Manchester School of Art Visit Day: make the most of the city

Susie Stubbs

Heading to Manchester School of Art’s visit day this April? Make the most of your visit by getting out into the city – with our guide to Manchester’s cultural and historic highlights, the best places to eat and some intriguing things to do.

Friday 24 April – evening

Come the night before the open day to get a flavour for Manchester after hours. Head to the Royal Exchange, a former Victorian trading hall that’s now a critically acclaimed theatre in the round; tonight see a new adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina. Eating and drinking close by abound. On Cross Street, you’ll find Victorian gastro pub Mr. Thomas’ Chophouse, good for traditional British dishes. After something casual? Bryon’s (Deansgate) won’t disappoint, or for an upmarket treat try Hawksmoor (Deansgate). Newly opened, its excellent menu and impeccable service has established it as one of the city’s most popular restaurants. There’s fine dining, too, at The French, the restaurant inside the historic Midland Hotel; run by acclaimed chef Simon Rogan, its emphasis is on seasonal ingredients.

Saturday 25 April – all day

While you may want to spend most of your time today at Manchester School of Art, if you do have some free time there are plenty of things to do nearby. Turning right onto Oxford Road, for example, takes you to Manchester Museum (open 10am-5pm). Housed inside a listed building, the museum’s six million objects span everything from Egyptian remains and dinosaurs; it’s also showing Dance of the Butterflies, an arresting artwork by one of Africa’s leading artists, Romuald Hazoumè. Head further up Oxford Road (a 10 minute walk), past the castle-like towers of Contact (a performing arts space with an international reputation for new theatre), and you’ll come to the Whitworth (open 10am-5pm).

The UK’s original gallery in a park has been extended to the tune of £15m; it reopened only in February. Beautiful new gallery spaces overlook its namesake park, while exhibitions here are a mix of contemporary commissions and historic displays. Currently on show is a critically acclaimed solo exhibition by Cornelia Parker and a watercolours exhibition that showcases some of the Whitworth’s greats – among them 22 paintings by J.M.W. Turner. Don’t miss the Whitworth’s glorious café in the trees; it overlooks both an art garden and the park.

Even closer to the Benzie Building, however, is the Holden Gallery; its exhibitions regularly pull in some of the biggest names in contemporary art (10am-4.30pm). On the other is MMU’s Special Collections (in the Kenneth Green Library, open 10am-4pm). This library and archive started life as a hands-on resource for students of Manchester School of Art. Over 175 years later its exhibitions continue; drop in to see We Want People Who Can Draw, an exhibition that connects art school teaching and political dissent.

Keep walking down the road, past the Palace Hotel and you’ll come to Manchester Central Library. It reopened last spring after a £50m refurbishment; its music library alone contains some 380,000 items, from historic manuscripts to digital recordings. Close by is Manchester Art Gallery, whose Victorian collection (particularly strong on the Pre-Raphaelites) is balanced by clever, contemporary exhibitions, furniture and fashion. The gallery in turn borders Chinatown, good for excellent eats (we rate the Japanese fare on offer at Yuzu).

Sunday 26 April – morning

Before you set off for home, make time for a leisurely brunch. We recommend Home Sweet Home, which can be found in the Northern Quarter, the district to head to for boutique shops, bars, design studios and record stores. Nestled in its midst is Manchester Craft & Design Centre, a former Victorian market hall that now houses craft studios and a great café. Close by is independent menswear outlet, Oi Polloi – a small shop with a national reputation – and the music institution that is Piccadilly Records. Almost opposite is homewares store and café, Fig & Sparrow – sit at its window and watch the world go by – and, next door, design bookstore Magma. While the Northern Quarter can be rough round the edges, this is where much of the city’s contemporary identity, from its art shows and music festivals to design agencies, springs from – which means that there’s always something going on here. Try the Castle Hotel for a pint in a historic pub that is also one of the city’s best live music venues or the eats and beats at the newly refurbished Common.

If the siren call of Manchester’s many shops is too much to resist, strike out for Selfridges or peruse the high-end shops of King Street and Spinningfields; the latter is also home to the Oast House (a restaurant modeled on a 16th-century oast house), Iberica (excellent Spanish tapas) and one of Manchester’s two national museums, the People’s History Museum. Manchester’s other national museum is the National Football Museum; it can be found near the 600 year-old Manchester Cathedral, which can in turn be found close to the afternoon tea delights of Proper Tea.

But you were only staying for brunch, weren’t you? In which case we’ll leave you to it – although by now we hope you’ll agree that the joy of Manchester is that it’s big enough to have an international beat, small enough to find your way around – and a place you can quickly feel entirely at home in.

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