Making The Most Out Of Manchester: Top 10 Things To Do
“Manchester? You’re going to watch football, aren’t you?”
That was the initial reaction of my friends and family members when I told them I wanted to visit Manchester. No Malaysian in their right mind would want to make the the trip up north unless if it is for a football match or visiting friends or relatives studying at the University of Manchester. I know for a fact that Manchester is more than that – the city used to be a powerhouse during the Industrial Revolution and a hotbed for so many legendary bands throughout the decades.
So, instead of an overnighter or a day trip from London, we spent three nights here and these are the top 10 things we did in Manchester.
1 – Piccadilly Gardens
What better way to start our trip than at the former site of the Manchester Royal Lunatic Asylum? You would never thought that Piccadilly Gardens was once home to a mental health institution and infirmary but today it is the city’s main green space and public transport hub. The square is surrounded by buildings old and new from Victorian warehouses to the ho-hum glass and steel Piccadilly Plaza.
The first thing the missus naturally did was to drag everyone to Primark which opened unusually early at 8:30 a.m. (most places open by 10:00). After a lightning round of shopping, we decided to roam around Piccadilly Gardens. The unseasonably warm weather brought everyone out as the playground was packed, the fountain full of kids running through it trying not to get wet and a flock of pigeons constantly chased by our little one.
One odd feature of Piccadilly Gardens was four huge sculptures on one side of the park featuring luminaries like Queen Victoria, Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel and James Watt. These statues were actually part of the former infirmary’s esplanade which was preserved even when the building was moved to a new site. They look grand during the day but sure feels creepy at night, considering the garden’s history!
2 – National Football Museum
Right across the mega shopping arcade Arndale is the National Football Museum. This imposing glass citadel is where thousands of football fans (me included) visiting this city would naturally flock to. The open-space pyramidal interior is divided into five floors, each with their own set of exhibits.
The ground floor is dedicated to the Hall of Fame where all footballing heroes, from Sir Bobby Robson to Steven Gerrard, are feted. This level also hosts revolving exhibits and we were lucky to get our photos taken with the Premier League trophy and FA Cup which happened to be in town. Anyone who wants to hold the trophy must wear the provided gloves and I nearly caused a scare to the caretaker when I lifted the trophy!
One floor up is all about the history of football. Here we saw famous items like the England shirt worn in the world’s first international match in 1872, the ball from the 1966 World Cup Final and the shirt worn by Maradona in the infamous “Hand of God” game. I particularly enjoyed Manchester native Stanley Chow‘s portraits of legendary footballers. His smart usage of retro fonts, sharp color contrasts, curves and corners really highlights the outstanding facial features of each player.
The second level was more up kiddo’s alley. He had fun being a goalkeeper trying to stop shots before turning into a striker stepping up to score the decisive penalty. While he took a breather at the family-dedicated Discovery Zone, I snuck out to the “Managers” section. This former Football Manager addict happily reminisced the times I implemented a slew of football tactics from the sweeper system of Helenio Herrera to the modern day possession play of tiki-taka.
3 – Manchester Cathedral
Across the pocket park from National Football Museum is Manchester Cathedral, the mother church of the Anglican Diocese of Manchester. The cathedral looked like any other Gothic cathedral in England – grand but not imposing on its own right, unlike the behemoth Liverpool Cathedral.
The story of Manchester Cathedral began in 1086 where a church dedicated to St Mary was built. In 1421, Thomas de la Warre upgraded it to a collegiate church under the auspice of King Henry V and the Pope, eventually becoming Manchester Cathedral in 1847. The building was badly damaged by German bombings during World War II and it took nearly 20 years to restore it to its former glory.
The dusty and musty feel of a 900-year old church permeates through the air. We entered through Cathedral Street to the sight of the High Altar, a table with golden cross and candles, where Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We then peered into every room, chapel and chamber while occasionally looking up to see glass-stained windows that adds color to the church.
A private event made the nave off-limits to visitors so we spent more time around the quire. The quire is separated from the center of the church by a Screen made from medieval oak carving. This narrow passage is flanked by wood-carved seats reserved for bishops and archdeacons under the diocese. The gleaming centerpiece organ, donated by The Stoller Charitable Trust, sits proudly across the High Altar.
4 – The John Rylands Library
Another Neo-Gothic masterpiece is The John Rylands Library in Deansgate.
The library was built in memory of John Rylands, a textile tycoon in the late 19th century, by his wife Enriqueta Rylands. Construction took a decade to finish and it was opened to the public on new year’s day, 1900. The original collection consisted of 43,000 items purchased from the private library of the Second Earl Spencer. It has since grown to include rarities like an original Gutenberg Bible, the oldest known piece of the New Testament and thousands of papyrus fragments from North Africa.
To be honest, the architecture of The John Rylands Library is grander and finer than Manchester Cathedral. There were even moments – like walking across the labyrinthine hallway – when I thought this building used to be a cathedral. It took me a solid five minutes to complete the passage before ascending two flights of stairs to reach the main reading room. The room was purposely built 30 feet above street level to get away from the noise pollution down below.
The main reading room was eerily quiet save for the shuffling of feet and loud whispers of tourists visiting the library. Sunlight shone through two large stained glass windows on both sides of the hall while lamps on each column illuminate everything in between. The reading room is divided into alcoves each with their own book rack and oriel window. I wanted to take close-up photos of the alcove but all of them were already occupied by students (The John Rylands Library is now part of the University of Manchester Library) and library readers studying in peace.
5 – Street Art at Northern Quarter
We started our second day strutting around Northern Quarter, a post-industrial neighborhood rejuvenated by the arts. Over the years, the quarter has attracted many international street artists to showcase their talents. Within a few hours, we were able to capture all sorts of pieces from as tiny as a window pane to as massive as a three-storey building.
Our first catch was a portrait of a poignant homeless man by French artist C215 at the corner of Tariff and Hilton Street. We then made our way to Stevenson Square which is known for its changing displays every three months. This time around murals depicting the strength and diversity of Manchester adorn the brick and mortar blocks of the square – worker bees included!
We then ventured around to blocks trying to look for the larger-than-life murals. Although these arts span the length and breadth of a building, we had trouble finding them because they are so huge we had to fully tilt our head or spot them from as far as the end of the block. There are about 20 street arts within the Northern Quarter but our camera only managed to capture four before the famous Manchester rain sent us for cover.
I was satisfied with my “catch” of Faunagraphic’s painting of a blue tit resting on a nest of flowers and Nevercrew’s Sisyphean depiction of people trying to climb a quartz and subsequently failing. Nomad Clans’ vertical portrait on toxic masculinity was rather baffling to me but Qubek’s mural of 22 workers bees representing the 22 victims of the 2017 terror attack is a fitting tribute to the strength of Manchester and her people.
Read Also: Photo Essay: Northern Quarter, Manchester
6 – Afflecks Arcade
Apart from its street art, Northern Quarter is also known for Afflecks, Manchester’s self-proclaimed “emporium of eclecticism.”
Afflecks started out as Affleck & Brown, a drapery department store in the mid-1800s. The building changed ownership many times over the next century and was recently known for being the mecca of the 1990s alternative-meets-acid music scene. The “Madchester” days are long gone and the arcade is now home to dozens of independent shops, alternative boutiques and record stores.
I was smacked with a wave of nostalgia as we weaved our way through the maze of booths and stalls. The whole set up reminded me of my younger days scouring for band t-shirts and CDs of indie artists at places like BB Plaza and Annexe Central Market in Kuala Lumpur (you can still experience this at The Zhongshan Building). The riffraff of bundle clothes, the rejection of branded stuff and the indifferent staff with a dash of attitude made me feel like I was in my early 20’s again.
I was looking for a take-home souvenir representative of Manchester and we found it at The Manchester Shop, a store fronting Oldham Street. The worker bee is at the heart of the “Manc and Proud” brand and this fuzzy insect is found on every badge, mug and t-shirt in the store. We each got a Manchester Bee t-shirt and I left the shop elated to have discovered a local brand that cherishes community and togetherness.
7 – Science and Industry Museum
Manchester’s prominence during the Industrial Revolution has brought about a lot of technological and industrial wonders. Science and Industry Museum is the best place to learn about all these innovation from trains to textile machines. The museum is located at the site of the worlds’s first railway passenger station – Manchester Liverpool Road – connecting both cities back then.
I expected we start the tour of the museum by going back through time but this hall showcased all the recent breakthrough in the sciences. We got to see the Soyuz Descent Module, the spacecraft which brought British astronaut Time Peake back home; The Manchester Baby, precursor to the modern commercial computer; and the EM2/1 Electron Microscope with a magnifying power of 10,000 times.
We then checked out all the fascinating machines that kept Manchester’s textile industry running. The following gallery was a spacious hall with all the machines in the middle – spinning, weaving and dyeing. It’s really amazing to see the engineering brilliance in developing these machines that could produce tonnes of clothes a day. At the end of this gallery, the little tried his hand in spinning and weaving cotton at a bunch of interactive exhibits.
Across the main building is the Power Hall. This former warehouse has everything “power” related starting with the first tank engines that spurred the development of automobiles and locomotives. We saw the 10 horsepower engine that Frederick Royce fitted to his second car before bringing it to meet Charles Rolls at the Midlands Hotel in 1904 (and the rest they say, is history). Kiddo was also excited to see a bevy of beautifully sculpted locomotives like the sleek matte Vulcan 4-4-0 and the NS Class 1500 which looked like one of Thomas The Tank Engine’s friends.
8 – Indulge In Comfort Food
What’s Manchester without its food? All those walking and exploring got our appetite all worked up and Manchester’s food scene easily filled our gap. Here’s a quick shout out to all the places we chomped our way through.
We were really drained out after a 15 hour plus flight and another long hour at the immigration. After freshening up after check-in, we scooted to Northern Soul for the most heart warming meal in Manchester. The chilly spring night gave way to the warmth of “The Soul,” a classic three cheese blend on sourdough. The grilled cheese comes with a pickle and coleslaw to add a bit of tanginess to my tongue but the trio of creamy melting cheeses sent me back to the hotel to a good night’s sleep.
Rump ‘N Ribs Steak House
Rump ‘N Ribs Steak House, right across Science and Industry Museum, is the only steak house to serve halal Aberdeen Angus beef. The three of us shared a plate of Buffalo Ribs and Angus Burger. The ribs were marinated in chili and spices and glazed with a Texas barbeque sauce which had a smoky and sweet flavor. All their beef were dry-aged on the bone for at least 28 days resulting in the juiciest and smoothest halal ribs we ever had in the UK.
Chapter One Books
Chapter One Books is a nice spot to take a breather after spending most part of the day looking for street art at the Northern Quarter. The cafe-cum-book store has a nice selection of desserts and pastries to pair with your favorite cup of coffee. Of all the selections on display, I tried their Flourless Tiffin because I have never seen this confectionery before in Malaysia. The digestive biscuit gave a good crunch while the cocoa and melted chocolate had the right balance of bitter and sweet that went well with my flat white.
It’s all about haute céréale at Black Milk. I could not pass up the chance to partake in the gourmet cereal craze that gripped the British Isles so I ordered a bowl of Om Nom Nom. This diabetes-inducing cocktail starts off with a base of Krave, Coco Rocks and Cookie Crisp. They are topped with fudge brownies and Oreos all covered in molten chocolate and whipped cream. This monster is then served with a cup of Black Milk’s very own chocolate milk. Talk about sweetness overload!
9 – Etihad Stadium
If there are two words to describe Manchester, they would be United and City.
Both football clubs are the heartbeat of Manchester with Manchester City’s nouveau riche putting them as top dog over bitter rivals Manchester United who has had much success over the prior two decades. I am an ardent Manchester City fan and the natural thing to do was to catch a game at the Etihad Stadium. I boarded the tram at Piccadilly Station which was already full of cheery fans celebrating the team’s title victory.
The festive atmosphere filled into the stadium as fans were happily singing and chanting, especially from the Kippax Stand. The whole stadium rocked to the tune of the supporter’s anthem “Blue Moon” and we’re off to the races! The final scoreline sided to the home team 5-0 over a lowly Swansea and the fans rushed onto the field to celebrate with the players and the coaching staff.
If you are not able to catch a game, you can still visit Etihad Stadium and Old Trafford. Both stadiums have their own store packed with
jerseys shirts and team merchandise besides scheduled tours of the stadium.
10 – Sifters Records
This is strictly for Oasis fans!
South of Manchester is a neighborhood called Burnage and herein lies Sifters Records on Fog Lane. The record store was immortalized in Oasis’ hit single “Shakermaker” off their debut album Definitely Maybe and has become a center of attraction of fans ever since. On our last day in Manchester, we decided to drop by Sifter Records to see if “Mr Sifter” is still manning the shop.
What I found remarkable was the storefront did not change much since the video clip aired in 1994!
I opened the hallowed doors to a store packed with CDs from wall to wall, an oddity in the age of Spotify. Mr Sifter himself was sitting happily behind the counter ready for a chat. So I had a nice talk with Peter Howard ranging from the last time any of the Gallagher brothers dropped by (“Noel came with an American TV crew to shoot a documentary”) to his frustration at Manchester United’s current predicament.
Sifters Records might me the most obscure thing to do in Manchester but as a teenager growing up to Oasis’ rock and roll tunes, this place meant the most to me.
So there you have it, the top 10 things to see, do, eat and cheer in Manchester. Beyond the grimy post-Industrial facade of the city lies a vibrant close-knit community that makes you feel like you’re staying in a small town instead of a metropolis. Another trip to Manchester beckons.