Former industrial centre Manchester now seriously rivals London in its claim to be the UK’s cultural capital, especially when it comes to music and nightlife. Plus the people are much nicer.
That would be the Northern Quarter, which offers an urban-cool alternative to the neighbouring city centre, with a vintage and vinyl vibe to its plethora of indie-styled cafes, bars and boutiques.
You probably didn’t know
What’s now the swish Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel on Peter Street used to be the Free Trade Hall, a venue for meetings and rallies built on the site of an infamous massacre of political-reform campaigners. It’s where in 1966, Bob Dylan was heckled (‘Judas’) for playing an electric guitar and where 10 years later the Sex Pistols played two legendary gigs. That’s Manchester in a nutshell.
Suggested reading and watching
To read: Manchester, England (2000) is DJ Dave Haslam’s history of the city refracted through its music and street life. To watch: 24 Hour Party People (2002) is the story of the world’s most famous nightclub, Manchester’s Hacienda.
Things to do in Mancester
The French at the Midland
One of Britain’s most exciting chefs Simon Rogan recently took over The French at the Midland, one of the city’s grand old dining rooms, and now has people travelling from all over the country to sample his six- and ten-course tasting menus. Booking well in advance is essential.
The Northern Quarter Restaurant
Taking inspiration (and its name) from its location, The Northern Quarter Restaurant (or TNQ) is cool, creative and street-smart. It has an accomplished head chef who oversees a kitchen turning out modern English classics (Cheshire lamb and beef, North Sea fish, Scottish shellfish). Look out for the good-value set menus.
Also in the Northern Quarter, Superstore takes its name from the grocer shop that used to occupy the site. Now it’s a smart restaurant specialising in small plates (five for £20/€28) from a global menu that runs from Thai-style crispy squid to Italian arancini to Lancashire black pudding. It’s very cool.
Manchester has Britain’s second-largest Chinatown, but the city’s most famous and high-profile Chinese restaurant lies outside its precincts, a short walk away, across Albert Square. Wing’s is a swanky affair, offering high-end Cantonese cuisine and an extensive wine list. It’s a big favourite with Man United players, who are often spotted here. For a budget Chinatown option, try Happy Seasons at 59-61 Faulkner Street.
Manchester is also renowned for its Indian restaurants. The stretch of Wilmslow Road that runs through the neighbourhood of Rusholme (bus Nos.41 or 42) is known locally as the ‘Curry Mile’. Try Mughli (No.30) for consistently good charcoal-grilled meats and the sign at the door that reads, ‘No free papadum… no outside food… no English food’.
The Deaf Institute
Manchester has given the world bands from the Bee Gees to Elbow, and every night of the week the next big discovery is out there gigging somewhere. One of the best venues for up-and-coming acts is The Deaf Institute, a beautiful rococo music hall that plays host to all manner of music. Another glorious place to catch a gig is the Albert Hall, a former chapel launched as an atmospheric music venue in 2013.
The Eagle and The Star and Garter
Marble Arch, The Briton’s Protection and BrewDog
With beautiful tiled walls and floor, Manchester’s most beautiful traditional pub has to be the Marble Arch on Rochdale Road, just north of the Northern Quarter. It does its own beers and also serves excellent food. The Briton’s Protection has been voted ‘Best Pub in Manchester’ twice in recent years; it attracts classical musicians from the Bridgewater Hall over the road. BrewDog is a chain with bars in many major UK cities but its an excellent place to drink with its own splendidly named brews, from Punk IPA to Dead Pony Pale; its Manchester branch, on Peter Street, has a great glass frontage for prime people watching.
Avenue shopping centre
The area around Cross Street, King Street and Exchange Square has always been Manchester’s upmarket shopping district, where all the big-name international brands gather. Now there is competition in the form of the new purpose-built Avenue shopping centre in the Spinningfields area, off Deansgate. Shops include Armani, Mulberry, a Flannels and luxury British footwear brand Oliver Sweeney, plus there are some great eating and drinking venues.
The Trafford Centre
Just outside the city, the Trafford Centre is the second largest shopping centre in the UK, with over 280 shops and even accommodation. Find everything here from an Apple store to Hamleys toy store to Five Guys brugeers and fries. To get here, take the Metrolink to Stretford then pick up the shuttle bus.
For something far more quirky, the legendary Afflecks is a self-described ‘emporium of eclecticism’. It’s a former department store, where since 1981 the multiple floors have been filled by myriad small, independent stalls and boutiques offering everything from cafes with a menu of breakfast cereals only to body-piercing studios.
Piccadilly Records and Eastern Bloc Records
Manchester is one of the UK’s best cities for vinyl record stores. King of them all is Piccadilly Records at 53 Oldham Street in the Northern Quarter, which has been in business since 1978. Eastern Bloc Records on Stevenson Square, again in the Northern Quarter, specialises in dance; it also has superb café with some of the best coffee in town.
The latest addition (opened April 2015) to the scene is HOME, a three-level culture house with architecture by Dutch practice Mecanoo, that combines art, film and theatre under one roof, plus talks, discussions, launches, one-off events, and an outdoor (a rarity for Manchester) restaurant and bar.
Also new in 2015, the city’s 19th-century Whitworth Gallery re-opened following a £15m redevelopment. The permanent collection of 55,000 artworks, including pieces by Degas, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Gauguin, plus textiles and wallpapers, is supplemented by regular exhibitions. It sits in a very lovely park.
Manchester Music Tours
For over ten years former Inspiral Carpets drummer Craig Gill has been leading Manchester Music Tours, offering walking and bus excursions around the city linking together sites associated with The Smiths, Oasis, The Stone Roses and Joy Division. Tours take place daily, last two to three hours and cost from £10-£25 (€14-€35) per person.
Manchester’s once-busy docklands have been transformed into what’s now called The Quays. The regenerated area includes The Lowry, a busy arts complex combined with shopping and dining, and the Imperial War Museum North, examining conflict from the First World War to 911, and worth a visit (it’s free) just for the striking shrapnel-inspired architecture by Daniel Liebskind and the ascent to the top of the Air Shard viewing tower. To get here take the Metrolink tram to the MediaCityUK stop.
Old Trafford Stadium
Also at The Quays is Old Trafford Stadium, home of Manchester United football club. It’s almost impossible to get a ticket to watch a game but you can book stadium tours and explore 130 years of the club’s history at the museum & tour centre. Tickets cost £18, and tours happen every day except match days.
Events to look out for:
- Manchester Beer & Cider Festival (January)
- Chinese New Year (February)
- Manchester Food & Drink Festival
- Manchester Day (June)
- Manchester International Festival (every other July, next one 2017)
- Manchester Pride (August)
- Manchester Literature Festival (October)
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