Your travel guide to Liverpool waterfront and its World Heritage Site
You have to hand it to Liverpool, it was built to impress. From humble office blocks used as architectural statements to the world’s first overhead electric railway, Liverpool was, for 200 years, one of the world’s greatest port cities. So when the Illustrated London News declared Liverpool “a wonder of the world” back in 1886, it wasn’t kidding.
What is remarkable is that so much has survived. It is for this reason that, in 2004, Liverpool was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The waterfront which takes in the Albert Dock and the Pier Head is an integral part of the site – and is the best place to get a feel for Liverpool’s former grandeur.
First stop is a trio of office blocks at the Pier Head known as the Three Graces. Banish all thoughts of strip lighting and corporate carpets: these buildings were designed to illustrate Liverpool‘s immense wealth. The first, the Port of Liverpool Building, is a Baroque block; it is said that its central dome was based on an unused plan for the city’s Anglican Cathedral. Constructed as offices for the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, it was the first to be built on land reclaimed from George’s Dock; the Mersey originally ran up to the Strand.
The 1911 Royal Liver Building is nothing if not iconic, its cormorant-like Liver Birds the punchline to a local joke – the female bird looks over the sea, watching for sailors’ safe return, while the male looks over the city, to check the pubs are still open. Although its neo-Classical style hints at antiquity, the Liver Building was a technical innovator. It was one of the first multi-storey buildings in the world to use a steel-reinforced concrete structure.
The lower floors of the Cunard Building, the former headquarters of the Cunard Steamship Company, once served as a waiting room for passengers of Cunard’s transatlantic steamers. Notions of identity and migration pull tightly across its grand Portland stone frontage; even its restrained classical façade screams stiff upper lip, chaps. Like its fellow Graces, it is now an office block. Apart from occasional tours, it’s best to admire the Three Graces from afar – Mersey Ferries operate daily “explorer” cruises.
Close by, the Albert Dock boasts the largest group of Grade I listed buildings in the UK and is home to numerous museums, shops, restaurants and hotels. All are contained within red brick warehouses, purpose-built in the 1840s to safeguard the “high value bonded goods” that rolled off the ships. Derelict, the Albert Dock was regenerated in the 1980s, with the subsequent move here by the Tate (it opened Tate Liverpool in 1988; celebrated architect James Stirling converted warehouse to gallery) cementing a brighter future for the waterfront as a whole.
Tate Liverpool is one of the country’s finest art galleries, with four floors dedicated to modern and contemporary work from the Tate collection, as well as a changing programme of temporary exhibitions. An excellent shop and riverside views make it a must-see. Close by, the Merseyside Maritime Museum covers everything from the Titanic to the history of the docks while, on its third floor, the International Slavery Museum relays the horrific story of the Atlantic slave trade, a trade that Liverpool played such a central role in perpetuating.
There are countless places to eat and drink, from celeb haunt Blue Bar and Grill and the cool booths-with-booze at PanAm to the cute dockside café at the Tate. Topping them all (literally) is Panoramic 34, one of the UK’s tallest restaurants. Located on the 34th floor of Liverpool’s West Tower on Brook Street, this is a high-falutin’ eatery with a high-end menu.
Wedged between the Albert Dock and the Three Graces is Liverpool’s latest cultural addition: the Museum of Liverpool. Three years in the making at a cost of £72m, its purpose is to tell the tale of this city. It manages this in spades thanks to 6,000 exhibits spread across three floors, all connected by a shell-like, spiral staircase. It’s a great option for families, especially the free (but ticketed) Little Liverpool gallery that’s stuffed with hands-on exhibits for the under 6s.
More grown-up pursuits can be found at the Open Eye Gallery, a small photography gallery with a big reputation. Since relocating to Mann Island in 2011, the 35 year-old organisation’s ambitious, international exhibitions programme has cemented its position as one of the UK’s leading, dedicated photography spaces.
The Mann Island buildings and the Museum of Liverpool are new-builds, part of a waterside development which has been dogged by controversy. An architectural competition to design the so-called “fourth Grace” was held in 2002 and Will Alsop’s winning plans included residential, hotel and office space, plus the new museum. In the end, Alsop’s vision was scrapped and the museum worked on a separate building with Danish architects, 3XN. It opened in 2011 and was swiftly nominated for a Carbuncle Cup. The three blocks built at Mann Island, which house around 400 flats above ground-level shop and gallery space (including the Open Eye), have attracted similar derision. The wedge-shaped black granite constructions were nominated for the Carbuncle Cup a year after their neighbour.
Whatever your thoughts on these waterfront additions, there is much to be enjoyed, from the newly extended Leeds and Liverpool Canal (flowing in front of the Three Graces) to the monumental slab of a building that is the George’s Dock Ventilation and Control Station. A ventilation shaft for the first Mersey tunnel, a wander around the exterior is worth doing – its Art Deco design shouts speed and efficiency. Across the road are the distinctive alternating bands of “streaky bacon” red brick and Portland stone of Albion House, built as the White Star Line offices. News of the ill-fated Titanic was shouted from the balconies to the families of crew members below by officials too afraid to leave the building. Further along The Strand is Chavasse Park and then on to the Baltic Fleet, a mid-19th century pub with a history to rival that of the Albert Dock. Sit here with a pint of its own-brewed ale and marvel at the minds and men who carved out modern Liverpool from the marshy banks of the River Mersey.