Welcome to Manchester – a pulsing metropolis with a reputation for innovative music, big-name sports, scientific invention, unrelenting nightlife, sarcasm, realism and grit. However, it’s also a city of many moods and travelers will find a lot more to my adopted home than the headlines suggest.
Manchester has long outgrown tired stereotypes, so leave Oasis, parkas and Madchester at the door. Over the last decade, it has matured into a city powered by innovation, new ideas and constant reinvention.
Physically, Manchester has transformed unrecognisably even in the last three years. For better or worse, its major public spaces – Oxford Road, St Peter’s Square and now Piccadilly Gardens – have been re-designed and razed. This is all part of a vision for the future that brings out the characteristic diversity and passion of Mancunians – approval, condemnation, anger, tension and excitement all mix together and who knows which will prevail.
At the same time, the city’s incredible and chequered past hasn’t been smothered to prioritise high-rise, glossy, glass-fronted landscapes – yet. Ex-cotton mills in the city’s hipster central district the Northern Quarter have been reborn as innovative co-working spaces and studios. You won’t go far without seeing a statue, memorial, plaque or building reminding of a landmark event or personality in the city’s story. From Elizabeth Gaskell’s former home and the Pankhurst Centre to the Peterloo massacre site at St Peter’s Square to the former Lesser Free Trade Hall, site of the Sex Pistols’ gig that allegedly ‘changed the world’. Yep, again – chequered and incredible.
Culturally, creatively, technologically and academically, Manchester is brimming with more activity that it’s possible to appreciate. For every interest there are numerous meet-ups, events, spaces and even festivals. We are spoiled for choice and we love it.
My city is in the wake of a new dawn and lucky travelers will get to experience at least a few on their visit.
So, dust off your vintage threads, warm up your camera and paint on your war face – let Manchester take you on a date you’ll never forget.
Day 1 – 09:00 – 13:00
All beautiful days begin with special breakfasts and for a truly Mancunian one, head to Koffee Pot. This chilled-out café has been around for years and is an easy meeting spot with a diner-style layout, colourful murals and English, Scottish, Irish, Vegan or American pancake breakfasts.
Around the Oxford Road/University Quarter, try Kro Bar. You won’t find better eggs in the city, with eggs Hebridean, eggs Florentine, eggs avocado, eggs benedict and even eggs benedictos on offer. Get your egg on while looking out over Manchester University’s campuses and historic buildings.
If, like me, your brain needs caffeine CPR, dose up on artisan coffee at Foundation, Northern Tea Power, Ezra and Gil or Grindsmith. Early birds can reward themselves with a stroll across Spinningfields to the New Bailey complex, where Coffee Cranks Cooperative await from 6:30am on weekdays. Selling ethically sourced coffee, the team run two cafes built into bicycles and peddle off again at 10:30am. The cappuccinos will make you weep with joy – sip away while watching the city’s suited workers flock to the glossy financial district, Spinningfields.
After breakfast, take a walk to the Northern Quarter to jump-start your eyeballs and creativity. Visit the multi-floored alternative shopping temple Affleck’s Palace, spotter Sarah’s favourite dress and accessories shop Thunder Egg and arts stores Harry Blyth and Fred Aldous. Music lovers can lose themselves in rows upon rows of vinyl and CDs at Piccadilly Records, Vinyl Exchange or Fopp.
For mid-morning sweets, head to bakery-in-a-railway-arch Pollen or MilkJam. This sweet shop was formed by a truly holy trinity – off-the-charts cake specialist Bake-O-Rama, ice cream genius Ginger’s Comfort Emporium and the heavenly Lush brownies. Prepare to be astounded.
Day 1 – 13:00 – 19:00
If you’re the sporting type, Manchester’s centre is home to the world’s biggest football museum. Follow this with a wander around Etihad Stadium, the crown-shaped home of Manchester City. Afterwards, Trafford is the direction to head, with Trafford Cricket Ground and Manchester United’s ‘Theatre of Dreams’ being pilgrimage hotspots for sport-lovers.
lManchester is also home to former mills and warehouses acting as creative hubs. If you can, visit Rogue or AWOL Studios, Bankley Mill, Islington Mill or Vernon Mill to see some truly unique artistic communities while you can – some are under threat and sadly having to fight to stay in their buildings.
Literature and history lovers will be at home in the city that spawned Antony Burgess, hosted Marx and Engels and provided a home for Elizabeth Gaskell.
Nowadays, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Lemn Sissay work at the universities, while the punk poet John Cooper Clarke is never far from his birthplace of Salford. Soak up some truly beautiful literary surrounds at Central Library’s reading room, Chetham’s Library, Elizabeth Gaskell’s former home on Plymouth Grove and John Rylands. But for a true hidden gem, check the drop-in times of the secretive, members-only Portico Library.
Science fans should take a seat next to Alan Turing’s memorial in Sackville Park, make time for the Museum of Science and Industry and take at least a passing glance at the ground-breaking £61m National Graphene Institute.
Day 1 – 19:00 – 23:00
Early evening is always a great time as Manchester’s bars and restaurants fill with the buzz of workers cutting loose.
For dinner, Umezushi is one of the top restaurants in the city with fresh, quality Japanese food. Alternatively, Pie & Ale in the Northern Quarter will bust your gut with boundary-pushing pastry treats and excellent beers, while nearby PLY is the best option around for pizza.
Once centered around the Academy buildings on Oxford Road, the gig scene has moved much more into the centre in recent years. Deaf Institute, Gorilla and Albert Hall currently take the lion’s share of the best guitar and indie acts.
The Northern Quarter, while it can be pricey, is an easy solution for early evening drinks. If you’re into the prohibition cocktail scene, research Wash House – a bar disguised as a launderette behind a washing machine door and Dusk til’ Pawn, a lounge disguised as a pawn shop at the top of the mixology game. The ambitious can hunt Corridor, a secret cocktail bar somewhere in Salford. Tell me when you do, I still haven’t found it!
Day 1 – 23:00 – ….
You can’t visit Manchester without seeing its nocturnal face. Whether you want to catch a gig, sit in a relaxed shabby chic real ale bar or power through until morning with a glow stick, you’ll find everything you need.
A truly special night out, if it coincides with your visit, is Ultimate Power at the Ritz nightclub. From 11pm to 3am you can belt out power ballads from the 80s and 90s and hone your air guitar and star jumps without judgement.
Oxford Road is quieter for nightlife, but has some great options. Gritty, lovable and chilled-out Big Hands is the best place and hosts some great nights. At the end of the Oxford Road artery in the student district Fallowfield, the Beer Studio, a second branch of Font and highly recommended Fallow Café are clustered together for a ready-made, lazy night out.
House, grime, techno, rap and drum n bass fans will have an unforgettable night getting to know Antwerp Mansion. Dance aficionados will love the periodic Warehouse Project for big-name headliners. Alternatively, head for Hidden, a series of sellout dance events at the formerly disused DownTex Mill on the edge of town.
Day 2 – 09:00 – 13:00
After a breakneck first day, it’s time to slow down and explore something different on Manchester’s outskirts. Stockport is a small historic market town that wears its roots on its sleeve and is just a short train or bus ride from the centre.
En route, stop off for an hour to see the gritty, diverse and slowly gentrifying neighbourhood of Levenshulme (or Levy to its incredibly diverse mix of locals). Here, there are two great breakfast spots opposite one another. Artisan bakery and coffee shop Trove supplies some of the city’s best caterers and cafés with its renowned produce. Try its daily specials, such as pistachio cream cake or lemon tart.
If you’re brave enough for a real, greasy English breakfast, the adjacent Antiques Village Tea Room is the best spot in the city for down-to-earth, cheap and friendly food. For just £3-£4 you can have a proper English breakfast with a bucket of tea and if you’re lucky, the sun might be shining on the cobbled courtyard so you can enjoy breakfast outdoors. Explore the Antiques Centre and its outhouses, where you’ll sellers and craftspeople offering retro furniture, Victorian fireplaces, glass ornaments and trinkets.
Day 2 – 13:00 – 19:00
Continue to Stockport and walk to the old market square where you’ll escape the clinical plastic-wrapped world of supermarkets. Here vendors sell fresh-from-the-ground vegetables, fruit, fish, cheese, chutneys, jams, eggs and spices inside the picturesque glass-panelled market hall.
You will need to book ahead, but the Robinson’s brewery tour is something special and really worth your time. For £9.95 over an hour and a half, you will learn about 180 years of brewing history, equipment and methods, with beer included at the in-house bar. You also get the bonus of visiting the brewery’s mascot shire horses if they’re at home.
Check out Sarah’s spot Vintage Village for retro clothes, homeware, books and battered board games.
Stockport’s food and drinks scene is well and truly flourishing. The Allotment, a vegan restaurant which opened in 2016, is causing serious waves. Sunday dinners are famous at the Arden Arms and served in ye olde English no-frills pub surroundings. Worth a try all the way.
However, no special occasion is required for my personal recommendation, Lord of the Pies. Ever had a pulled chicken Balti pie washed down with dandelion and burdock? Do it!
Before leaving Stockport, doff your cap to the completely free Hatworks Museum and try on every type of hat since the dawn of millinery – bowlers, berets, pillbox – have some selfie fun. Alternatively, Stockport is home to a network of air raid shelters. These tunnels span a mile underground and tours are available to offer a glimpse of life in wartime Britain.
Day 2 – 19:00 – 23:00
After your Stockport adventure, there are plenty of post-afternoon, pre-dinner possibilities.
Catching a film at HOME is a reliable option to wind down. Formerly the Cornerhouse, this now-ginormous complex houses a restaurant, gift shop, art gallery and five screens showing films from multiple countries and genres. Perfect for any culture-hunter.
If you fancy a film on a budget, Foundation Coffee screens free films on Wednesdays, complete with cut-price cocktails and complimentary popcorn.
Should the weather hold up, there’s an occasional Fire Jam in the peaceful grassy Castlefield area. Fire-jugglers and performers sometimes gather in the evenings to practice their skills as the sun goes down and welcome people to watch.
For a romantic pre-evening jaunt, take Spotter Kamla’s advice and climb to the top of the NCP car park in Shudehill for a free and peaceful panoramic view of the city.
Lovers of drama or comedy should check the listings at the Royal Exchange and Lowry, or lower-key but award-winning XS Malarkey at Zoo and the ‘vintage recycled indie’ Three-Minute Theatre. For some fringe theatre and comedy, the upstairs space at the King’s Arms is quickly becoming known as the place to go.
An absolute must for dinner is a trip to Habesha. Hidden in plain sight up a spiral staircase in the heart of the gay village, this Ethiopian restaurant is truly unique and under-rated, with unfathomably cheap, fantastic food and beers. Knives and forks are a no-no, so get your hands literally dirty and enjoy the rich, well-spiced curries and flavours.
Combine food and drink and delve into the independent breweries that have popped up underneath the city’s railway arches with a visit to the GRUB Food Fair at Alphabet Brewery. Alternatively, visit B.EAT Street Manchester, a host of street food vendors, bars and cocktail bars which opens sporadically to entice casual diners in search of something different.
Day 2 – 23:00 –
Draw the curtains on your final evening with a twilight set at Manchester’s much-loved jazz hangout Matt & Phred’s, but make sure you book a table prior (it’s free). Its liberally-timed happy hour(s) means you get a free pizza with every two drinks and two-for-one cocktails. Don’t recoil at the word ‘jazz’, you won’t find penguin suits and bowties here. Rather, the genre is pushed to its limits and beyond with guest slots and improvs fusing it with hip-hop, soul, pop and even spoken word.
That’s it – if you’re not simultaneously exhausted, energised, impressed and yearning for more, then I’m afraid you’ll have to stay. Thanks for reading about our beloved city – we Manchester Spotters hope it has captured your hearts and minds as firmly as ours.