This is going to be hard for a Londoner to take but, ultimately, Manchester is where it’s at. Lonely Planettravel editors just named the northern gem as the UK’s only must-visit city on their list of Best Places to Visit in 2023.
And really, who can blame them? Manchester is looking pretty good at the moment, between its shiny museum refurbs, burgeoning new districts, and rejuvenating industrial-chic architecture. Throw in a vibrant arts and music culture, globetrotting food scene, and A-class hotels, and the city’s weekender appeal is bigger than ever. If you’ve not yet paid pilgrimage, now’s the time.
What to see & do
Manchester has all the usual tickbox sights - museums, galleries, shopping - but, to get a real sense of its soul, you must wander its neighbourhoods. The headliner everyone talks about is the Northern Quarter (aka NQ), a riot of indie shops, trendy restaurants, and galleries clipped by Shudehill and Great Ancoats Street. It’s just as Instagrammable as you’d imagine, with more street art murals, fab florists, and flat whites than your reels can handle.
But NQ’s not the only district for your radar. Neighbouring Ancoats is the next-big-thing, with handsome brick-fronted factories transformed into sleek flats, more artisan cafés, and the city’s most coveted restaurants. To the west, you’ll find barges, bridges, and a viaduct-turned-park in pretty canalside Castlefield. And their Albert Square is nothing like EastEnders. Instead, find rich historical pickings; tick off the neo-gothic town hall and circular central library. Don’t miss nearby Chinatown, either, said to be Europe’s third largest.
Want a ‘proper’ sight? The Manchester Museum reopens in February after a major overhaul ,and the Jewish Museum has seen a recent expansion. Meanwhile, Manchester Art Gallery is not new but, with its bountiful ceramics and varied textiles, it is timelessly fabulous. Meanwhile, a tour of the splendid tiling at historic Victoria Baths is perfect for the architecturally inclined.
The city’s art scene is electric, and eclectic. Take NQ’s Manchester Craft and Design Centre: here, you can shop hand-wrought clay mugs or intricate jewelry made by local artisans. Across the water in Salford, wander through BBC studios at Media City. And, from next summer, the new Factory International building will exhibit creative media, like dance, music, and the visual arts.
Where to eat
Mancunians popped corks when Ancoats restaurant Mana became the city’s first restaurant in 40 years to bag a Michelin star. And the seasonally driven tasting menu - featuring the likes of fermented ceps with celeriac and comté - still pulls in diners, despite the £195pp price tag.
But Manchester also does unbuttoned with aplomb. Natural wine bar Erst is one of the city’s hottest seats in town. As is just-opened three-in-one restaurant Exhibition, with kitchens from the city’s lauded Baratxuri, Sao Paolo Project, and OSMA eateries. It turns clubby in the late-night hours, a vibe not unlike that at Escape to Freight Island - set in reimagined railway station Depot Mayfield. Here, street eats like Mi & Pho noodle bowls are just the precursor to DJ nights and roller disco.
Artisan café are a city-wide obsession. Visit the new downtown branch of Pollen Bakery to sink your teeth into a cream-stuffed cruffin (the lovechild of a croissant and a muffin), or a glazed doughnut from Siop Shop.
Manchester’s other drink of choice is beer. Craft beer. The city’s brewing scene is booming, with cult local names like Cloudwater and Alphabet clustered around Picadilly Station. Or pair coriander pilsners and chai-infused porter with bhel puri and okra fries at Leeds import Bundobust.
Where to go out
In the glossy Spinningfields district, Schofield’s was Manchester’s first drinking hole to join the prestigious World’s 50 Best Bars list, in September this year. Set in art deco Sunlight House, the wood-lined environs are as memorable as the martinis made with their own dry vermouth. Two minutes away, another award-winner, Speak in Code, mixes innovative cocktails.
Manchester’s musical ties are legendary and you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to venues. Former methodist church Albert Hall and multipurpose space The Lowry are big and beautiful places to catch a performance, but intimate Band on the Wall channels real Mancunian energy. If you want to go out-out, the Gay Village, centred around Canal Street, has places open til late.
Where to stay
This city’s hotel scene is Hot. There has been an explosion in new openings - with more on the way, including fun-luxe Treehouse Manchester (”we are taking root”) and a branch of Mollies, from the Soho House team. Launched in late 2019, Stock Exchange Hotel Manchester (room-only doubles from £150) is set in Grade II-listed, Edwardian Baroque environs. The location by King Street’s flash shops and the North Quarter is great but it’s the Bull and Bear restaurant, by Michelin-lauded chef Tom Kerridge, that’s the real draw.
The Gay Village has seen an uptick in cool places, too. Leven (room-only doubles from £89) is a design-forward stay clad in Victorian brick; the great big windows of the former warehouse provide the perfect industrial-chic counterpoint to plush teal sofas and marbled coffee tables. Meanwhile, around the corner, NYC-inspired Hotel Brooklyn (room-only doubles from £70) has the full roster of on-trend furnishings with Millennial pink, metallics, and tropical plants all featuring.
And for chic boutique in the city centre, many swear by King Street Townhouse Hotel (room-only doubles from £161). It has bedrooms in soothing pastel palettes, plant-based brekkies, and a spa - plus a small but lovely rooftop pool.