Who knew? Manchester, Britain's second city, claims it is home to the world's first free library and the UK's first repertory theater company, and gave birth to the world's first computer (1948), among other accolades. Forget about history, though, if you are visiting now: There is a lot to do, particularly in the evening, especially if you like theater or music. In my opinion, what Manchester is best for is as a platform for visiting the gorgeous peace of Britain's Northwest Country, highlighted by the Lake District, the Peak District and the countrysides of Cheshire and Lancashire.
For cultural diversion in the evenings, consider the splendid Halle Orchestra, whose performances take place in The Bridgewater Hall (tel. 011 44 161/907-9000; www.bridgewater-hall.co.uk) or the nation's largest theater-in-the-round, The Royal Exchange, a modern site located within the old Cotton Exchange, with 48 weeks of performances yearly. Royal Exchange, tel. 011 44 161/833-9833; www.royalexchange.co.uk. Look out for the next Manchester International Festival in the fall of 2009, after a successful first such event in 2007. They say they are "the worldÂ?s first festival to consist solely of work commissioned specially for the programme," and that includes mostly music, but "also works in all aspects of the arts." MIF, tel. 011 44 161/" target="_blank">238-7300; www.manchesterinternationalfestival.com.
Manchester doesn't lack for history, its original fort having been founded by Roman Governor Agricola in 79 AD. It wasn't until the 17th century, though, that the city became famous, first for its textile industries, then as arguably the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, with all the benefits and perils that transformation of the world brought with it.
Highlights in Town
At Manchester Art Gallery, there's a fine exhibit of treasures from the past 150 years in the city, running through January 27, 2008, with free admission. Works by Constable, Hogarth and Turner, among many others, are being shown. Closed Mondays. Manchester Art Gallery, tel. 011 44 161/235-8888, www.manchestergalleries.org.
Fittingly, the Museum of Science & Industry here presents a myriad of exhibits about the Industrial Revolution, in five old buildings, one of which is said to be the first railway station in the world (1830). More recent stuff, such as the history of flight and aerospace exhibits, bring the visitor up to date or nearly so. Free admission. MSIM, Liverpool Street, tel. 011 44 161/832-2244, www.msim.org.uk.
Political junkies and history mavens should note that the popular People's History Museum has closed most of its premises pending a new building in late 2009, but you can view some exhibits at the Museum of Science & Technology (see above) from January 2008 onwards. Started back in the 1960s, it has increased in size with the addition of the Labour Party and Communist Party archives. It tells the history of the Industrial Revolution from the labor union point of view.
Fans of Manchester United (or any soccer team) might enjoy a tour of their stadium for £10, and that includes a museum on the premises, too. The stadium seats 76,000, and tours are run when no games are being played. Manchester United, tel. 011 44 870/442-1994, www.manutd.com.
There are plenty of old steam-powered passenger trains around the world, but so far as I know there's only one on which you can drive the locomotive, if that's your heart's desire. A few miles outside Manchester in the town of Bury, you can catch a ride on the beautifully restored trains of the East Lancashire Steam Railway. The line, operated mostly by volunteers, runs through the Irwell Valley along the edge of the West Pennine Moors to the town of Rawtenstall, and is Harry Potterish-cute, especially the Thomas & Friends engines and open cars for the special kiddies' trains. Adults may like the Red Rose Diner, evening trips on Friday and Sunday lunch journeys with meals served aboard Pullman style carriages, April through December, from one to three trips monthly. Cost £36 ($74.59). To drive a steam or diesel locomotive, join them on a "Footplate Experience Day," several held throughout the year. There's a pub on Platform 2 at Bury, by the way. Operates weekends, holidays and some weekdays. Roundtrip tickets £6.20 to 11. East Lancashire Light Railway, Bolton Street Station, Bury, Lancs, tel. 011 44 161/764-7790, www.east-lancs-rly.co.uk.
If you choose to get off the train in Rawtenstall, you could visit the only original remaining Temperance bar in Britain, Fitzpatrick's. They've been making soft drinks for the public since 1890, and yes, they have Sarsaparilla! Closed Sunday, free admission. Fitzpatrick's, 5 Bank Street, Rawtenstall, Rossendale, Lancs, tel. 011 44 1706/231-836, www.fitzpatricks1890.co.uk.
About an hour's drive from Manchester is Turton Tower, a fine old Tudor House in pretty gardens. Earlier parts of the buildings date back to c. 1420. Look for the ornate 1593 Courtenay Bed and the recreated dining room. Costumed attendants show you through and answer questions, and you can take morning or afternoon tea here, or make it a light lunch. Open March-October. Admission £4 ($8.29). Turton Tower, Chapeltown Road, Turton, Bolton, tel. 011 44 1204/852-203, www.lancsmuseums.gov.uk.
Locals call the evening meal "tea" and the midday repast "dinner," so don't get confused too easily. They are said to love bread rolls filled with French fries, bacon or sausage, and call the rolls "barms." But you can't go wrong having Lancashire or Cheshire cheese with after-dinner wine, and consider trying at least once the Lancashire Hot Pot casserole of lamb and potatoes or a quick look at black pudding (pig blood and fat). That said, there are plenty of Italian, Chinese and other ethnic eateries, which I aim for in towns like this. You can also check out The Curry Mile, a stretch of Indian restaurants along Winslow Road just outside the city center, with some of the best South Asian cuisine in Britain, fans say. And then, there's pub grub, frequently good and always filling.
The best meal I had in Manchester was at Little Yang Sing, one of the Chinese community's best eating places, with set dinners at £18.95. I enjoyed sliced duck (£9.50) and Peking spare ribs (£7.50), among other delights. Little Yang Sing, 17 George Street, tel. 011 44 161/228-7722, www.littleyangsing.co.uk.
Stock takes its name from the old Stock Exchange, which once occupied these quarters. Now the Italian menu offers plenty of handmade pastas and breads, traditional and innovative variations on meats and fish dishes, and a fine Parmesan risotto at £8.50 to 11. Stock, 4 Norfolk Street, tel. 011 44 161/839-6644, www.stockrestaurant.co.uk.
Choice is set in an old warehouse along the city's River Medlock, and is a bit hard to find. Their cuisine is nouvelle British, and they have won several awards for such dishes as smoked haddock (£16.95) and varieties of scallop offerings. The black pudding fritters (£5.75) looked intriguing, but I passed. Choice, Castle Quay, tel. 011 44 161/833-3400, www.choicebarandrestaurant.co.uk.
A friend reported his meal at the River Restaurant in the Lowry Hotel was "one of three best I've had in many years of traveling abroad". Nouvelle European. 50 Dearmans Place, Salford, tel. 011 44 161/827-4041, www.thelowryhotel.com.
Getting to Manchester
Always a good way of reaching England is by flying British Airways (www.ba.com), which has dozens of flights daily from North American gateways to London and a direct New York-Manchester flight as well.
If you start from London, as do many visitors, the easiest way to reach Manchester is by rail, and the most convenient way to use that is with a BritRail pass. I enjoyed my ride between the two cities, and suggest a first class pass is worth it if only for their Quiet Zone on certain trains, where customers are asked to refrain from using cell phones and the like. On longer trips, such as London-Manchester, light meals, including breakfast, are served at your seat in first class on Virgin trains. BritRail passes, in a wide variety of offers, start from $232 for four days. BritRail, tel. 866/BRITRAIL, www.britrail.com.
All things Manchester and British, for that matter, can be found on the British Tourist Authority's www.visitbritain.com.
Talk with other Frommers.com travelers on our Great Britain Message Boards.