Think of destinations worth visiting, and you’ll see cities like Manhattan, LA, Miami, Paris and London flash before your eyes. Here’s a brazen idea. Why not shake things up on your next vacation and visit a world-class city somewhere a little off the beaten path? This time, why not discover a hidden travel destination gem? My go-to cool place: Manchester, England, aka birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and centre of the 90s musical revolution (think Stone Roses, Oasis, New Order, Happy Mondays).
Don’t know it? Manchester just happens to be the city where I experienced several misspent years in my early 20’s. Oh yes, we all have cities like those in our past, right? And now, like me, the city is all grown up. Today, it’s a sophisticated mix of boutique shopping, bars, British cuisine and a vibrant arts scene, all with a Northern warmth and charm you may be hard pressed to find in London. And here’s a real plus. Despite being Britain’s third largest city, Manchester’s city centre is easily walkable—even in heels.
So read on and get packing.
WHERE TO STAY, EAT AND PLAY IN MANCHESTER ENGLAND
Manchester is arguably the shopping capital of the north of England and home to designers Vivienne Westwood and Matthew Williamson. Take a leaf out of Eddy and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous and head directly to Harvey Nichols for luxury brands, from Dolce and Gabbana and British-made Stella McCartney and ALICE by Temperley. Follow up a day’s shopping with a glass of champagne at the Second Floor Bar. Patsy would approve.
If you’re more interested in quirky than designer, head to Manchester’s bohemian Northern Quarter. Once a no man’s land of largely unused buildings, it is now a mix of hip stores, cafes and bars. Lovers of high end vintage clothing should seek out Oxfam Originals, a classier version of the ubiquitous opportunity shop in the UK. If you’re lucky, you just might score a Hermes scarf, or perfectly preserved Trilby hat.
You’ll likely be drawn inside by the colourful collection of kitsch items at Oklahoma gift shop and café. Pick up an eclectic trinket, like those elastic hairbands with cherries you wore in the 70s, handcrafted jewelry, or prints by local designers. And did we mention there’s cake? The store also has a welcoming café inside, where you can take a well-deserved break from all that shopping! Spinningfields is a new area of Manchester, specially developed in the 2000s for retail and residential. Like Yorkville in Toronto or Robson Street in Vancouver, Spinningfields is home to world-class stores, including Ted Baker, Mulberry and Emporio Armani.
Just how interesting can a library be? Very. The John Rylands Library is worth visiting for the stunning gothic architecture alone but if you’re a book lover, you’ll be in heaven here. The second floor reading room is imbued with the seductive smell of musky books and dotted with people working at sturdy wooden tables.
Known for its pre-Raphaelite collection, Manchester Art Gallery houses over 23,000 works of art, and like many museums in the UK, it’s free. The museum also has works by Constable, Turner, Gainsborough, as well as recent artists David Hockney and Francis Bacon in their permanent collection. Banksy’s original Love Is In The Air is on display in the gallery entrance hall.
The city is also home to an award-winning Christmas market, on now until December 21. Manchester gets into the festive spirit with nine market sites and more than 300 stalls lighting up the city centre. Be sure to visit the traditional German market at St. Anne’s Square for bratwurst and the nearby German beer house for some holiday cheer. Take care of holiday shopping with local artists selling everything from jewellery to handcrafted bags and toys. Step back into Dickensian times at Albert Square, overlooking the city’s Victorian town hall, with a scene from A Christmas Carol.
Imagine that Alice fell down the rabbit hole and straight into a tea shop and you’ve got the Richmond Tea Rooms, in the heart of Manchester’s gay village. The tea room is spread over two large areas, opulently designed with Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired décor. The largest features a quirky indoor greenhouse set in the corner to accommodate big parties. Indulge in the curiously large Richmond Tea (£23.50): Glass of bubbly, a cake stand stacked with fluffy scones with clotted cream and preserves, selection of sandwiches and house-made miniature cakes and pastries, served with a pot of freshly brewed tea. Or if you’re craving something small, the Alice Tea comes with cream scones and preserves and a pot of tea (£6.95).
In Manchester’s trendy Northern Quarter, Rosylee is a contemporary take on the great tea rooms of the 1950s. The unpretentious restaurant serves modern British comfort food. Start with an Elderflower and Cucumber Cooler (£7), a refreshing cocktail of Portobello Road Gin, St. Germain, lemon juice and Sauvignon Blanc topped with soda.
When it comes to Northern food, it doesn’t get more comforting than Lancashire Hot Pot (rustic lamb stew topped with sliced potatoes), served with crusty bread and pickled red cabbage. Save room for “pudding” and try the honey and rhubarb fool with sweet ginger wafers or a traditional Eccles Cake with Lancashire cheese or double cream.
DRINK AND BE MERRY
The fluorescent neon “Pawn Shop” sign is the first clue that Dusk Til Pawn was once a pawn shop in the Northern Quarter. The small and dimly lit bar has an impressive collection of liquor, housed in a large antique unit and bar staff who know how to use it to create a delicious collection of cocktails. Drink to your health with their Pawn Star Martini (£7), made with Vanilla Vodka, Butternut Schnapps, passion fruit topped with Champagne sorbet. Compared to North American cities, Manchester’s buildings are relatively flat, except for the recently built Hilton Manchester.
For unparalleled views of this northern city, have drinks at Cloud 23 where the cocktail list is a clever nod to Manchester’s heritage. Here’s to Baby is a champagne toast to ‘Baby, the world’s first computer… the brainchild of Manchester University professors. It’s Ketel 1 Vodka infused with vanilla, Galliano, spiced peach and rosemary purée, topped up with champagne (£13).
The Mecure Hotel is a comfortable, modern 4-star hotel in the city centre, overlooking Piccadilly Gardens and close to, well, everything. Converted from a British Telecom building (where I once worked with the bass player from Oasis way back when), the MacDonald Manchester Hotel & Spa is a boutique hotel and urban spa you’ll love.
Air Transat flies from Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver to Manchester, UK
Got any other hidden gem cities to share? Let us know!