1. Where to Stay
Enjoy the view at the area’s first five-star property, the Lowry Hotel (from $234), where floor-to-ceiling windows offer a front-row seat to the changing face of the postindustrial riverfront docklands. The curved glass building sits next to Santiago Calatrava’s sail-like Trinity Bridge over the River Irwell, connecting Manchester to its rapidly gentrifying sister city of Salford (where the hotel is located). The 165 rooms and suites are all clean lines and minimalist decor—dark woods, jewel-tone leather chaises, Italian-porcelain bathrooms—and the property, which takes its name from modern English landscape painter L.S. Lowry, is dedicated to contemporary art: three massive stone heads by British sculptor Emily Young by reception, a steel-mesh nude by Scotland’s David Begbie in the atrium, and Manchester’s only 24-hour gallery onsite.
Stay in the heart of the action at the stylish Velvet Hotel, which opened in 2009 in the city’s nightlife-rich Gay Village (from $127). Think of this spot as Manchester’s answer to the Standard Hotel—popular with the club-going fashionista set but with an air of comfort and warmth. Each of the property’s 19 bedrooms is decorated uniquely, with an overarching neo-boudoir sensibility thanks to richly patterned wallpapers (bold tartans, butterflies, pastoral scenes, the Vitruvian Man) and dramatic accent pieces such as crystal chandeliers, Art Nouveau statues, and damask chaise lounges. Head downstairs for cocktails overlooking the nearby treelined canal: The Bakewell, inspired by a famous British tart and featuring vodka, amaretto, cherry coulis, and custard ($12), makes for an especially sweet way to end the day.
Step back in time at The Midland (from $185), an Edwardian brick-and-granite grand hotel opened in 1903 to serve the railway station next door. Thanks to a $25-million renovation in 2006, it’s now the city’s poshest stay, with eye-catching touches such as headboards made from giant photos of Manchester and metal-lined minibars reminiscent of road cases. But the real centerpiece of the hotel is chef Simon Rogan’s newly reopened The French, which became one of the country’s first Michelin-starred restaurants in 1974 (and, later, the site of Posh and Becks’ first date). Though the dining room was once notoriously stuffy, even turning away the Beatles, a complete overhaul last year has loosened things up considerably; be sure to try the inventive modernist tasting menu, with whimsical dishes such as mussels with edible shells and ox in coal oil, a nod to the city’s industrial past (six courses for $100, ten courses for $142).
2. Where to Eat
Go down under—literally—at subterranean Australasia. Opened in 2011, the space is accessible via a staircase below a Louvre-like glass pyramid in Spinningfields, the city’s gleaming new business district; inside, it’s all whitewashed bricks and artfully distressed driftwood branches that call to mind the sun-bleached Outback. The contemporary Australian menu pairs European cooking techniques with Pacific Rim flavors from Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and Japan in such dishes as crispy suckling pork belly with pineapple curry ($26) and soft-shell crab and zucchini flower tempura ($21). Be sure to grab a drink at the attached sister cocktail bar, the colonial-inspired Grand Pacific, which opened last summer and serves flowering teas ($7), sparkling wines from Australia and New Zealand ($9), and such Asian-tinged cocktails as kumquat slings ($13) in an outdoor garden.
Follow the crowds to Almost Famous, a buzzy high-meets-low joint (queue up early: there’s no reservations, and waits can top two hours). Opened in 2012, the spot burned down last June and reopened in November in the Great Northern Warehouse, a repurposed Victorian railway goods depot. The vibe is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, with a dining room featuring larger-than-life gorilla and cow statues and oversized Polaroids of burger-eating models, but the chefs are deadly serious about their menu, which features riffs on kitschy Americana staples: waffle fry nachos ($13) and Crack Wings, in flavors such as Suicide, Redneck, and Pho-King Amazing (six for $7). The Dagwood-style burgers come in such over-the-top varieties as the River Phoenix, a double cheeseburger with bacon, BBQ fried onions, baconnaise, chipotle ketchup, “BBQ sass,” fresh chilies, and Frazzles bacon-flavored corn chips ($13).
Indulge in the thirteen-course tasting menu at Manchester House , which opened in Spinningfields last September under the direction of Aiden Byrne, the youngest chef to ever win a Michelin star ($160; reservations required). Byrne’s artfully composed dishes, which can also be ordered a la carte, include high-concept creations such as frog legs Kiev ($20), charred monkfish tail with Jabugo ham and warm salt-cod mousse ($42), gin- and blueberry-cured venison with Sarladaise potatoes ($45), or warm date sponge with parsnip panna cotta and carrot distillation ($14). For a more wallet-friendly option, try the lunch tasting menu, which comes in two ($38), three ($46), or six course ($84) iterations. Either way, don’t leave without trying one of the signature cocktails, such as the gin-based Cotton-oppolis, made with earl-grey syrup and bergamot and served with an edible cotton stem to honor the textile mills of the Industrial Revolution ($21).
3. What to Do
Learn about Britain’s burgeoning microbrewery scene at Beermoth, a craft-brew shop which opened in the city’s hip Northern Quarter last year. Owner-curators Scott Davies and Jeremy Stull have stocked 1,300 international varieties in the past 14 months, dividing their artisanal finds into four categories: American, Belgian, British, and everything else. Beef up on your beer knowledge at the shop’s hosted tastings and talks, on topics such as home brewing and the role of Brettanomyces yeast in British brewing, and check out their Twitter feed for new-arrival announcements. Keep an eye out for local ales, such as those from Manchester’s own Squawk Brewing Company, and regional standouts from within less than 50 miles, such as Magic Rock Brewing, Buxton Brewery, and Thornbridge Brewery.
Tour behind the scenes at Marble Brewery, the granddaddy of the Manchester microbrew scene ($10; reservations mandatory). Opened in 1997, the brewery expanded five years ago out of its original digs in the back of the 1888 Marble Arch pub and into a nearby space under an industrial railway arch. On their tours (usually Tuesdays and Saturdays but also available by request), you’ll learn about their unique unpasteurized and vegetarian beers which come in clever varieties like Earl Grey IPA and Choc Ginger. Afterwards, grab a pint in Marble’s flagship Victorian pub or in one of the brewery’s other bars: the intimate Marble Beer House in Chorlton, or the Northern Quarter’s 57 Thomas Street, centered around a communal table where guests can play backgammon, chess, and checkers.
Sample hyperlocal food and beer pairings at Pie & Ale, a sleek new bar opened last spring in the Northern Quarter. Unlike typical British pubs dedicated to classic ales, this spot is all about creative microbrews, some from right here in the metro area. In addition to the house Yippee Pie Ale, look for beers from First Chop Brewing Arm (from $7), which opened last year under a railway arch across the river in Salford. Be sure to ask your server for the perfect pint to go alongside one of their rustically inventive pies, such as wild sheep, cherry, and port ($18), rabbit and cider ($17), horse steak ($20), or venison, wild boar, and pheasant ($20). If your appetite is equally beastly, try their latest bar game, a uniquely British spin on an American state fair classic: a hot-pie-eating contest. Eat three pies and three sides in under ten minutes, and you get your $34 deposit back plus a “Who Ate All The Pies!” T-shirt.
4. Insider’s Tip
Liverpool can lay claim to the Beatles, but Manchester seems to have given the music world just about everyone else: the Smiths, Oasis, the Stone Roses, New Order, Joy Division, and the Buzzcocks, to name but a few. While the city is certainly packed with teen-filled nightclubs and raucous dance halls, fantastic under-the-radar venues exist, seemingly hidden in plain sight. The Northern Quarter’s Castle Hotel, a pub since 1776, has plenty of indie cred—its intimate back room, with a capacity of only about 70, has played host to on-the-rise bands such as Mercury Prize winners Alt-J. For up-to-date show listings, especially for folk, Americana, and experimental bands, keep an eye on the website Hey! Manchester, which often promotes gigs in unusual spaces, such as singer-songwriter Darren Hayman inside the University of Manchester’s Godlee Observatory, freak-folk duo CocoRosie at the Manchester Cathedral, and even German pianist Hauschka in the presidential suite of the Lowry Hotel.
5. Oddball Day
For a reprieve from day drinking, explore the thriving art and design scene of the redeveloped city. Begin your morning with toasted teacakes ($3) at the Oak St. Cafe Bar, inside the Manchester Craft and Design Centre, a collection of artisan handicraft boutiques housed in a repurposed Victorian fish and poultry market. Walk two blocks down Copperas St., make a right on High St., and find the Richard Goodall Gallery, which focuses on digital art, painting, photography, and sculpture. Their nearby sister venue, Richard Goodall Gallery: Thomas Street, is dedicated to more populist art forms, such as movie and music posters (from $8) and designer vinyl toys (from $6). Walk south on High St. and and turn onto Thomas St. to see what’s on at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (free), making sure to stop into the gift shop for screen-printed T-shirts (from $23), engraved wooden brooches ($13), and leather key rings ($10). Get back onto High Street and continue south for ten minutes, turn left on Nicholas St., and visit the Manchester Art Gallery (free), a public museum opened in 1833, best known for its collection of nineteenth-century British paintings, including works by Manchester-based French impressionist Adolphe Valette and the pre-Raphaelites. For lunch, order the locally sourced daily special, such as kedgeree, an Anglo-Indian fish and rice dish ($12) or sausages with mash and onion gravy ($13) at the on-site Gallery Cafe. Follow Mosley St. south past St. Peter’s Square and, in about ten minutes, make a right on Hewitt St. Explore the cutting-edge art at the Castlefield Gallery, known in the Manchester art world for developing young talent; many artists exhibited here have gone on to Turner Prize nominations. Retrace Hewitt St., make a left on Albion St., and then take a quick right on Whitworth St. In less than ten minutes, you’ll reach Cornerhouse, an indie cinema, bookstore, and contemporary-art center. Catch a screening ($13) and end the night with a lamb burger ($20) or tea-smoked duck pizza ($18) at the on-site cafe and bar.
For local pub and microbrewery recommendations, consult the area chapter of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale).
The official Visit Manchester Blog offers weekly cultural listings, curated from social-media hints and tips.
Art and architecture blog Skyliner finds beauty in the seemingly mundane, modern industrial city and offers a unique perspective on places such as the airport and old pubs.
I Love Manchester is dedicated to Manchester nightlife, fashion, culture, and dining.