As far as Northern England goes, Manchester United and the Beatles are probably the strongest characterizations that many of us have for that large expanse above London. But there’s more than football and ‘60s music in Manchester and Liverpool, the homes of these pop culture legends. While both cities were powerful hubs in Britain’s industrial heyday, they’re each enjoying a cultural 21st century boost. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect in each:
A Brief History
Manchester was not only one of the U.K.’s biggest industrial cities, it was also one of the country’s first. It was a massive cotton manufacturer and then a huge commercial center and trading port, before becoming known for sports, music (where “Madchester” rock saw its glory), and science (home to the first inter-city passenger railroad station and where physicist Ernest Rutherford discovered the atomic nucleus). These days, the creative and digital industries are growing, too, and they’re a big contributor to how the city has reinvented itself since the industrial decline after WWII and the damage sustained by the Manchester Blitz.
Liverpool was the second most important port in Britain in the 18th century -- trading sugar, molasses, spices, and slaves. In fact, it was so significant as a port that its entire waterfront and surrounding areas were designated as a UNESECO World Heritage Site (as a Maritime Mercantile City) in 2004. Like Manchester, Liverpool also has an important music heritage -- most famously, for being the city where The Beatles were formed. The arts are very robust in general here, with a Tate Museum outpost, respected galleries, and a great symphony orchestra. There’s also a surprising but impressive street art scene, for those who prefer going indie.
If you’re looking for the young, creative neighborhood that’s elevating food and boutique businesses, the Northern Quarter is it. Here, you’ll find indie retail spaces like Affleck’s; craft beer bars like Beermoth; and contemporary cuisine like 63 Degrees. For more glitz, Spinningfields is the slum-turned-business district where you’ll find shiny new retail, more restaurants, and hot bars (The Alchemist and Oast House are two popular ones). Between the two neighborhoods sit plenty of prominent and historic buildings, including the Gothic city council building, alongside boutique hotels like King Street Townhouse.
Chances are good that historic Albert Dock will be one of the first areas most visitors encounter. It emerged as the city’s central business district only recently, with the massive Liverpool ONE mall as one of its most eye-catching structures. However, remnants of the city’s maritime heritage remain here, like the original gates to the Sailors Home from the 19th century. Want to discover an edgier and grittier Liverpool? Head over to the Ropewalks, where ropes for the many ships that docked in port were once manufactured. Here, you’ll find interesting street art, local bars, and restaurants rising up next to skeletons of the buildings bombed in WWII.
Arts & Historic Immersion
There are tons of historically important sites in Manchester beyond the rail station, including the old Free Trade Hall (now the Radisson Hotel) where the women's suffrage movement started in 1868. History buffs will love the narrative that Manchester Guided Tours provides -- but if you don’t love history, try IWM North. The museum explores how war affects people's lives by showcasing personal stories that bring the past to life. With interactive elements, surround-sound films, and creative graphic designs, history becomes much more accessible to everyone (and every age) here. Those who prefer to tackle history through the lens of music should sign up for the Manchester Music Tours, led by Inspiral Carpets drummer Craig Gill himself.
If art is more your beat, you can’t miss 2015’s Museum of the Year: The Whitworth Art Gallery at the University of Manchester, which seamlessly marries its late 19th century architecture with two contemporary wings, added during a recent $21 million development. Also in town are the Royal Exchange Theater, in the former home of Manchester’s cotton exchange, and the recently reopened Central Library, which houses a fantastic film archive that houses public screenings. Back at the Salford Quays, across the water from IWM North, The Lowry mixes classic and contemporary galleries with two performance art theaters.
Want to take a truly insider dive into the aforementioned “real” side of the city and discover fantastic street art? Seecret Tours of Liverpool starts with a historical overview around Albert Dock, but quickly moves into the Ropewalks and beyond, stopping by all the local haunts. Among others, you’ll learn about where to find illuminati symbols in the city; Blue Coat Chambers, once a charity school that now houses small art businesses; the city’s first dry (non-alcoholic) bar; speakeasies that require entry codes; and Maggie May’s, the best place to grab a local stew-like dish called scouse.
Besides the Tate Liverpool, the 130-year-old hilltop Walker Art Gallery -- with one of the country's largest art collections outside of London -- is arguably Northern England's most well-known. There’s also FACT, an art center that houses a number of galleries and a cinema. For more galleries, local shops, and restaurants, stroll Bold Street.
Of course, Beatles fans can’t miss the Magical Mystery Tour, which takes fans out to sites like Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, or catch a tribute band show at the Cavern Club, where the Beatles first rise to iconic popularity. You can even rest your head at the music-themed Hard Days Night Hotel, just around the corner from the Cavern Club, for a total musical immersion.