History comes alive in Manchester

by markstuartbell

It was the world's first modernised city and the birthplace of communism and the Suffragettes. Take a cultural tour of Manchester and discover a historic city with a surprisingly radical past

You'd expect Manchester to show off its colourful past with the same brash charm and swagger of its famous residents. But while there is an abundance of architecture, engineering, museums and monuments evoking its grand Industrial age, it all modestly shares streets and buildings with  modern pubs, clubs, shops and performance spaces.

For those new to the city, the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) (Liverpool Road) and People’s History Museum (PHM) (Bridge Street) are impressive introductions; both recount interweaving tales of Manchester’s spectacular growth to become the world’s first modern city and the revolutionary movements it fostered.

The MOSI is housed on the site of the city’s birthplace and the former terminus of the world’s first commuter railway (home of Stephenson’s Rocket). It proudly shows visitors Manchester’s achievements since the industrial age and it’s exhibitions are playfully informative, interactive and free.

The PHM is a celebration of ordinary working people, telling how some of the 20th-century’s most influential ideologies, such as the Suffragette movement, trade unionism, co-operatives and communism were all conceived within the city’s lively limits. For those eager for more depth, the Pankhurst Centre (60-62 Nelson Street, off Oxford Road) offers an intelligent memorial to the Suffragette movement, and consequential history of women’s issues, in the former home of the Pankhursts.

Sat at the edge of Cathedral Gardens, Chetham Library was the meeting place of Marx and Engels, where they collaborated to write the Communist Manifesto and The Conditions of the Working Classes respectively, two of the most politically-inflammatory works in modern history. Yet the oldest surviving public library in the English speaking world is the most criminally unknown attraction in the city. Free to enter, unfailingly polite staff will happily guide you around the building.

Immediately outside, rising with dazzling certainty, the glass-housed Urbis (Cathedral Gardens) is dedicated to exploring contemporary urban life; design, architecture and popular culture, and is a part free, part pay-as-you-go gallery with constantly updated exciting exhibits and events.

Other free cultural highlights include; John Rylands Library (Deansgate) a breathtaking, gothic library with an inimitable collection, including the oldest known fragment of the New Testament. Central Library (St. Peter’s Square) modelled on the Roman Parthenon, is a spectacular landmark, with 22 miles of shelves. Town Hall (Albert Square)neo-Gothic masterpiece of civic pride (Guided tours no longer free). Manchester Art Gallery (Mosley Street) imposing neo-Classic gallery, spans almost entire spectrum, but famous for pre-Raphaelites.

As well as a renowned cultural heritage, Manchester is almost as famous for its sport. The world’s first football league was created here and it’s home to the world’s most supported club. Tickets to see Manchester United at Old Trafford are rare, but games are shown in pubs around the city, always with a memorable atmosphere.

The stadium tour of Old Trafford, easily reached by tram, is an awesome afternoon for keen fans (£11 Adults, £7Childen). Lancashire County Cricket Club (Old Trafford) hosts both club and international games regularly, ticket prices are rarely above £20 for adults. Manchester Velodrome is home to the GB cycling team and stages the Revolution Series, welcoming fans and newcomers alike. A fantastic, exhilarating night’s cycling and admirably priced (£12 Adults, £6 Children). For just £9.60 you can cycle on the track yourself, lesson and bike included, and afterwards see team GB themselves training.

For those inspired to exercise there are great architectural walks around the city. Start at Piccadilly Station. Heading west down Whitworth Street, passing London Road Fire Station, former Municipal School of Technology, arriving at the Palace Hotel.

Looking left and right on Oxford Road you can capture the frenetic layout of the city, as a motorway, river, canal, train line and tram line all cut over and under the stretch of street in just 500m.Turn right towards the Central Library and Midland Hotel, then right (Mosley Street) to Manchester Art Gallery and Athenaeum.

Go left onto Princess Street, past the Town Hall, via John Dalton Street to Deansgate. John Rylands Library is to your left. Turn right, then right onto Kings Street where the Former Bank of England and HSBC are worth seeing. Then left onto Cross Street, and just before the Royal Exchange Theatre go left into St. Anne’s Square, past St. Anne’s Church, through Barton Arcade, and back onto Deansgate. Head right, to Manchester Cathedral, and then right into Exchange Square.

For spectacular, panoramic views of the city; ‘park your car’ at the top of NCP/Shudehill Bus Station, and take the lift to level8. Take a tram (£1.50 return) to Heaton Park, then climb the hill to the Temple. Take the lift to the viewing platform (95p Adults, 45p Children) at the wonderful and fascinating, free Imperial War Museum (Salford Quays). Sip £7 cocktails, in stylish surroundings at top-floor Urbis Modern Bar for a close-up view. Book a table at Cloud 23 Hilton Skybar for the most indulgent vista.

Staging premiere events in the Manchester International Festival, fostering live music at Manchester Academy, Joshua Brooks and Night and Day Cafe encouraging arts and creativity in every spare space, Manchester is a city whose dazzling future is as thrilling as its radical past. It has gone from shaping world events to staging world events, and whilst other places might see that as a stark demotion, Mancunians see it as another chance to lead the world again.

The Curry Mile, Rusholme (Oxford Road) offers an exotic, diverse range of mid-priced Asian cuisine. If you escape to Didsbury or Chorlton for an afternoon there’s a fantastic range of small, independent, mid-higher priced eateries, Greens being the top recommendation.

Sinclair’s Oyster
Bar (Exchange Square) does well-priced British Cuisine in a beautiful, wood-beamed pub. Oklahoma Cafe (High Street, Northern Quarter) does a delicious mixture of vegetarian and fair-traded food in eye-popping surroundings; as with the surrounding, red bricked “Northern Quarter” (behind the Arndale Centre) it’s highly recommended. Major supermarkets also do packed lunches for £3; Boots’ being the tastiest.

Sinclair’s Oyster Bar does inexpensive, delicious, local beer and is never too busy. The Wetherspoons pubs (St.Peter’s Square/Deansgate/Oxford Road) are well-priced, safe but lack character. Canal Street, the city’s Gay Village, is welcoming, friendly, fun and open late but expensive at weekends. Matt and Phred’s, (Tib Street) is the highlight of the Northern Quarter, live jazz, superb cocktails and generous staff, with mid-priced drinks. Cloud 23 in the Beetham Tower is an exclusive, must-advance-book bar, mid-high priced, but with unbeatable views of Manchester.

Palace Hotel (from £75prpn) grand hotel, great location, courteous staff. Radisson Free Trade Hall (from £100+prpn) once home to a notorious Sex Pistols gig, and where Bob Dylan was branded “Judas”; a warm, opulent hotel with pool, and well-regarded restaurant. Sachas (from £35 pp special offers) city-centre location, nice bar, great price. Beetham Tower Hilton (£100+ pp) modern, stylish, desirable hotel, surprisingly modest price and incredible views.