Some people have described Birmingham New Street as one of the worst stations in the UK; its critics are less kind. It is certainly one of the busiest interchanges, which means that you have a good chance of getting stranded, but it's not all bad. Initially, as you get off the train, you will notice that once you've bought some excellent cookies from the stall, there isn't much you can do while you're waiting. There are very few places where you can sit down, the food on sale is over-priced, and they even charge you to go to the toilet. But don't despair, there are other options besides staring at the departure board, rolling your eyes, and shouting at station staff.
If You Have up to an Hour to Spare
New Street station is located under a shopping centre called The Palisades. You can keep yourself amused here for a few minutes without running the risk of getting lost in the depths of Birmingham city centre. To find the shopping centre, take the escalator from the station concourse. One of the first things that you will see from the top of the escalator is a discount bookshop where you could buy some cheap reading material for the rest of your journey. There's also an Internet café and all the usual chain stores.
If You Have a Couple of Hours to Kill
If you have a couple of hours to kill, you have the joys of Birmingham City Centre to play with1. To get there you need to leave the station at the main exit and head generally to the left. You can also go through the shopping centre. The main shopping area is quite small, so you'll be able to find any of these places within a few minutes.
If you lived on railway food during your journey to New Street Station, getting something to eat will be a top priority. There are a couple of Pizza Hut restaurants that do all-you-can-eat buffets on weekday lunchtimes, and a number of baker's shops where you can buy cheap lunchtime foods. Many of the pubs serve reasonable and cheap food at lunchtime. The Hogshead (admittedly, slightly out of the city centre) serves real ale, as do the Wetherspoons pubs or The Olde Joint Stock by the Cathedral. The Bull Ring market sells amazingly cheap (though not always high quality) fruit that you could buy to snack on for the rest of the journey.
Pizza Hut and most of the pubs are friendly towards children and their families. Other ways of amusing children include, among others, plenty of toy shops and the central library, which has a good children's section, and staff that positively encourage you to read aloud to your children.
The Museum and Art Gallery in Victoria Square has a good hands-on section for younger children, a fairly good Ancient Greece exhibit, and the Egypt room has a real mummy. It's very near New Street station and, best of all, is free to get into. The Edwardian-style tea room is a pleasant place to relax in.
Birmingham, as the locals with never tire of telling you, has more canals then Venice; they usually neglect to mention that it is a larger area. The canals around the Brindley Place interchange have been done up, and waterside cafés and bars added. The Sea Life Centre, in the same area, is a large aquarium not surprisingly devoted to marine life.
If you're on your own, both branches of Waterstones are happy to let you browse the books at your leisure and don't mind you choosing not to buy them. You can even take them into the in-store coffee shops. Rackham's, the city's biggest department store, is sometimes worth a browse. Also worth a visit is the historical centre of the town's jewellery trade, known as the Jewellery Quarter. One of the old factories has been converted into a museum dedicated to the history of the area.
Those of you that don't imagine Birmingham to be up-market would be surprised by the redevelopment of the old sorting office, The Mailbox, which now contains expensive bars, restaurants and shops, including a branch of Harvey Nichols.
If You Are Really Stuck For Ages
Don't despair, there are lots of ways to pass the time. You could go a bit further afield, and you might actually enjoy yourself.
For Kids and Like-minded Adults
In the city centre, Millennium point is the most recent addition to Birmingham's tourist attractions. As the area of the city centre where it's located is currently being redeveloped, it's probably best to ask for directions. It's a large 'education experience' aimed at children, that also has the IMAX cinema. The downside is that you do have to pay to get in.
Children might prefer Cadbury World, the visitor centre at Cadbury's headquarters in the suburb of Bournville. It includes exhibitions devoted to the history of chocolate and the Cadbury Company, a ride through a chocolate wonderland and the chance to drink liquid chocolate. The quickest way to get there is to take a train to Bournville station from New Street (assuming the Cross City Line is still working). Again, there is an entrance fee, and according to their website you can be turned away without an advance booking.
As you'd expect from a city that applied for European City of Culture, there is actually quite a bit of culture around the place, including the wonderful (and mostly free) Birmingham Art Gallery. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra also sometimes plays afternoon concerts, at the attractive modern Symphony Hall.
Then there's the Barber Institute, one of the best small art galleries in the country. This small but excellent collection includes pieces by Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt,Gainsborough, Turner, Whistler, Manet, Degas, Monet, van Gogh, Rodin, Gaugin, Picasso and Matisse. For some reason it's very empty, so unlike some larger art galleries you can appreciate the art without the disturbance of tour guides. It's on the Birmingham University campus. To get there, you can take a train from New Street to University station, or take a 61, 62, or 63 bus.
The Centro Travel Shop, just to the right of the main station entrance, has free maps of the city centre. If they're not too busy, the staff will be able to point out where you are and direct you to the tourist attractions. As tourists are not commonly found in Birmingham, someone asking for local information is a bit of a novelty, and people are usually happy to help you.