Instead of breezing through Manchester’s charms in one day, why not spend a long weekend learning more about the city and the surrounding area.
Jemima Forbes maps out an extended four-day itinerary through the city’s creative, culinary and archeological gems.
I’m a full-time travel writer and part-time explorer. While I’ve lived and worked all over the world, the UK is where I was born and where I’ll always call home. Manchester holds special significance for me: it’s the place I’ve lived the longest – and it has never failed to satisfy my food-loving heart.
Why you should visit Manchester
Delectable food, world-class sports, exquisite art, cool industrial-era architecture: Manchester really is a city that has something to appeal to everyone. It’s grown in both size and renown in recent years, metamorphosing into a brilliantly creative, proudly musical and gastronomically diverse hub. Quite simply, it’s one of the best – if not the best – cities in the UK.
Tick off some of the city’s creative and architectural gems
Most of Manchester’s attractions are concentrated in the center, making it the best place to base yourself. There are plenty of accommodation options there, too, from the slick boutique King Street Townhouse and stylish Whitworth Locke aparthotel to the funkily themed BrewDog Doghouse.
No matter where you chose to stay, you’ll need a good breakfast to set you up for your first day of exploring. Luckily, Manchester City Center has lots of options serving both sweet and savory delights, including Pot Kettle Black, Ezra & Gil and Moose Coffee. While you digest, stroll past a few central landmarks. In Albert Sq, you can take in the Gothic facade of Manchester Town Hall as well as seasonal decorations – think bright-orange pumpkins at Halloween, twinkling fairy lights at Christmas and joyful red lanterns during Chinese New Year.
Finish your mini tour at St Peter’s Sq, the location of the incredibly photogenic Manchester Central Library and the statue of famed suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. You can then venture south down Oxford St/Oxford Rd to the Whitworth Art Gallery (about 25 minutes by foot or 10 minutes by bus). Dating back to the late 1800s, this majestic building houses a treasure trove of extraordinary artworks. Wander through galleries dedicated to beautiful watercolors from the likes of JMW Turner and John Edward Taylor, as well as Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces by Rossetti. There are even several rooms filled with weird and wonderful wallpaper fragments from decades and centuries gone by.
The Whitworth Gallery’s glasshouse-like cafe is a lovely spot for lunch once you’re done perusing the paintings and prints. Sample hearty homemade soups or super-grain Buddha bowls while admiring views of the surrounding park. After lunch (and if the weather’s decent) take a turn around leafy Whitworth Park, one of the city’s loveliest. In the spring, it’s a brilliant location for admiring beautiful blossoms; come autumn, it becomes a riot of color.
Visit Victoria Baths
Afterward, cross Oxford Rd and head down Hathersage Rd to Victoria Baths. The partially restored, Grade II–listed bathhouse is one of the city’s most beautiful early Edwardian structures. While you can’t swim (yet!), you can get access to the exquisitely tiled Turkish Baths and three separate pools during free tours of the building every Wednesday between 11am and 3pm. Victoria Baths also regularly hosts seasonal festivals and fairs (check the website for any upcoming events).
If you can’t go inside, spend a brief moment admiring the Baths’ red-brick exterior before heading to the nearby Pankhurst Centre on Nelson St. The unassuming terraced house is the former home of Emmeline Pankhurst, and widely regarded as the birthplace of the international women’s-suffrage movement. See where some of the first meetings took place in the parlor and browse displays detailing women’s activism both past and present.
You can then retrace your steps back down Oxford Rd and pop into Hatch (a spot for contemporary food and drinks hub) or The Deaf Institute (a welcoming pub and live music venue) for a drink. Alternatively, hop on one of the numerous buses heading into the city center. Typically, tickets cost no more than $2.30 for a single ride; you can also buy a $5.80 AnyBus travelcard for unlimited, all-day travel.
Escape to Freight Island in the evening
If your first day in Manchester falls between Wednesday and Sunday, you might want to make Escape to Freight Island your nighttime destination (it’s closed Monday and Tuesday). This innovative food hall lodged in a former freight depot near Manchester Piccadilly station opened in late 2020 and is already a beloved haunt of both locals and visitors.
There’s a huge range of tempting dining venues, with pizza, pho, burgers and tacos all on the menu. You could even watch your food being prepared over an open fire at swank Carnival, or tuck into artisan cheese and wine platters at cozy Forever Changes. Note that some venues require reservations, particularly on weekends.
Want to follow up your food with a well-made drink? If you’re feeling fancy, the Jane Eyre Cocktail Bar (named after the owner’s mother, not the 19th-century novel) is a must-visit: its menu is delightfully out of the ordinary, with drinks featuring ingredients like basil gin, nectarine wine and chai brandy. For something more low-key, check out the Pomona Island taproom for citrusy sours and barrel-aged ales, or celebrate your love of cider at the Kopparberg Bar.
Food and drink aren’t the only things on the agenda at Escape to Freight Island. You can enjoy a vast program of ticketed entertainment, ranging from comedy shows and DJ sets to live music gigs. You could even boogie the night away at a roller disco at Good Life Skates, the venue’s on-site skating hub.
History is the theme for today
Today, you’ll kick off the day’s activities at 8am with breakfast in the northwest corner of the city center. Fuel up at Federal (great for avo toast fans) or Blacksheep Coffee, both of which sit along Deansgate.
Next up, it’s time for a museum. Depending on where your interests lie, you’ll have three major options in this area of the city. The National Football Museum is essential for sports obsessives, its four floors jam-packed with rare soccer memorabilia. It’s the only museum in the city to require paid tickets ($14 for adults, $8 for kids) – though its interactive Play Gallery is more than worth it.
Elsewhere, the People’s History Museum shines a light on the city’s social and political past through intriguing exhibits on Britain’s most inspiring activists. Don’t skip the displays dedicated to the Peterloo Massacre, which turned nearby St Peter’s Sq into a site of tragedy in August 1819 after a cavalry charged a crowd of peaceful protestors.
Last but certainly not least, there’s the Science and Industry Museum. It’s one of the best picks for families and will give you wonderful insight into Manchester’s historic industries and innovations, from passenger rail travel to modern computing. You’ll find the museum tucked down Liverpool Rd, not far from the 2000-year-old Castlefield Roman Ruins, which date back to when the city was known as Mamucium. If your museum wanderings are over by 11am, seek out Chetham’s Library. It’s the oldest public library in the English-speaking world and features fantastic medieval architecture; free tours can be booked online in advance.
Head to Spinningfields for lunch
Posh Spinningfields sits within walking distance of all three museums and has heaps of excellent local and regional chain restaurants perfect for a quick lunch. Top picks include Thaikhun for spicy green curries, Nudo Sushi Box for sumptuous salmon rolls and Dishoom for delicious Indian comfort food.
You could also take advantage of 20 Stories’ enticing – and extremely affordable – lunch menu (starting at $21.50 for two courses). The chic, bistro-style restaurant sits (unsurprisingly) 20 stories up in the No. 1 Spinningfields tower and boasts a fantastic terrace overlooking the city.
After lunch, walk down Deansgate, stopping to admire the neo-Gothic facade of the John Rylands Library. You can then either catch the Blue Line tram from Deansgate–Castlefield or St Peter’s Sq to Exchange Quay (10 minutes). Purchase an off-peak day travel card (about $4) as you’ll likely use the tram again.
From Exchange Quay, turn right down Ordsall Ln to seek out Ordsall Hall (open Sunday to Thursday; free admission), a handsome Tudor manor that sits in wonderful juxtaposition to its industrial surroundings – and easily one of the city’s most underrated heritage sites. Its well-preserved Great Hall, kitchen and bedrooms are packed with fascinating historic tales, while the grounds feature a fragrant herb garden and traditional allotment.
Give yourself an hour or two to soak up this 16th-century gem before hopping back on the tram to MediaCityUK. The cool and contemporary district sprawls along the Manchester Shipping Canal and houses numerous major TV broadcasting studios. Stroll through the compact yet plant-filled Blue Peter Gardens (you might just spot the presenters filming this popular UK kids’ show) before crossing the Media City Footbridge.
The mammoth, space-age structure that is the IWM North is hard to miss on the other side of the water. The sister venue of London’s Imperial War Museum differentiates itself with displays that focus on everyday people caught up in conflict, and which bring to life dramatic details and forgotten tales from various battles over the past 150 years. There’s also an incredibly immersive 360-degree cinema experience, which runs hourly, in the main exhibition hall.
Have a whimsical cocktail at The Alchemist
Following your museum stops, loop back around to MediaCity via the ultra-modern, pedestrianized Millennium Bridge and make your way to The Alchemist for a pre-dinner drink. The whimsical cocktail bar (one of three across the city) sits right on the water and offers dramatic vistas of the sun setting over the canal (depending on the time of year). It also has heaps of low or zero-alcohol concoctions for teetotalers: the Marmalade Spritz, made with alcohol-free Everleaf Forest aperitif, is particularly delicious.
Theater lovers may want to catch a show, whether that’s a musical, a Shakespeare drama or some stand-up comedy, at the nearby Lowry theater (eat at The Alchemist beforehand — they have a vast menu of globally inspired plates for sharing). If not, journey back on the tram to Deansgate. From here, it’s a short stroll to HOME, whose first-floor restaurant has a warm decor and mouthwatering menu (think slow-roasted lamb, roasted-squash lasagna and wood-fired pizzas).
If you’re after an organized evening activity, HOME has both a cinema and a theater showcasing more independent live productions. Rather relax with a quiet nightcap? Atlas Bar next door to Deansgate station serves over 100 different types of gin, while petite Peveril of the Peak on Great Bridgewater St is one of Manchester’s most atmospheric pubs. You could also sip wine at The Refuge on Oxford Street or pop into Three Little Words for a tasty citrus or raspberry-infused cocktail featuring award-winning, locally made Manchester Gin.
Enjoy a slower day in the city’s trendiest neighborhoods
With a good chunk of Manchester’s museums and monuments ticked off, it’s time for a more leisurely day. And there’s no better place to begin than the Northern Quarter (NQ for short).
This trendy area just north of Piccadilly Gardens is the domain of endless cool coffee shops, numerous independent stores and a plethora of photo-worthy street art. There’s no shortage of spots for breakfast, either: Chapter One doubles up as a tea shop and an independent book emporium, while Ezra & Gil serves up all manner of seasonally inspired brunch dishes.
Prefer coffee and pastries? Hop over to the Ancoats district (just across Great Ancoats St) to sample croissants, cruffins and more at TROVE, Companio Bakery or Pollen. All sit within striking distance of New Islington Marina, a canal system fringed by urban parkland that’s the perfect backdrop for an alfresco breakfast.
Explore the Northern Quarter
With your belly full, it’s time to explore the Northern Quarter. Many of its narrow, red-brick-building-lined streets curiously resemble those of Manhattan – so much so that it’s stood in for New York City in numerous TV shows and movies. Major shopping venues to tick off as you wander include Afflecks (for a mishmash of vintage clothing, spiritual tokens and media collectibles), Fred Aldous (heaven for arts and crafts lovers), the Manchester Craft and Design Centre and Piccadilly Records.
Once you’re done browsing the NQ’s eclectic delights, it’ll likely be time for lunch. Mackie Mayor, a Victorian meat market turned trendy food hall, hosts a handful of terrific traders that collectively cover almost every food craving, from fried chicken wings to spicy Thai drunken noodles. Alternatively, head toward Street Urchin on Great Ancoats St to tuck into an array of ever-changing seafood dishes such as crab gnocchi or seafood bisque (there are a few vegetarian picks, too).
Check out the Greater Manchester Police Museum
If you can’t resist squeezing in one more museum, the Northern Quarter hosts a real gem. The Greater Manchester Police Museum on Newton St is only open on Tuesdays and it’s run entirely by volunteers. True-crime fans will enjoy the Crime Room, as they uncover titbits about some of the city’s most cunning criminals, including a notorious forger who created over £20,000 worth of fake bank notes during WWII. The museum also has a replica courthouse and restored Victorian prison cells, allowing you to get a taste of life as a convicted felon.
If it’s not Tuesday, make a beeline for Piccadilly Gardens and then head down Mosley St to the Manchester Art Gallery. The city’s premium creative venue is brimming with beautiful works, including Pre-Raphaelite oil paintings, Renaissance watercolors and contemporary screen prints. The temporary exhibition space is always worth a look, too, as is the brilliant gift shop in the foyer.
The Northern Quarter and Ancoats feature some of the city’s top bars and music venues, making the area a logical location for your next evening adventure. More low-key things to do include watching hilarious stand-up at the Frog and Bucket Comedy Club, playing ping-pong in between pints at Twenty Twenty Two or simply grabbing a drink at one of the many hip bars or brewhouses (most serve food, too).
There are also plenty of places offering live music and DJ sets, such as Band on the Wall, SOUP, Matt & Phreds and Night & Day Café. Alternatively, Ancoats’ Cutting Room Sq is littered with venues. Fill up on tasty pizza at Rudy’s before enjoying a pint or two at the SEVEN BRO7HERS Beerhouse or the Edinburgh Castle Pub. Later, true night owls can hotfoot it to the city’s Gay Village, where you’ll spot several dance clubs that stay open into the small hours.
If your trip extends another day, consider an excursion beyond the city limits. Manchester’s location in the heart of the North puts it within easy reach of spectacular national parks, charming former mill towns and some of Greater Manchester’s top neighborhoods.
Go hiking in the Peak District
The Peak District National Park is a paradise for walkers, with Edale – the jumping-off point for numerous trails – just 70 minutes by rail from Manchester Piccadilly station. As well as speeding past lush countryside en route, you’ll pass through the town of Marple. Keep an eye out for the Agatha Christie posters on the platform: they nod to the fact the author named her famous female detective, Jane Marple, after Marple Hall, a former local manor house that Christie supposedly visited in 1929.
When you disembark at Edale station, either follow the signs northwest to climb the Kinder Scout plateau (the highest point in the Peak District) or head south to weave your way up several different paths to Mam Tor. Translating to “mother hill,” the dramatic 1700ft(517m)-high peak affords breathtaking panoramic views across the surrounding valleys. From there, you can either cross the ridge to Back Tor or drop down into Castleton, a picturesque village with several pubs for lunch and the ruined 12th-century Peveril Castle.
Top tip: Upon your return to Manchester, you’ll find Piccadilly station is convenient to the city’s many craft breweries. Options within a five-minute stroll include Alphabet Brewing Company (known for their fruit IPAs), Cloudwater Brew Co. (a top pick for sour-beer lovers) and Beer Nouveau (whose team uses ancient recipes and mainly foraged ingredients).
Indulge your creative side in Hebden Bridge
Less than 40 minutes by train from Manchester, this delightful West Yorkshire market town has been a haven for both artists and members of the LGBTIQ+ community for decades. Here, you can explore a slew of art galleries, quirky cafes and quaint canal-side drinking holes, including the independent Hope Gallery, the Stubbing Wharf pub and the vegan-friendly Nelsons Wine Bar.
If you’ve got time, walk the Buttress path up to Heptonstall (about 30 minutes), a tiny village with a great outlook over Hebden Bridge. You’ll also find the graveyard of the ruined St Thomas the Apostle Church, the final resting place of celebrated American poet Sylvia Plath.
Sample suburban life in Didsbury
With its tree-lined streets and neat Victorian houses, Didsbury is one of Manchester’s most desirable neighborhoods and a lovely place to while away an afternoon. You can easily reach West Didsbury by bus or tram from the city center or hop on the Manchester Airport train to East Didsbury (all options take under 30 minutes).
Alongside numerous dining spots and a bevy of local shops (from delis and patisseries to second-hand bookstores), you’ll find Fletcher Moss Park. The public green space features attractive botanical gardens and a tea room that usually hosts several food trucks during the summer months. From the park, it’s also possible to follow the River Mersey footpath west to the equally charming Chorlton (roughly an hour).
Have just a day in Manchester? Check out Jemima’s one-day plan to learn about the city.