It’s no secret that both Birmingham and Manchester believe themselves to be the UK’s second city. And with good reason, both of them are large, vibrant, prosperous cities that are a joy to visit. They each have thriving universities, fascinating histories, and an abundance of cultural sights, entertainment, and activities to offer.
But there can only be one second city. So which one is it and which one should you visit? Will it be Manchester, gateway to the north of England with its massive reputation in the worlds of sport and music? Or will it be Birmingham, capital of the midlands, with a dining scene unbeaten outside of London?
We’re going to find out once and for all which city gets to claim the title! Hopefully, we’ll also help you decide which one you should visit on your next UK city break.
Birmingham Or Manchester: Population And Popularity
Let’s dive right in; which one is bigger? The UK’s second city should be the second biggest one, right? Well, yes and no, if that were the case, then Birmingham would win. It is twice the size of Manchester, geographically and in terms of population – with 1.15 million people to Manchester’s 553 thousand. But, some people think you should include the whole of Greater Manchester in the equation. If you do, their population reaches 2.6 million, but you’d be including smaller outlying towns that we can’t agree are ‘real’ manchester.
Both cities top the UK tables as economic powerhouses, but Manchester is the outright winner for tourism. It is the third most visited city in the UK after London and Edinburgh and has the busiest airport outside of London. It’s also smashing it on social media with 70 thousand Instagram followers to Birmingham’s 20 thousand.
Conclusion: Manchester wins this one. Although Birmingham is technically bigger, Manchester is busier, and the tourists prefer it.
Birmingham Or Manchester: Sporting Success
We can’t talk about Manchester without talking about football because they are undeniably a global power. Two of the biggest teams in the world, Manchester United and Manchester City, call this city home. Visitors can watch home games, take tours of the Etihad or Old Trafford stadiums, and visit the National Football Museum, where they can learn all about this city’s long history with the sport.
While not quite on the same level, Birmingham does have its own pair of professional teams. And one of them, Aston Villa, plays alongside the Manchester clubs in the Premier League and has its own stadium offering tours and exhibitions.
But there’s more to sport than just football, and Manchester hosted the 2002 Commonwealth Games, continues to host the annual Paralympic World Cup, and is the home of the British Cycling Team. Not to be outdone, Birmingham will be hosting the commonwealth games when they return to the UK in 2022. They will make history by including Women’s cricket and fully integrating the para-sport program into the games. They’ve also pledged that it will be the first carbon-neutral Commonwealth Games!
Conclusion: it might be a different story after the commonwealth games, but for now, based on their football prowess, it has to be a win for Manchester.
Birmingham Or Manchester: All The Shops
If you need some retail therapy, neither of these cities will let you down and they have a very similar shopping scene. In Birmingham, you can shop all the international brands at the enormous Bullring shopping center and then visit the world’s biggest Primark! Then, for shops on a smaller scale, hunt out the elegant Victorian-era shopping arcades. Under their domed glass ceilings, you’ll find some of the finest luxury brands and award-winning boutiques in the city. If you’re after something sparkly, head to the Jewelry Quarter, where you’ll find expert bespoke jewelers and the Birmingham School of Jewelry. If fabric is more your thing, the Rag Market is the place to go, and for indie retailers, visit the Custard Factory.
In Manchester, the mammoth shopping and dining hub, The Trafford Center, is easily the equal of Birmingham’s Bullring, and if they don’t have what you want, try Manchester Arndale. You can find just as many designer boutiques in Spinningfields or The Royal Exchange, and Manchester’s even got its own glass-roofed victorian arcade, Barton. For vintage and indie finds, it’s all about the quirky Northern Quarter and the indoor market Afflecks.
If you’re visiting during the festive season, both Manchester and Birmingham’s Christmas markets are some of the best in the UK.
Conclusion: It’s a draw. Whatever your shopping style, you can indulge it in either of these cities.
Birmingham Or Manchester: Arts And History And Culture
Both Manchester and Birmingham have world-class theatres, libraries, museums, and galleries. And both cities have rich histories which they do not shy away from celebrating. In Manchester, you’ll find many monuments to its history as the birthplace of the industrial revolution and the vital role it played in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. If you take a trip around Manchester University you’ll be walking in the footsteps of no less than 25 Nobel Prize winners, and no trip to the city is complete without a visit to the 15th-century gothic masterpiece of a Cathedral.
Manchester also has a regular spot on lists of the top cultural cities in the UK because of spaces like the Manchester Art Gallery and The Whitworth Gallery, which houses over 55,000 works of art. And there’s the Lowry, where you’ll find a mixture of galleries and theatres.
Birmingham comes in lower on the cultural rankings, but you’ll still find plenty to discover. They celebrate their own Industrial Revolution history through heritage sites and monuments. And you might find yourself recognizing a few of them. Many of the city’s historic spots were used as backdrops for the filming of Peaky Blinders. You can tour the filming locations then visit Birmingham’s museums to find the truth behind the drama. For performance art and theatre, head to the Midlands Arts Center or Birmingham Hippodrome. Or catch a world-class performance by the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
And, be sure to work up an appetite with all that sightseeing, because Birmingham has the most Michelin starred restaurants in the UK, after London.
Conclusion: Much as we love a good restaurant, Manchester wins this one because it just has more of everything else.
Birmingham Or Manchester: Music and Nightlife
Manchester’s music prowess is almost as well known as its football one. They’ve produced such musical greats as The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Joy Division, Take That, and perhaps the most famous Mancunians of all time, Oasis. Plus, it was the birthplace of the 90’s rave culture that shaped the clubbing habits of a generation.
So it’s no surprise that Manchester takes its music scene seriously. You can catch gigs by some of the world’s biggest performers at amazing venues like Manchester Arena the O2 Apollo or Albert Hall. But you don’t have to go that big; in this city, you’ll find plenty of smaller venues hosting live music and homegrown talent any night of the week.
If live music’s not your scene, not to worry, Manchester’s nightlife caters to everyone from students, to tourists, to celebrity footballers. Head to Canal Street for LGBTQ+ vibes or check out world-famous G-A-Y Manchester. Take a bar crawl through the Northern Quarter to drink cocktails in speakeasies and sample craft brews, or go celebrity spotting in the swanky lounge clubs of Deansgate. Then hit up the incomparable Warehouse Project for clubland vibes and party like the ’90s are still here!
And Birmingham? Well, they’re only the birthplace of Heavy Metal! This is the city that gave the world Judas Priest and Black Sabbath with frontman Ozzy Osbourne! It also gave us Duran Duran, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and The Moody Blues. More recently, Birmingham has established a respected indie music scene and is the undisputed capital of Bhangra music in the UK.
And, like Manchester, this city’s nightlife caters to all sorts. It has its own large university with thousands of students to entertain plus a reputation for having some of the best nightclubs in the country. You can party in warehouses, factories, chapels, and rooftops. Listen to live music with a side of street food at Digbeth Dining Club, or head to the legendary Nightingale, a must-visit club in Birmingham’s vibrant LGBTQ+ district. Get some retro soul at The Night Owl, enjoy rooftop jungle at PST, or get classy at one of the many VIP venues like Bambu or Sugar Suite. Whatever style of night you’re looking for, Birmingham’s got you covered.
Conclusion: If it were just about the bars and clubs, we’d probably call this one a draw. But for live music and world-class performance venues, Manchester takes another win.
Birmingham Or Manchester: Nature In And Around The City
Cities are wonderful, but sometimes you need a break from the urban sprawl and a chance to return to nature. Luckily, both of these cities provide plenty of green spaces and are also ideally placed for day trips to some of the UK’s top beauty spots. Both have large parks within their boundaries, such as Manchester’s 600 acre Heaton Park, with its playgrounds, wild peacocks, boating lake, and petting zoo. In addition, Cotton Field Eco-park offers a rare chance to do some city center birdwatching, and the view from Cathedral Gardens is beautiful.
You’ve got Cannon Hill in Birmingham for formal gardens, recreational facilities, sports fields, boating lakes, and fishing areas. Birmingham Wildlife Conservation Park is perfect for animal lovers, while the 2400 acre national reserve, Sutton Park, is home to 7 lakes, wetlands, woodlands, and even wild ponies. And you have the opportunity to explore Birmingham in a new way by taking a narrowboat trip along the canals that formed such a vital part of Birmingham’s industrial past.
When you want to escape the city altogether, you’ll find brilliant day trips from both spots. From Birmingham, it’s only a short journey into the Malvern Hills, the Cotswolds, Warwick Castle, or Stratford-Upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. And Manchester is known as the ‘Gateway to the North’ because the breathtaking scenery of the Lake District, Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, and North Wales are all only a day trip away.
Conclusion: neither of these cities will leave you starved for nature in or around their confines. We want to call it another draw, but for access to the dramatic scenery of the north of England, we have to give it to Manchester.
Birmingham Or Manchester: Conclusion
You’ve probably noticed already but, it’s a clear win for Manchester. Despite Birmingham’s greater size, Manchester has the reputation of a much bigger city. It believes itself to be the UK’s second city, and it seems that belief is everything. When it comes to art, culture, sports, nightlife, and its surroundings, Manchester just has a bit more of everything to offer.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t visit Birmingham. You absolutely should. Birmingham offers excellent shopping, dining, theatre, nightlife, history, and day trips. We do not doubt that it will continue to fight for its place in the UK’s rankings. And, with its constantly growing arts and cultural scene, its reputation for culinary excellence, and the hosting of the commonwealth game in 2022, who knows how the results will stand next year.