Your travel guide to Manchester city centre.
Like the built environment equivalent of Madonna, Manchester knows a thing or two about reinvention. The prime example was the city’s response to the 1996 IRA bomb, the largest peacetime bomb detonated in mainland Britain, and which shattered its retail heart. The city seized upon it as an opportunity to kick-start a £1.2bn regeneration scheme that transformed the central Manchester. It’s a trend that continues today with the likes of NOMA, the Co-operative Group’s £800m new development on the edge of the city, which will inevitably change once again how things look and feel.
While this go-getting attitude usually works, occasionally things go awry: the old Corn Exchange was once reinvented as a glossy shopping mall and re-branded The Triangle. It never quite stuck; it has recently been re-re-branded the Corn Exchange, with plans to bring back its original independent vibe. The city centre often gets flack for questionable planning and a lack of green space, too, and like every other city it faces a tough economic time. Shops open and close with heartbeat regularity, a clue to the growing divide between rich and poor that exploded here in the form of the 2011 riots.
But no matter: this is a city that can take criticism, and for the visitor there is little to complain about. Market Street, the pedestrianised high street that leads to The Arndale Centre, is always heaving. The recently refurbished Arndale, while offering little that is unique to Manchester, offers pretty much everything under one roof and has cannily retained the original markets it was once famous for.
The city centre mixes historic and new architecture rather well. In amongst ugly 70s blocks are gems such as the Charles Barry-designed, Grade I-listed Manchester Art Gallery, or its neighbour, the diminutive neo-Classical Portico Library. Close by, the Central Library’s £48m redevelopment is nearing completion; next door to that is Alfred Waterhouse’s splendid Victorian Gothic Town Hall.
Not far away, the Bridgewater Hall, home to The Hallé orchestra, is one of the finest such concert halls in Europe. Purpose-built in the 1990s, it floats on earthquake-proof isolation bearings that mute all external noise – handy given the trams rattling past. Nearby are The Briton’s Protection and Peveril of the Peak, two of Manchester’s finest traditional pubs; Manchester Central, a conference centre housed in a converted railway station; and the lavish Midland Hotel, its terracotta and polished granite exterior hinting at the £1m it cost to build back in 1903.
Some buildings combine old and new in one go: The Royal Exchange is a former Victorian trading hall that became a theatre in 1973. It was severely damaged by the 1996 bomb, underwent a £32m redevelopment and reopened two years later with a seven-sided glass and steel theatre in the round that squats inside the Great Hall. Today it’s one of the most celebrated theatres in the country.
Manchester Art Gallery continues the trend: it benefitted from a £35m extension in 2002, which enabled it to display an outstanding Victorian collection alongside regularly changing contemporary exhibitions. The gallery is led by Maria Balshaw, also director of the Whitworth: under her leadership both institutions’ once-sleepy programmes have been given a welcome shot in the arm. The National Football Museum, meanwhile, is the new cultural kid on the block, opening in 2012. It attracted 100,000 visitors in its first six weeks, proving that it can more than hold its own.
Opposite is a slice of medieval Manchester: the cathedral, which dates back to 1215, and the 15th-century Chetham’s Library. Its glorious, ancient interior would make it noteworthy alone, but it is also where Friederich Engels and Karl Marx, appalled by the living conditions of the city’s Industrial Revolution workers, penned one of the most influential political texts ever written, The Communist Manifesto.
For most visitors, and despite Marx’s efforts, the centre’s main attraction is shopping: the city has everything from mainstream retailers to the luxury shops along King Street, from specialist markets to the wincingly expensive concessions that line New Cathedral Street. It is almost impossible not to buy something you never knew you needed, whether you’re perambulating through the 18th-century St Ann’s Square or strolling past Kendals (properly known as House of Fraser).
When it comes to eating and drinking, you will be spoiled for choice. Behind Manchester Art Gallery, on Faulkner Street, you’ll find Chinatown, packed with everything from Teppanyaki bars to Vietnamese bubble tea cafes. Favourites include Chinese & Thai at Pacific, fiery Szechwan at Red Chilli and the cavernous dining area at Little Yang Sing. Or for a quick snack, buy a pork bun at Ho’s Bakery.
Traditionalists should head to Sam’s Chophouse, an atmospheric pub described by The Guardian as “a Victorian fantasy meets Hogwarts,” and its new sister restaurant, Albert Square Chop House. The cluster of luxury hotels near Piccadilly Station host some of the city’s most exciting kitchens, including Michael Caines at Abode, while other upscale dinners can be had at San Carlo Cicchetti and 63 Degrees.
As for pubs, there are too many to mention, though Manchester’s collection runs to curiosities like the miniscule Circus Tavern, Manchester’s smallest pub, or The Temple, a former underground public toilet block immortalised in Elbow’s song Grounds for Divorce. There are great real ale pubs, too, such as The City Arms on Kennedy Street. The canalside tables of the Gay Village are always lively, with bars serving as cafes during the day and filling up after dark. Some may recognise Via Fossa from Queer as Folk, though we like Taurus, a village stalwart with its own theatre programme, and the gorgeously appointed Molly House.
Although the city centre is compact, and the ever-expanding tram network has made forays out to districts such as The Quays easier, the centre often feels frantic. Traffic jams snake down Deansgate, shoppers pack out Market Street and despite the recession, the pace of life is as fast as ever. But that’s all part of what makes Manchester such a good place to visit. It is a city of doers and workers, and the old Industrial Revolution symbol of the worker bee, which still studs the mosaic floors of the Town Hall, feels as apt now as it ever did during Manchester’s industrial heyday.