Your travel guide to Northern Quarter, Manchester
Our favourite anecdote of Manchester’s self-styled creative quarter comes courtesy of Oldham Street pub, the Castle Hotel. Sitting in its snug one Thursday afternoon, two drinkers notice a young couple in fancy dress: one as a cat, the other wearing a comedy moustache. Eventually the drinkers ask the pair why they are so attired. “We heard the Northern Quarter was really creative,” said the cat. “So we thought we should dress for the occasion.”
Turns out the pair were in Manchester on a day trip from Leeds, and of course they were both right and wrong about the Northern Quarter. While it is a place that fulfils the dictionary definition of the word ‘boutique’, like so much of Manchester it doesn’t shout about its charms. People working in design, music, and the creative industries? Yes. People wandering around in fancy dress? Not so much.
This atmospheric neighbourhood is adjacent to the mainstream delights of Market Street and the city centre, yet its mix of vintage, vinyl and curry houses sets it apart. It remains pretty much chain-free, although that is due in part to the narrow streets and tiny shop fronts that characterise this area – part of the distinctive architecture that lends the Northern Quarter much of its appeal. It’s a pleasure to get lost among its winding redbrick alleys and grand warehouses dating from the Cottonopolis era. While some have been restored others have fared less well. But if any place suits a little urban dilapidation, it’s this one.
Long before the Northern Quarter turned all hip and happening, it was a place of hard graft, either for mill workers and weavers, or for those selling their market wares. At the end of Oak Street are the remains of Smithfield Market, the relief carvings of its Neo-Romanesque arches a reminder of the wholesale fish, vegetable and fruit markets that once thrived here – now they enclose a fairly mundane apartment complex. Though it’s currently boarded up, it’s worth a walk to Swan Street to check out the bull’s heads that mark the entrance to the spectacular Mackie Mayor building, a former meat market.
The sole survivor of the NQ’s mercantile past is the Manchester Craft & Design Centre. This little gem, a former retail fish market with a glass-roofed atrium and wrought-iron frontage, has for 30 years been home to an array of artist-run studios. Come here for locally made art, jewellery, bags and accessories, as well as contemporary craft exhibitions. The café does a good line in homemade cake and coffee, though it can get chilly in winter.
Nearby is the Chinese Arts Centre, with its always-interesting contemporary art, and the Richard Goodall Gallery which specialises in music-oriented illustration and photography; multi-purpose spaces such as Kraak and 2022nq also host good exhibitions. But much of the art here is outside. This is the place in the city you’re most likely to be surprised by pineapples on rooftops and poems embedded in the sidewalks. Stencil art and artful graffiti adorn walls and shutters; look out for the remnants of global guerrilla art project Space Invaders, and a spectacular building-high blue tit (yes, that does make it a giant tit). Some of this art is officially sanctioned, such as Stevenson Square’s Outhouse Project; much of it isn’t. Either way, it brings a little creativity to otherwise unloved walls.
Culture aside, the main pursuits here are eating, drinking (coffee or booze), independent shopping and general hanging out. Our favourite café du jour is the mighty North Tea Power, with its addictive cakes, serious selection of teas and coffees and captivating playlist. Nearby, Teacup on Thomas Street also majors in tea and cake; it is slightly more formal, though, and service can be patchy.
Shopping clusters around the main drag, Oldham Street; this bus-choked road boasts treasures such as Piccadilly Records, Oxfam Originals and Lomography UK. It’s also the home of legendary music bars Dry Bar and Night & Day Cafe, as well as two excellent pubs: the aforementioned Castle Hotel and The Northern. If vintage is your thing, get stuck into the cluster of secondhand shops including American Graffiti and Pop Boutique. Several shops, such as Junk, sell not only pre-loved clothes but new items made from vintage fabrics or clothing. Design heads will swoon over niche style magazines, art books and all manner of typographical coolness on offer at Magma Books, while everyone loves Fred Aldous, a huge art supply and stationery store on Stevenson Square. And no retail visit to the NQ is complete without a wander around the stalls of Afflecks, a mind-bogglingly diverse shopping emporium beloved of the city’s alternative tribes.
Back in its sketchier days, the Northern Quarter used to be off-limits after dark. Now it’s one of the city’s best haunts for nocturnal fun, with scores of after-hours drinkers hopping between independent bars – though take the conviviality with a pinch of street savvy salt. Neighbourhood mainstay Common hosts regular art exhibitions on its walls and recently opened a sister venue, Port Street Beer House, aimed at satisfying serious beer drinkers. We also rate Marble Brewery’s tiny Thomas Street digs for beer; cocktail lovers may prefer classy Apotheca or hipper, grungier Socio Rehab.
Hungry? Good news: The Northern Quarter is arguably the city’s best location for cheap eats. Get past the unprepossessing décor and dig in at one of the “rice and three” curry houses; our favourites are Yadgar Cafe (Thomas Street) and This & That (Soap Street). Or choose between continental platters at The Blue Pig, quality food and wine at Bakerie, a fry-up at Koffee Pot or artisan pizza heaven at Slice. If higher-end eating is what you’re after, proceed to The Market, which has served up an eclectic traditional menu for nigh on 30 years (booking recommended), or The Northern Quarter Restaurant across the road. Bon appetit.