The 1996 IRA bomb is often credited with kick-starting the regeneration of Manchester’s City Centre. Work had in fact been under way for some years, but the blast that ripped the heart out of the city did provide an unprecedented opportunity to remodel it. The Corn Exchange became the Triangle arcade, the Royal Exchange got a £30-million facelift, and the much-maligned Arndale Centre was overhauled and extended. New public squares were unveiled: Exchange Square’s concentric benches now provide a stopping point for shoppers; while Cathedral Gardens will soon house the National Football Museum.
A glass twist of a footbridge connects Selfridges to the Arndale, and just below it sits the postbox that became a symbol of the city’s determination to recover from the IRA blast. Despite being within a few feet of the explosion, the postbox somehow survived intact. It stood proud when all around was shattered, and it’s a poignant place now to post your postcards.
Manchester’s renaissance continues today, albeit at a slower pace. Spinningfields is a new district built along the banks of the River Irwell. Home to numerous corporate HQs, it also houses the all-new People’s History Museum, not to mention several flagship stores along high-end shopping boulevard, The Avenue.
Slotted between Victoria Station and the Triangle, a corner of medieval Manchester lives on. The 15th-century Chetham’s Library sits above the confluence of the rivers Irk and Irwell. Not far away squats Manchester Cathedral, close by Hanging Ditch. Local folklore has it that the ditch refers to the practice of tying a noose around the neck of miscreants and kicking them off the bridge. In truth, it marks the course of the River Irk, where 12th-century fullers (cloth cleaners) would hang their cloth to dry.
Chetham’s played a pivotal role during the Industrial Revolution. Manchester became the world’s largest centre of manufacturing (nicknamed ‘Cottonopolis’), and was rammed with impoverished mill workers. Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx regularly met at Chetham’s to discuss what they saw. Between them, they penned two central socialist texts: The Condition of the Working Classes in England and the Communist Manifesto.
Further toward the south, Alfred Waterhouse’s Town Hall is a reminder of Manchester’s industrial ambition and is one of its most important buildings. Ford Madox Ford’s wall murals are particularly notable, but even the corridors, with mosaic floors and vaulted ceilings, are remarkable.
Chetham’s isn’t the only atmospheric library here. The John Rylands Library is a neo-Gothic masterpiece, while the Portico leans to the neoclassical. Further down the road is the Central Library. This relative newcomer (1934) was once the largest public library in the UK.
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To find Manchester’s self-styled creative quarter, follow the stream of skinny-jean-clad kids heading up Oldham Street. The record shops, vintage boutiques and galleries exemplify the word ‘independent’. It’s defiantly chain-free – even the pubs are fiercely singular.
The action centres on Oldham Street, but explore the side lanes to fully uncover the eclectic shopping experience on offer. The friendly vibe is obvious at Soup Kitchen, where the close-knit creative community chows down. For more substantial fare, Koffee Pot does good-value breakfasts, or take your pick from the many curry places.
Part of the Northern Quarter’s charm comes from its architecture – a slightly ramshackle collection of 18th- and 19th-century warehouses. Some have been beautifully restored (such as the building housing the Buddhist Centre), while others are, sadly, falling into a state of dilapidation.
At the heart of the district is the impressive neo-Romanesque façade of the former Smithfield Market. Now surrounded by rather ugly flats, it fronts on to a small public square. In the same block sits the Chinese Arts Centre (its tiny café, serving Chinese tea, is a comfy retreat), while the market’s sister building, now converted into the Craft & Design Centre, can be found on Oak Street. The centre is a hub of local design and industry; products available include prints, sculptures and leather goods.
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Strolling down Canal Street can sometimes feel a little like walking on to the set of Queer as Folk, the late-’90s TV show that propelled it into the national consciousness. Bars, clubs and restaurants cluster around the canal, and sitting out on this traffic-free street to watch life’s parade pass by is a treat. Tribeca, Taurus and Manto are good places to start the night, while the large choice of clubs means you don’t need to stop until sunrise. Canal Street is also the focal point of Manchester Pride – ten days of parades, picnics, sport, comedy, live music and partying that culminates in the Pride Parade.
Close by sits the civic centrepiece of Piccadilly Gardens, remodelled in 2002. Tadao Ando’s concrete ‘bunker’ at its foot provides a barrier to the fuming buses at the interchange beyond, making for a more pleasant open-air experience. A fountain attracts kids – daring each other to race through – and bars, cafés and regular public events provide distraction from the ugly office block that sits to the east.
A few minutes’ walk away, a towering, multi-tiered Chinese Imperial Arch marks the start of Chinatown. Built in 1987 as a gift from the Chinese people, the arch was the first of its kind in Europe. Chinatown is lively all year round, but Chinese New Year is celebrated with particular vigour. Fireworks, food and an enormous dancing dragon top off the festivities, while institutions such as Yang Sing serve top-class Chinese food.
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Infamous for its thundering traffic, Oxford Road nevertheless packs in so many galleries, museums and theatres that locals have christened it Manchester’s ‘cultural corridor’. It’s also home to two universities (the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan), whose 71,000 students inevitably lend a raucous flavour.
At the northern end sits Cornerhouse, the city’s arthouse film and contemporary art complex, while at the other, at the start of the Curry Mile, sits the Victorian red-brick Whitworth Art Gallery and historic Whitworth Park. Along with a mix of contemporary and historic artwork, textiles and wallpapers, the Whitworth squeezes in an award-winning café serving locally sourced sustenance.
In between Cornerhouse and the Whitworth you’ll find theatres, the Manchester Museum, the University of Manchester’s collegiate campus (a quadrangle of Gothic buildings designed by Alfred Waterhouse; check out the atmospheric Christie Bistro inside), edgy music venue the Deaf Institute and two Danish-inspired Kro bars. Halfway up the road, Grosvenor Park occupies the site of a former church. In summer, this grassy retreat is reassuringly dotted with sun-loving students.
Rumours of large-scale redevelopment may yet solve Oxford Road’s traffic problems; until then, don’t let the honking and spluttering jams put you off exploring this area of the city.
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With its atmospheric railway arches, cleaned-up canals and seemingly endless supply of tiered locks and cobblestones, Castlefield remains one of the city’s loveliest outdoor spots. Even the 47-storey Beetham Tower nearby doesn’t detract from the 150-odd-year-old industrial architecture. Though it can be quiet on weekdays, Castlefield offers something that the rest of the city is often missing: peace and tranquillity.
Overlooked by a vast Victorian viaduct, the main draws in the neighbourhood are the sprawling MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry), a Roman Fort, an outdoor arena (at which residents burst into a spontaneous rendition of Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ when they heard news of Manchester’s second failed Olympic bid). For many, the highlight is simply sitting outside Dukes 92 tucking into man-size slabs of cheese and bread. Frequent outdoor events bring Castlefield to life during the summer, from screenings of football matches to music festivals.
Closer to the centre of town, Deansgate Locks hosts a series of bars frequented by the tanned and brash, as well as the excellent Comedy Store, each of which is tucked inside a railway arch and facing on to the canal. Just behind the red-brick entrance to Deansgate Station is one of the city’s better contemporary art spaces – Castlefield Gallery.
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Let’s get one thing straight: Salford isn’t in Manchester. There’s nothing that will rile the locals more than mistaking the two – on both sides of the divide. Manchester and Salford are two separate cities that just happen to share a border.
Salfordians are proud of their industrial heritage and tight-knit communities, and the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead album cover (shot at Salford Lads Club) put Salford on the musical map. In recent times, the cultural focus has shifted to Chapel Street and nearby Islington Mill, a converted warehouse that includes gallery and gig space. It hosts the Sounds from the Other City music festival, which sprawls out from the Mill to take over pubs and even churches along Chapel Street.
As well as a number of superb traditional pubs, there is now some fine dining in Salford, which comes courtesy of the Lowry Hotel’s River Restaurant, while fine drinking can be had at the hard-to-find Corridor cocktail bar.
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Salford may have taken longer to redevelop than Manchester, but 2011 sees it play its trump card: Media City (or MediaCityUK, to be true to the branding gurus), the new northern home of the BBC that opens along the Quays’ spectacular waterfront during 2011.
A 15-minute tram hop west of the City Centre, and with its own hotels, apartments, waterside park and shops, this £650 million media island is the new home of ITV, five BBC departments and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as innumerable digital, TV and film companies.
Media City opens with the promise of public events in its vast central plaza, which, with a capacity of 5,000 and access to an enormous digital screen, is likely to showcase everything from live music and film screenings to markets and arts events.
Media City forms a triangle of attractions now open at Salford Quays, the former industrial docks whose regeneration began in earnest over a decade ago. The Lowry arts centre sits close by, surrounded by made-for-footballer apartments and an outlet shopping mall, while a gleaming new footbridge spanning the Manchester Ship Canal connects Media City to Imperial War Museum North on the opposite shore. Strictly speaking, the museum isn’t in Salford: it’s in the borough of Trafford. We just thought we’d better set the record straight before you start asking for directions.
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Sometimes overlooked in favour of South Manchester’s more affluent suburbs, the north races ahead of its southern sister when it comes to international sporting facilities. Two miles from the centre, Sportcity is a sprawling complex that houses the National Squash Centre, a 6,000-seat athletics arena, the Regional Tennis Centre and the Manchester Velodrome.
Sportcity is part of the legacy of the 2002 Commonwealth Games, an event that did much to reverse economic decline in north-east Manchester. The city tackled the huge event with gusto, pulling off a ‘best ever’ Games and in the process creating some of the best sporting facilities in the country. Sportcity continues to host national and international fixtures, from badminton, cycling and squash championships to niche events such as the National Taekwondo Championships.
No tour of Sportcity would be complete without a visit to Manchester City’s football ground – the City of Manchester Stadium. The 48,000-capacity stadium is a match for United’s ‘theatre of dreams’, and arguably draws a more loyal and local crowd. From spring 2012, Sportcity will be connected to the centre by a new Metrolink line.
Further north, Heaton Park continues the sporting theme. As well as 600 acres of parkland, an 18th-century house and farm centre, Heaton Park has four championship-standard bowling greens built for – you guessed it – the Commonwealth Games.
It’s not all sport in this part of town, though: the philanthropic legacy of the Industrial Revolution is clearly evident in the ambitious architecture and artworks scattered across North Manchester, from the impressive Edwardian Bury Art Gallery to the understated grandeur of Bolton Town Hall.
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Manchester’s wealthier communities are most populous in its southern reaches, whose suburban boutiques, eateries and gardens make the short trip out of the centre worth the effort. Though non-southern Mancunians tend to roll their eyes at mention of the organic-buying media types who populate Didsbury and Chorlton (rumour has it that one newsagent in Chorlton sells more Guardian newspapers than anywhere else in the UK), there is much to recommend these suburbs.
While the City Centre isn’t particularly rich in open space, the southern suburbs have enough of the green stuff to make up for it. From Fletcher Moss in Didsbury to Tatton Park further out of town, there’s enough parkland to get you pink-cheeked after overindulging in the city’s more urban pursuits.
Heading south along the Oxford Road takes you towards Rusholme’s Curry Mile, a riotous strip of neon lights, booming bhangra, swishing saris and curry houses so tightly packed that it’d be rude not to stop off and sample a bhuna or balti (the curries aren’t always great, but the experience is). The traffic here can be horrendous during early evening.
Fallowfield is primarily a student stomping ground with little to recommend it; instead, head over to Gorton in the south-east to visit the Manchester Monastery, or down to Withington, West Didsbury and Didsbury Village.
West Didsbury’s Burton Road has become an eating destination for urbanites, with pubs such as the Metropolitan dishing up reliable, hearty fare. Across the road, Greens regularly serves staggering veggie dishes capable of sating even the most hardened of carnivores. Further west, though there’s little else in leafy Urmston, is Isinglass, a superb restaurant serving English dishes and showcasing local produce.
Further south, along Princess Parkway, the dramatic Hulme Arch Bridge straddles the carriageway, a symbol of the area’s impressive regeneration. Once a concrete jungle of dank flats and gloomy walkways, Hulme was rebuilt in the 1990s with smart red-brick townhouses and green spaces that replaced the 1960s high-rises.
Comfy boozers abound in the south, and it’s easy to lose a Sunday afternoon switching between the papers and downing pints of locally brewed or organic beer. Chorlton’s Marble Beer House is a good bet, while Withington’s Red Lion, complete with beer garden and bowling green, is the perfect place to relax if the sun shines.
Those seeking retail therapy will be delighted by the quirky boutiques and independent record stores that clutter the streets in West Didsbury and Chorlton. Burton Road is again the place to head for in the former, while Chorlton’s equivalent is Beech Road. Here, boutiques and boozers vie for space between delis and restaurants, although Beech Road’s charms have been threatened by newer shops and bars opening in and around the Wilbraham and Barlow Moor crossroads – such as eclectic bar Electrik or the wonderfully kitsch Wowie Zowie!
As with the north, this slice of Greater Manchester is awash with sports venues. Old Trafford is home to Manchester United’s ‘theatre of dreams’, as well as to Lancashire County Cricket Club’s ground.
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