A powerhouse in the Industrial Revolution, the birthplace of the suffragette and vegetarian movements, and known worldwide for its legendary music and football scenes—they have two teams, after all—Manchester, England, combines historic tourist attractions with cutting-edge culture. On city breaks in Manchester, you’ll see huge former mills and factories, which are now buzzing bars and swanky hotels, alongside modern buildings that are changing the face of the city.
The diversity of the city makes it an exciting place to visit year-round and in its surprisingly compact city center you can walk between a varied range of things to do in Manchester, dipping in and out of cool coffee shops, independent boutiques, alternative record shops and friendly bars as you stroll. Admire art in its galleries and on the walls of its streets, be wowed by imposing neo-Gothic buildings such as John Ryland’s Library and discover its thriving restaurant scene with everything from Indian street food and tapas to contemporary British dishes. And don’t forget to sample its nightlife. After all, according to radio presenter Mark Radcliffe, Manchester “is a city that thinks a table is for dancing on.”
Manchester’s restaurant scene is flourishing at the moment and, in 2019, the city was awarded its first Michelin star in more than 40 years for Mana in Ancoats. The restaurant, headed by star chef Simon Martin (ex-Noma), boasts 16-course, tastebud-blowing degustation menus that will set you back 100 quid (without wine). Even if your budget doesn’t stretch to fine dining, Ancoats is a great area to head to for imaginative dishes from innovative independents. Stand-out options include Sugo Pasta Kitchen where Pugliese pasta is smothered in bold sauces, Rudy’s for some of the best pizza in Manchester—the margherita with buffalo mozzarella is a standout—and The Hip Hop Chip Shop on Blossom Street where vegan options such as soy and seaweed “fish” steaks with mushy peas share the menu with battered fish and pies.
Elsewhere in the city, there are plenty of options for excellent food stops while sightseeing, from the slick cocktail bars and restaurants such as The Alchemist in the business hub Spinningfields to cool venues such as Hatch, a market hall on Oxford Road offering 15 different food and drink options including Scandinavia espresso bar Takk.
The expansive and varied Mackie Mayor food hall on the edge of the city centre’s Northern Quarter is a fantastic choice for lunch as its independent stalls serve diners everything from tacos to steak at long, communal wooden tables, perfect for chatter and friendly conversations with strangers. Bundobust near Piccadilly Gardens offers a winning combination of zingy and authentic Indian street food (all vegetarian) with craft beer and cocktails in a convivial atmosphere.
Manchester’s popular Northern Quarter is a great area to sample a slice of the city with plenty of things to see and do. Start in Stevenson Square to admire the street art which has been created as part of the city’s Out House Project, a public art exhibition which sees the square’s buildings repainted every three months by members of the street art community. Just off Stevenson Square, there’s a huge mural on Little Lever Street (just behind the Cow Hollow Hotel and the Greater Manchester Police Museum) called “Serenity” by stencil artists SNIK. It’s a picture of a woman in a red dress and is said to be a tribute to all women who stand against injustice. Its setting was chosen as the suffragettes often held meetings in Stevenson Square. Other good spots to spot street art include Spear Street and Tariff Street.
Manchester is a city based around music so it’s only fitting that the independent vinyl shops carry many classic records by local artists such as The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Oasis, The Verve and the underrated The Railway Children. Both Piccadilly Records and the Vinyl Exchange on Oldham Street cater to music aficionados who know the difference between post-punk experimentalism and New Romantic flamboyance.
After a day of rummaging through row after row of dusty records, it’s time to drink. The Northern Quarter is stuffed with places to eat and drink. Try Allotment if gin is your drink of choice, Port Street Beerhouse for craft beer, and BAB for some of the tastiest kebabs in the city. You can also buy some locally made art in Manchester Craft and Design Centre, where there’s jewelry, ceramics and more, or head to the classic Manchester shopping emporium, Afflecks Palace, for a taste of alternative Manchester.
When it gets dark, there are plenty of bars to party in, in and around the Northern Quarter, too. Try Soup Kitchen if there’s a gig in its basement or Science and Industry for imaginative cocktails—it’s hidden away behind a secret door in the Cane & Grain bar, so you may have to ask a local to help you find it.
If you’re in Manchester for a short break, you’ll want to explore other areas of the city, too. So, shake off the night before by learning all about football and trying a few moves yourself. Football is an important part of Manchester’s identity and the city is home to two world-famous teams—City and United—as well as the National Football Museum.
In a striking curved glass building, the National Football Museum is around a five-minute walk from the Northern Quarter. Highlights include having your photograph taken with a replica of the Premier League trophy, challenging your friends to a penalty shoot-out against a virtual goalkeeper, admiring its memorabilia, and attempting to commentate on a Match of the Day clip using an autocue.
But for fans, not much can beat visiting Manchester’s football stadiums themselves. If you’re not visiting the city for a match, book a stadium tour for a behind-the-scenes peek at the big hitters. At Manchester United’s Old Trafford, also known as the “Theatre ofDreams,” you’ll be able to walk next to the pitch, go into the trophy room, peer down the players’ tunnel and take a seat in the dugouts.
Meanwhile, at the Etihad Stadium, home to Manchester City, you can attend a press conference with a virtual Pep Guardiola, feel what it’s like in the players’ tunnel and take a look in the players’ dressing room.
If football isn’t top of your agenda, head out of the city centre up Oxford Road to explore The Whitworth gallery where there’s art on display inside and out. If you walk, stop en route in The Refuge bar and restaurant for a drink or meal in opulent, but cool, Victorian surroundings where glazed tiles gleam, ceilings soar and some excellent drinks are served—try The Glamour of Manchester cocktail.
Set in a park, The Whitworth is part of the University of Manchester, and its varied collections range from historic fine art, textiles from around the world and wallpaper to a stainless steel “ghost tree” outside its café. Exhibitions change regularly, so check what’s on before a visit. Allow plenty of time to explore The Whitworth’s galleries and plan a stop in its good-looking
café, where floor to ceiling windows make you feel like you are among the trees. If you’re visiting on a Thursday, complement a visit here with a trip to The Pankhurst Centre, a five-minute walk away. This is Emmeline Pankhurst’s former home and is where the first meeting of the suffragettes was held.
Manchester Art Gallery is another great option for art enthusiasts. In a Grade I–listed building on central Mosley Street, it’s a place to slip away to temporarily escape the busy streets outside. Here you’ll be able to wander around peaceful galleries containing fine art, sculptures and craft and design, plus exciting changing exhibitions. Grayson’s Art Club was a popular recent exhibition.
Despite its grand building, it’s not a stuffy gallery and Manchester Art Gallery aims to reach as many people as possible. To help visitors to temporarily switch off from the overstimulation of modern life, there’s a dedicated space called “Room to Breathe,” which aims to help you to appreciate art in a more mindful way. Everything in the space has been carefully chosen to reduce stress and encourage a deeper engagement with art, and there
are audio guides to help you see works from its collection using mindful techniques. Again, allow time on a visit to eat in the café, where treats include afternoon tea, coffee and cake, and dishes by Masterchef: The Professionals finalist, chef Adam Leavy.
To see another Manchester cultural institution, walk for around 10 minutes from Manchester At Gallery to Deansgate, passing Manchester’s imposing Town Hall, to reach John Rylands Library. Founded as a memorial to Manchester’s first multi-millionaire, textiles merchant John Rylands, by his wife Enriqueta, it’s worth a visit to admire the building’s architecture alone.
The library is a handsome red sandstone neo-gothic building with turrets on its exterior, while inside a highlight will be stepping into the enormous historic reading room with its vaulted ceiling, stained glass window and white marble statues of Enriqueta and John Rylands.
As well as books, the St John Fragment, which is widely regarded as the earliest part of any New Testament writing in existence, can be found here (currently not on display until early 2023). There are also changing exhibitions such as “The British Pop Archive,” which brings together records and artefacts of UK popular culture and counterculture from the post-war period to now. Look out for Manchester focused items such as Ian Curtis’ handwritten lyrics
for some of Joy Division’s songs, and scripts, and letters and designs revealing Tony Wilson’s vision for Factory Records and his work for Granada TV.
You can learn more about what makes Manchester so special by walking for around 10 minutes up Deansgate to the Science and Industry Museum. On the site of the oldest surviving passenger railway station in the world and spread across five listed buildings, this museum will allow you to explore 250 years of innovations and ideas that started life in Manchester.
The museum’s Textiles Gallery is a great place to start to learn all about the city that was once known as “Cottonopolis,” due to it being the centre of the world’s cotton industry. Here you’ll be able to see machines that were essential to the Industrial Revolution and you may even catch a demonstration of the noisy machinery. Look out too for “Baby,” the first computer to store and run a program, and a Rolls Royce car that is believed to have been
driven by Henry Royce himself. Rolls-Royce began in Manchester after Henry Royce met Charles Rolls at the nearby Midland Hotel.
End a visit here by strolling to the canal-side Castlefield neighbourhood for a drink by the water and to see remains and reconstruction of the Roman fort of Mamucium.
The Cow Hollow Hotel
The Cow Hollow Hotel in the Northern Quarter is a cool-as-a-cucumber choice with a chic bar. In a former textile mill, expect lashings of exposed brick and original beams complemented by high-end finishes such as bronze rainfall showers. You get lots of lovely extras for your money—there’s complimentary prosecco and nibbles between 6 pm and 8 pm, milk and cookies before bed, and breakfast bags are delivered to your room. Bedrooms are snug but high-end and include free Netflix and hairstyling kits.
Native Manchester, a couple of minutes’ walk from Piccadilly railway station, is the new kid on the block. The 166 trendy apartments share a vast Grade II–listed former cotton warehouse with Cultureplex, a social space with a bar, restaurant, mini cinema, coffee shop and independent gym. It’s an impressive space to relax in with a glass ceiling looking up to the apartments, vaulted brick ceilings and towering cast-iron columns.