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National Football Museum
Photograph: Flickr / Becca Swift

The 12 best museums in Manchester

Want to get your culture on? These are the best museums in Manchester for art, history and everything in between

By Josh Mcloughlin
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Ask a Mancunian to name the UK’s second city and they won’t miss a beat – London, obviously. When it comes to museums, the capital of the north boasts a peerless mix of family-friendly headline attractions like Manchester Museum and the Science and Industry Museum and some of the nation’s most important special-interest museums and heritage centres. Social justice, women’s rights, football, public transport: all interests are pretty much seen to.

Where to start with museums in Manchester? With our help, of course. Where else has a universally acclaimed war museum with more than a dozen architectural awards and consumer gongs? Where else can you find out everything you ever wanted to know about hat-making but were too afraid to ask? In Manchester, judicious reader, for this is where the heart, the mind and the best museums are.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Manchester

Best museums in Manchester

People’s History Museum
Photograph: Flickr / Megan Eaves

1. People’s History Museum

Museums History

Every city’s got a museum with a few works by big-shot artists and dusty relics once owned by rich white men and/or pilfered from former colonies, but only Manchester has a museum dedicated to the history of democracy, radicalism, equality and social justice. The People’s History Museum tells the story of democracy from the 1819 Peterloo Massacre to the present day. The museum hosts top-notch talks and workshops year round, with a new augmented reality installation open from 2020.

Imperial War Museum North
Photograph: Geograph / David Dixon

2. Imperial War Museum North

Museums Military and maritime

Designed to be equal parts unsettling and illuminating, the Daniel Libeskind-designed Imperial War Museum North is an award-winning immersive experience, architectural marvel and world-leading research centre. The museum’s unusual, almost disquieting layout means lazy, passive observation is pretty much impossible. Its location in Trafford Park, a crucial munitions centre and the main target of the Manchester Blitz, and its striking silhouette on the city’s skyline make it one of Europe’s most poignant and powerful war museums. 

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Manchester Museum
Photograph: Flickr / Andy Hay

3. Manchester Museum

Museums Natural history

The biggie – in fact, the biggest. The sprawling, swaggering Manchester Museum is the UK’s largest university museum. In a striking neo-Gothic setting designed by Alfred Waterhouse – the brains behind the Natural History Museum in London – the museum houses acclaimed collections in archaeology, anthropology and natural history, a vivarium for critically endangered amphibian species, and loads more. Look out for the new exhibition hall and South Asia and China galleries set to open in 2021.

Pankhurst Centre
Photograph: Geograph / David Dixon

4. The Pankhurst Centre

This is where the suffragette movement began, transforming the lives of millions around the world. It was inside 62 Nelson Street that Emmeline Pankhurst led the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. Earmarked for demolition in 1978, the building was saved by campaigners and opened as the volunteer-run Pankhurst Centre in 1987 by Helen Pankhurst, Emmeline’s great-granddaughter. It’s the only museum in the UK dedicated to the story of the women who fought and died to secure the vote. The Centre is small but packs a big punch, with shedloads of suffragette history, knowledgeable curators and regular talks by renowned women artists, writers, scientists and athletes.

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Manchester Jewish Museum
Photograph: Geograph / David Dixon

5. Manchester Jewish Museum

Manchester’s got the second-largest Jewish community in Britain outside London, so it’s only fitting Manchester Jewish Museum is getting a massive refurb, including a huge, two-storey extension and an extensive restoration of its grade II-listed synagogue. It will reopen in 2021 with a new gallery space and café, but for now you can still enjoy the museum’s jam-packed arts and events calendar at a pop-up space in Manchester Central Library.

National Football Museum
Photograph: Flickr / Becca Swift

6. National Football Museum

Museums Sport

Manchester’s football pedigree is top class, making it the perfect home for a museum dedicated to the world’s best-loved sport. The National Football Museum is a four-floor love letter to the game, home to the official FIFA, UEFA and FA collections, including trophies, medals, kits, memorabilia, photographs and films dating back to 1863.

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Science and Industry Museum
Photograph: Science and Industry Museum

7. Science and Industry Museum

Museums Science and technology

For more than 50 years, the Museum of Science and Industry has celebrated the history of science and innovation, with a focus on the industrial revolution in Manchester. On the site of the oldest surviving passenger railway station and the world’s first railway warehouse, the museum hosts cutting-edge exhibitions across five historic listed buildings. Its biennial Manchester Science Festival is a highlight of the Manchester cultural calendar.  

Elizabeth Gaskell’s House
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons / Michael D Beckwith

8. Elizabeth Gaskell's House

Attractions Historic buildings and sites

A mere skip from the riot of Oxford Road lies Elizabeth Gaskell’s lovely old gaffe. The former home of the renowned Victorian novelist – once frequented by 19th-century literary royalty ranging from Ruskin to Brontë to Dickens – was in a right state in 2006, when it sat ominously on English Heritage’s at-risk buildings register. Happily, following a £2.5 million restoration, the house reopened in 2014. Now visitors can enjoy changing exhibitions and a calendar stuffed with excellent talks and workshops.

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Salford Museum & Art Gallery
Photograph: Geograph / David Dixon

9. Salford Museum & Art Gallery

Art Galleries

Over the water, Salford Museum and Art Gallery houses an impressive collection of Victorian fine and decorative art. Its focus is social history, featuring as it does the Local History Library and Lark Hill Place, a faithful recreation of the sights and sounds of a typical Victorian Salford street. Book ahead for the museum’s popular monthly Craft Social, led by Caroline Coates.

Museum of Transport
Photograph: Geograph / David Dixon

10. Museum of Transport

If you don’t get excited by vintage transport design, maps, memorabilia and historic buses and trams, what’s the matter with you? A must for transport buffs, the Museum of Transport houses more than 70 vehicles – many of which you can actually get inside – and a huge archive of brochures, route maps, tickets, photography and film. Don’t miss the old-school cafeteria and keep an eye out for the museum’s free heritage bus rides back to Shudehill.

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Portland Basin Museum
Photograph: Geograph / David Dixon

11. Portland Basin Museum

Housed in the gorgeous 19th-century Ashton Canal Warehouse, the Portland Basin Museum’s centrepiece is a recreation of a 1920s street complete with terrace house, school room, chippy and pub. Learn about the area’s industrial history of mining, farming and textile manufacture, visit the changing exhibitions, and take a narrowboat trip down the canal. Day out: sorted.

Hat Works
Photograph: Flickr / www.holidaygems.co.uk

12. Hat Works

Is Stockport in Manchester? Does anyone care? What matters is Hat Works, Stockport’s wonderfully zany museum of the area’s once-flourishing hatting industry. Most people know it from its huge brick chimney, which announces to those travelling in by rail from the south that Piccadilly is only 10 minutes away. But it’s well worth getting off a stop early to check out the museum’s massive collection of Victorian machinery, interactive exhibits, and hundreds of hats from around the world.

After more solid recommendations?

A canal in city-centre Manchester
Photograph: Shutterstock

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