Yes - Coventry is now the UK's 2021 City of Culture in-waiting.. but really, why wait until then to explore?
Very photogenic, and definitely worth a visit, it's less than 150 miles from 95% of the largest UK population centres. Easy to reach - with easy places to park, and a train station just 55 minutes from London - Coventry is also appealing to a new breed of tourists keen to chalk up a visit to an historic, increasingly fashionable city that defined urban style in the late 1950s/early 60s, and still has so many starkly original contrasts of architecture, industry, creativity and culture.
Take a quick peek at the map - then scroll down to the pics 'n info section that follows our brief introduction to the City's history, highlighting what's worth exploring in each quarter:-
Coventrians love having conversations about their city. And while there's lots going on with our changing skyline, not least with the expansion of super-successful Coventry University, we thought we'd tell you about some of the best places to visit.
Historic buildings, nice bars, restaurants, parks, museums, modern architecture ... most of it within a short stroll. You just need to know where to look!
The iconic 1960s ringroad follows roughly the same route around the city as the ancient medieval city walls - completed in 1455 and featuring 12 sandstone gatehouses. Two of these can still be seen today: Cook Street, and Priory - aka Swanswell - gates, close by the Transport Museum.
Coventry had two 'golden ages'. The first, primarily based on wool and textile production, lasted from the mid-14th century through to the early-16th century. Then, from the early 1850s through to the 1960s, Coventry prospered again through silk weaving and later watchmaking, while the first half of the 20th century saw Coventry's motor vehicle production industry thriving.
The medieval street plan didn't really work so well tho' for the many factories located in and around the historic centre so efforts had already begun in the 1930s to clear away large areas to make way for new roads. The Coventry Blitz of 1940 (and several other major air raids that occurred up until end of following year) destroyed huge areas of the city, providing the opportunity for a bold new approach to town planning, created during the 1950's in what came to be known as Coventry's 'Festival of Britain' architectural style.
Some of the city's appeal began to wane alongside the fortunes of the motor industry in the 1970s, however, Coventry is booming again, with a new knowledge-technology based economy bringing in new people and investment.. so yes, definately time for a visit!
The CATHEDRAL quarter is where most visitors head for at the start of their grand tour. It's where the nicest old medieval and 18th-century streets are. And of course the old - and new - cathedrals. It's also where Coventry University is located. And heading further east - under the rainbow lights of the ringroad flyover - it's where you can find the recently restored Far Gosford Street and 'Fargo' market/creatives area.
The 'Old Cathedral' ruins - 'St Michaels' - are very atmospheric, and stand right at the centre of the old town.
The spire though is perfectly preserved, and a wonderful place to start your visit. Climb the 180 steps up to the 120ft viewing level for a truly spectacular view of the city! (admission fee). It's in a beautiful location - it's where the Coventry Tourist Information office used to be before their recent move to the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum (just a short walk away).
Best bits ---> Bayley Lane, Hay Lane, Priory Lane, Priory Row, Little Park Street and Cuckoo Lane are great for well-preserved architecture, and there are several super-characterful places to eat and drink. Also make sure you check out Priory Square - and the Priory Visitors Centre (fascinating mini-museum and tours of St Marys Priory Cathedral undercroft ruins - uncovered by C4's 'Time Team' archaeologists in 2000) accessed by a small aerial walkway next to Holy Trinity Church.
Worst bits ---> less pretty post-war newer build areas adjacent to the bus station; Ironmonger Row/Trinity St/Fairfax St.
It costs £6 to get in but Basil Spence's masterpiece is a stunning architectural wonder - packed full of high-quality artwork and innovation on a monumental scale. This icon really is one of the best examples of 1960s design you'll find anywhere in Europe.
Best thing ---> the main stained glass window on a sunny day is simply stunning!
Worst thing ---> unfortunately the visitors shop outside is a bit uninspired, but don't be put off by the plain exterior of the downstairs 'Rising' cafe.. it's got great wifi, and an up-market feel - buzzing with friendly locals on our recent visit.
A splendid treasure house full of interesting stuff, right in the middle of the historic centre. An excellent series of ground-floor exhibitions tell the story of Coventry from Saxon times, including the the Lady Godiva pageants and how technology shaped the City. There are heaps more beautifully displayed artworks and creatives in the galleries upstairs. Inspiring. And there's a good-quality cafe next to the reception
Another Coventry treasure that's also free admission. Built in 1340, it's one of the grandest medieval guild halls in the country. The tapestry (c.1500) is the oldest still hanging in situ anywhere in the UK. Hugely atmospheric, albeit a little un-imaginatively presented due to occasional use for weddings, it's much bigger than you'd think with lots of passageways, rooms, vaulted cellars and, of course, the main attraction which is the huge 'Great Hall'.
Best thing ---> magnificent stained glass windows, and high-quality decorative work everywhere you look.
Worst thing ---> bizarrely, it's closed to the public from 1 October until late spring - and (when open) the undercroft cafe/restaurant - whilst a great setting - isn't very exciting. Save your cash, there are better choices elsewhere
The Council House is situated close to the old cathedral church ruins in the centre of the city. Built in 1912, it draws inspiration from the adjacent earlier 1860 Victorian-Gothic style of the James Murray-designed police courts building (not accessible to the public) to the left of St Mary's Guildhall, and is full of great medieval-esque detailing. Short guided-tours, including of the hugely impressive mayoral chamber, can be arranged via the concierge reception desk (on your immediate right, via the main entrance).
We really like Priory Square, close to the Priory Visitor Centre - and here you've got Shin Bar (a bright, charactful Japanese restaurant with friendly staff), Nandos (situated in a converted 18th century weaving factory) and PGR's (an independantly run eaterie that does ok food with pints of San Miguel just £2.50). Its a smart location, with a great outdoor seating areas that have super views of Holy Trinity Church spire framed by an innovative designer-water feature.
Another great place to sample is 'Drapers' on Jordan Well, in between the Council House and Herbert Museum. An impressive modern-design building inside and out, it's popular with both students and locals and serves quality freshly-prepared bar meals. We also like the new 'Bayleys' grill on Bayley Lane and 'Pizza Express' (entrance via interesting timber-framed building on Hay Lane) that both share a lovely outdoor terrace overlooking St Mary's Guildhall. Finally, there's Cosy Club in Cathedral Lanes - great eclectic decor, in a bustling location - with Wagamama, and Los Iguanas downstairs (both of which look good, but we havn't tried as yet!).
The Broadgate and 'Precinct' Shopping quarter is where it all began again for Coventry in the late 1940s and early 50s - with the council's forward-thinking plan for clean, traffic-free pedestrian zones, and gleaming municipal buildings free of unneccesary adornment.
Although Broadgate itself is much improved, with a huge new public square, an iconic 'Lady Godiva' statue and a selection of thriving restaurants, the original 'Donald Gibson' 1950s precinct is less inspiring today - spoiled by tatty tinkering over the decades (it's an endless list).
The eye-cathching 'round cafe', now Cafe Nero in 'Lower Precinct' (recently renovated and probably the best place in town for regular shopping) is definitely worth a look though, as are the 'Cullen Murals' (ground floor exit heading west out of Lower Precinct, toward St John the Baptist Church). Also the original 'Owen Owen department store' (now Primark, successfully restored, faces onto Broadgate) is worth a visit. Otherwise, it's a case of heading on quickly past the bad stuff. If ever there were a case for a 50s chic restoration/makeover - going back to basics with symmetry and attention to detail - this is it.
Best bits ---> Broadgate Square has a busy, cosmopolitan feel like you'd find in a large European City, with some really popular restaurants (Cosy Club, Wagamama, Los Iguanas). The upstairs terraces of Cosy Club are great for sitting out and people-watching.
Worst bits ---> the (early 1970s) outlying sections of the 'precincts' haven't aged well, and are best avoided. Large parts are due to be replaced soon as part of Coventry's new 'city centre south' initiative.
The Southern quarter encompasses a broad but easily walkable stretch from Junction 7 of the ringroad, next to IKEA, past Coventry Station/Greyfriars Green into Coventry's erstwhile 'municipal quarter' (now undergoing a rapid transformation to accommodate the growth of Coventry University). Construction works for the new futuristic Aqua-park are nearer the centre, and further east you'll find the impressive Severn Trent HQ and new Science-Technology Park campus close by the - soon-to-be-touristified - 42-acre London Road arboretum/cemetery designed by Jospeh Paxton in 1847.
The city recently enclosed this part of the ringroad to create green space linking the train station - and more prosperous southern residential districts of Earlsdon and Styvechale - to the beautiful tree-lined boulevard that leads into town (Warwick Row).
A five-minute walk in the opposite direction away from the city centre, and there are two excellent parks - head up Warwick Road away from the centre past the imposing 'King Henry VIII' independent school and you'll find 'Top Green' (the first public green space in Coventry), as well as the large and impressive 'War Memorial Park' (above) , created in 1921 with acres of open green spaces, formal gardens, an attractive neo-classical cafe and, of course, the 60ft central war memorial tower.
Best bits ---> Greyfriars Green, The Quadrant and Warwick Row is a great stretch - full of interesting architecture and busy with life. The area in front of the Council Hill (Little Park St) is also very pleasant, recently landscaped with streetside bars, cafes and 17th-century merchant houses jostling next to post-war monoliths.
Worst bits ---> The 200 metre route linking Warwick Row into the historic centre is dismal: Hertford St, built in the 1820s, but disastrously pedestrianised in 1970, is another city centre streetscape soon to be re-modelled. For now, it's a salutory lesson for urban planners - but keep walking and you'll be up into Broadgate within two minutes
Fancy a sit down? Head for Finneys, a new-ish independent coffee bar run by a local guy on probably the nicest street frontage in town - the Georgian/Regency Warwick Row - a short stroll from Coventry train station. Nice outdoor seating area and specially-imported New York cheesecake. We also like the Herbert Art Gallery and Coventry Transport Museum for food and drinks, while the 'Kawaha' Coffee Shop is also great - opposite Greyfriars Church Spire on New Union St (opposite the location set-aside for Coventry's Aqua-park). Finally, 'The Establishment' - converted courthouse and prison cells - up by Holy Trinity Church on Cuckoo Lane is a good place for a morning brunch.
The Northern quarter: a 15-minute walk takes you from the new-ish IKEA store (great views from the rooftop restaurant) on the western entrance into the City right through to the dizzying maze of elevated sliproads close to the ancient 'pool meadow' where the medieval town wall enclosed the Prior's grazing lands.
Once the site of a large ancient body of water referred to as the 'Bablake', the River Sherbourne runs west to east along the low valley just to the north of the centre - and although mostly culverted, there are plans to uncover a few sections in the area close to 'Burges' (shortenened form of original St John's 'bridges') to give Coventry a slice of waterfront cafe culture.
On the way you'll pass the 'Medieval Spon Street' (thirty or so, slightly over-restored reminders of that golden-age of prosperity for the town in the 14-15th century) - disappointingly truncated by the ringroad in the 1960s, plus the wonderful St John The Baptist Church, Bond's Hospital (1506), Belgrade Theatre (1955), and the newly-restored Grammar School (1345).
The area closest to the ringroad is presently seeing large-scale mass re-development. However, the walk along tree-lined Corporation Street is pleasant enough - and the few old Victorian shops surviving around the lower part of 'Burges', close to the Transport Museum, are worth a visit. Finally, the late-18th-century Canal Basin is a fairly interesting starting point for a canalside stroll along the partially-redeveloped waterfront heading northwards (although the present access across the ringroad via an unsightly bridge at the top of Bishop Street is poor) and the area around the large ancient Swanswell Pool should soon become an attractive spot with the redevelopment of the Victorian nurses home and outpatients clinic adjacent.
Best bits ---> the new Belgrade Plaza development next to the Belgrade Theatre is a fine piece of modern architecture and has a Premier Inn plus a few good eateries (Bella Pasta/Pizza Express/Cafe Rouge) and a nice open square with seating. 'CETPOPUP' at The CET Building (old 1959 Coventry Telegraph newspaper offices and printworks - soon to be a posh 50s themed boutique hotel) is a pop-up artspace and history centre - open mon to sat 12-4 - with a fascinating (free admission!) 0.3 mile self-guided tour they've set up round the old print factory mothballed back in 2004.
Worst bits ---> some sections in this part of town still have a run-down feel, and aren't much fun walking through (although quite safe: Coventry has some of the lowest crime statistics in the UK).
Free admission, and open all year round - Coventry Transport Museum is a must-see for any visitor. Newly re-furbished in 2016, it has loads of great exhibits, interactive displays and interesting narratives that tell the story of how Coventry became the centre of the motor industry. Just five minutes walk from the Cathedral, via Priory Square/the Priory Visitor Centre.
Best thing ---> Jaguar Heritage Trust displays are exceptional, plus there's a very reasonably priced cafe just inside the foyer.
Worst thing ---> it's so good you'll want to set aside at least 60 mins to get around!