By Jill Gleeson
An Invigorating Mix of Old and New
It’s a sunny winter’s morning. Bright-eyed city residents hustle through the brisk air. Down well-tended sidewalks, past impressive structures – modern, glimmering, historic and glorious – they hurry, attractive and urbane and full of energy. It’s the weekend, so chances are they aren’t headed off to work, but to somewhere much more enlivening. A football match, maybe, or to browse the shelves of lavish shops. Perhaps they are on their way to expand their minds in a great museum or linger over tea in a grand hotel. Wherever they are going, it’s sure to be somewhere wonderful because that’s the promise of this beautiful, bustling metropolis on this perfect winter day. That’s the promise of Manchester, U.K.
The most unlikely of Europe’s great new destinations, Manchester – for years – has suffered from a reputation as a post-industrial wasteland, rife with grime and crime and not much more. Nowhere is that more true than in the U.S., where the city seems to be viewed as a sort of pre-renaissance Cleveland. But if word of its startling rebirth has been slow to spread stateside, the secret is out in the rest of the world. Manchester is now the U.K.’s third-most-visited city – ahead of Glasgow and Liverpool – with a 15 percent growth in international tourists from 2010 to 2012. To keep up with the burgeoning demand, Manchester Airport is offering more direct flights than ever before – including service to and from Philadelphia and, since 2012, Dulles International.
Once travelers arrive in Manchester, they discover an invigorating mix of old and new. This is a city that, having remade itself, never forgets to pay homage to its roots. Its passion for reinvention has left its most stately architecture untouched. Indispensable historical tours hit on the highlights, such as Manchester Town Hall.
Built in 1877 during the city’s heyday as a global center for the cotton trade, it remains one of the most important Victorian buildings in England.
The John Rylands Library, which opened to the public in 1900, is another neo-Gothic stunner. It houses a collection of more than one million manuscripts and archival items and 250,000 printed volumes, including a Gutenberg Bible and a first edition copy of Ulysses by James Joyce. And the palatial Midland Hotel, where the Beatles were so famously refused access to the dining room for being inappropriately attired, still greets guests with the same opulence and grace it did when it debuted in 1903.
Much of Manchester’s unique flavor comes from the way these historical beauties exist side by side with sophisticated contemporary structures in a head-turning paradox that shouldn’t work but somehow does. The city center’s newest round of redevelopment occurred after 1996, when the Irish Republican Army detonated a massive bomb in the heart of the commercial district. Although no lives were lost, it caused what was estimated at the time to be 700 million pounds in damages.
The investment money that subsequently poured into the local economy sparked a large-scale revitalization effort. Damaged and destroyed buildings – many ugly and unloved remnants from a poorly conceived improvement scheme in the 1960s – were replaced with shining new shopping and entertainment centers. Today, the city boasts everything from posh emporiums hawking wares from designers like Vivienne Westwood, Emporio Armani, Chanel and Hermès, to the 200-plus more down-to-earth stores in the Arndale Centre. Shoppers can rest assured that if their heart desires it, it can be found in Manchester.
But Greater Manchester’s most jaw-dropping transformation has been realized at the Salford Quays, which has emerged, butterfly-like, from the ruins of the defunct Port of Manchester. Located outside of the city center, it’s just 15 minutes by tram. (Manchester’s speedy, easy-to-navigate rail system and free buses put London public transit to shame.) The makeover of the old docks began in earnest in the mid-1980s, after the Salford City Council acquired 220 acres from the Manchester Ship Canal Company with the aid of a derelict land grant. Less than 30 years later, it is home to a vibrant, vital waterside community that is the envy of Europe.
Graced by visionary architecture, Salford Quays is a marvel by day. At night, when the pastel lighting, which gently daubs its gleaming structures, reflects off the surrounding water, it is one of the wonders of the modern world. Among the area’s most stellar attractions are the BBC’s proud new digs, MediaCityUK, which offers tours and the opportunity to be an audience member during show tapings. There’s also the Imperial War Museum North, a powerful exploration of the way war shapes human lives. The museum boasts a jutting, sharp-edged edifice designed by legendary architect Daniel Libeskind to represent a globe shattered by conflict.
Nearby, the sleek Salford Quays Millennium footbridge leads across the canal to the Lowry, an art and entertainment venue featuring two main theaters and a studio space, which present high-quality plays as well as opera, dance, comedy and musical performances. Cafés, bars and a fine restaurant are also contained in the complex, which was named for noted British painter L. S. Lowry. The largest public collection of his work, as well as that of other exemplary artists, is shown in changing exhibitions in the building’s 22,000 square feet of gallery space.
No discussion of Manchester would be complete without a mention of its Premiere League football clubs, Manchester United and Manchester City. The story of Manchester United, which begins a century ago and includes not only incredible adversity (the team lost eight players and several staff members to a horrific 1958 plane crash in Munich), but also David Beckham, is particularly rousing. Even if the Red Devils aren’t battling it out on their home pitch, visitors can still bask in the glory of what, with an estimated 659 million fans, is the most popular football team on the planet.
A variety of guided tours of Old Trafford, Manchester United’s stadium, can be booked through the team’s website. Most include a look inside the echoing, nearly 76,000-capacity stadium; a stroll into the locker room, where players’ jerseys hang outside their lockers; and entry into the fascinating on-site museum. Water lovers can book the Leisure Cruise option, which includes the chance to take a canal barge from the city center to Salford Quays before visiting Old Trafford.
Die hard Red Devils’ should investigate the Legends Tour. Lasting all morning, it also features lunch with one of United’s greats.
There is so much more to experience in Manchester, from the bohemian splendor of the Northern Quarter, which recalls the halcyon days of 1960s-era Greenwich Village, to the family-friendly Museum of Science & Industry, where exhibits tell the tale of how this formerly tiny, eternally hard-working city became the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. That Manchester has not only found a way to survive, but also thrive after that revolution gradually collapsed, is a testament to the enduring gumption, grit, ingenuity and insight of its leaders and citizens.