Manchester: A Local’s Guide

August 25, 2016

From the creative Northern Quarter to its illustrious music scene, Cathy McFadden knows her stuff when it comes to Manchester's best bits.

As Stuart Maconie says in his 2007 bestseller, Pies and Prejudice, “Manchester has fancied itself rotten for as long as anyone can remember.”

And for good reason. Before we even mention the city’s musical heritage, Manchester, the birthplace of socialism, feminism and vegetarianism, is the home of two of the world's largest football clubs and gave us the very first computer - how about that. 

Cathy McFadden has called Manchester home for almost a decade and has seen the city evolve into a top destination, with something for everyone. She shares the city’s highlights and notes one thing that hasn't changed: this friendly city continues to have a lot to be proud of.

1. Northern Quarter

Manchester: A Local’s Guide - Northern Quarter

Tucked away off the city centre’s main shopping area is the artistic Northern Quarter. Originally a hard working area for mill workers and weavers, the hangover of its industrial past has given the Creatives tons of warehouse space to convert into cool apartments, galleries, clubs and pubs. There's no stopping this ever evolving neighbourhood as the sprawl of independent cafes and restaurants continues next door into the up and coming Ancoats area.

Night and day you'll find something to do in this lively area of the city. Do not miss breakfast at Evelyn's housed in a large industrial space. The cool whitewashed brick walls and exposed conduits are juxtaposed by the botanical feel created by living walls and flowing succulents suspended from the ceiling. If you like your pour-over with a side order of design, check out my favourite coffee bar, Fig + Sparrow. Satisfy your sweet tooth in the vintage teahouse, Sugar Junction and titillate your taste buds with Squid Ink’s taster menu in this Nordic-style restaurant.

Follow in the footsteps of the grafters of the city’s past and meander through the maze of streets, discovering hidden gems in narrow passageways and back streets, like gallery-space-cum-nightclubs, Kraak and Twenty Twenty Two. As you stroll along, keep your eyes peeled for fine examples of street art. Gable walls and electricity sub-stations provide canvas space for the city’s street artists who paint tributes to late greats like Bowie and Prince and provide a colourful backdrop to the industrial landscape of the city.

Call into Piccadilly Records to top your vinyl collection, get styled in vintage store Pop Boutique and have your mind blown in Magma as you peruse its huge collection of niche magazines and art books. For a dose of kitsch, pay a visit to gift shop Oklahoma.

No visit to the Northern Quarter is complete without a trip to Affleck’s Palace. An emporium of eclecticism and truly a Manchester institution; even Lady Gaga couldn't resist a visit during her 2014 tour. For a unique purchase make a line to the Manchester Craft & Design Centre where local designers and artists showcase their wares. And fear not, if you run out of beard wax or safety razors during your visit, Deadstock General Store will cater for all your gentlemanly needs.

2. Culture Club

Manchester: A Local’s Guide - Culture Club

Manchester’s heritage is a rich cultural tapestry of visual arts, social reform, scientific revolution and music. During the Industrial Revolution, Manchester was the world’s largest centre of manufacturing - an era which has been immortalised through the works of local artist L.S. Lowry. During this time, Manchester furnished itself with museums, galleries and libraries to bolster its new position in the global economy. 

A fine example of the city's galleries is the Whitworth which gets a special mention due to its track record of reinventing itself over the past 130 years. Last year the Whitworth underwent an extensive renovation bringing this Victorian institution into the 21st century, breathing fresh air into the city’s art scene. Whilst the gallery continues to celebrate Manchester’s prominent position in the British textile industry, it brings cutting edge exhibitions and installations from acclaimed contemporary artists, such as Cornelia Parker. Kids can join in the fun too and get inspired with the gallery’s unique Art Hampers, a picnic hamper with a difference. Pack your hamper with art materials, head into the galleries and get creative. I also recommend taking a seat in the peaceful wildflower garden at the rear of the gallery for a moment of calm in the busy city.

For contemporary art, theatre and film, do not miss HOME. Catch the latest Almodovar film, dine in one the centre's restaurants or simply relax in a deckchair on a unique rain-free day and hang out with the locals in this fun neighbourhood spot.

Manchester hosts a biennial international arts festival, MIF (Manchester International Festival), showcasing new, original works across the spectrum of performance and visual arts from around the globe. Time your visit to the city right and you can be amongst the first in the world to see a new musical by Damon Albarn or an opera composed by Rufus Wainwright. The next festival will take place in summer 2017.

Check out the neighbourhood of Spinningfields, in addition to its impressive selection of restaurants and bars, it is home to the People's History Museum. A unique museum charting the history of the British working class' fight for equality and democracy. This riverside museum has something for all ages, follow the struggles of the suffragette movement and explore politics and reform curated in a truly exciting and engaging way.

Alan Turing, John Dalton and Ernest Rutherford amongst other great scientific minds have used Manchester as a cradle for world changing developments in computing, atomic theory and transport revolution. Today, scientific greatness lives on in the city and Manchester has been recognised as the European City of Science 2016. Pay a visit to MOSI, a large museum built on the site of the world’s first passage railway station, devoted to the development of science, technology and industry.

3. All of the Football

Manchester United Football Stadium

Whether you're a Red, a Blue or simply a fan of the beautiful game, Manchester has something for you.

Manchester is home to the National Football Museum, housed in the architecturally celebrated Urbis building. Join visitors of all ages who come from across the globe to see world-class memorabilia and temporary exhibitions in the largest football Museum on the planet.

Learn the stories of the city’s (and two of the world's) largest football teams by booking on a Stadium and Club Tour. Both Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium are easily reached by the Metro (Manchester’s tram system), which is good to know in case you're lucky enough to find yourself in Manchester on match day. Tickets are hard to come by, but if you can bag one for derby day you will not be disappointed. As rivalling United and City fans are pumped with adrenaline, the city’s atmosphere is electrifying.

4. Get Outta Town

Manchester: A Local’s Guide - Get Outta Town

Manchester’s city centre is relatively small and manageable, so once you've conquered it, take advantage of the excellent public transport system and get out of town. The city is the sum of its parts and there are many great suburban villages and nearby towns to explore.

My highlights include Altrincham which, in addition to several impressive Belgium bars, has a lively indoor food market that houses independent eateries and bars. During the afternoon, the adjacent market is abuzz with live music whilst vendors sell crafts, local art and vintage gems.

Up and coming Stockport is only a ten minute train journey from the city centre. Catch a classic film at the beautifully preserved Plaza, one of the UK's surviving cinemas of the 1930s. Take a tour of the Robinson's Brewery and get lost in the retro gems on offer in the award winning Vintage Village monthly market. In the evening, enjoy the buzz and excellent juke box at The Baker’s Vaults and let the Plant Food Power Chef cook you up a feast at fine dining vegan restaurant, The Allotment.

The close-knit community of Levenshulme hosts a cheerful Saturday market every week and a regular bustling night market with live entertainment and a full bar. You'll find great coffee, fresh groceries and unique gifts alongside mouth-watering street food. The heart of Levenshulme is husband and wife-run bakery, Trove. Their delicious artisan bread is delivered around Manchester by Cyril, a vintage Citroen van. Closer to home, Katy and her friendly team serve up dishes throughout the day in the laid back cafe with its Scandinavian interior. Check out the regular supper clubs in the evening.

South of the city, you'll find the leafy, affluent suburb of Didsbury. Fill an afternoon strolling along Burton Road with boutiques, like interior store, Moth and independent bars and restaurants aplenty. Do not miss afternoon tea in the cute pantry-style cafe, And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon.

If real ale is your poison, board the Manchester to Leeds train for the Ale Trail, a unique voyage to a selection of Yorkshire and Lancashire's best real ale pubs. Each pub is conveniently located on or within a short distance from the station platform. Go armed with a timetable and a thirst for adventure, but don't be surprised if you lose track of time.

5. 24 Hour Party People

Manchester: A Local’s Guide - 24 Hour Party People

From the Hallé Orchestra and the 1977 Sex Pistols’ gig that changed the world, to decade defining The Smith's and the Madchester days of the Haçienda, it all happened here. To learn more about the legendary music scene, follow Inspiral Carpets’ drummer, Craig Gill, on his Manchester Music Tour to the city’s musical hotspots such as the Salford Lads Club and the Free Trade Hall.

Experience the scene for yourself by catching a gig at the spectacular Albert Hall or Manchester University's famous Academy venue. If clubbing is your scene, head underground to the Warehouse Project for DJ sets by the likes of Skrillex or to the grimy basement of Soup Kitchen. For the surreal and unusual do not miss nights at Islington Mill - a late-night-into-next-day rave space - and get lost trying to find Hidden, the off-grid industrial club.

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Cathy McFadden Born in Belfast and based in Manchester, Cathy inherited her love for travel from her father. Ever since her first InterRailing trip 30 years ago, Cathy has loved exploring and documenting her travels across Europe, North America, Africa and Asia.