Madchester. Old Trafford. Corrie. Manchester looms large in Britain’s pop culture consciousness, but it’s never made much of an impact as a UK city break. When you go there, that seems astounding – not only does the city have its own distinctive look and feel – courtesy of smart, redbrick former factory buildings and placid canal paths strung with festoon lights – but it’s got one of the UK’s most exciting food scenes. You could dine out here every meal of the day for a week and still not scratch the surface of what its chefs have to offer.
In fact, Manchester is so cool that it recently scored third place in Time Out’s well respected list of the World’s Best Cities. Yes, there’s a rather generic city centre with the hulking presence of the Arndale Centre, fringed with high street shops – but duck beyond it and you’ll find impossibly chic townhouse hotels, sophisticated sky bars, a charming waterfront quarter and dinners beyond your wildest dreams.
What to do
Wander its creative neighbourhoods
This is one of those brilliantly laid-back cities that has no unified cultural and historic checklist. Yes, you could pop into The Lowry for a cutting-edge art exhibition or take a stadium tour of Manchester United’s home, Old Trafford. But really, high culture is optional here – instead, the best way to get acquainted with this city is by wandering its character-packed food and shopping neighbourhoods, stuffed with intriguing boutiques and eye-grabbing street art.
Start with the raved-about Northern Quarter, the grid of streets sandwiched between Dale Street and Shudehill. Here you’ll find a glut of trendy fried chicken and pizza joints, fancy modern-British restaurants and slick cocktail bars hemmed by florists or hip stationers, as well as vintage boutiques and concept stores. A stroll of Canal Street, the heart of the city’s world-famous Gay Village, is also essential to take in the festoon lights, rainbow flags and general buzz.
Next venture northeast to Ancoats, a slick residential neighbourhood-of-the-future where former industrial buildings have been reimagined as apartments and offices, and several sought-after restaurants lie within footsteps of one another. Foodies’ hit lists will include advance-res tables at Erst, Mana and Sugo. Lastly, take advantage of a non-drizzly afternoon to wander Castlefield, a polished-up canalside quarter to the south of the city – with uniformly charming redbrick buildings, romantic bridges and weeping willows draped over painted barges, it’s impossibly romantic. Stop off for a pint at waterfront pub The Wharf.
Soak up the culture
Museums are, as we say, optional – but Manchester’s got a good eye for a quirky exhibition. Take Use Hearing Protection, a striking history of the city’s iconic Factory Records at the edgy Science and Industry Museum, running until 3 January 2022. Graphic art and punk-infused synth-rock combine with the curious tale of rolling out a record label in pre-digital times, complete with scribbled 80s set-lists, typewritten notes and blaring archive footage.
Feminist history also roars on in this city: stop into the Pankhurst Centre to see pioneering suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst’s home, where many of the movement’s early meetings took place, preserved in quaint style – it still helps women today as a base for Manchester Women’s Aid. Then visit Cranford author Elizabeth Gaskell’s house to find out why “Mrs Gaskell” was the toast of Victorian literary circles (even Dickens was a fan).
You’ll spot striking street art across town, from the city’s spirit-animal worker bee painted several storeys high, to warnings about “No planet B” and LGBT icons in full technicolour in the Gay Village. Take a mural-themed tour with Hayley Flynn, aka Skyliner, to get under the skin of this artistic, anarchic tradition and its place in the city.
Take a breather at its new botanical garden
Pretty walled gardens bloom with climbers, wildflowers and shrubs sculpted like beehives at the recently opened RHS Bridgewater – the transformed grounds of a former stately home a 25-minute drive out of the city centre. Book a £14 ticket to get the free shuttle bus included (from both Victoria and Piccadilly stations) – then head out for the morning to blast away the cobwebs with a walk around its rush-trimmed lake and a meditation on trickling cascades in its Chinese garden. A big log-built playground for kids and lovely waterfront café for grown-ups means everyone will come away refreshed.
Where to stay
To get some kip in one of the city’s grand heritage buildings, check into the Kimpton Clocktower, in an impossibly ornate building in High Victorian style, that once contained (somewhat anticlimactically) a life insurance company. From the fragrant florist at the doors of the echoing marble lobby to velvet furniture, cocktail shakers and record players in the suites, it’s a class act. Not checking in? Swish restaurant Refuge by Volta is a must-visit. Doubles from £147, including a decent hot buffet breakfast. kimptonclocktowerhotel.com
Or make like the North’s models and influencers and hole up at King Street Townhouse, a glam 40-room boutique base with a steaming, open-facing rooftop pool facing the spires of Manchester Town Hall (sadly under scaffolding until 2024). Plush suites come in upmarket shades of ivory, duck-egg blue or pebble grey with snuggly bedding and freestanding bathtubs; a steam room and relaxation area on the top floor and private movie nights in a mini cinema complete the picture. Doubles from £162, room only. kingstreettownhouse.co.uk
For a bargain stay right in the so-now Northern Quarter, try The Abel Heywood, a pub with rather snug but modern rooms where your food and shopping hit list is right on the doorstep. Exposed brick, embroidered rugs and mismatched bathroom tiles add dollops of character, while friendly staff point you towards their local favourites. Doubles from £81, room only – breakfast costs £10 extra. abelheywood.co.uk
Where to eat
Just strolling the Northern Quarter, you’ll stumble upon more teeny-trendy ramen bars and fried chicken shops than you can shake a hipster stick at. But the best Sunday lunch in town is down in the city centre, at Kala Bistro – we’d heartily recommend the roast sirloin of beef for two, an ample banquet involving Yorkshire puddings the size of a magic eight ball and syrupy, umami-rich gravy. But they’re just as hot on daily-changing fish specials and elegantly prepared veggie dishes, on a seasonal menu that’s lovingly crafted by friendly, informative staff.
This city does flash just as well as it does hip: mingle with the bankers and #influencers at Tattu, a neon-lit pan-Asian joint draped with faux cherry blossom trees and projections inspired by tattoo art. You’ll share a selection of sizzling, zesty small plates that come out as and when they’re ready – and then there’s the novelty ‘Celestial Dragon’ cocktail, served in a glass serpent decanter and poured into smoking goblets.
Just one of Manchester’s glam food halls, poured into repurposed buildings, Mackie Mayor is somewhere you could happily lose several hours. Set in a delightfully high-arched, faded former meat market in the Northern Quarter, it’s trimmed with slick street food vendors (ramen, burgers, tacos, pizza), craft brewers and wine bars. Our tip is bao buns from New Wave Ramen paired with a West Coast IPA from Blackjack.
Where to drink
The sexiest, most atmospheric late-night place in town is Schofield’s Bar, where an A-team of ex-Claridge’s mixologists have crafted a menu of whimsical delights served in low-lit corners. Try the Scotch, fig and sherry-infused Baxter for a twist on the classic nightcap; or a tonka-bean-laced take on an Irish coffee.
Settle into Tariff & Dale in the Northern Quarter for a game of pool and a stiff drink, served within exposed-brick walls with a rough’n’ready, Brooklyn-esque vibe. Knowledgeable staff will point you towards creations beyond the excellent classics (we liked the black walnut and fig Old Fashioned), plus croquettes, calamari and pizzas for the peckish.
Pop in for a pint at The Old Wellington, a half-timbered inn that’s the city’s oldest building. Built in 1552, it was raised onto planks and moved 100 metres in 1998 to make way for the Arndale Centre, in whose shadow it now sits. It’s a pleasant stop after seeing the city cathedral, right next door.
Where to shop
Japanese kitchen knives, good quality pencils, scented candles, berets, camouflage cutlery, keep cups and terrariums are just some of the things you’ll find in the Deadstock General Store, a delightfully quirky boutique on Edge Street in the Northern Quarter.
At the Queer Lit Bookshop on Tib Street, a tome called The Queeriodic Table is draped with a rainbow flag alongside cookbooks from Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski and Madeleine Miller’s Song of Achilles. Dig deep in this bijou neighbourhood treasure to appreciate every shade of the rainbow.
Peruse Mexican-inspired textiles and beaded sugar skulls among more classy-trashy homewares curios – mugs where images of Jesus are summoned by hot water, George Michael Christmas baubles – at neon-technicolour boutique Oklahoma, which champions independent artists and craftspeople.
At legendary art supplies store Fred Aldous, you’ll easily lose an hour scoping out two floors of paints, brushes, knitting wool, graphic posters, games, toys and strokeable notebooks in a vintage setting, with photo booths on hand to record the moment.
The blackened battlements and Neogothic arches of the sooty-red John Rylands Library won’t fail to catch your eye as you stroll city centre artery Deansgate. It has a curious tale of its own, having been established by the book-loving widow of Manchester’s first multi-millionaire. Pop in Wednesdays to Saturdays from 10am-12pm or 1.30-5pm to see the cavernous insides.
Nuts and bolts
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
Yes – between 10 and 15 per cent will do.
What’s the time difference?
Unsurprisingly, it’s on UK time.
How should I get around?
On foot – though don’t forget your brolly. If you get tired of pounding the pavement, there are free city buses and a tram network.
What’s the best view?
Upmarket bar and restaurant 20 Stories, in Spinningfields, gives glorious panoramas of the skyline.
Lots of Manchester’s top restaurants close on a Monday, so avoid any attempts to just rock up that day – foodie quarters like Ancoats are practically deserted.
Avanti trains has returns from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly from £62 return; while EMR (East Midlands Railway) serves St Pancras to Manchester Piccadilly.
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