City break in a city that breaks the mould

They say what Manchester does today, London does tomorrow. Anthea Gerrie found out for herself

July 1, 2010
Piccadilly Gardens , the central plaza and transport hub in the heart of Manchester’s city centre

Piccadilly Gardens , the central plaza and transport hub in the heart of Manchester’s city centre

Barely a decade ago, the idea of a city break in Manchester would have seemed laughable to southerners. Warm and friendly people? Certainly, as those who have visited friends and family in the city of the Red Devils and Sky Blues will testify. A great dining, shopping and clubbing destination? Also true, but only to those in the know.

It has taken a huge investment in culture and infrastructure over the past 10 years to make Manchester (or, rightly speaking, Manchester and Salford, the adjacent city which has at least half the good stuff) the prime tourist destination it is today.

Alight at Piccadilly Station and free shuttle buses await to whisk you to the highlights.

Below, sleek trams take visitors further afield, to Old Trafford and the wonders of Salford, which include the futuristic Lowry Centre and Daniel Liebeskind's Imperial War Museum North. But actually, you can walk to virtually all of Manchester's cultural highlights, thanks to a compact city centre which has been beautifully cleaned up and partly pedestrianised.

July is a great month to visit - for music and photography fans in particular. And one of the biggest events harks back to old Manchester - 1940, in fact, when a young Jewish refugee arrived in the city and learnt how to use a camera at the city's College of Technology.

Seventy years later, Dorothy Bohm is still photographing the city she called home for so many years, and the Manchester Art Gallery is staging her first major retrospective. Those who can get there on July 10 are in for a rare treat - an audience with the artist, now 85, and still in love with the world she sees through her lens, in conversation with her daughter.

As the show, which features marvellous portraits and quirkily observed landscapes from Venice, Provence and Israel and much of the world runs till August 30, music fans may prefer to visit later in July.

That's the date of the 15th annual Manchester Jazz Festival, which runs across the last nine days of the month. Expect regional and national as well as international stars and a young, eclectic vibe.

As well as intimate spaces like the Green Room and Manchester's own jazz club, Matt & Phred's, venues will include the Northern College of Music, the startlingly contemporary landmark on the long, increasingly vibrant stretch of Oxford Road which houses three of the city's university campuses.

It will not, however, include the Lowry Centre music spaces. This is mostly, I suspect, because they are in Salford, the vibrant and expensively redeveloped part of the city that Manchester crazily refuses to acknowledge. But there will be other musical treats there: Rickie Lee Jones appears on July 8; Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs July 5 to 10 and there are more eclectic music and dance events on other dates before Les Mis arrives in August.

A tram to Harbour City to view the amazing building - this year celebrating its 10th anniversary - is de rigueur, particularly for art lovers, who will find a comprehensive retrospective of Salford's most famous native artist, L S Lowry, and his much-loved stick people, as well as changing contemporary exhibitions.

From now until September there is a fabulous show of Spencer Tunick, the American photographer who persuades local citizens to strip off for iconic photos, and his work in the parks and beneath the industrial bridges of Manchester and Salford are superb. It would be remiss to leave this fascinating area - all bridges, water and innovative hi-rise architecture that provide real pleasure to meander through on the tram - without visiting the Imperial War Museum North.

Arguably the stuff on the outside is as good as the excellent exhibits inside - not just Liebeskind's typically disorientating architecture, but highly unexpected photographs of wartime Tyneside by Cecil Beaton, displayed in huge five-metre frames on the quayside outside the museum.

Salford - whch will quite likely overtake Manchester as a media hub when the BBC arrives en masse - has made one more great contribution to the Greater Manchester connurbation in a five-star hotel which set new standards of contemporary stylshness in the city.

The Lowry (not to be confused with the Lowry Centre) is served by the free shuttle bus, and is close to Deansgate, the main upmarket shopping thoroughfare. Those who don't stay, but have a fine palate and deep pockets, will enjoy dining at the RiverBar and Restaurant, with wonderful waterside views and simply superb cooking; imagine the best Dover sole you have ever eaten, a perfect main after smoked salmon and anchovy butter terrine. Food is also the raison d'etre of Manchester's newest design hotel, the more affordable ABode, just a minute's walk from Piccadilly Station. Here, the Michelin-starred Michael Caines has turned the former basement nightclub into a stylish restaurant, also with pretty faultless food. The frothy pea soup with white truffle was a revelation, and fish lovers will enjoy the current choice of slow-poached brill, roast halibut and cod cheeks with tarragon foam.

Opposite ABode sits the Malmaison - one of the nicest of the chain - and there are plenty of other stylish hotel choices in town, including the new Hilton and Radisson skyscrapers as well as the august Midland.

This last is one of the few Victorian buildings not to have been given a fabulous spring-clean, like the once-grimy Town Hall, now a gleaming golden fixture on Albert Square. Indeed, one of the glories of Manchester is its architecture - beautiful old industrial buildings side by side with thrusting new structures of steel and glass. The Radisson, for example, sits on the site of an old goods depot, currently being redeveloped as a leisure and shopping complex, and the whole site has been enriched with a fountain-lined piazza, one of many which now dot the city.

Shoppers should not miss New Cathedral Street, which has risen from the ashes of the bombed-out Arndale Centre to create a new pedestrianised street for fashionistas; here are Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Reiss, Zara and a gleaming branch of Harvey Nichols; opposite is the Triangle Centre, with smaller, less pricey shops, and between the two sits one of Manchester's oldest Mediaeval buildings. This Millennium Quarter, as it's now known, showcases the planners' talent in raising the town where cotton was once king from the doldrums with ambitious and engaging projects.

A word must be saved for a pair of unprepossessing, pretty well unredeveloped areas which nevertheless house the city's most eclectic art centres, cafés and clubs. One is the student quarter stretching down Oxford Street from St Peter's Square.

Take a bus from the square to the the Cornerhouse, a visual arts centre, or to the Whitworth Gallery, another excellent free exhibition space showcasing art and design where, currently, you can see a show of artists' wallpapers and have a coffee or a quick lunch in its pleasant café.

To reach the second - the Northern Quarter - go to the huge central piazza and transport hub known as Piccadilly Gardens, and walk down Oldham Street at the side of Debenhams. Then allow yourself to get lost in the many entrancingly distressed side roads - Church Street, High Street, Tib Street, Turner Street and more - which are punctuated with quirky boutiques and places to graze. Of these, my favourite is Oklahoma, an organic café with an enticing little homewares shop.

Follow lunch there with a browse round the vintage jewellery at Rags to Bitches; the elegant hand-made bags at A Few Fine Things; and the designerware below street level at Renegade Marmalade. Later, a pretty perfect pm would be drinks and supper at the Market Café near the old fish market. And while you browse the shops, send your man to Blue Vinyl or the Vans shop, one of only five of this cult American shoe emporia in the UK. And proof, if anyone needed it, that Manchester has truly arrived on the design scene.

Getting there

Virgin Trains (08719 774 222; serve Manchester from London from £22 return. Double rooms at the Lowry (0161 827 4000; from £160; doubles at ABode (0161 247 7744; from £99 per night with breakfast and dinner in the hotel restaurant (minimum two nights), or overnight with breakfast and dinner at Michael Caines with Champagne and other extras, £198 for two, sharing

Last updated: 2:11pm, July 19 2010