Once overlooked as a gritty northern English industrial town in decline, Manchester has reinvented itself as a chic, cultured city well worth visiting for museums, music and more.
As one of the great industrial centers of the 19th century, Manchester was once one of the world’s most energetic cities. Then Britain lost its empire and later its industrial base, and Manchester went into a decline that spared only its famous football team.
Yet over the last 15 years, the extraordinary has happened: this gritty and determined city has scrubbed off its coal dust and reinvented itself as the chic and happening urban epicenter of northern England.
Former cotton factories have become boutique hotels, complete with funky jazz bars. Quirky shopping has invaded the Northern Quarter, and industrial warehouses are now sought-after loft apartments.
New buildings mushroom skywards, with Beetham Tower the country’s second-tallest building. For visitors, stylish shopping, bars, and restaurants beckon, and Manchester has a newfound buzz.
Start in the city center and you’ll see just how impressive Manchester was in its heyday. Much of its Victorian-era civic architecture has been restored, though you’ll have to wait until 2014 to get inside the magnificent glass-domed reading room of Central Library.
Outside, this enormous building with its Greek columns and grand portico, like those surrounding it, reflects the confidence of pre-war Britain.
Manchester has discovered an interest in its old industrial heritage. Entire steam engines are being restored in the cavernous Transport Museum. The Museum of Science and Industry, rather appropriately, occupies the old railway terminus from which industrial goods were once sent across the globe. This is the place to investigate the history of printing, electricity and textile manufacturing, and even inspect Victorian-era sewers.
The complex is part of an entire urban heritage park at Castlefield, southwest of the city center. It also boasts the terminus of the world’s first industrial canal (1764) and first public railway station (1830). Now television shows, music festivals, gastro-pubs and fashionable bars have moved into the old warehouses, where 19th-century architecture meets ultra-modern glass and steel additions.
Further to the west, Docklands has also undergone an overhaul, the highlight of which is The Lowry, an arts and entertainment center incorporating theatres, galleries, shops, and restaurants. The theatre is the largest outside London and attracts top-notch productions, while the Lowry Museum features many contemporary artists but focuses on L. S. Lowry, who made a name for himself in the early 20th-century painting many of Manchester’s grim, industrial scenes.
The Lowry Centre, home to the largest theatre outside London, illuminated in the early evening. The Victorian heritage of manchester's industrial boom can be seen in buildings such as the Town Hall with its magnificent clocktower. The brand-new National Football Museum where visitors can learn about England's most popular sport. One of the city's 'skyhooks' by sculptor Brian Fell, celebrating its links to engineering.
Manchester was once one of the world’s most energetic cities.
Thing to do in Manchester UK:
- Mr Thomas’s Chophouse
This downtown heritage pub is a grand Victorian-era wonder for its décor, with photos of old Manchester on the walls. Try cask ales such as Landlord or Boddington, and traditional British favorites such as steak-and-kidney pudding, braised oxtail or Lancashire hotpot (lamb with vegetables).
- College of Music
The Royal Northern College of Music is a leading conservatoire and hosts regular concerts of everything from classical music to opera and jazz. It also showcases an eclectic range of other music from the likes of guitar legends and ﬁlm music composers. www.rncm.ac.uk
- Curry Mile
In a recent poll, Britons nominated curry as their preferred national dish. Curry Mile, the nickname for Wilmslow Road in southern Manchester, has over 70 restaurants rich with the aromas of Indian, South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine, competing with the smell of shisha smoke from cafés.
The Millennium Bridge, spanning the Manchester Ship Canal. As a center of manufacturing, a network of myriad waterways was essential for transporting goods and remain largely unchanged today. Signifying Manchester's successful reinvention of itself, older architecture sits happily with new. Beetham Tower can be seen in the background, the tallest building in the city.
Manchester is rich in museums. Just across the river, the high-tech Imperial War Museum North steals some of the thunder from its London parent and even goes one better with its interactive experiences. Two of Manchester’s art galleries are also well worth visiting.
Whitworth Art Gallery is terrific just for its Turner watercolors, but it also features an outstanding international textiles gallery. Manchester Art Gallery, meanwhile, is notable for its Pre-Raphaelite works, as well as decorative arts such as glass, metalware, porcelain, silverware, and furnishings.
It recently underwent a revamp and extension that virtually doubled its size. It’s one of the country’s best galleries, and also features Dutch masters and Turner sea paintings.
The Museum of Science and Industry, dedicated to Manchester's role in leading technological innovation in the 19th century.
Of course, culture is defined in many ways, and Manchester thankfully isn’t all highbrow. At MediaCity, the northern headquarters of the BBC, you can take behind-the-scenes tours and learn how radio and television shows are produced.
The BBC Philharmonic and Hallé are the city’s two acclaimed orchestras, but Manchester has also produced chart-topping music acts such as Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, and Oasis. Many clubs provide a heady live-music scene: hard rock at Star & Garter, jazz at Matt & Phreds, late-night local musicians at scruffy Big Hands.
The newest addition to Manchester’s impressive museum scene is the just-opened National Football Museum. The triangular glass building houses the usual suspects, from football jerseys to signed World Cup balls and other memorabilia. But it excels in explaining football’s history and its importance to fans, and provides wonderful interactive experiences in which you can test your commentary skills or try a penalty shoot-out.