. The former houses a mixture of high-end shops, spas and restaurants and the latter is home to department stores, high-street retailers and cafés, so Birmingham’s a heavenly destination for shopping fans.

Birmingham might not have the confidence of its northern cousin, but it’s a great place to work. On weekday evenings the compact city centre swarms with workers enjoying the canalside restaurants and bars. Over the last two decades there have been plenty of shiny new office developments, such as Brindley Place, a canal-side area with plenty of restaurants and bars.

Birmingham’s equivalent to the Northern Quarter is smaller but with just as much energy. The Custard Factory in Digbeth is a colourful, lively area of painted warehouses in the grounds of a former Bird’s factory; it’s home to independent shops run by local designers, a vintage market, bars and cafés, and even serviced offices.

Oh and I did mention you can do guided tours of a chocolate factory?

There are Birmingham serviced apartments throughout the city centre, including some in Brindley Place, some near the Mailbox and some lavish apartments in the Rotunda building just next to the Bullring.

The winner: grudgingly, Manchester.