Our microguides series is inspired by the slow travel movement, encouraging travellers to relax their pace and take a deep dive into one particular neighbourhood in a well-loved city. Rather than a whirlwind itinerary which aims to hit up every must-see attraction, these compact, close-up guides encourage you to zone in, take your time and truly explore like a local.
Manchester’s creative neighbourhood, the Northern Quarter, is the place to go for a good time. In its huddled, mural-adorned streets you’ll find a huge spectrum of eating, drinking, live music and quirky shopping venues, delivering craft beers, imaginative cocktails, perfectly presented flat whites or vintage clothes.
Sandwiched between Piccadilly railway station and the Arndale Centre, it’s also the area of Manchester with the highest density of listed buildings – from Victorian markets and textile warehouses to historic weavers’ houses – making it a popular backdrop for films and TV shows.
It’s not always been cool, though; 2022 marks 30 years since Manchester City Council employed an artist-in-residence, Liam Curtin, to create public art and kickstart a change in this formerly rundown area. The NQ’s unique blue-and-white ceramic street signs, created as part of this regeneration, will still guide you around its mishmash of treasures. If you need more help, here are some of its best bits, from hidden bars and standout artworks to great value places to eat.
Spot street art
You can’t miss this neighbourhood’s colourful street art. The murals in central Stevenson Square are repainted regularly as part of the city’s “Out House” project, while bigger pieces – such as an enormous blue tit by Faunagraphic on Newton Street and a woman in a scarlet dress called “Serenity” by SNIK on Little Lever Street – are popular ones for an arty holiday snap. To dig into the meaning behind the spray paint, book an “anti-tour” of the area and its art with Hayley Flynn, aka Skyliner, who has been guiding visitors for a decade.
Go to a gig
Many venues in the Northern Quarter host live music performances, but Band on the Wall, the city’s oldest music venue, is a Manchester institution. Joy Division, Buzzcocks and the Fall played some of their earliest gigs here and, in 2022, it reopened after a £3.5m transformation and expansion. Expect DJ sets, soul soloists, Afro-Latin groups and Indie bands on an eclectic line-up. Some gigs are free, others could set you back around £20 or £30.
Walk around a film set
The Northern Quarter’s textile warehouses, with external metal fire escapes and back alleys, often stand in for New York in films. As you wander around this quarter, you’ll spot locations used in big hitters such as Captain America, Morbius and The Crown, as well as spots from the Channel 4 series, It’s a Sin. Lee Perkins from The Locationist can guide you around “seen on screen” pockets of the Northern Quarter and beyond.
If being in this artsy district gets your creative juices flowing, consider taking a workshop with the Ministry of Craft. This cute neighbourhood skills centre offers introductions to everything from macramé and screen printing to calligraphy, so you’ll be able to learn a new skill, then take your own handmade memento home.
This Grade-II-listed former meat market building on the edge of the Northern Quarter hides a vast food hall stacked with tasty, independent food vendors and craft beer bars. Arrive at lunchtime to sit under lofty, arched ceilings and high peeling walls on rustic communal benches occupied mainly by locals. Choose between tacos, sourdough pizza, Thai street food and more, then peruse Atkinsons’ selection of cakes.
TNQ Restaurant and Bar
New bars and restaurants constantly pop up in the Northern Quarter, but old-timer TNQ has been serving reliably excellent British food since 2004. Sunday roasts are a treat, accompanied by crispy potatoes roasted with garlic, truffle cauliflower cheese, fluffy Yorkshire puddings and lashings of gravy. And vegetarians aren’t an afterthought: melt-in-the mouth kale, chestnut and mushroom wellington shares the menu with a choice of beef, lamb or pork belly. Ask for a table next to the window to gaze out at Smithfield Fish Market, and go in the afternoon to snap up a deal such as a two-course express menu for £17.95 (Monday to Saturday; 12-5.30pm), or a two-course Sunday lunch for £21.95.
Feel Good Club
Launched by Kiera and Aimie Lawlor-Skillen – describing themselves as “two wives on a mission to make you feel good” – this wellbeing and mental health café is a popular new addition to the neighbourhood. You could meet locals at a “speed-mating” evening called Feel Good Friends, attend an art-themed evening where you paint your own dog, play board games over beer, or simply pop in for a coffee and an indulgent weekend waffle sandwich. Its open-plan space is softened by pastel pink on tiles and chairs plus hanging plants. All events are dog-friendly and the menu includes “puppuccinos”.
This & That Café
Only those in the know make it to This & That Cafe, a hard-to-stumble-upon joint that’s known for its excellent value “rice and three” dishes – rice with three curries of your choice. At a bargainous £4.50 for the veggie option, and up to £6.50 for the meat curry variety (combinations of both are available), it’s worth hunting for – you’ll find it on Soap Street, behind Trof restaurant. Décor is simple, and the canteen-style food is served quickly.
The NQ is a haven of mini cocktail dens, with top choices including bijou The Daisy underneath brunch spot Evelyn’s (open Thursday to Sunday – book in advance), and sophisticated Mecanica on Swan Street, which takes its inspiration from the world’s best hotel bars. “Hidden” cocktail bars are particularly popular at the moment, so set off in search of Science & Industry, subtly tucked behind a concealed door in restaurant Cane and Grain. Mixed in an “experimental lab”, S&I’s imaginative cocktails fold in bold flavours such as bee pollen, Scotch, red wine and marmalade syrup.
The Castle Hotel
Unlike many Northern Quarter bars, The Castle Hotel is not a place to pose. It’s a cosy, hyper-traditional pub that dates back to 1776, with a brown glazed tile exterior and a live music venue secreted at the back. If there isn’t a gig on, grab a pint and pick a song on its jukebox.
On the borders of the NQ and next-door-neighbour Ancoats, Ramona is set in a former MOT garage. It’s a buzzy place to head for frozen margaritas, tequila shots or its own brand of pilsner. Soak up the booze with its Detroit-style slices of pizza or “tater tots” smothered in truffle mayo, pecorino and parsley.
No trip to the Northern Quarter is complete without a mooch around maze-like, eclectic shopping emporium Afflecks Palace. Inside you can buy everything from fancy dress and vintage clothes to crystals and records. Treat yourself to a fig leaf & apple or “Marmalade On Toast” ice cream from Ginger’s Comfort Emporium on the first floor.
Whether you’re after art supplies, an unusual gift, a card or a new notebook, independent craft shop and local institution Fred Aldous, in Stevenson Square, has you covered. Be prepared to leave with items you never knew you needed – knit-your-own-moustache kit or Dog Bingo, anyone?
Oldham Street has an intriguing cluster of specialist shops. Buy comics in Forbidden Planet, watch a band at Night and Day Café, or peruse vintage shops galore. Its Piccadilly Records is regarded as one of the best independent record shops around, so head there to leaf through vinyl from renowned Manchester and international bands.
Cow Hollow Hotel
The epitome of Northern Quarter cool, the Cow Hollow Hotel is a 16-room boutique bolthole in a former textiles warehouse. Rooms are small but decor is stylish, with swathes of exposed brick and bronze rainfall showers. Perks include complimentary Prosecco and nibbles, milk and cookies before bed, breakfast bag and TVs pre-stocked with Netflix. Doubles from £99. cowhollow.co.uk
The snug Abel Heywood pub has 15 excellent value rooms for an easy crashpad in the heart of the ’hood. Entry-level rooms are petite but comfortable, and all have Manchester cityscapes above beds, bathrooms with patchwork tiles and retro radios or record players. Loft rooms have a double sofa bed too. Doubles from £85. abelheywood.co.uk
Trying to fly less?
You’d almost certainly get the train to Manchester from elsewhere in the UK; trains from London take just over two hours and start from around £32 each way. Direct trains from Edinburgh take just over three hours and start from around £40 each way, while travellers from Bristol can connect in Newport and Exeter travellers in Birmingham or Reading. There are also direct trains from Liverpool, Norwich and York to one of Manchester’s three main stations.
Fine with flying?
If you’re visiting Manchester from further afield, the city has an airport with international routes.
Read More: Best hotels in Manchester
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