Britain's second-largest city may not be the first place to leap to mind as a city-break destination, but Birmingham is in fact a great spot to bring kids – easy to reach from anywhere in the UK, with fabulous shopping, lots of family-friendly restaurants, a handful of great sights and some interesting places to stay.
Having said which, we could have easily spent the entire weekend hanging out in our apartment on the top floor of the historic, cylindrical Rotunda, a Grade II listed 1960s office building. It wasn't just the array of sweets, toys and books laid out for the boys at Staying Cool as part of its Cool for Kids initiative, or the Mac set up with Spotify in one of the bedrooms, so they could play games and then bounce around in the bath to their favourite Michael Jackson and Nirvana tunes – it was also the chic designer furniture and boutique-hotel decor, the well-equipped kitchen including a Gaggia coffee machine and a fridge loaded with fresh oranges ready for the juicer, the delicious-smelling toiletries, and most of all the views over Birmingham from the floor-to-ceiling windows that lead out onto a vast, curving private balcony. As the kids did their thing – including spying on trains rumbling in and out of New Street Station far below us – and then fell exhaustedly into their beds, we were able to sit and relax over a bottle of wine as the sun set and then the lights of the metropolis winked into life all around us. Like a burning hearth, there is something utterly mesmerising about a cityscape by night. And Birmingham is some cityscape.
The following day we set out to try and test Birmingham's sights, starting with its science museum, thinktank, which offers up everything from real-life steam engines to model intestines. It's always difficult for those with kids of slightly different ages, like me, to navigate venues like this – my boys always want to run off into different directions and explore different areas, or someone needs the loo and we all have to leave off some interesting exhibit in search of facilities. My conclusion at thinktank, with its planetarium, science-based storytelling, and IMAX cinema (shortly to be joined by an outdoor Science Garden and adjoining Kids' Park) was that places like this are just too much for a half-day or even a day – there's only so much the kids, and you, can take in in one burst. The solution, ideally, is to live near one, buy a season ticket and take it in smaller doses. Still, we did all throughly enjoy our visit, with highlights being Kids' City, where younger children can take over a café, a doctor's surgery, a mechanic's workshop, and more, and Medicine Matters, where you can take part, via remote controls, in a televised operation (one that proved a little too gory for my 7-year-old).
I wish I could say that we also thoroughly enjoyed our visit, the following day, to Cadbury World. Part of the problem here, I think, is that kids arrive with images of Willy Wonka and his magical factory complete with chocolate river in their head. Signs do warn visitors that Cadbury World is not a factory tour, but you can't help but feel, as you follow the self-guided tour of 14 themed zones, gorging on the chocolate bars handed out at the entrance, that much of it is contrived, especially the totally lame Cadabra ride. By far the most interesting part, for both the kids and us, was the demonstration zone, where we watched chocolate being tempered on marble slabs. The social history of the firm – as told in some of the zones and in the Bourneville Experience, and seen in person by strolling around the workers' village built by Cadbury's – was also of interest to us, if not to the kids, who preferred the on-site playground.
Back in central Birmingham and back down to earth after our sugar rush, we sampled the wares of The Handmade Burger Company at the end of the building dubbed the Space Slug, which houses the Birmingham branch of Selfridges department store (my youngest son preferred to call it Buttonworld, for the shiny protruding discs that cover it). The building is part of the Bullring, a world-class shopping centre with such a huge choice of family-friendly restaurants, from Wagamama to Jamie's Italian, that your lovely modern kitchen at the Rotunda may stay as pristine it was when you arrrived.
Staying Cool's Roadster Penthouse (from £289 per night) has 2 king-size beds plus space for extra beds. One floor down, there are another 25 apartments, ranging from mini studios that would be perfect for older teens wanting independence to 2-bedroomed Maxi apartments.