So you’ve got 3 days to spend in Manchester? From some of the biggest sights to the alternative and hidden gems, here’s what my sister and I saw and did (and ate) in 72 hours.
Day 1 (Friday)
Stroll around the Central District
Market Street, High Street, Fountain Street, Exchange Square… Manchester’s Central district is packed with shopping streets and countless malls like Selfridges, Arndale and Harvey Nichols. Enough to see and desire for hours if you’re a shop fanatic. We just strolled through the streets for a while and then went on to the next thing that caught our eye…
Coffee at the Town Hall
You can’t miss Manchester’s town hall. It’s a glorious Neo-Gothic building at Albert Square in the heart of the city. The inside is just as impressive as the outside and if you want to hang out here for a while, have a coffee/tea and cake or even lunch (mainly sandwiches, salads and hot pots) in the marvelously stylish Sculpture Hall Café. You can book a tour to explore the spectacular staterooms and corridors, but not if the spaces are booked for a corporate event, which was the case while we were there.
Play around at the Football museum
Even if you’re not a football fan, you can’t NOT be intrigued by this giant building called Urbis that the National Football Museum calls home. The museum (which is free, like many other museums in Manchester) is surprisingly interactive. You can test your knowledge of English football history, test your video gaming skills, try out a few vintage carnival games and improve your actual football tactics. You would also have had a magnificent view of the city on the top levels if it hadn’t been for the frosted glass window…
Free concert at the Royal Exchange
The quirky Great Hall of the Royal Exchange is worth having a peek at. I wouldn’t call it pretty, with the huge seven-sided steel and glass theatre in the middle that blocks your view of the hall, but the hodgepodge of colors and shapes is definitely unique and intriguing. Every Friday night from 5pm, there’s a happy hour with free entertainment (either comedy or music) in front of the Great Hall Cafe. Also there are a few small shops inside the Great Hall, selling local art.
Dinner at Turtle Bay
For those still in happy hour mode, I recommend to have dinner at Turtle Bay. The Caribbean restaurant has two locations in Manchester, in the Northern Quarter and in Oxford Street, south from the Central District and the one we went to. It’s especially cosy after dark, with the hundreds of lights coming down from the ceiling as if you were sitting outdoors under a starlit sky. On the menu: jerk pit BBQ, one pots, salads and burgers, pudding and cocktails. Even vegetarians like me can find somethings delicious to eat, like the fresh mango flatbread with goat’s cheese.
Day 2 (Saturday)
Visit the Air and Space Hall
Off to the west side of town! We stumbled upon the Air and Space Hall (part of the Museum of Science & Industry, free admission) completely by accident. It was pouring rain and we were just looking for shelter when suddenly we found ourselves in a huge Victorian hall (it used to be a covered market in 1880), filled with vintage cars and airplanes that got industrial Manchester moving. A few highlights: a 1905 Rolls-Royce model that was once used by Henry Royce himself, a ‘kamikaze plane’ that was used by pilots in WWII to sacrifice their lives in the defense of Japan and a giant Spitfire W3950, a Royal Air Force fighter aircraft.
Visit the rest of the Museum of Science & Industry
If the cars and airplanes got you excited, go see the rest of the MOSI that continues on the other side of the road. Quick warning: it’s huge (7 acres) so first decide what you really want to see. It’s all about technology, road transport, railways and science out here, all very interactive and fun and all free yet again, apart from the 4D cinema (set in the replica sewers) and the short steam train ride (the 1830 Express), where you hop on and off at the oldest surviving railway station in the world. The Warehouse Restaurant and café on the site is perfect of a quick drink or bite to eat.
Lunch at Grindsmith
We found Grindsmith (located on Deansgate) on several lists of best places to go for a coffee in Manchester. Turns out you can get a lot more than just great specialty coffee! They’ve got cakes, pastries and really great sandwiches, too. The space (orange brick walls, yellow pillows and chairs, wooden tables) is really bright and airy and divided in several cosy corners with free wifi, which is probably why you’ll see a lot of people with laptops here. A nice spot to post a few Instagrams and give your feet a rest.
Saunter along the waterfront
Manchester’s city centre lacks green areas if you ask me. But if you go to the Castlefield urban heritage park, into Duke Street and walk underneath the railway bridge, there’s a nice stretch of walkway waiting for you on the other side, that takes you along the Bridgewater canal. It’s not huge, but it’s a nice and quite charming change of scenery when the sun is out. The huge 47-story Beetham Tower is a great orientation point by the way in case you get lost.
Dinner and a movie at Home
Home opened in 2015. It’s a modern centre for international contemporary art, theatre and film, housing five cinemas, two theatres, a gallery and an expansive restaurant and bar. The name is very fitting because we felt right at home here, it’s the perfect setting to spend a cold and lazy evening. First we had drink at the bar, then we had dinner on the first level (try the yummy superfood salad with broccoli, avocado and feta), then we watched the movie ‘Youth’. If you find it too early to call it a night on a Saturday, head for the hip Deansgate Locks quarter for a drink. There’s a fair amount of alternative pubs and cafes in and around Oxford Street (near the Palace theatre) as well.
Day 3 (Sunday)
Explore Manchester’s Northern Quarter
The Northern Quarter probably is to Manchester what the East Side is to London: a once third-rate neighborhood that is now thriving with independent bars and cafes, and shops selling vintage clothing and local art and design. At least that’s how it feels when you’re exploring the area! A fun shopping example is the Craft and Design Centre, a “not-for-profit social enterprise and independent incubator venue for craft and design businesses in the North West.” 18 unique studios are open to the public here six days a week, displaying the handmade work of about thirty designers.
The gay village & Chinatown
Two more neighborhoods nearby and worth exploring: the gay village and Chinatown. I’d suggest you keep the Gay Village for one of your evening escapades because quite frankly by day it’s pretty drowsy. Chinatown on the other hand is interesting both by day and by night, with its lavishly stocked souvenir shops and the constant smell of Chinese cooking filling up the streets.
Lunch at The Bank
Judging from the outside you would think The Bank is a posh and overpriced restaurant that requires a dress code, but it’s actually a traditional pub that just happens to be set in a historic neo-classical style building. It used to be a library and newsroom (around 1803). The library is still there upstairs (you need a code to get in), downstairs is a huge open space where you can order pub style food, there’s a separate menu for Sunday afternoons.
Visit the John Rylands Library
The John Rylands Library (nearly 120 years old) is must-see while in Manchester. A few fun facts: it’s the first public building in Manchester that had electricity installed and there are over 2 million books inside (including 40.000 bibles and about 10 extremely rare documents, such as a 2000 year old piece of papyrus. The main reason why we visited the library though was to walk through the vaulted corridors and see the awe-inspiring map rooms and main reading room. If you have time, Chetham’s Library (near the football Museum) is said to be worthwhile too but it was closed when we got there.
Blind date at Waterstones
From library to book shop: if you’re into books, then I suggest you enter one of the Waterstones bookshops at least once. It’s not a unique thing for Manchester or even Europe (there’s a Waterstones in Brussels and Amsterdam, too), but I just love their unique way of promoting the books. Why not try a blind date: you buy a book that’s wrapped up and all you get is a short teaser about the story inside.
Burgers at Missoula
For dinner, we headed out to the vegetarian restaurant ‘1847’ on Mosley Street. Not making a reservation turned out to be a mistake: they were fully booked! I would still recommend them though, the menu looked great. Instead we grabbed a veggie burger at Missoula, a diner that we had walked across a few times already. There’s two locations you can go to: on Piccadilly (Central district) and in Portland Street (Deansgate). Another place that looked fun for dinner is The Printworks, a large leisure complex located on a revamped newspaper production complex. It includes several restaurants and bars, live music and a cinema.
Sure, you could buy yourself a ticket to a show at the Opera House or Palace Theatre. But you could also go for something a little less obvious and book a show at the Contact Theatre, a dynamic charity that gives young people (locally, nationally, and internationally) a chance to get on stage and show their ‘art’, from dance to comedy to music and theatre. We came to see Andy Bell’s ‘Torsten The Bareback Saint’ here. The theatre has a great little bar as well, serving a wide range of drinks and locally sourced cakes and snacks. Big bonus: the staff are extremely friendly and helpful.
Assuming you’re coming by plane and are taking the train from the airport to the city, ànd you’re looking for a basic budget hotel: we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Oxford Street, very close to the Railway Station and the Palace Theatre. Breakfast can get crowded if you’re not an early bird, but it turned out to be the perfect location for exploring the different parts of the city by foot.