Manchester today is unrecognisable from the post-industrial city of 20 years ago. Home to grand relics of the industrial revolution, the modern city is also studded with independent boutiques and top-flight shops, cool bars and snug pubs. Not only do its museums house some of the UK’s finest historic collections, but also Manchester has a contemporary cultural pulse that puts other British cities to shame.
1. Explore the people's history
Reopened in 2010 after a £12.5 million development, The People's Museum – Manchester’s only national museum – is dedicated to telling a 200-year tale of British democracy. Dry and dusty it isn’t: interactive exhibits bring political history to life, while a brand-new wing, fused to the Grade II-listed Pump House and complete with a sunny riverside café, lets light flood inside.
Manchester is rightly proud of the museum – this is a city that has seen more than its fair share of political reform, and the story of British politics is often a Mancunian one (the city is the birthplace of socialism, universal suffrage and the global co-operative movement; it’s also where Marx and Engels drafted the Communist Manifesto).
2. Stick your head in the cloud
Cloud 23 – the swanky bar that’s on the 23rd floor of Beetham Tower – lets you see Manchester in a whole new light. Floor-to-ceiling windows on all sides reveal not just the city but also half of the Northwest to boot. The best time to go is dusk, when the twinkling lights of the metropolis below are laid out like a bejewelled carpet – but the dwindling natural light means you can still spot major landmarks and the hills beyond. An oval plate of glass in the floor also gives a view back down to terra firma – after much jumping up and down on it, we can assure you that it’s perfectly safe.
3. Take part in a trinity of cultural festivals
Started in 2007, the bi-annual Manchester International Festival (www.mif.co.uk), gave Manchester a cultural shot in the arm. The line-up for the 2009 festival was every bit as impressive. Some shows featured artists who’d first appeared in 2007: Damon Albarn worked with documentarian Adam Curtis and theatre director Felix Barrett on a haunted house-inspired show about America’s rise to global pre-eminence in the ’60s; Neil Bartlett, who directed The Pianist in 2007, devised a bingo-themed show for the Royal Exchange; and dancer Carlos Acosta returned with a new show paying tribute to some of the greats of classical ballet. However, other events shone the spotlight on artists who were new to the festival: the world première of singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright’s debut opera, for instance, and two sold-out concerts by Elbow with the city’s Hallé orchestra. The 2011 line-up promises to be just as thrilling.
Now the city’s galleries, theatre and music events aspire to equally high creative standards. Music festival In The City (October) and electronic, experimental music and arts festival FutureEverything (May) are a chance to see the UK’s hottest up-and-coming bands.
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4. Slip into some boutique booty
The best shopping in Manchester can be found at either end of the retail spectrum. While King Street and its environs are great for high-end, big-brand experience, the more quirky items can be found in the one-off independent boutiques that cluster around the Northern Quarter.
Head to the Craft & Design Centre – a long-established creative hub – for the best local talent and one-off gems; to No Angel for chic but affordable garments and accessories from smaller, independent labels such as Motel and John Zack; to Retro Rehab for its range of reworked vintage garments; and Afflecks Palace – a four-floor alternative shopping mecca – for new designers, clubwear, vintage, fancy dress, records and cute and kitsch gifts.
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5. Make in roads to 'cultural corridor'
Infamous for its thundering traffic, Oxford Road nevertheless packs in so many galleries, museums and theatres that locals talk of it as Manchester’s ‘cultural corridor’. At the northern end of the main arterial route connecting the centre to south Manchester is Cornerhouse, the city’s acclaimed contemporary art complex, while at the other is the red-brick Whitworth Art Gallery. In between are theatres, the Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester’s campus, a quadrangle of Gothic buildings designed by Alfred Waterhouse.
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6. Party hard... for three months
The Warehouse Project – an annual season of underground parties of epic proportions – has been dubbed the ‘biggest thing to happen to clubbing in Manchester this decade’. Running for 12 weeks (September to New Year’s Day), the Project features some of the biggest names in dance and electronica alongside smaller, edgier acts. With an up-for-it-crowd, as well as the old-school vibes of its ‘secret’ underground location, it’s little wonder tickets regularly sell out. If you’re in Manchester in the autumn, this is one not to be missed.
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7. Sample the cuisine of Manchester's stellar chef
A recent-ish addition to the hotels in the city (it opened in 2007), Abode, is notable for its basement restaurant, masterminded by the Michelin-starred chef, Michael Caines. It scooped Restaurant of the Year in the 2008 Manchester Food & Drink Festival awards (www.foodanddrinkfestival.com/awards) and a nomination for 'Chef of the Year' for Ian Matfin's culinary creations in 2009.
South Manchester's Isinglass is one of the city's most impressive restaurants. The name refers to the gelatin-like substance made from fish bladders used to clarify beer and wine – but don’t let that put you off. This idiosyncratic establishment takes the oft-empty promise of only using local ingredients, and shows what can be achieved: salad leaves from Chat Moss, rich Dunham Massey ice-cream, meat from Knutsford. The menu pays homage to traditional British dishes, with the likes of venison toad-in-the-hole, wilted kale, Cumberland gravy and mash, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about the cooking. Prices are impressively low.
Vying for the title of Manchester’s best new eatery are Aumbry – both the restaurant itself and chef Mary-Ellen McTague have won accolades; Mark Addy – the latest venture from chef Robert Owen Brown, whose food is already the stuff of legend among Manchester foodies; and An Outlet – housed inside a beautifully converted warehouse, it specialises in simple but well-sourced deli food and drinks in a relaxed atmosphere.
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8. Explore the city via Manchester's most famous artist
As the name Lowry Arts Centre might suggest, this landmark waterside building at Salford Quays houses an extensive collection of LS Lowry’s art. Lowry is only half of the story, however, as the centre also brings together an impressive variety of visual and performing arts. As well as a changing programme of painting, sculpture and photography, the steel-clad wonder has also hosted more award-winning theatre productions than any other regional venue. Its two theatres also host blockbuster musicals, dance, opera, comedy, ballet, jazz and folk.
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9. Rest up in a hip hotel
Leave your musical prejudice at the reception – Cliff Richard's Arora is a vision of contemporary cool, with sleek, modern rooms and funky furniture (though unless you’re a fan, you might want to avoid the five Cliff-themed rooms).
The Great John Street Hotel pulls out all the stops to deliver a truly luxurious boutique experience. Hand-carved furniture, roll-top baths and super-sexy fabrics and fittings lend the place a modern-vintage feel.
The Lowry is the hotel of choice for visiting actors, politicians and Premiership footballers. Everything is as it should be – huge, hip rooms with super-sized beds, original modern art, discreet service and clued-up staff.
A favourite with visiting bands and celebs, the Malmaison is a first choice for those who like to think of themselves as arbiters of taste. The real star of the line-up, though, has to be the seriously sexy Moulin Rouge room; the free-standing bath takes around 30 minutes to fill, such is its depth.
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10. Support one (or both) of Manchester's FCs
Both sets of fans are well-catered for by their teams with tours, museums and of course the obligatory shops, selling the latest strip:
Manchester United fans can take the popular behind-the-scenes stadium tour and trot down players' tunnel or visit the impressive museum, where kids can try and kick the ball as hard as Wayne Rooney, while devotees of Manchester City Football Club can head instead to the City of Manchester Stadium, where you'll find a club shop, a restaurant, and museum, plus stadium tours are available for £8.50 a pop.
No devoted football fan should miss the National Football Museum, which holds both the FIFA and FA collections, including the hallowed ball used in that World Cup final (1966, if you must ask), while changing exhibitions will add interest to permanent displays.
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