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As the commercial and cultural capital of Lancashire, Manchester is a celebrated center for the arts, media, and higher education. Together with Salford and eight other municipalities, it forms the metropolitan county of Greater Manchester, in which some three million people now live.
Like neighboring Liverpool, Manchester has undergone something of a renaissance with the introduction of initiatives such as the Castlefield project, with its many canals, and its museum complex on Liverpool Road.
The extension of the city’s entertainment and sports facilities has also considerably enhanced its appeal for tourists, making it one of the best places to visit in northern England. Notable examples include the excellent Opera House, with its roster of theatrical and music performances, and the thrilling Chill Factor, Britain’s longest and widest indoor ski slope.
It has also become a favorite for shoppers with an enormous range of retail opportunities, including the elegant shops of St. Anne’s Square, King Street, and the Royal Exchange, as well as the large covered market halls of Bolton Arcade.
To learn more about these and other attractions in this part of England, be sure to read through our list of fun things to do in Manchester.
1. Explore the Canals of Castlefield
Designated an Urban Heritage Park, Castlefield is an excellent place to visit to begin exploring Manchester. A walk among the lovingly restored Victorian houses along the old canals or through the reconstructed Roman Fort is time well spent.
Be sure to explore the Bridgewater Canal. It was constructed in 1761 to transport coal from the mines at Worsley to Manchester. The many old warehouses that line the canal have been restored and turned into offices, shops, hotels, and restaurants. A trip on one of the Bridgewater tour boats is highly recommended.
Other interesting tourist attractions include the Castlefield Art Gallery, with its exhibitions of contemporary art, and Bridgewater Hall, home to the Hallé Orchestra and first-class concerts. The Castlefield Bowl hosts regular pop and classical concerts and is also worth a visit.
Location: Castlefield, Manchester
2. Science and Industry Museum
The Science and Industry Museum is situated on the site of the world’s oldest railroad station. Its 12 galleries include the Power Hall, with water and steam-driven machines from the golden age of the textile industry, as well as vintage made-in-Manchester cars, including a rare 1904 Rolls Royce.
The history of the city from Roman times through the Industrial Revolution to the present day is documented in the Station Building. The Air and Space Gallery is another must-see. Here, you’ll see numerous historic aircraft, including a replica of Triplane 1 by A. V. Roe, the first British plane to successfully fly.
Address: Liverpool Road, Manchester
3. Imperial War Museum North
Imperial War Museum North (IWM North) is also worth visiting, especially if you have an interest in the history of warfare. Opened in 2002, this branch of the Imperial War Museum is a popular attraction for its collections of fighting vehicles and aircrafts.
Highlights of a visit include audiovisual presentations and exhibits dealing with the history of warfare and its role in shaping civilization. There are also numerous static displays of large machines such as tanks, aircraft, artillery, and handheld weaponry. A shop and café are located on the premises.
Address: Trafford Wharf Road, Trafford Park, Stretford, Manchester
4. Manchester Cathedral
Perched on the banks of the River Irwell, Manchester Cathedral – officially the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St. Mary, St. Denys, and St. George – dates mostly from 1422 to 1506 and was raised to cathedral status in 1847. Particularly attractive are its chapels on both sides of the nave and choir.
It was built between 1486 and 1508 with further additions and alterations in almost every subsequent century. Of particular note are the choir stalls, with some of the most richly decorated misericords in the country.
St. John’s Chapel is the chapel of the Manchester Regiment, and the little Lady Chapel has a wooden screen dating from 1440. The octagonal chapterhouse, built in 1465, has murals that include a figure of Christ in modern dress.
Address: Victoria Street, Manchester
5. Manchester Museum
Manchester Museum is another of the city’s excellent university museums to include on your itinerary. The museum is notable for its displays relating to natural history, archaeology, and anthropology, with its oldest collections dating back to 1821 (the museum itself was established in 1888).
Notable as the largest university museum in the UK, its sizable collection of over 4.5 million artifacts includes examples from all over the world. It’s well known for its large Chinese cultural collections.
Editor’s note: The Manchester Museum is closed for major renovations until late 2022.
Address: Oxford Road, Manchester
6. Take a Tour of St. Mary’s Catholic Church
Another religious site worth visiting – and something of a hidden gem in Manchester – is St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Built in 1794 and located next to the historic Market Hall, it’s also known locally as “The Hidden Gem.” But don’t let the structure’s rather plain exterior stop you from popping in for a look inside.
Here, you’ll find numerous fine Victorian carvings. Highlights include the marble high altar, statues of saints, and a unique Expressionist-style stations of the cross. (Guided tours are available.)
Address: 17 Mulberry Street, Manchester
7. National Football Museum
Home to two of Europe’s top football teams – Man City and Man United – Manchester is a great place to pay homage to the country’s favorite sport. Your first stop should be the National Football Museum. This football shrine features fascinating memorabilia related to the sport, including such gems as the very first rulebook, as well as historic trophies and clothing.
A variety of great short movies show the history of the sport, while fun hands-on (and feet-on, for that matter) displays provide plenty of additional entertainment for youngsters. Check their website for details of special events and programs.
It’s also worth paying a visit to one (or both) of the Manchester teams’ home stadiums. Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium offers a variety of fun tour options, including behind-the-scenes and deluxe dinner tours. Old Trafford – home to Manchester United – offers guided tours that allow access to private boxes and the chance to tread the field itself.
Address: Urbis Building Cathedral Gardens, Todd Street, Manchester
8. Visit Britain’s Oldest Public Library: Chetham’s Library
Chetham’s Hospital, just north of Manchester Cathedral, dates in part to 1422. Originally a residence for priests, it’s now home to a music school and Chetham Library, the oldest public library in England.
In continuous use since 1653, the library has more than 100,000 books, more than half of them printed before 1850. Chetham’s is also famous as the meeting place of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels during Marx’s visit to Manchester. Guided tours are available.
Other libraries of note are the Manchester Central Library next door to the Town Hall, and the Portico Library, which houses the literary collection of Dalton and Joule, founders of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society.
The Victorian John Rylands Library, now part of Manchester University, is also worth seeing for its many special collections, including medieval texts, a Gutenberg Bible, and collection of early printing by William Caxton.
Location: Long Millgate, Manchester
9. Manchester Art Gallery
The Manchester Art Gallery possesses one of the largest art collections in Britain outside of London. The gallery includes works by the pre-Raphaelites; Flemish masters of the 17th century; French impressionists, including Gauguin, Manet, and Monet; and German artists such as Max Ernst.
There are also pieces from well-known English artists, including Stubbs, Constable, and Turner. The gallery’s impressive sculpture collection includes works by Rodin, Maillol, Jacob Epstein, and Henry Moore.
For more arts and culture tourist attractions, check out HOME, Manchester’s international center for contemporary visual arts and independent film. Located at 70 Oxford Street, the venue is noted for its regular performances of everything from musicals to comedies.
Address: Mosley Street & Princess Street, Manchester
10. The Whitworth
Fresh from a major redevelopment, The Whitworth art gallery features over 55,000 artworks in its vast collection. Named after the surrounding park, the gallery’s very modern facilities are housed in a mix of old and new buildings overlooking a very pleasant green space.
The oldest collections themselves date back to 1889, and its stellar collections of sculptures and mostly modern artworks have seen it consistently ranking in lists of top attractions in Manchester. Other notable collections include watercolours, textiles, and even wallpapers. Works by the likes of Francis Bacon, Van Gogh, and Picasso can all be enjoyed, along with a sizable collection of outdoor art.
A café and shop are located on the premises, and a variety of fun events and activities for individuals, as well as families are available.
Address: Oxford Road, Manchester
11. Explore Chinatown
The colorful home of one of the largest Chinese communities in Britain, Chinatown is only a stone’s throw from the Manchester Art Gallery. The richly decorated arched gateway leading into the district is especially striking.
The many shops and restaurants here offer a wide range of culinary delicacies from Hong Kong and Beijing. Interested in shopping? Unique Chinese handicrafts and artworks can be found at the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art (CFCCA).
Address: Boyle Street, Cheetham, Manchester
12. Manchester Town Hall
The imposing façade of the neo-Gothic Town Hall (1877) graces pedestrianized Albert Square, and the tower offers excellent panoramic views of the city. Inside, the Council Chamber merits special attention, along with the cycle of Ford Madox Brown murals that depict the history of the city. While there, visit the Free Trade Hall, opened in 1951.
The centrally located Manchester Central Convention Complex, one of the largest such sites in England, hosts many musical performances throughout the year. The building is unique in that it was constructed amid the former Victorian railroad station on Windmill Street.
Location: Albert Square, Manchester
13. People’s History Museum
The People’s History Museum is the national center for the collection, conservation, interpretation, and study of material relating to the history of working people in Britain.
Located in a former pumping station, the museum showcases the history of British democracy and its impact on the population, as well as extensive collections of artifacts relating to trade unions and women’s suffrage.
Another museum that’s close by and worth visiting, the Manchester Jewish Museum features a unique collection dealing with the city’s Jewish community.
Location: New Ct Street, Manchester
14. Salford Quays
While there are enough fun things to do in Salford for those wanting to make a day trip out of it, those crunched for time would do well to visit one or two attractions in this pleasant university town. The Salford Quays – usually referred to simply as “The Quays” – should definitely top your list.
An easy 25-minute, five-kilometer ride away by public transit, this much revitalized area straddles the banks of the city’s ship canal and is a delight to explore on foot. In addition to such popular attractions as the Imperial War Museum North and Old Trafford, home to Manchester United Football Club, you’ll find the Lowry Arts Centre.
Dedicated to the life and work of local artist L.S. Lowry, it contains numerous unique pieces, as well as a performing arts center.
15. Heaton Park
Covering some 600 acres, Heaton Park is the biggest park in Greater Manchester and one of the largest municipal parks in Europe. Heaton Hall, built in 1772, lies in the very heart of the park and although not all of it is open to the public, it remains an impressive sight (some buildings, such as the charming Orangery, are open seasonly to the public).
The park has been extensively restored and retains many of its original buildings and vistas. Sports enthusiasts will enjoy its 18-hole golf course, driving range, mini putt, and tennis courts, while families can explore the boating lake, animal farm, woodlands, ornamental gardens, observatory, and adventure playground. There’s even a volunteer-run tramway and museum.
Address: Mosley Street, Manchester
16. See the Blooms at Fletcher Moss Botanical Garden
Also worth visiting is Fletcher Moss Botanical Garden. Founded in 1917, this large green space – part botanical garden and part wildlife habitat – is an engaging contrast to the busy city center. There are numerous walking trails on the property, as well as regular guided “health” walks.
Popular things to do here include enjoying a stroll or picnic, or opting for more strenuous activities, such as tennis, rugby, or football. There’s also a pleasant café located within the grounds. (Dogs are welcome.)
Address: 18 Stenner Lane, Didsbury, Manchester
17. Platt Hall: Gallery of Costume
Platt Hall, an elegant Georgian house built in 1764 and now part of the Manchester Art Gallery, presents an excellent overview of English fashion and costume from 1600 to the present day. It is perhaps the only collection to rival London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
Strengths of the museum include its many examples of everyday dress, with the Gallery of Costume containing one of the largest collections of costumes and accessories in Britain.
Location: Platt Hall, Rusholme, Manchester
18. University of Manchester
Manchester’s educational precinct, encompassing the University of Manchester (1851), includes a variety of institutes and halls of residence.
The university can claim three Nobel prizewinners: Ernest Rutherford (1871-1939), who laid the foundations of modern atomic physics; physician James Chadwick, who in 1932 proved the existence of the neutron; and Sir John Cockcroft (1897-1967), one of the leading physicists in British and Canadian atomic research.
Housed in the university, the Whitworth Art Gallery is famous for its collections of British watercolors, drawings, prints, modern art, and sculpture, along with the largest textile and wallpaper collections outside London. Also close by is the Manchester Museum, with its extensive scientific collections and Egyptian exhibits.
Address: Oxford Road, Manchester
19. Tour Manchester’s Historic Victoria Baths
Known to locals as Manchester’s “Water Palace,” the Victoria Baths are well worth a visit. The building is a perfectly preserved example of a Victorian-era bath, a feature once relatively common in many large urban areas in bygone days. Although not unlike modern public swimming pools, it was built in 1986 and is unique for the change facilities that line the pool’s perimeter, as well as the ornate steelwork that holds the structure up.
Open seasonally from April through to November, it can be toured and makes for a pleasant outing (check the website for dates and availability). It also serves as a venue for concerts and movies, as well as special family events. A tea shop and gift shop are located on-site.
Address: Hathersage Road, Manchester
20. Museum of Transport, Greater Manchester
A visit to the Museum of Transport, Greater Manchester is a fun activity for all ages. Located in the city’s Cheetham Hill area, this impressive collection of vintage transportation consists of over 80 buses, many of them still working. Other historic modes of transport housed here include an original city tram dating from 1901, as well as old trolleybuses.
Displays describe not just the vehicles, but also deal with the development and evolution of public transit in Manchester. A quaint tearoom is located on the premises, as is a gift shop.
Address: Boyle Street, Cheetham Hill, Manchester
Where to Stay in Manchester for Sightseeing
As in any big city, it’s hard to find a hotel that is near all the main attractions. But many of Manchester’s points of interest at least cluster in three areas: the Urban Heritage Park and museum complex on Liverpool Road in the Castlefield neighborhood; the shopping district between King Street and the cathedral; and Chinatown to the south, where you’ll find the Manchester Art Gallery. These highly rated hotels in Manchester are convenient for sightseeing:
- With a good-sized pool and a spa, The Edwardian Manchester sits between Chinatown, the Liverpool Road museums, and the smart shopping district north of King Street.
- The chic and charming Great John Street Hotel, in the new museum district, has a hot tub on the roof.
- The Midland, opposite the library and well located for visiting museums and the City Hall, has a gym and spa with a small pool, Jacuzzi, and steam room.
- Beautifully furnished rooms, thoughtful amenities, and superior service make Velvet Hotel a luxury choice with a mid-range price. It’s located between Chinatown and Piccadilly rail station, where trains arrive from London.
- Right next to Chinatown, Roomzzz Manchester City has stylish, well-designed rooms with rain showers and good soundproofing.
- DoubleTree by Hilton Manchester Piccadilly is directly across the street from Piccadilly Station, a 10-minute walk to the central attractions, and near the free shuttle bus stop.
- Premier Inn Manchester City Centre Piccadilly Hotel is excellent value, with well-furnished rooms less than a five-minute walk from Piccadilly Station.
- Travelodge Manchester Central has plain but comfortable rooms just across the bridge from the cathedral and shopping district.
- At the edge of Chinatown with plenty of restaurants nearby, Ibis Manchester Centre Princess Street Hotel offers comfortable rooms with few frills.
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