The heart and spiritual home of Britain’s working class, Manchester is a city you shouldn’t overlook on an England vacation.
Queen Victoria famously hated it. The trade union movement owes its existence to it, and it’s probably responsible for a sizeable number of your favourite songs from the 80s and 90s. Manchester is one of those cities that many tourists overlook, yet it has been instrumental in shaping its nation’s identity. Once responsible for 90% of the world’s textile production, the infamously rainy city is looking to the future, and offers a great base for exploring England’s north, including the beautiful Lakes District.
The 101 on England’s Activist Capital
As the heart of industrial England in Victorian times, Manchester rose from unremarkable origins to become one of the richest cities in the British Empire. The construction of the now iconic canal linked Manchester to the sea, allowing ships bringing cotton – essential for the textile industry that kept much of Manchester in work – to bypass Liverpool. We’re not sure if this is what sparked northern England’s most famous rivalry between cities, but we’re fairly sure it didn’t help!
That rivalry might be playful today, but the city has historically taken its positions on workers’ rights and equality very seriously indeed. The home of Emmeline Pankhurst, Manchester is the birthplace of the British suffragette movement that eventually gained women the right to vote in the United Kingdom. Manchester is also proud of its deep socialist roots, which secured workers’ rights and the beginnings of the trade union movement. This began with the Luddites, who protested the loss of their jobs to machinery (though the term Luddite itself has its origins in nearby Nottingham). These and other social progressions, key to Manchester’s history, are explored at the People’s History Museum.
Manchester also saw the birth of some of socialism’s founding ideas. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles met at Chetham’s Library throughout the summer of 1845, drafting notes on what would ultimately become The Communist Manifesto.
See the City for Free
While Manchester’s popularity with both leisure and business travellers can leave it short on hotel and restaurant bargains, the city is one of England’s best deals for sightseers on a UK vacation, particularly when it comes to museums. Simply put, Manchester features some of the best museums in England. Many cover topics unique to the region, and most all of the big names are free. These include the Museum of Science and Industry, the People’s History Museum, as previously mentioned, and the National Football Museum. If you only have one day available to go museum hopping in the city, these three offer the perfect Manchester trifecta of innovation, socialist politics, and sport. If you’re not a football fan, swap the National Football Museum for the John Rylands Library or Chetham’s Library. This is a university town after all, and the combination of architecture and intellect makes either place a compelling place to spend an hour or two on your trip to England. You might also visit the Greater Manchester Police Museum, the Imperial War Museum North, or the Manchester Museum, which is the second oldest in the UK.
So many free museums at your fingertips can make the city feel like a smaller, less overwhelming London. The nice thing about Manchester is that many of its other great attractions are free to enter as well, including Manchester Cathedral, Manchester Town Hall (closed as of this writing for restoration), the Manchester and Whitworth Art Galleries, Castlefield and its Roman Ruins, the historic canal and colourful Canal Street, plus many more.
Local Charms and Quirky Manchester
In a university city so dedicated to doing things its own way, you know you’re going to find some local treasures in the form of shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars that step outside the usual “hipster” aesthetic. If a few hours in the Northern Quarter isn’t part of your plan, make some time! In a broad sense, this is Manchester’s alternative neighbourhood. It’s also a great place to pick up local souvenirs actually made by local creatives, meet some of the city’s most colourful characters, and support its most interesting and unusual businesses. If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind item on your England vacation that screams pure Manchester, you’ll probably find it here.
Nipping Across to Manchester’s Greatest Rival
As Northern England’s largest city, boasting its busiest airport outside of London, Manchester makes an ideal base for day trips around the region, either to historic must-see cities like York, the strikingly beautiful Lakes District, and its next-door neighbour and traditional rival, Liverpool. More than simply the home of The Beatles, Liverpool has been a hotbed of English culture and one of its most important ports for centuries, continuing to be a key centre of art, theatre, music, and literature.
Being less than 45 minutes away by train, Liverpool is easy to reach, and has plenty to offer urban explorers and culture vultures alike. And no, it’s not just for Beatles fans! There’s plenty of Beatles inspired tourism on offer, particularly if you wander up narrow Mathew Street, where a rebuild of the band’s famed Cavern Club venue packs them in night after night. You can also explore The Beatles Story down at Albert Dock. If you’re not particularly a Beatles fan (or are just on a budget), there’s a wealth of free museums here worth exploring, including the excellent Museum of Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum, and for art lovers, the Tate Liverpool.
Right beside Lime Station, where trains from Manchester arrive, you’ll find the cultural trifecta of the World Museum, Central Library, and Walker Art Gallery, all of which offer free entry. If you’re looking for a true Liverpool lunch, order up a serving of scouse, a traditional lamb or beef stew that’s given Liverpool locals their nickname, “Scouses.”
Unsurprisingly, Liverpool’s importance as a port made it one of England’s wealthiest cities, and you can see references to that wealth in architecture right throughout the city, while on your England vacation. The gold pineapple that decorates a number of prominent buildings was a particular symbol of affluence and power. Though she hated working class Manchester, Queen Victoria famously loved wealthy Liverpool, and the city’s respective statues of the queen tell all about this relationship. Manchester immortalized its lack of love for Her Majesty in a particularly unappealing statue in Piccadilly Gardens. But Liverpool’s well-intentioned likeness of Her Majesty wound up being no more flattering. You’ll find the infamous statue in Derby Square, where it’s best viewed from the side to understand what the Queen’s working-class subjects (and the inner 12-year-old of every visitor since) found so amusing.
Regardless of whether you agree with Queen Victoria or not, a few days in Manchester with a side trip to Liverpool (or vice versa) is a must-do if your England vacation takes you to the storied north.