48 Hours Manchester: The Best of a City in Two Days
British Urban Renewal
Manchester dazzles with new architecture, a vibrant nightlife, and dining beyond pub food.
Manchester's symbol is a bee, representing the city as a "hive of activity"—a reputation hard-earned during its gritty cotton-milling era in the early 19th century. But Manchester's days as a poster child for sooty industrialism ended several generations ago. Mancunians' (or "Mancs," as some of the area's 2.5 million residents call themselves) most recent history is marked by the triumphs of their famous soccer team, Manchester United, and by the excitement of a stunning building boom, which much of the world will view when Manchester hosts the Commonwealth Games from July 25 to August 4.
"Everyone still thinks Manchester is full of chimneys," says Jonathan Schofield. Schofield edits city guidebooks full of sleek new restaurants, too-hip-to-ever-be-mainstream bands at crowded clubs, wildly designed museums, and grand theaters with London shows. The chimneys no longer smoke, but this town still buzzes like crazy.
Ian Brown, from the Manchester-bred band the Stone Roses, once famously said, "Manchester's got everything except a beach." The city is just south of the Lake District, and less than three hours by car from London. Manchester Airport, ten miles southwest of town, can be a less hassling entryway to England than Heathrow, and British Midland now offers nonstop flights to Manchester from Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
Almost every worthy tour stop is downtown or within walking distance of it, and several attractions are brand-new, in radically designed buildings, unveiled in time for this summer's influx of sports and (Manchester hopes) culture fans. One thing that's not new but should be on everyone's to-do list is the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, whose exhibits (check out the working steam engines) offer a history of industrialization and the city's substantial role therein. The Manchester Art Gallery reopened in May, now revamped and doubled in size to display works by British artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, Lucien Freud, and David Hockney.
In the recently hatched category, there's the months-old curiosity known as Urbis, a "museum of cities" that uses high-tech exhibits to explore the evolution of urban life. Much of this project's $42-million budget has gone toward creating the impressive skyline-altering structure (it looks like a large green wedge of glass) that encases it.
A bit farther afield—about two miles from the center—but most visually gripping is the Imperial War Museum North, a branch of the London museum, set to open this summer on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal. Designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, the structure consists of three massive silver steel chunks that represent shards of a shattered globe. The museum exhibits address "how people's lives are shaped by war," says director Jim Forrester. Sports fans go to the Manchester United Museum at Old Trafford stadium to tour the locker room and pay homage to the world's best-known soccer club.
WHERE THE LOCALS EAT
Manchester has a broad range of restaurants and pubs—500 in the downtown area alone—from stately dining rooms to traditional pubs serving fish-and-chips and locally brewed ales. Mancunians point to the hundred-year-old Mr Thomas's Chop House and its equally worthy brother, Sam's Chop House, for the best British cooking: roast beef carved tableside, and steak-and-kidney pudding served in a warm clubby atmosphere.
Have lunch at Stock, which serves homemade gnocchi and grilled fish under the dome of the city's former Stock Exchange building. Locals call it the finest Italian food in Manchester. And the best Chinese in town is Yang Sing, housed in a former cotton warehouse and known for its Cantonese delicacies. Its weekday dim sum lunch (shumai stuffed with prawn and cashews, crisp spring rolls, steamed spicy pork-and-nut dumplings), includes 40-50 selections, with even more choice at Sunday brunch.
Lounge 10 is where it's at these days for stylish dining, with French-style tapas (pigeon breast with huckleberry glaze, for example) on the amuse-bouche menu and artwork—mostly nudes—amid a black and red interior.
The tabloids document every time United star David Beckham and his wife, Victoria (formerly Posh Spice of Spice Girl fame), are spotted slinking in and out of the slick designer stores around St. Ann's Square and King Street. This is Manchester's most conspicuous fashion district, home to Armani, Hermès, DKNY, and an endless supply of straight skirts and gauzy blouses from trendy chains like Kookai and Monsoon. Nearby (but far away in spirit) is Oyster, an unpretentious independent shop that sells multihued fashions from British designers. "Nobody can replace black," says co-owner Clare Hourigan, "but it's nice to have some color, isn't it?"
The unique and low-key Northern Quarter is home to a dense concentration of second-hand book and music stores with lots of vinyl, indie music, and electronica. There's also Affleck's Palace, a five-story retro-clothing bazaar where you can pick up everything from platform shoes to a fluorescent-green bikini top.
Those wanting a more traditional sartorial souvenir might want to meet Frank Rostron, who sells custom-tailored cotton shirts. The corner of his store has a pile of brown packages on their way to the U.S.; half of his customers are Americans (including New York governor George Pataki), Rostron boasts, all in search of "the classic English gentleman's shirt."
Music has replaced cotton as the city's major export. Besides the Stone Roses, Manchester has produced bands like the Smiths, Oasis, New Order, and most recently, Elbow. Luke Bainbridge, editor of the weekly City Life magazine, calls this town "the engine room for British music. It supplies the raw talent." And you can hear just that at clubs like the Music Box or The Roadhouse. Manchester has the most theaters in England outside of London, some producing original works, others hosting Broadway-born megamusicals. The Lowry, which opened in 2000, is the city's proudest addition. The $175-million arts and theater complex sits across the river from the Imperial War Museum North and looks like an equally eccentric relation—a steel geometric puzzle of a building with an interior painted in vivid oranges and purples. In recent months the diverse mix of entertainment has included La Bohème, Sweeney Todd, and Sing-a-Long Sound of Music. After the show, authentic pubs like the Marble Arch and Britons Protection are fun gathering spots to down a few pints and listen to live music, and there's often a line to get into Via Fossa, a funky bar with a warren of small rooms that encourages speedy mingling.
For the finest boutique hotel, book at Malmaison, a refurbished warehouse whose contemporary rooms have CD players and scented soaps and body gels to fill up your suitcase. It's located just east of the energetic nightlife on Canal Street. The new Lowry Hotel (unrelated to the Lowry) on Chapel Wharf is also modern, in a minimalist sort of way; with lots of metal sculptures and white walls nobody would call it "cozy." But it offers views over Manchester and a fancy spa where your body can undergo some elaborate exfoliating and hydrating. Just on the edge of town in a leafy residential area, Eleven Didsbury Park is a 150-year-old town house that's been turned into a stylish inn with 14 beige-hued bedrooms, a full Irish breakfast, and friendly hosts who relax their guests with a complimentary nightcap.
Sightseeing, Culture, & Shops
Affleck's Palace: 52 Church St.; +44 161 834 2039.
Restaurants, Pubs, & Clubs
Britons Protection: 50 Great Bridgewater St.; +44 161 236 5895.
Rates are for a double room.
Eleven Didsbury Park: Didsbury Village; +44 161 448 7711; www.elevendidsburypark.com. $100-180.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.