Manchester isn’t probably one of those cities most people plan a holiday to. When I told my friends I was going away for a long weekend in the northern English city of Manchester, I got more than a few puzzled looks—especially from my British friends. But, to be honest, for me, travel has become less about the destination and more about the attitude, the character of a place.
And having visited London countless times, plus studying marketing briefly in London at Imperial College, I realized I’ve spent months of my life in the UK but never really left London. Except for a two-day trip once to Brighton, and a quick holiday in Scotland, there was an entire part of England that I was missing out on. Looking at a map, Manchester looked like a logical place to visit next.
But there was another reason why I put Manchester on my “must visit” list for 2015. After years of watching Queer as Folk and hearing stories about the UK’s best gay pride taking place every summer in Manchester, I knew this was a city I wanted to experience for myself. For a solo trip, it was surprisingly easy to navigate.
Getting into the city was easy, cheap and quick. And with city-wide, free wifi, Google Maps worked like a charm to get me to my hotel—the central and always reliable hotel brand, Novotel. Meeting people in the city was also surprisingly easy. As one of England’s most gay-friendly cities, the guys on Grindr were happy to offer up tourist tips—something that’s not usually so easy in other cities where the Grindr guys are often all “no tourists” and certainly no fun. Manchester surprised me with its friendliness.
With just a weekend to explore Manchester, I focused my efforts on two parts of town: the Northern Quarter, Manchester’s hipster neighborhood, and Canal Street, Manchester’s gay village. Canal Street, immortalized by the Queer as Folk tv series from the early oughts, was pretty much what I expected: clubs, promoters, sexy gay guys and more than a few hen parties. Wandering the city, I spent my first day exploring both the Northern Quarter and the gay village. And while the gay village was plenty of fun, it was pretty quickly apparent that the Northern Quarter was cool enough (and gay enough!) for me.
Manchester’s Northern Quarter wasn’t always the hip area it’s been made out to be today. University students and local trendsetters have pretty much co-opted the one-time industrial part of town and turned it into one Europe’s most hipster neighborhoods. Located in the northern part of the city, the NQ is full of coffee shops and trendy stores, all set alongside street art and grungy, industrial buildings that host underground parties.
The Northern Quarter is one of those places that’s easy to explore and wander on your own. It was tough to wander without making my way into shop after shop. With the help of a local start-up guy (and new friend!), Martin, I had a helpful guide to Manchester’s best coffee shops and co-working spaces. But, like any other hipster neighborhood in Europe, it’s not just about the coffee. It’s also the shoe stores and the lifestyle shops and trendy eateries.
Top 10 Places to Visit in Manchester’s Northern Quarter
For a taste of one of Europe’s most hipster neighborhoods, start at one of these cafés, shops and restaurants. Even though I went to Manchester to discover what’s supposed to be England’s gayest neighborhood, instead I found one of Europe’s coolest hidden hotspots!
Without even knowing it, I somehow stumbled into Afflecks—an indoor flea market with everything from tattoo & piercing parlors to makeup artists and local fashion designers. The building also serves as a hate crime reporting center, with a local photographer documenting some victims in beautiful portraits on display in Afflecks.
It’s a cosy café and working space with a unique premise: you pay per minute that you spend there, but all the tea, coffee & cake inside is included! With board games and a laid-back, casual environment, it’s a cool place to check out for a coffee — and at just 6 pence per minute, it’s a great deal. They have similar co-working spaces in other European cities.
Another NQ bar that was recommended to me by multiple people, I stumbled in here late one night to catch a live music act and try some local beers. The bar & club also host special parties and local live music. There’s a basement, too, which apparently can be a lot of fun.
Home Sweet Home
This restaurant came recommended to me by a handful of Manchester locals, so I visited for lunch one afternoon—it was crowded but well worth the hassle of finding a table. With home-style cooking and more than a few American food specialities (milkshakes!), it was one of the best meals I had in Manchester.
One of my new favorite type of stores is the ambiguously labeled “lifestyle shop.” These are stores that usually sell fashion alongside beauty products, as well as books, home goods and just about anything else. In Manchester, clearly the coolest lifestyle shop is Oi Polloi—a men’s fashion store with a large selection of international fashion brands, from sneakers to t-shirts, socks to sweats.
Picadilly Gardens is a park in the city center and marks the beginning of Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Since 2013, there’s been a ferris wheel in the park but the area has also been the site of a lot of local controversy. Not everyone is a fan of the park, but on a sunny Friday afternoon when I visited, there was a mix of live musicians busking (an electro DJ rapping across from a guy playing acoustic guitar—bizarre) and a lot of people picnicking.
Though it’s a small chain bookstore, Magma has a cool collection of carefully curated books and magazines. But what first drew me into the shop was the large selection of hipster tote bags!
Foundation Coffee House
One of Manchester’s newest coffee shops, Foundation’s sleek design might look stale from the outside, but the friendly staff and the comfortable interior make it a great place to hang out. In addition to serving top-quality coffee, they’ve also got fast, free wifi and a collection of healthy, green juices.
A minimalist cafe with big wooden tables, Takk looked a lot like the cafés I hang out at home. It’s a popular hangout for Manchester’s many freelancers and creatives thanks to reliable, free wifi and a roasted coffee selection carefully selected from international producers (including from The Barn in Berlin).
North Tea Power
This small coffee and tea shop has an outdoor patio open in warmer, drier weather, but the inside looks like the perfect type of winter hang-out I’d expect to find in a northern English city like Manchester. They have a nice variety of loose-leaf teas to choose from and fresh flowers on the tables, so if there was anywhere in Manchester that really felt oh-so-English, it was here!