325km (202 miles) NW of London; 138km (86 miles) N of Birmingham; 56km (35 miles) E of Liverpool

One of the largest cities in England, Manchester is becoming increasingly important, as major airlines now fly here from North America, making the city a gateway to northern England. In recent years, Manchester has made great strides to shake its image as an industrial wasteland. Though chimneys still spike the skyline, they no longer make the metropolitan sky an ash-filled canopy. Abandoned warehouses are being renovated to provide sleek new loft apartments. Rustic factory equipment turns up in museums rather than piling up in salvage yards. Even the old Victorian architecture has been given a face-lift. The overall effect is a gritty kind of charm.

Manchester's roots date from A.D. 79, when the Romans settled here. It remained under Roman occupation until A.D. 410 when the empire began its fall. The city's west gate has since been reconstructed upon its original site, and reminders from the city's storied role as a leader during the Industrial Revolution are literally everywhere.

But then in the mid-17th century, the city began to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the burgeoning textile industry offered. Manchester eventually became the Dickensian paradigm of the gritty industrial city. The railways were equally responsible for catapulting the city to the forefront of the industrial movement. England found Manchester both a convenient terminus and a refinement center through which raw goods became viable exports. It is apt indeed that the Museum of Science and Industry resides here.

Many of the factory laborers were immigrants who flocked to the city for the promise of work. The atrocity of their conditions is well documented. But these immigrants had a profound effect on the city's culture. Today, Manchester's nearly 20,000 descendants of Chinese immigrants constitute England's highest Chinese population outside London. The Chinese residents have amalgamated their surroundings to fit their heritage. Falkner Street, particularly the monumental Imperial Chinese Archway, is brought to life by the murals, gardens, and vibrant decor that pay homage to the once-displaced working force.

The most recent stars of Manchester have been members of the Manchester United Football (that is, soccer) team, one of the most visible and successful in the world, with ardent legions of fans, and the rock group Oasis. They're best known in America for their album (What's the Story) Morning Glory. These rock stars haven't exactly done for Manchester what the Beatles did to put Liverpool on the map, but they certainly have made an impression. Of course, these self-styled "hard-drinking, groupie-shagging, drug-snorting geezers" make the Beatles seem like choirboys. As Manchester is increasingly cited for its hipness, Oasis, whose Definitely Maybe was the fastest-selling debut album in British history, helped make it so.

The once-dreary Manchester Docklands, evoking a painting by local son L. S. Lowry, has a spiffy new life following a £200-million restoration. It's called simply "the Lowry," and the complex is filled with theaters, shops, galleries, and restaurants. A plaza provides space for up to 10,000 at outdoor performances.