Everyone knows that Manchester has a legendary live music scene, but there’s a whole lot more to the capital of the North than guitars and bands. From classic concerts in ancient meeting houses, history lessons at the city’s famous museums, a visit to the world's oldest public library, flicking through stacks of vinyl or even petting a furry friend or two, the list of brilliant stuff to do just goes on and on. So what are you waiting for? Pick any of our top 20 things to do to get started. A great time is guaranteed.
Things to do in Manchester
Oozing cultural ambition, Manchester regularly boasts exhibitions by artists such as Andy Warhol, Marina Abramović and Cornelia Parker. There are impressive facilities in established galleries such as Manchester Art Gallery and The Lowry, and the Whitworth Art Gallery has a brand new wing that makes the most of the historic park in which it sits. Whether your interest lies in the contemporary, the experimental, the challenging or the traditional, there's a gallery for you.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Manchester’s Warehouse Project is one of the planet’s most celebrated clubbing destinations. Its phenomenal success has seen the club move from the disused Boddingtons brewery near Strangeways prison, to a World War II air raid shelter underneath Manchester Piccadilly station with various stops in between. Regularly catering for 3,000-plus revellers, the party runs only 12 weeks a year (Sep-Dec) – culminating in an explosive New Year’s Day finale – but creates a storm of anticipation. Tickets for the Friday and Saturday sessions, and midweek gigs, cost around £30 and sell out fast. Past lineups have included live music (New Order, LCD Soundsytem) and DJ sets from the world’s foremost selectors (Andy C, Sasha and Ben UFO). With spin-off events running throughout the year at Old Granada Studios and Albert Hall, not forgetting the Parklife Festival every June, WHP has placed Manchester firmly on the international clubbing map, no matter what the season.
Independent record stores such as Vinyl Exchange, Eastern Bloc and Piccadilly Records have been supplying Mancunians with good tunes for years. And they deserve our appreciation, as they have stood firm in the digital age. There are some gems outside the city centre, too. A quick trip to Burnage, for example, and you’ll find Sifters, immortalised (well, mentioned) in the Oasis song 'Shakermaker', while over the way in Chorlton, Kingbee Records offers an Aladdin’s cave of rare jewels in among the Wet Wet Wet and Meat Loaf albums nobody wants any more. In fact, so good is Kingbee's collection, that some have been known to regularly come all the way from New York to visit (with an empty suitcase).
With 30 display tanks, more than 5,000 sea creatures and the chance to get up close and personal with a starfish, stroke a sea anemone or feel a crab's shell (don't worry, the claws are kept well out of it), Sea Life Manchester is the go to spot for fans of the submerged. Plus these guys are big on conservation, so your hard-earned will help the world – which means you'll get a warm glow, too.
It's not only Christmas that makes you feel festive in Manchester. The city has more festivals than a Spanish hilltop village, and they cover a dizzying range of interests every year. Or every two years in the case of the big daddy, Manchester International Festival, which welcomes three weeks of world premieres by major artists such as Björk, Marina Abramović, Tino Sehgal and Rufus Wainwright, plus performances by the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Willem Dafoe and The xx. Annually, the Manchester Jazz Festival and the Manchester Literature Festival are hugely entertaining and if that's not enough, there are also celebrations of history, food, beer, cider... the list goes on and on.
Get ready for your close-up
Like many major cities, Manchester has been used as a film and TV location for decades. From 'Hell Is a City' and 'A Taste of Honey' in the 1960s through to 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Queer as Folk' in the '90s and, more recently, 'Sherlock Holmes' and 'Captain America: The First Avenger', the city has served as the set for countless productions and much fun can be had spotting some of the famous locations. Manchester Town Hall has long stood in for the Houses of Parliament and the spot where Colin Firth emerged from the water and made a nation swoon as Mr Darcy in 'Pride and Prejudice' can be found at Lyme Park, House & Garden.
Smell (and drink) the coffee
Manchester has a thriving independent coffee scene, perfect for people-watching and getting to know the city’s comings and goings. There are two main areas to aim for in the centre. First, the Northern Quarter is home to purist coffee house Takk, the cavernous Foundation Coffee House and bustling North Tea Power, as well as cute lifestyle store-cum-café, Fig & Sparrow. Over on the Deansgate side of town, names to look out for include Pot Kettle Black (run by two professional rugby players) and Lupo Caffè Italiano. Locally roasted blends are a treat: Heart and Graft and ManCoCo are two of our favourites.
Take the Quays of the city
A long time ago some very clever people decided that the area where Salford and Trafford come together – the abandoned quays, which once formed a busy dockland – would make an ideal leisure destination. So now we have a wonderful waterside location just ten minutes from the city centre, where The Lowry, Imperial War Museum North, MediaCityUK, Granada TV, Old Trafford Stadium and Lancashire County Cricket Club are all within walking distance of each other. There's also shopping, a cinema, restaurants and plenty of places to relax, so culture lovers, sport fans and shopaholics alike all get a look-in. A trip at night, when the lights of the buildings bob and bounce in the water, is quite spectacular.
Run to mummy
In the extensive collection of the Manchester Museum lies a tomb-like exhibition of over 16,000 ancient Egyptian artefacts, including 20 human mummies originating from Luxor and Thebes. They were all scanned in 2012 using the most up-to-date technology and to describe them as fascinating is an understatement – not only are they marvels to behold, but the stories behind them are pretty amazing, too. Take Asru, who died in Thebes around 750 BC. She wasn't a queen – she wasn't even particularly grand – but she nonetheless has two coffins. The CT scan revealed that, while she had undergone the common practice of having her brain removed prior to mummification, it hadn't been extracted by the usual method of through the nose. Instead Asru's brain had been taken out through her eye sockets. Why? Who knows? Intriguing stuff.
When the 58km-long Manchester Ship Canal opened in January 1894 at the then whopping cost of £15 million (over £1.5 billion in modern money), it was the largest river canal in the world, enabling Manchester to become an important port despite lying 40km inland. Now, the many waterways of Manchester provide a lovely way to while away the afternoon. Continuing efforts to make them more of an attraction have meant surrounding areas such as Castlefield and The Quays have been spruced up. Mersey Ferries offers ship canal cruises, and there’s a new water taxi service called ‘Waxi’ running from suburban Sale via Castlefield and Old Trafford to the Trafford Centre. There are always narrowboats weaving their way through the city, so whether you want to journey through the locks yourself or just sit back with a glass of wine and watch other people do it, Manchester's canals matter once again.
After suffering years of over-commercialisation, Manchester’s famous Gay Village is on the up again, and the city's LGBT calendar is in great shape. Manchester Pride is the biggie, taking place over August Bank Holiday, with a decent overspill of warm-up and fringe events either side. The occasionally celeb-led Parade happens on the Saturday, after which the Village is walled off and a wristband provides your only route inside (unless you’re Belinda Carlisle’s backing singer). There’s a packed programme throughout the rest of the year, too, including Sparkle, the National Transgender Celebration in the Village, and the Great British Bear Bash, which features lots of rugged fun. Art lovers have Queer Contact every February, which runs to coincide with LGBT History Month and mixes international and local performance with a queer perspective.
Manchester produces some of the best craft beer in the world. To sample the city’s finest, make a beeline – or should that be beer line? – for niche bars such as Port Street Beer House, the Piccadilly Tap (run by the team behind London's Euston Tap) and Beermoth, all located within a few minutes' walk of Piccadilly Gardens. After something more specific? Try one of a number of bars run by local brewers: Blackjack Brewery’s Smithfield Market Tavern (just next to Band on the Wall), Seven Bro7hers’ bar in Ancoats, or the historic Marble Arch pub on Rochdale Road, which showcases Marble’s newest beers. Brewery visits are another trend, ideal for those looking to sample beers fresh from the tank. The industrial area to the east of Piccadilly is home to cult names such as Alphabet, Runaway and the highly regarded Cloudwater.
Take a tour
Tours run by highly qualified (and highly entertaining) Blue Badge Guides start daily from outside Manchester Central Library at 11am. They last for around 90 minutes and take in sights such as the Alfred Waterhouse-designed Town Hall, with its mosaics of worker bees (the city’s mascots) and the ‘Manchester Murals’ series of paintings by Ford Madox Brown; Manchester Cathedral; Chetham’s Library and other landmarks. If you have a head for heights and fancy getting the bigger picture, follow a tour of the city on foot, then take afternoon tea in Cloud 23, situated on the 23rd floor of Manchester's highest building, the Beetham Tower. Booking essential.
Get on down to...
Chinatown in Manchester is reputedly Europe’s largest, with its collection of restaurants, bakeries, businesses and supermarkets concentrated across a number of blocks in the city centre. A beautiful Chinese gate welcomes you into the area and while it's a great place to visit at any time, the last few years have seen Chinese New Year celebrations become a much bigger part of the city’s cultural calendar, extending Chinatown's reach across the centre. As a collection of excellent places to eat and shop, it’s not to be missed and, while there are other opportunities to experience Eastern culture elsewhere in Manchester, the selection on offer here is hard to beat. Our favourites are Siam Smiles (for casual Thai food) and traditional Japanese restaurant, Yuzu.
Head to the market
And no, we don’t mean Market Street. Manchester’s brimming with markets all year round – from street food to local independent crafts, you can find it all and a whole lot more across the city. Keep an eye on Grub for the best food stalls around and newcomer Mackie Mayor – a huge converted Grade II-listed building close to Band on the Wall that promises 400 seats and cracking food from the likes of Honest Crust. The people behind it are also responsible for the regenerated Altrincham Market. A game-changer for the region’s culinary offering if ever there was one.
No, not by the famous Manchester rain, though as the UK’s ninth-wettest city, there’s plenty of that too. Yet another welcome legacy of the 2002 Commonwealth Games, Manchester Aquatics Centre (close to the university) is a modern shrine to swimming and open to the public all year round. It also hosts major water-based sporting events. There’s an enormous 50m pool, a diving pool, gym facilities and a health suite. Lessons are also available, so you can learn how to become the next Tom Daley – if you think you can handle those imposing diving boards. It’s also a place for splashy fun, with a giant baby pool, fountains and slides shaped like elephants to keep kids of all ages happy.
Stay on the ball
Where would Manchester be without football? It’s the first thing anyone in the world comments on when you tell them your city of origin. With two major teams (archrivals and with armies of fans), plus the National Football Museum in the city centre, the sport is a huge attraction for locals and visitors alike. Both United and City's grounds offer tours and behind-the-scenes opportunities, and you could easily spend your entire month's wages in their shops. For those with a more general interest in the sport, the National Football Museum provides a great opportunity to indulge your passion in a somewhat less tribal manner.
Pet a pig or cuddle a cat
The convenience of city living can cut you off from the pleasures of the countryside. But fret not. When you suddenly get that urge to stroke a sheep, gaze at a goat or pet a pig, you'll find a number of petting farms within easy reach. Perfect entertainment for a family afternoon out, Wythenshawe Community Farm gives children the opportunity to have wide-eyed fun while subtly teaching them about traditional farming methods and where their meat comes from. It’s all free too. For a more urban take on animal interaction, a visit to the Northern Quarter’s zen-like Cat Café is a must. Petting sessions cost around £12 per hour (although shorter fur-bursts are available) and wellbeing is a priority, with plenty of places for your feline BFF to escape to if he isn’t in the mood.
Like books? The oldest surviving public library in the English-speaking world is Chetham's in Manchester, an extraordinary place filled with ancient books and Hogwartian dark, wood-panelled rooms. And it isn’t the only impressive library in Manchester – the grand Central Library has recently reopened after years of restoration, and there's also the Victorian Gothic John Rylands Library on Deansgate. Don’t miss the Portico Library, either, a hidden gem completed in the Greek Revival style in 1806.
It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of music on Manchester. The list of bands, singers, musicians and producers who have sprung from the city goes on and on. But Manchester is nothing if not open-minded, so there’s room for all on the live music circuit, which is served by some fantastic venues. From the Manchester Arena – a large-scale venue seating thousands for gigs by the likes of Dolly Parton and Nine Inch Nails – to mid-size venues (The Lowry, the Apollo and Ritz) and intimate spaces for just a few hundred (Gorilla, Deaf Institute and loads more), there are plenty to choose from. One of our favourites is the Albert Hall, a converted Wesleyan chapel that works brilliantly for everything from live pop to classical concerts by the likes of Manchester Camerata, and proper raves.