When living in London I often happened to discuss, which city my fellow pals regarded as the second of the United Kingdom (‘second’ being a widely comprehensive term, rich in diverse nuances). All of them provided different answers and, following such chit-chats, I found out that a few UK cities have been unofficially competing for the prominent position. Among them find Glasgow, which I have previously written about (find the article here); another one, and probably the most accredited seeing as it’s the most populous after London, is Birmingham. Nevertheless, today we would like to take you on a 48-hour local tour in Manchester, another valid major competitor of the aforementioned urban centres.
As it has emerged from public opinion polls since the early 2000s, Manchester is overall regarded as the second city of the country despite not being the second most populous one. This is due mainly due to the extensive rebranding and successful urban renewal the northern British city has been experiencing in the last 20 years or so.
Born as a small settlement under the Roman Empire, Manchester held a position of secondary importance up until the 18th century. As the Industrial Revolution saw its origins in the British Empire, Manchester arose as the most important centre for textile manufacture. Connected to the sea by a network of canals, strategically located in the middle of an area rich in raw materials, in a few decades the city experienced a tremendous growth – comparable to that which some Chinese metropolises have undergone in the last years. Deeply affected by the Great Depression in the 20s of the 20th century, heavily bombed throughout WWII, the city suffered from major economic turmoils urban decay until the late 1980s, when the first ambitious regeneration projects were carried out to boost its profile as a leading cultural and service sector-focused centre.
To present, Manchester is nothing like a grim and grey postindustrial city. On the contrary, the fortunate renewal attempts have breathed new life into its old warehouses and Victorian buildings. Its revamped city centre and old docks area, its active cultural life and bustling nightlife have quickly turned the city in an exciting, must-discover destination.
Planning a weekend escapade and up for some off-the-beaten-track adventures? Manchester is a good choice – as stated by our Spotter David, ‘It’s far more rich and exciting than a quick trip to Old Trafford’. And if you’re in need of a few tips, here is our itinerary to discover where the locals hang out!
Day 1: 09:00 – 13:00
London has made quite a name for itself for its coffee culture scene but hey, apparently Manchester is doing a good job too. Spacey yet at the same time homey, find The Foundation Coffee House inside a renovated, typically Mancunian warehouse; one of Denise‘s retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city, The Foundation Coffee House boasts am outrageous coffee blends and hot chocolates menu and excellent treats from a local bakery. Nearby, North Tea Power is an equally top option if you want to treat yourself with a tasty coffee/cup of tea; the spot recently made it to the list of top 50 coffee shops in the UK and works also as an art space.
Both spots are located in the Northern Quarter: once a commercial/industrial area on the north edge of the centre, now the Northern Quarter is a lively, vocation-mixed area that has quickly set become the creative and culturally alternative cradle of Manchester. But, before further venturing into its meanders, just a few minutes walk to the north-west visit both PS Mirabel and Paper Galleries. Hidden under a bridge, the two spaces stand out from the Manchester scene for their down-to-earth approach to visitors and groundbreaking approach towards the arts. Exposed on their walls are some of the finest examples from local and upcoming talents – on sale for very reasonable prices. As you walk back to the Northern Quarter, stop at the Shudehill bus station. Take the lift to the 8th floor, and enjoy one of the best 360-degree views of the city and its surroundings – for free!
Day 1: 13:00 – 19:00
To any meat-eater who roams the earth: how many of you – at least once – have not looked down on, or with reluctance at, vegan food? For all of us, V Revolution is here to defy our embedded prejudice: with a menu featuring animal product-free dishes such as double-filled burgers and humongous and hyper-filled cakes, V Revolution is a total vegan food joint gone junk! While the eatery itself has been accurately styled as a 50s traditional diner, at the back of the cafe find their own record shop with a good choice of rock/metal LPs. Alternatively, mild weather takes you to Nexus‘s secret garden, a favourite of our Spotter Roisin. Located in the basement of the Methodist offices, flooded with natural light, Nexus’s outdoor area is the perfect spot for a chilled lunch break. On top of awesomely crafted sandwiches and home-made soups, Nexus regularly hosts art exhibitions and inspiring related talks worth checking out – very much in line with the overall artsy vibe of the Northern Quarter.
For a further injection of creativity, stay in the area and pop round to Manchester Craft and Design Centre and CFCCA. The first is a cluster of artists’ studios, who produce and sell their creations on site. Spread over two floors, the centre is also a must-go for travelers and locals alike willing to take home a unique piece of art – be it a piece of jewelery or a coffee table. CFCCA (the acronym standing for Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art) is both a shop and gallery providing an enriching insight on contemporary Chinese art. If you’re looking for a new addition to your wardrobe, the Northern Quarter will not let you down – in fact, it is indeed a galore of vintage shops, among which figures COW; besides an extensive choice of clothes, COW is worth a visit for its bizarre and fun decor (at the entrance, one is greeted by doll houses turned into lights hanging from the ceiling).
Day 1: 19:00 – 23:00
The Northern Quarter is more than a restricted geographical area of Manchester: as of now, its has also become a way to rebrand the surrounding city streets and make them more appealing. Coolness is trickling down to the Piccadilly Station area, and places like Kosmonaut are the proof. This quite New York-style bar/restaurant offers a number of dishes that draw inspiration both from the British and American culinary tradition. Just a block away, the recently opened Cottonopolis has achieved to celebrate tradition and embrace innovation at the same time. While the name itself (‘Cottonopolis’ was one of Manchester’s nicknames during its heydays as a manufacturing hub) and the location (a former working tailor) are a clear tribute to the city’s past, the menu distances itself from the traditional British approach to eating: instead of big plates, find small, tapas-style portions and recipes typical of the Japanese cuisine.
At a short walking distance, Dusk Til Pawn and Allotment Bar make for two valid spots for drinks later on. Don’t let the quirky appearance of the first mislead you: the experimental cocktails listed on their menu, or crafted impromptu by the bartenders, are as good as they get, featuring ingredients such as marmalade, frozen custards and candies. In contrast, the latter is all about greenery (plant-pots, benches and soil pretty much everywhere inside), good craft beers and an excellent choice of gins.
Day 1: 23:00 – …
Any doubt that the Northern Quarter could not measure up with your late night expectations? Texture claims to be the first multimedia bar in Manchester. Ok, so what does that mean? Our Spotter Kamla has been and sorted it out for us all: the venue hosts a wide range of audio-visual music events of different genres – with music playing in sync with images projected onto a brick wall.
The experience might be fairly psychedelic, so in case you’re not up for it after a long day, opt for Matt and Phreds. Popular for its happy hour deal ‘buy two drinks, get a free pizza’, Matt and Phreds is above all a quality venue for gigs, from jazz and electro to swing and soul.
Day 2: 9:00 – 13:00
Craving savoury bits for breakfast? In the centre of Manchester the well-established deli Katsouris gained quite a fame for its tempting range of eat-in/take-away delicacies. A tip from our Spotter Paul: head for the counters at the back of the deli and dig into their Greek mazes. Around the corner, taste the generous portions served at Moose, which Sarah suggests for its all-day breakfasts: with more than thirty different combinations to satisfy everyone’s preference, Moose is another much loved eatery among Manchester’s citizens.
Again right in the very heart of the city search for St. Mary’s Catholic Church amidst a pack of office buildings. The ‘Hidden Gem’ (as the Mancunians call it) is a calm heaven where 18th century architecture masterfully mixes with contemporary art works by artist Norman Adams.
Day 2: 13:00 – 19:00
A clashing yet pleasant blend of mainly Victorian, postwar and contemporary edifices, Manchester’s historical core is an exciting area to explore. If lunchtime is incoming and you’re still around, consider going down to Chinatown’s basement where Siam Smiles Supermarket is. Not your average supermarket, the aisles of Siam Supermarket are occupied by bright orange chairs and plastic tables for you to enjoy their flavoursome Thai dishes. Fine with a fast bite before getting back on track? Changos Burrito Bar is about Mexican traditional street food – which never fails to disappoint here.
In the afternoon, discover the old and new side of Salford, Manchester neighbouring town. Once a major Dickensian industrial hub, Salford witnessed slum clearance in the 50s and economic and social deprivation in the years of post-industrialisation. It was not until the first decades of the 2000s that ambitious plans of urban renewal were carried out in specific areas of the town, mainly focused around the area of Salford Quays . The old inland port of Manchester, Salford Quays boast a huge number of tourist attractions (to name a few: the Lowry and the Imperial War Museum) and it’s one of Sarah‘s top places for a stroll and people watching. On the other side, to catch a glimpse of what the town might have looked like before the dramatic redevelopment of the last century, enter Lark Hill Place, situated on the ground floor of the Salford Art Museum: during slum clearance, the old facades of the shops and the original objects contained in them were saved and rearranged, to recreate a traditional Victorian working class street.
Day 2: 19:00 – 23:00
Those long neglected railway arches… Manchester seems to be getting something good out of them! The same architectural solution, but different concept and location for Gorilla and Umezushi. The first, an industrial chic bar located on the southern fringe of the centre, offers pub-style food, drinks and gigs. The second, on the northern edge of the centre, is allegedly the closest experience to dining in an authentic Japanese restaurant in Japan. Minimalist in its decor, with a menu that diverts from the mainstreamness of its peers, Umezushi might be the excellent alternative one is looking for.
Understandably, you might not be thrilled by the idea of walking all the way to the other side of the city for an additional drink, so here are a couple of good spots for you. Sinclair’s Oyster Bar and Font are situated close to Gorilla and Umezushi respectively. The first one, an inn dating back as far as the 16th century, was moved 300 metres north of its original location and is one of the most beloved beer gardens in town. On the other side, the colourful and young vibe of Font will win your heart – along with its 60 types of cocktails from £ 2 t0 £ 5 – boom!
Day 2: 23:00 – …
Back to Salford one more time, venture into the atmospherically lit courtyard of Islington Mill. Another successful example of a disused industrial complex turned into a creative hub, during the day Islington Mill hosts vendors, food events and arty happenings, while in the night it turns into an animated space for music events.
On the opposite side of the city, all the way south from the city center, Antwerp Mansion requires a bit of patience for you to discover it (small tip: look behind the Ambala shop on the curry mile), but it’s well worth a bit of struggle. Hosted in a former Victorian mansion, the venue focuses on the unusual, the alternative and the bizarre side of culture under all its aspects.