If you’ve only ever been to Manchester for the football, then you’re truly missing out. The grim northern clichés may have applied 20 years ago, but an extensive rebuilding programme has utterly transformed the place over the last decade, making it one of the most stylish, vibrant and enjoyable cities in Europe to visit.
A handful of truly top-class new attractions are drawing in the tourist trade. There’s the Lowry – a waterside complex housing theatres, galleries, restaurants and shops, which has turned what was once one of the city’s dodgiest areas into a cultural hub. Nearby, the Imperial War Museum North is an ambitious, striking museum housed within a giant aluminium fin. The BBC are moving huge swathes of their production departments to the waterside. And next door to Victoria Station, another arresting new building called Urbis houses art, photography, cafes and bars.
But enough culture: It’s for shopping and socialising that Manchester truly comes into its own. The rebuilding programme enforced by the 1996 IRA bombing of the city centre, and the arrival of big names like Harvey Nichols and Selfridges, have turned the area around Corporation Street, Deansgate and Market Street into a world-class retail destination – imagine London but more walkable and less crowded.
Go off-piste in the Northern Quarter back streets off Piccadilly, meanwhile, and you’ll find the boutiques that give Mancunians a unique sense of style, as well as niche independent record shops and art stores, giving it the air of an overcast San Francisco.
It’s in these areas, too, that you’ll find the best of Manchester’s café-bar culture, which makes socialising in the city such a joy. Buzzy micro-breweries housed in Victorian Gothic buildings; age-old Irish pubs packed with the ubiquitous ‘characters’; student scuzzholes banging out the latest indie hits; gilded cocktail emporiums elbow-deep in gorgeous wannabe WAGS dressed to the nines and wielding weapons-grade Manc attitude – and let’s not forget one of Europe's leading gay villages, centred on the often-altered street signs of Canal Street.
There's history here too, and a social awareness. Manchester grew rich on cotton, but the locals – who have always been more Jack Duckworth's smile than Liam Gallagher's snarl – were quick to set up trade unions, including the Professional Footballers' Association in 1907.
Whatever floats your boat, Manchester has it – so try exploring beyond the megastore next time you go, eh?
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