01/08/2014 12:47 BST | Updated 29/09/2014 06:59 BST

Travelling to Birmingham

Many years passed before I realised you can "travel" in your own country, that we are actually surrounded by exotic locations, places we've never seen and dialects we don't understand... I'm visiting England's second biggest city precisely because it's not somewhere a visitor to the UK would normally visit.

Travelling is about getting far away from home, spending a long time in an exotic location, living on a budget, avoiding tourists, getting to know different people and having "an experience." Or is it?

Travelling is actually a state of mind that involves being open to other cultures and having a permanent sense of curiosity. A short summer holiday doesn't cut the mustard as this sense of curiosity can't be satisfied with resorts, museums and tourist attractions.

Many years passed before I realised you can "travel" in your own country, that we are actually surrounded by exotic locations, places we've never seen and dialects we don't understand. I sometimes do this by hitchhiking, cycle touring and visiting places outside my comfort zone.

Every year I take my kids on holiday to Scotland and this year I have a new plan - to show them at least one British city on the way north from Luton Airport. This year I decided to take them to Birmingham and stay in a hostel. They were fine about Birmingham but went on strike about staying in a hostel ("how can we share a room with strangers?" they wailed). In the end I gave up on the hostel, realizing that getting other people out of their comfort zones is damned hard.

I posted my plan to visit Birmingham on Twitter and got a post from an English playwright called Sophia Sheridan who asked why a wannabe travel writer like myself would be visiting a place like Birmingham (note to non-British readers: Birmingham has the reputation of being a boring, ugly dump that's best avoided).

I replied to my new found Twitter friend that I'm visiting England's second biggest city precisely because it's not somewhere a visitor to the UK would normally visit (cities like Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Edinburgh and St Andrews are the recommended locations).

Sophia's reply - "I can't wait to read your impressions" - was all the stimulus I needed for writing this article".

Birmingham blew me away. The city centre is beautiful. I didn't recognize it from the concrete jungle I visited several times in the 80s and 90s. A featureless city centre that was dominated by motorways and concrete blocks has been transformed into a charming series of pedestrian zones, parks and canals - with beautifully restored old buildings (where were they in the 80s?) and stunning new architecture.

We saw thousands of people with roots in the Middle East and Asia and I remember my friend Mario, whose mother was an Italian immigrant who ran a Greasy Spoon café in the centre of town, and realised that Birmingham is a big melting pot. It would be a great place to explore, much more interesting than those pretty university towns mentioned above which seem to be overpopulated by tourists and rich students.

I managed to get my kids out of their comfort zone when we reached Scotland, by taking them to Glen Coe and going on one of Britain's great ridge walks - the Aonach Eagach (pronounced Ana Kiga) and camping in the rain. The complaints were numerous but they'll remember the experience.