Manchester is a city that prides itself on innovation and progress, both in commerce and in culture. It’s a city that built itself on cotton, yet stood with Lincoln at the forefront of the anti-slavery movement, undermining its own financial advantage to stand with humanity and morality (you’ll still find a Lincoln statue in Manchester today). It’s a city that pushed for separation of church and state, women’s suffrage, and freedom of the press.
With its impressive timeline of activism, dotted by war and even the recent terrorism, you might expect a visit to Manchester to reveal a worn-out town, exhausted by its history of struggle and pockmarked with battle scars, but you won’t. What you’ll find is a thriving city, rich in community, and bolstered by expansion, as the UK’s next generation flocks to this hub of economic development.
For proper British sightseeing, don’t miss the Manchester Cathedral, the Town Hall, and the John Rylands Library. This trio of old stone buildings will satisfy your craving for incredible architecture and fill your hunger for history. The cathedral, which still holds services, is also home to revolving events like art exhibitions, vintage markets, and concerts. The library’s vaulted gothic arches and endless stacks of leather-bound volumes behind glass are a bibliophile’s paradise, and with 4 million books here, there’s plenty of material for browsing in the library’s domed reading room. The neo-Gothic Town Hall is the closest you’ll get to acting out your royal fantasies or Downton Abbey daydreams, with its tiled floors and grand staircases illuminated by impossibly high stained-glass windows. There’s a wedding here just about every day of the week, but most areas of the sprawling structure are still open to the public during nuptials, including the Sculpture Hall Café where you can take your afternoon tea.
John Rylands Library
Made famous by Queer as Folk (UK), Manchester’s Gay Village is a hotbed of nighttime activity. Spanning several blocks north of Canal Street, it’s packed with gay bars, clubs, restaurants, shops and hotels. Practically a full-scale LGBTQ community of its own, the village is hetero-friendly, and the regular presence of straight patrons is a testament to Manchester’s inclusive attitude. In the daylight, journey outside the village by following the rainbow trail, a series of rainbow flag sidewalk mosaics that mark locations of gay historical significance. Unfortunately, many of these don’t include much in the way of facts or information, but they’re fun to look out for and you can always Google the address when you find one.
The city’s creative den, the Northern Quarter, is Manchester’s epicenter of alternative culture. In this neighborhood, you’ll find the artists, the musicians and the baristas, and you can visit countless record shops, quirky galleries, pay-by-the-kilo thrift shops and naturally, a cat café. Whether you’re looking for a T-rex romper, a neon green wig, or a quirky souvenir to bring home, the Northern Quarter will not disappoint with its atmosphere of a refined bazaar. Don’t come looking for a pumpkin spice latte, though. The independent spirit runs so strong here that not only are there no Starbucks outposts, but even a Starbucks billboard near the Quarter was pummeled with paint by local protestors.
If your gut tells you that you won’t eat well anywhere in the UK, and you can only conjure notions of spotted dick and blood pudding, it’s time to get with the culinary program in Manchester. True, British cuisine is notoriously unappealing, and even a decade ago there weren’t a ton of enticing options to be found, but today Manchester is teeming with tastiness. For a quick lunch, head to This or That, a hole-in-the-wall in the Northern Quarter, for a “rice and three.” Possibly more popular in Manchester today than fish and chips, choose any three curries spread over a big plate of rice and chow down. If you can’t do Indian, head to Evelyn’s for more variety. From the traditional Sunday roast to modern takes on vegetarian dishes, eating at the wooden tables surrounded by the plentiful greenery at Evelyn’s is like attending a country garden party with old friends.
A spread at the Refuge by Volta
Save room for a sizeable supper at The Refuge by Volta. Inside the Principal Manchester hotel, in what was once the magnificent home of The Refuge Assurance Company, the mile-high ceilings supported by tiled columns lord over an expansive restaurant and bar scene with a concept defined as “British ingredients, global influence.” From the crispy duck, watermelon, and pomegranate salad to spiced lamb chops with harissa chickpea puree, you’re going to want to try a little bit of everything, so go with a group, if you can, and order a wide variety. When it comes to dessert (a course called “puddings” in the UK), get selfish and order a couple for yourself. Don’t miss the raspberry, rosewater, and pistachio pavlova. Take some time between courses to walk off a few calories by exploring the Insta-friendly property, including both the indoor and outdoor courtyards, and the hotel’s cavernous, circular lobby.
You know that eccentric, world-explorer of a guncle you have, who spends his life trotting the globe and bringing back curiosities to scatter among the overstuffed chairs and bearskin rugs in his massive townhouse? No? Well, Eclectic Hotels knows you’ve daydreamed about summering at his home, and their recently opened King Street Townhouse brings to life this quirky concept in a boutique property right in the heart of Manchester. With 40 rooms (in charming categories like “Snug,” “Cosy,” “Comfy,” and “Suite”), tea lounges, and heated terraces, the jewel of King Street Townhouse is the rooftop infinity hot tub. Rare in Manchester, this is one of only a handful of rooftop pool offerings in town, and its eye-level view with the Town Hall’s ornate clock tower is unbeatable.
View from the infinity pool at King Street Townhouse
Onward and Upward
Manchester is a city on the rise. Culturally, it sets an example to the UK and beyond of acceptance, diversity, and community. Politically, it is constantly on the forefront of progressive ideas. The population continues to grow, as more young people flock to the city’s science and tech scenes (this is the birthplace of the modern computer and the splitting of the atom, and the University of Manchester alone boasts 25 Nobel laureates). Today, Manchester maintains a modern city feel without being overgrown or overrun. A lone skyscraper stands out above the rest of the city, but not for long. More are on their way, already in construction, and they will eclipse this standout as the tallest in the city as they rise. Soon, the city will have a skyline, albeit a modest one, and some are concerned that the trend will destroy the low-rise charm that helps keep this community grounded and focused, but true Mancunians are not afraid. If Manchester’s history tells us anything, it’s that it will never give up its ideals as it marches enthusiastically into future.
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