Head for Manchester to experience the latest incarnation of one of England’s liveliest cities. As these top ten things to do in Manchester demonstrate, this is an entrepreneurial city that has reinvented itself over and over.
Once England’s northwestern powerhouse, in the 18th and 19th centuries it was the driving force behind the industrial revolution. Its wealthy industrial tycoons endowed the city with museums, galleries, concert halls, universities and more. Creative institutions breed creativity so that today, Manchester has some of the most exciting architecture in Britain as well as a lively music and art scene on a par with London.
These ten things to do in Manchester will keep you busy.
01. Learn About Britain’s National Sport: Football
You may call it soccer, but in the UK the game is called football and for many it’s the only game in town. In Manchester football really matters. The city has two teams that play at the highest level of the game — the Premier League — Manchester United and Manchester City. Both teams offer fans and football mad tourists a variety of tours. Man United’s historic stadium, Old Trafford, near Salford Quays, has a museum and offers a variety of museum and stadium tour packages, including canal and museum tours that start in the city center. Man City plays at Etihad Stadium, about a 25-minute walk from the Manchester Piccadilly Station in the city center. Their stadium tour takes you behind the scenes to walk in the footsteps of favorite players.
If you can’t squeeze stadium tours into your itinerary, you can still soak up the Manchester football vibe at the National Football Museum. Located in Urbis, the city center’s ultra modern exhibition building, it’s the world’s largest museum devoted to this sport. And it’s free.
02. Immerse Yourself in Music
Manchester is “Music City UK”. Dozens of internationally famous indie, rock and pop bands got their start here — going back to the ’60s with Herman’s Hermits and Freddie and the Dreamers, right up to today with Morrissey, Oasis, Take That, The Stone Roses and The Smiths. The city has a large student population and loads of music venue to cater to all tastes. They range from the giant Manchester Arena (recently reopened after the tragic May 2017 terror attack) to medium sized halls such as the Lowry at Salford Quays, to hundreds of small, intimate spaces and clubs that remain hothouses for new indie talent. Find the latest Manchester concerts, live gigs and club nights on Skiddle or from the What’s On pages of the Manchester Evening News.
If classical music is more your thing, you can visit The Bridgewater Hall, where Manchester’s own Halle Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic perform along with a full schedule of visiting companies and soloists. For classical music, opera, ballet and dance, check out the listing website BachTrack.
03. Browse the Art Galleries
Manchester’s “barons” of industry believed in culture and philanthropy. They endowed the city with wonderful museums and left their fabulous collections for all to enjoy. That tradition continues, with public and commercial galleries cropping up all over the city. Among the most outstanding, Manchester Art Gallery is noted for its collections of fine art, design and costume, 13,000 works of art amassed over 200 years. The Whitworth Art Gallery, at the University of Manchester has just undergone a multi-million pound redevelopment, taking full advantage of its park like setting. There you can spot instantly recognizable romantic landscapes by Turner, alongside European Old Masters and Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings by Rosetti, Millais, William Blake, Holman Hunt and Burne-Jones. Both are open every day and entry is free.
Fans of Manchester’s favorite son, artist L.S. Lowry, will find the world’s largest public collection of his unique paintings and drawings at the aptly named Lowry, on Salford Quays. Gallery interpreters lead free half hour tours of the Lowry Exhibition every day from at noon and 2 p.m.
04. Pay a Call on Mummy
Twenty mummies, actually. Among its many collections, the Manchester Museum is particularly known for its Egyption collection, including more than 16,000 artifacts and 20 human mummies.
They are just a small part of the four million objects that fill this fascinating place with natural history, environmental science, technology, ethnography, and — to keep everyone in the family happy — dinosaurs.
The museum, like the Whitworth Art Gallery, is part of the University of Manchester. It’s open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and it’s free.
05. Head for the Future on Salford Quays
Where Trafford (home of Man United’s Old Trafford and Lancashire County Cricket Club) met Manchester’s abandoned docklands at Salford, the futuristic Salford Quays blossomed in stainless steel and glass since the millennium. A combination leisure, sports and media community, with shopping and dining thrown in for good measure, there is more than enough here to keep you busy for a whole day and then some.
First of all, day or night, it is a feast of modern architecture. The Imperial War Museum North — despite its name more of an anti-war experience than an imperial one — was designed by leading architect Daniel Libeskind. And The Lowry, a performing and visual arts center by architect Michael Wilford, sits on a triangular site overlooking the Manchester Ship Canal. There are two amazing bridges: the Media City Footbridge, a modernistic swing bridge that opens to allow a 48-meter navigation channel and the Salford Quays Millennium Footbridge, a lift bridge that rises 18 meters to allow larger ships through.
More than 200 media businesses — designers, television and film production companies fill the high rise MediaCityUK. You can see some of it, and what goes on there by taking a tour of the BBC.
You can even see it all from the water by taking a cruise. Manchester River Cruises depart regularly from Salford Quays, while Visit Manchester can recommend several other city center and river cruises that visit this futuristic corner of Manchester.
06. Find the Devil’s Hoof Print Among Some Very Old Books
On the edge of Manchester’s ultra modern, stainless steel and glass city center is a remarkable set of medieval buildings dating from the 1471 and since the 1960s occupied by a school of music.
But one of the buildings, the oldest intact medieval building in the north of England, has a much more fascinating history. It has been a free public library, in continuous use, since 1653 — the oldest public library in the English speaking world.
Chetham’s Library was founded by Sir Humphrey Chetham, a 16th- and 17th-century textile magnate (he made his fortune in fustian). It began collecting books in 1655 and is still building its collections of specialist subjects. The notables who have studied there include Karl Marx and Frederick Engels — you can even see the desk they worked at together. And look for the audit room where Elizabethan occultist summoned the devil. The table with the devil’s hoof print burned into it is still there.
A registered charity, the library is open to visitors and readers free of charge (though a donation of £3 is suggested). Several rooms are regularly open, but visitors who want a deeper look into the library and it’s treasures can book a guided tour. Visit the library’s website for information about opening hours and visiting plus a fascinating history of the place.
07. Take a Walking Tour
Manchester’s trained Blue Badge Guides are well informed and entertaining. They can lead you on a whole range of fascinating tours, from sightseeing overviews to special interest hikes about history and heritage, street art, music, architecture and politics — Marx and Engels again or the footsteps of the Suffragettes. Sadly, the tours of the amazing Neo Gothic Town Hall are off the menu since mid-January, 2018 when it closed for five years of refurbishments. But there are still plenty of good walks to try, some free and most for a relatively small fee. Luckily, Manchester is pretty flat so long walks are easy.
08. Drop in on a Festival
Manchester is probably second only to Edinburgh for the festivals on offer. The city reels from one major art, food or culture event to another. Top festivals include the Manchester International Festival — three weeks of performances and premiers, high and low brow, popular and esoteric, held every two years (next in 2019). There’s also a jazz festival, literature festival, and several different food and drink focused festivals to choose from — there’s something happening pretty much all year round. There’s even the World Black Pudding Throwing Championship.
09. Dip Into Coffee Culture
Yes, we know there are coffee houses and coffee shops on just about every corner in every major city in the world these days. Manchester is particularly rich in independent coffee houses, each with its own particular atmosphere.
But the main reason for popping round for a cup is not so much the brew (as good as that may be) but for the people watching. Manchester’s coffee shops are great places to see the city’s urban tribes in their natural habitats, to listen in on local talk in local Mancunian accents, to check out the latest street fashions.
TAKK: Nordic style espresso, influenced by the founder’s travels in Scandinavia and Iceland (though the coffee comes from a roaster in another coffee mad city, Bristol).
Pot Kettle Black: Founded by two St. Helens professional rugby players and located in Barton Arcade — a Victorian shopping arcade near Deansgate. Snacks and treats have a healthy edge.
Grindsmith: Youthful and committed to craft coffees, serving up Manchester roasted beans from three locations, including a shop on Deansgate.
10. Celebrate Chinese New Year
Manchester lays claim to the biggest Chinatown in Europe. It has dozens of highly recommended restaurants — not only Chinese but also Thai and Japanese — specialist shops and Chinese cinemas. Try the Michelin recommended Wings, where you might spot Man United players tucking in, or Tai Pan, a favorite with Chinese university students.
Manchester’s Chinatown holds a huge, three day Chinese New Year festival across Albert Square, Exchange Square, Market Street and much of the city center (February 16-18 in 2018). There are performances, food and craft fairs, plenty of noise and it all culminates in a big dragon parade.