Debbie Lewis spends two days in the North West city, getting a feel for its rich past, buzzing present and exciting future
Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and one of the world's first modern cities, Manchester is now said to have one of the fastest-growing economies in the UK outside of London. This year, the country's second city is also set to celebrate the completion of a number of prestigious projects, including HOME, which represents the merger of two of Manchester's best-loved arts organisations – the Cornerhouse cinema and the Library Theatre Company. This will bring theatre, cinema, gallery space and a restaurant into one space, with the stated aim of seeing the world 'through Mancunian eyes'.
The city also boasts excellent museums, such as the People's History Museum, housed in an old pumping station and holding the largest collection of political material in the UK; the Imperial War Museum North, and the Manchester Art Gallery. Besides being a cultural destination, there is football, shopping opportunities galore, great restaurants and a population that loves its city and knows how to make the most of it, from morning into the wee hours. For many Mancunians, there is nowhere on the planet they would rather live, and spending a weekend here is a good way to find out what you may be missing.
1. The Whitworth
The Whitworth gallery has recently reopened after being remodelled and extended by architectural practice MUMA. Now more closely integrated with its parkland setting, the gallery, which is part of the University of Manchester, has been redesigned to make the most of the available natural light and incorporates a sculpture foreground, children's learning studio and courtyard garden. The new café has floor-to-ceiling windows, so you can enjoy your surroundings inside and out while tucking into boiled eggs and soldiers, a seasonal lunchtime salad or an organic chocolate brownie, depending on what time you are there. If you want to experience the building but are not that bothered about the art on show at the time, you can always join one of the yoga or dance and movement classes regularly held here.
One of the city's most appealing areas and just a short tram ride from the city centre, is the Bohemian and leafy south Manchester suburb of Chorlton, which even has its own arts festival. Between 15 – 24 May, you can enjoy a showcase of local and national talent specialising in everything from music to the visual arts. Beech Road is the main artery and on a sunny day tables spill out onto the pavements, giving it a laid-back, continental vibe. Lined with great places to eat and drink, you really are spoilt for choice, from the cosy Parlour for an early evening tipple or the trendy Launderette for a cocktail. Most cuisines can also be ticked off here – Bar San Juan is an ultra-popular tapas bar and Thai Spice has good affordable fare. To get a feel for local life, take a look in the perennially popular Unicorn Grocery or Barbakan Deli. These food emporiums, beloved by local foodies with a conscience, are packed with healthy, local, seasonal food and will give any London gastro outlet a run for its money – with prices considerably lower. For those more into fashion than food, both Nood and McQueen are worth a visit.
3. Northern Quarter
Dating back to the 1990s, the central Northern Quarter is one of the city's most eclectic areas. With its alleys and redbrick warehouses, it used to be frequented by millworkers and weavers, but today popular streets like Oldham Street, Tib Street and Newton Street are lined with cocktail bars, restaurants and independent fashion retailers. Always busy, this is Manchester as its most vibrant. Amid all the Bohemian chic you can still find vestiges of the city's past: proper old Manchester boozers and seedy late night joints. You could spend hours here and experience something quite different each time: from 1970s housing projects to the Craft & Design Centre situated in the old fish market – look out for the original façade at the entrance. For tea and cake try Sugar Junction, or Home Sweet Home for classic American dishes while Trof and The Castle Hotel are popular bars and music venues.
4. Manchester Walking Tours
Joining a themed walk is a great way to get under the city's skin. Depending on your interest, you could take a foodie trail, which combines tales of the area's history along with a look at some of the best gastronomical hot spots, ranging from no-nonsense curry houses to atmospheric tea shops and high-end restaurants. Manchester has played a massive role in Britain's contemporary music culture, from Joy Division and The Smiths to Oasis and The Stone Roses. Music-themed tours take in some of the key locations that played a role in the lives of some of Manchester's most celebrated musicians.
5. Elizabeth Gaskell's house
Elizabeth Gaskell's surburban Victorian villa was described by Charlotte Brontë as 'a large cheerful, airy house out of the Manchester smoke'. After a £2.5m restoration, the house reopened last year as a museum, complete with original furnishings and with the garden restored and planted with some of the species that Gaskell mentions in her writing. Gaskell's artistic friends, including John Ruskin and Charles Dickens, would visit the writer – who is best known for her books Cranford and North and South – here.
Places to eat and drink
Simon Rogan – who is to the Cumbrian village of Cartmel what Rick Stein is to Padstow – is the Michelin-starred chef behind The French, based in the historical Midland Hotel. Prices are predictably high at this award-winning restaurant, so a visit is maybe best saved for a special occasion. The food is best described as modern British and typical dishes may include roast pumpkin with smoked eel and bacon, or there is a ten-course tasting menu.
Kabana in the Northern Quarter is a value-for-money local curry house and a bit of a hidden gem. Delicious home-cooked curries are the order of the day, including chicken masala and lamb karahi, and vegetarians are also well catered for, too. Bookings: 0161 835 2447
Places to stay
Great John Street Hotel
More intimate than many of Manchester's best-known and bigger establishments, four-star Great John Street Hotel is situated in a restored Victoria schoolhouse. Each of the individually designed rooms has a distinctive feel, and some have two levels, with an open-plan bathroom on the upper floor. There is also a roof-top lounge and the cosy oyster bar has comfy armchairs and serves traditional afternoon tea.
The Midland Hotel
Opened in 1903, The Midland was originally built to serve the Midland Railway, and the red brick Edwardian building is one of the city's best-known landmarks. It has played host to royalty and celebrities, and is also the place where Charles Stewart Rolls met Federick Henry Royce. The hotel has retained many of its original features, including the tiled staircase leading to the leisure centre, and also boasts two of Manchester's most highly thought of restaurants – Simon Rogan's Mr Cooper's House & Garden and The French.