Hidden city: Free, lesser-known Manchester gems

Polly Checkland Harding

Discover a hidden city. Manchester isn’t just about an amazing, cultural programme – it has its secrets too.

Are we operating on urban autopilot? According to new research conducted by American Express, the answer is yes. It seems that the British are more distracted than ever from the world that surrounds them: our home cities disappear as we rush along their streets, eyes fixed on a screen, ears plugged with podcasts and playlists. 82% of people admit to exploring less than half of their local city. Why is it that, when we go away on holiday, we’ll give days to researching a new destination – but when it comes to our immediate surroundings, discovering the places, events and people at our fingertips seems like too much hard work?

Maybe that’s the problem: with the average working week becoming ever longer and more frantic, it feels impossible to take a breath until we’re actually in another country. Well, with this in mind, we’ve done some of the leg work for you. We love the free, hidden things that Manchester has to offer – reading spots to take your current page-turner to, places you might never have known existed – and we’ve put together a list of our favourites. Along with our picks of spots to be inspired by in the city, these wonderful, lesser-known parts of Manchester are being added to a handy map – and, if you do have travel in your calendar, Glasgow, Leeds and London have been given their own maps too. Apparently seven out of ten Brits look down at their smartphone or tablet when walking around – from now on, become one of the three people who look up.

1. No Such Thing at Kabana Café. Salford-based theatre company Quarantine co-ordinates this free, monthly event. The premise is simple: to challenge the old saying that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” by offering a plate of curry in exchange, not for coins, but for conversation with a stranger. Good for: meeting new people, inspiring topics, lunch.

2. The Hidden Gem Church, and St Ann’s Church. Two spots for inner-city contemplation, none too far from each other. The newly refurbished St Ann’s Church, which still has the burnt-out incendiary bomb that fell onto the roof during air raids by the Luftwaffe in World War Two, is easy to find – but, unsurprisingly, St Mary’s Church, otherwise known as the Hidden Gem, is a little further off the beaten track. Start opposite the entrance to the Town Hall and make your way down Brasennose Street for marbled pillars and stained glass windows. Good for: quiet thought, getting lost.

3. Special FX at The Royal Exchange. Held every Friday at 6pm in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s stunning Great Hall, Special FX is a free showcase of music, comedy and spoken word. Sit at small, circular tables beneath the original trading board of this one-time cotton exchange to revel in a whole variety of entertainment. Good for: the unexpected.

4. Ancoats Canal. At the back of bland residential blocks on Chapeltown Street is a beautifully blossomed and tranquil water-side walk way. Turn down a small flight of steps on the Great Ancoats Road – or off Ducie Street at the other end – to spot canal boats and the occasional fisherman, and ducklings in the spring. Good for: waterside picnics, reading, running.

5. Public art trail in the Northern Quarter. Start on Tib Street, scanning the pavement for Lemn Sissay’s now somewhat worn away Tib Street poem. At the corner of the open air car park behind Afflecks you’ll find the Tib Street horn, a giant musical instrument curled around of the remains of a hat factory. From here you’ll be able to spot the Big Boys’ Toy, a 12 metre-high artwork on the top of the Tib Street multi-storey car park. It’s studded with 78 fluorescent lights, which sadly no longer shine. Further along, you’ll find bits of Majolica pottery pressed into the walls and a graffitied electricity sub-station, with artwork that changes regularly. Good for: rediscovering the Northern Quarter.

6. The drummer in Piccadilly Gardens. He sets out his kit in the shadow of the Piccadilly Gardens wall most weekends, gathering a sizeable crowd with the pure energy (rather than skill…) of his thumping. Also in Piccadilly Gardens, keep an eye out for the lights in the central fountain as day turns to evening. Good for: getting lost in the rhythm.

7. The park opposite MOSI. It’s only tiny patch of green space, but it’s rather lovely in the sunshine. Alternatively, the Castlefield “roman ruins” and amphitheatre nearby are good for exploring. Good for: soaking up the sunshine, reading outdoors.

8. The bright lights of the Curry Mile. Rusholme’s Curry Mile is a thing of wonder at night. In the summer months especially, when the smell of charcoal grills mix with the balmy heat of the day, and the shisha bars along the strip fill until late. This, combined with a neon landscape of curry houses and schwarma hidey-holes makes for a wonderful evening wander, camera in hand. Good for: photography, becoming hungry.

9. Spoken Word events. When it comes to free, literary evenings, Manchester has an impressive selection. There’s spoken word at Bad Language on the last Wednesday of every month, hosted by The Castle pub, true story-telling at Tales of Whatever on the top floor of Gullivers Pub and the friendly Evidently poetry evening in Salford – to mention just a few. You can even sign up for an open mic slot if you’re feeling brave. Good for: new writing, stories to take home.

10. Ancoats Peepholes. Not as saucy as they sound, the Ancoats “Peeps” are brass tubes set into the fabric of the buildings offering a fleeting glimpse into hidden spaces. Arranged around Cutting Room Square, the peepholes were a project of the artist Dan Dubowitz. Discover more about the idea behind these secret sights here. Good for: an unlikely view, seeing behind scenes.

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