Manchester is a chic shopping mecca and a dynamic gay village neighborhood
A couple of decades ago, even the most intrepid travelers wouldn’t have given the Northern England metropolis of Manchester much consideration as a vacation destination. But this onetime factory and cotton-mill town founded by the Romans in the 1st century A.D. has enjoyed one of the most stunning resurgences of any city in Europe in recent years. Britain’s third-largest city (with a population of about 2.7 million) has become a chic shopping mecca, a hub of intriguing postmodern architecture, and a dynamic Gay Village neighborhood, with numerous gay bars, shops, and restaurants. There’s now much to see and do in Manchester, and compared with exorbitantly pricey London, the city is much less expensive.
As in many industrial cities in both Europe and North America, developers, urban pioneers, and gays and lesbians have moved into once faltering neighborhoods, restoring old homes and converting factory buildings into working and living spaces. The city now has an air of excitement about it, tempered only by the fact that it’s one of Great Britain’s rainiest places. Still, the positives far outweigh the negatives. And the city’s tourism office, Marketing Manchester, is extremely keen on welcoming gay and lesbian visitors – it produces a useful free gay guide to the city, which you can also peruse online at www.visitgaymanchester.com. The city’s Manchester Gay Pride event, held during 10 days in mid- to late August, is one of world’s largest such gatherings.
Two Manchester passions that have held up over the years are a love of football (i.e., soccer to Americans) and a dedication to live music. The city’s Manchester United football team plays in the adjacent community of Trafford, and catching a match is de rigueur for any visitor hoping to get a genuine sense of the city’s heart and soul. It can be challenging to get a ticket, but a good hotel concierge can usually set you up, albeit at a steep price. The season runs from mid-August through mid-May. The city’s music scene gave the world such lauded pop acts as Joy Division, Oasis, and the ambiguously gay Morrissey, and this is still a great town to watch live bands perform at the many clubs around town.
Culturally, Manchester has a number of worthwhile attractions. You can learn about the city’s rich Roman history at the 7-acre Castlefield Urban Heritage Park, which contains a rebuilt partial Roman fortification as well as an acclaimed Museum of Science and Industry. Fans of contemporary art should check out The Lowry, an arts center that presents provocative installations and also shows top-notch touring theater performances. There’s also the Manchester Art Gallery, which is rife with high-quality British paintings, most of them from the 19th century to the present.
Other notable stops include the Royal Exchange building, a dramatic 1870s structure that once held the city’s cotton market and now has shops and restaurants; the ornate Town Hall, with its nearly 300-foot-tall clock tower and rooms filled with elaborate murals (guided tours are available); and the University of Manchester’s impressive Whitworth Art Gallery. Also, within an easy train ride are such pleasing day-trip options as Liverpool, with its own festive Gay Village and a number of excellent museums, and Peak District National Park, with its outstanding recreational opportunities, from hiking to cycling.
From a culinary perspective, Manchester has developed a fine crop of acclaimed eateries in recent years, including a handful in or very near the Gay Village. The quintessential gay date spot is Taurus, right along Canal Street, a diverting place to eat dinner, sip wine, or grab a bite of cheesecake and a cup of coffee for dessert. The restaurant serves tasty, affordable international foods and sandwiches, such as risotto, duck-and-pear salad, and mussels with white wine sauce. Another good bet nearby is trendy Tribeca, a slick space serving fine cocktails and upscale nouvelle British fare.
The Gay Village is adjacent to Manchester’s vibrant Chinatown, where you’ll find one of the most popular Asian eateries in town, Yang Sing, which has been serving up-market Chinese fare since the early 1980s. If it’s cheap and simple ethnic food you’re seeking in the gay area, just stroll along Bloom Street, the narrow lane paralleling Canal Street, and you’ll discover a number of inexpensive fast-food spots serving fish-and-chips, pizza, kebabs, and the like – one of the best is Safad Middle Eastern Cuisine, which has a delicious chicken shawarma. Safad, like most of the places along here, is open into the wee hours each evening.
Elsewhere in Manchester, a number of great eateries await. For some of the best Indian fare in the city, duck into Shimla Pinks, which serves wonderfully fragrant and tasty curries and tandoori dishes in an elegant setting. One of the smartest restaurants in the city is Obsidian, a chic bar and grill serving such inventive creations as grilled Scottish salmon with beet-root fondant, creamy polenta, and a tangy goat cheese sauce. Another trendy spot earning plenty of kudos of late is Room, a snazzy mod-Brit restaurant where you might sample aged rib-eye steak with a classic peppercorn sauce, or pigeon pie with vanilla-scented figs.
If you watched the original Queer As Folk, you may recognize Manchester’s bustling Gay Village, a five-block strip set along a restored canal on the southern edge of the City Centre. Then again, the Gay Village has gentrified considerably since Queer As Folk filmed its popular series here in 1999 and 2000. At that time, cruising and even public sex were relatively commonplace down along the banks of the canal and in some of the alleys behind the bars.
These days, some people even grumble that Manchester’s Gay Village has become a victim of its own success. It can be awfully crowded in these parts, especially on weekend evenings, when the Canal Street bar strip is overrun with screaming teenagers, many of them straight. There’s little tension even on these crazy weekend evenings, but if you’re over 30 or disinclined toward massive crowds, you might want to bar-hop in Manchester on weekdays.
Whenever you visit the neighborhood, picking out a fun bar in the Gay Village is as easy as strolling the five blocks along Canal Street – you’ll find places for every taste and preference in this compact area. Among the most appealing spots, Velvet is a handsome space with great music and a popular restaurant in the basement. For sheer camp value, it’s hard to beat long-running Via Fossa, with its elaborate carved-wood banisters and railings, pillars covered with old movie posters, and numerous nooks and crannies rife with cushy sofas and lounge chairs. It draws an all-ages, mixed male/female crowd and is an especially fun place to begin the evening. New Union is a low-attitude bar that has a small hotel above it (see below) and can get fairly cruisy late in the evening, and Churchill’s is an old-fashioned-looking pub drawing a somewhat older, laid-back bunch.
Among the high-energy clubs, Cruz 101 has been going strong for several years now – it’s a couple of blocks toward City Centre from Canal Street and has the usual pulsing dance floor with fog-and-light shows. Trendy spots that pull in a young bunch hell-bent on dancing late into the night include AXM Bar, Manto, and Queer. Most of Canal Street’s gay hangouts draw a mix of women and men, but there’s also a primarily lesbian club, Vanilla, that’s very popular.
Manchester has a number of distinctive accommodations. The Radisson Blu Edwardian stands out for its first-class service and a building that’s part 19th-century elegant, part high-tech modern. Although it’s a member of the mid-range, rather ordinary U.S. chain of the same name, keep in mind that Radisson properties in Europe tends to be of a four- or five-star caliber, and the Edwardian is no exception. A few doors down, The Midland Hotel is a stunning 1903 building that, thanks to a massive renovation in recent years, offers all the comforts you’d expect of a modern luxury hotel. A third high-end option of note is the boutique-y Lowry Hotel, whose sleek glass exterior and stylish and minimalist rooms are a hit with design-minded guests.
More affordable options include the Townhouse Hotel, which occupies a grand old silk warehouse and sits just steps from the bars of the Gay Village. This five-story hotel has clean, moderately priced rooms. If you really want to be in the heart of the action, and you’re looking to save money, stay at the New Union Hotel, which sits right atop the New Union gay bar and has 12 modestly furnished but well-kept rooms with private baths. You’ll hear plenty of noise on the street on weekend evenings, but on the other hand, you couldn’t be closer to Canal Street’s heady bar action. And with the high cost of travel in Britain, staying at the New Union for around just $100 per night is a tremendous bargain, freeing you up to spend that extra money on the many great restaurants and bars in Manchester.