Simon Calder visits the place named this week as Britain's top tourist town
Bernard Cribbins and the Queen are at odds. On Wednesday, he presided at the England for Excellence awards, and praised Manchester despite his roots in Oldham. Two years earlier, Her Majesty told students in St Petersburg that Manchester compared poorly with the former Russian capital.

Both cities, in fact, are chips off the same rebellious block. The roots of the 1917 revolt in Russia can be traced back to Manchester's own revolution. Since then St Petersburg has marched ahead in terms of touristic popularity, but this week's award may go some way to redress the balance.

Your preconceptions may take time to shake off. I have yet to find an approach to the city that does not involve passing through a desolate scattering of council flats resembling a giant, abandoned Lego project. The visitor is bound to encounter a fearsome stretch of urban motorway like the Mancunian Way, as elevated as its name, carving inelegantly through ungainly office blocks. Manchester shares more with Belgrade besides a failed bid to host the Olympics.

Demolition has been a theme ever since Manchester became the first get- rich-quick city in Britain, its development sparked by mechanisation of cotton production. Human fuel for the Industrial Revolution was shipped in like any other commodity. "Site of Little Ireland", reads a plaque on a street corner close to the Palace Theatre. "Large numbers of immigrant Irish workers lived here in appalling housing conditions." A visitor attraction that possibly helped the city win its award is a guided walking tour rejoicing in the title "Cholera in Manchester in 1832".

One of the dark, satanic employers was Friedrich Engels, whose father despatched him from Germany to work in the family cotton factory in Manchester. His productivity was directed to studying The Condition of the Working Classes in England, which was published in 1848 and planted the seed for his collaboration with Karl Marx on The Communist Manifesto three years later. Royalty was not amused. Today, the PumpHouse Peoples History Museum reminds the world that it owes an ideology to Manchester, and ensures the city's radical politics are not completely demolished in construction work for New Labour.

Ideological tokens like the global headquarters of the Co-operative movement are dotted across the city. The tourist, however, will make for the Castlefield area. At the Museum of Science and Industry, relations between power (in both senses) and prosperity are examined with imagination on the site of the world's oldest railway station.

The former terminus of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway is now devoted to the story of the city. Celia Fiennes, writing in Through England on a Side-saddle in 1697, reported: "Manchester looks exceeding well at the entrance. Very substantial buildings; the houses are not very lofty, but mostly of brick and stone." One hundred and fifty years later, much of the the city was a slum. The Underground Manchester exhibit in the bowels of the museum tells you considerably more than you ever wanted to know about sewage and the poverty prevailing in Victorian England. Things improved when the Soap Tax was repealed in 1853, and gradually some humanity took hold; Little Ireland was demolished in 1877.

Innovation remained, and a century ago something like a hydraulic prototype of the Internet was devised: a city-wide underground pressure system. Compressed air was pumped around the vity centre, operating machinery such as the safety curtain of the Opera House, the clock in the handsomeTown Hall and the organ in the cathedral.

The Victorian value of high pressure has vanished into thin air, but the heroic viaducts have survived. These days, some of the graceful redbrick arcs carry trams as they lope across the city. Old solutions are sometimes the best.

As industry declined, the only option was adopted: turn Manchester's empty spaces into a theme park. Castlefield has become Britain's first Urban Heritage Park. Before resting your head at the new canalside Youth Hostel, take a drink at the Rover's Return - the Granada complex, home of Coronation Street, completes the touristic trick.

The BBC spends thousands on teaching trainees the basics of television, but all the Corporation need do is invest pounds 12.99 a head in the hour-long tour of Granada's studios. Everything you ever wanted to know about TV, from early monochrome episodes of the Street to colour-separation overlay, is explained frame-by-frame in entertaining fashion.

For the facts that inspired the fiction of Coronation Street, you need only step 200 yards from the coach-hauled crowds at the studios. To be alone in this city of 500,000, just go for a walk by the river.

Cross the Irwell and set out along the river on the Salford side. The view from here back across Manchester is a melange of ruddy brickwork and blank high-rises, reflected in the sheen of oil obscuring the water. Trudging through the desolation, pocked by ancient wharves, you feel like the anti-hero in one of Morrissey's bleaker songs. Back in the heart of the city, Britain's biggest student population is packing out the cafes of Chinatown and the restaurants of "curry corridor"- while the tourists look curiously at their surroundings. Welcome to Manchester.