The Essential English City to Visit—and the Best Things to Do There

Manchester has always been radical, so it’s no surprise that the northern English city is pushing the country’s arts and culture scenes into new territory as well.

Exterior of historic, multistory Midland Hotel in Manchester

Photo by Billie Cohen

Manchester, England, is gorgeous. It’s a fairy-tale city of spires, red-brick Victorian buildings, squares lined with restaurants and pubs, and old universities accented with pops of modern architecture. A canal runs through most of it, with restored tow-paths alongside. Despite this, the northern England city is mostly associated with a limited range of things: rain, its Manchester United and Manchester City football teams, its industrial economy, Oasis, and rain. And if that’s all you know, you’re missing out. For decades, the university city (it has five!) has been deliberately, intentionally, slowly expanding and elevating its cultural cred—and making a huge effort to support arts and culture. Now, that work is coming to fruition, and there’s never been a better time to visit. That’s one of the main reasons we chose it as one of AFAR’s picks for Where to Go in 2024. Here are eight more reasons to venture north on the train from London.


Manchester has long been a rich, edgy, history-making music city. In the 1960s, Bob Dylan busted out his electric guitar here; in the 1970s, the Sex Pistols played their first gig outside of London; in the 1980s, the city’s Factory Records label and Haçienda nightclub sparked a massive musical vibe shift as hometown bands New Order, the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, and the Smiths played all-night dance parties and created the “Madchester” era. And in the ’90s, Oasis and the Britpop wave pulled the music world’s attention back to Manchester once again.

Today, the city’s music scene is still rich and thriving. (Even though the Haçienda is now an apartment building, if you walk around the back of the building, you’ll see an art installation: a metalwork timeline of its biggest moments.) Small bands still rock small venues all over the place, and there’s a bigger, more expansive music push, too. The United Kingdom’s largest indoor concert venue, Co-op Live, is set to open in Manchester in 2024. Backed in part by Harry Styles, the arena will fit more than 23,000 people and is being acoustically constructed for music performances specifically (though it’ll also host other types of events). Highlights of the 2024 lineup already include Eric Clapton, Olivia Rodrigo, Britpop darlings James, Jonas Brothers, and Styles’s old bandmate Niall Horan.

“From the minute you walk through the door it will feel different than other spaces,” says Ben Tipple, the head of digital and communications for Co-Op Live. “We have deliberately counteracted the long corridors, the empty spaces, the bad seats. What makes it special is that it’s purpose built for music . . . to provide the backdrop and opportunity for the artist to sound their best.”

Exterior of the white geometric building of Aviva Studios at Factory International beside canal, with a Manchester skyline of modern and old buildings in background

Inside the geometric Aviva Studios at Factory International, multiple theater spaces are moveable and configurable for various events.

Photo by Marco Cappelletti, courtesy of OMA and Factory International

Performing arts and theater

Since 2007, the arts organization Factory International (named in honor of the record label of decades past) has been hosting the Manchester International Festival, a biennial, 18-day festival of new works known for pulling artists and ideas from seemingly different worlds into unexpected collaborations, as well as for performances and events that defy easy genre labels. (e.g., Massive Attack once teamed up with documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis). The next festival will be in 2025 and is definitely worth planning a trip around; the big news is that you don’t have to wait that long anymore. At the end of 2023, the organization unveiled a permanent home, not only for the biannual event but also for year-round programming: Aviva Studios at Factory International. In 2024, its usual mix of unusual commissions continues with City of Floating Sounds, composer Huang Ruo’s interactive symphony project (June) and a new multimedia work by Laurie Anderson called ARK.

To find out more about Manchester’s cultural calendar, follow Secret Manchester and Visit Manchester.

 About 10 wood-and-thread medallions by fiber artist Jane Blease, with different colors of thread

The Manchester Craft and Design Centre is a collection of studios and shops by ceramists, printmakers, silversmiths, glass artists, and fiber artists, such as Jane Blease whose wood-and-thread medallions are pictured.

Photo by Billie Cohen


From indie boutiques to great record stores to vintage to high-street staples, Manchester has it all. Some of my favorites: Vintage clothes, posters, and even old-style ice cream fill the floors of the former department store Afflecks; and modern makers line the late-1800s fishmonger stalls of the Manchester Craft and Design Center. Keep room in your luggage for a visit to Piccadilly Records, which has been independent since it opened in 1978 (and continues to earn a spot on “best” lists). And between shopping trips, sample the indie food scene via a few food halls, such as Mackie Mayor, a collection of nine varied cuisines in the grand—and fully intact—1858 Smithfield market building.

Museums and galleries

In 2023, the 135-year-old Manchester Museum, part of Manchester University, reopened following a $18.4 million “hello future” renovation project with a mission to reevaluate Britain’s colonial past and its own role in displaying historical objects and artworks. The new permanent South Asia Gallery is a colorful, invigorating, and at times heart-wrenching example: Cocurated with a group of South Asian community leaders, artists, historians, musicians, scientists, and students, it talks as openly and honestly about partition and South Asian residents’ experiences in Manchester as it does about the joy of Bollywood soundtracks. An exhibit of Egyptian mummies (through April 2024) overtly discusses eugenics and grave robbing, along with the usual, fascinating dose of ancient history. Oh, and the whole museum is free.

The edgy People’s History Museum uses art to talk about democracy, rebellion, and inclusion—a good fit for Manchester. After all, the city has a history of radicalism: this is where Emmeline Pankhurst launched the British Suffragette movement, where mill workers voted to stop using cotton picked by U.S. slaves (prompting a thank-you letter from Abraham Lincoln). The Manchester Jewish Museum just got an expansion, including a renovation of the adjacent Spanish and Portuguese synagogue; browse the exhibits, listen to oral histories of Jewish Mancunians past and present, and talk to the Jewish residents who are docents here—they were wonderful and happy to share. In terms of art, you’ve got the gorgeous Whitworth Art Gallery (on the Manchester University campus) and the Manchester Art Gallery (in a beautiful 200-year-old building). If you’re not into art, there’s always the National Football Museum (pubs on a game day are also something of a cultural experience, especially when Manchester United or Manchester City is playing).

A study room in Chetham's Library with a big wooden table, red chairs, and stained-glass alcoves along the wall where visitors could read. The center one is where Marx and Engels worked on their Communist Manifesto.

Chetham’s Library is the oldest surviving public library in the English-speaking world. It’s also where Marx and Engels worked on their Communist Manifesto—in the center alcove in this room.

Photo by Billie Cohen


I look for libraries whenever I travel. In my humble opinion, a public library says a lot about a city, its people, its past, and its present. (Plus, they usually have cool architecture and free Wi-Fi.) Now I recognize that not everyone is as into libraries as I am, but, trust me, Manchester has several that even non-nerds will find intriguing. For starters, the oldest surviving public library in the English-speaking world is here: It’s called Chetham’s, it was founded in 1653, it’s located in a former monastery that dates back to 1421, and it’s open for tours.

The neo-Gothic John Rylands Library looks like something out of Harry Potter (and it was founded by a woman in 1900—how boss is that?); stop by for rotating exhibits and to wander through its cathedral-like rooms. The main Manchester Central Library—the city’s plain old regular circulating library—is a site to see, too. It opened in 1930 and was modeled after the Pantheon. It’s not stuck in the past though: Music, art, and literature events are scheduled regularly (the 2024 calendar is not online yet); I passed a foosball table on one floor and a sign for a vinyl listening club on another.

Manchester's Gay Village neighborhood, with restaurants along a street behind a canal. Trees are planted in pride-striped planter boxes, and a purple restaurant has "GAY" spelled out in big letters.

Affectionately known as Gay Village, Manchester’s LGBTQ neighborhood is centered around Canal Street.

Photo by Billie Cohen

LGBTQ+ pride

Manchester’s LGBTQ neighborhood along Canal Street, affectionately dubbed Gay Village, is home to one of the oldest openly gay venues in the city: New Union dates to the 1860s and is now a bar and hotel. Canal Street is also lined with festive-feeling restaurants and bars and wallpapered with posters for drag brunches and shows. In August, the neighborhood is the epicenter for Manchester Pride, and in July it hosts Sparkle, the national transgender celebration.

Check out the Visit Manchester website for a downloadable LGBTQ self-guided tour, which includes a stop at the Alan Turing memorial. The genius who invented the computer moved here after his code-breaking success in World War II to work at the University of Manchester (the alma mater of Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Turing in the 2014 movie The Imitation Game). Sadly, Manchester is also where Turing was arrested for being gay and sentenced to chemical castration. He was found dead of cyanide poisoning in his home in 1954, at the age of 41. The Queen pardoned him posthumously in 2013. If you’re in the city on any June 23, stop by his statue in Sackville Gardens; people place flowers there every year for his birthday.

A dark wooden, curved bar at Peveril of the Peak pub, with carved details and an overhang made of stained glass. A foosball table is on the right.

Peveril of the Peak is a small pub that’s been run by the same landlady for 50 years.

Photo by Billie Cohen


This is England, and this is an old university town, so of course there are many, many pubs. The total number varies depending on the source, but it seems to be somewhere around 650, which is way more than plenty. They range from cozy neighborhood establishments to modern see-and-be-seen perches, and include a bunch of quirky spots like one that’s more than 500 years old (the Old Wellington), one in a converted public bathroom (the Temple), and my favorite: the tiny, green-and-yellow-tiled Peveril of the Peak, a 19th-century relic with a curved wooden bar, stained-glass detailing, and chatty customers.

Metal statue of Abraham Lincoln in open plaza in Manchester

Abraham Lincoln sent the cotton mill workers of Manchester a thank-you letter in 1863, praising them for their vote to stop using cotton from slave plantations in the American South.

Photo by Billie Cohen

Historical surprises

In a city as old as Manchester, there’s technically “history” everywhere you look, but it’s the stories that make it all come alive. If you want a guided time-travel experience, I recommend Free Manchester Walking Tours. Our tour leader Megan rocked us through centuries of pop culture, history, and entertaining anecdotes, and even managed to get us all dancing and singing a few times. By the end of the afternoon, you’ll have the lay of the land and you’ll better understand the city and its significance. If you want to wander on your own, don’t miss these three spots that span the breadth of Manchester’s existence:

  • Mamucium fort: Romans basically founded Manchester in 79 C.E. when they built this fort. Today you can visit a re-creation of the fort on its original site, in a small park in the Castlefield neighborhood near the city center.
  • Abraham Lincoln statue: Manchester calls itself the first industrial city, because back in the 1800s, it manufactured 80 percent of all the world’s cotton goods and textiles. I’ll say that again: 80 percent. In fact, Manchester was so successful and influential that it was nicknamed Cottonopolis. When the U.S. Civil War broke out, Manchester and other manufacturing cities in Northern England had a choice to make: continue to use cotton grown on plantations that supported slavery, or cut off those ties and risk imploding their economy. Manchester chose the right side of history, standing by the Union army in the North, when a lot of other industrial U.K. cities sided with the South for economic purposes. In answer, then-president Abraham Lincoln wrote the city a letter of thanks—and that’s why there’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Manchester, England, today.
  • Red mailbox: In 1996, an IRA bombing destroyed a large swath of downtown. Amazingly, the authorities found the bomb early enough to evacuate the area, and no one died. But the explosion caused a lot of damage—so much that the destruction is actually credited with influencing the revival and renovation of the city center. A red post office box still stands on the spot of the explosion—the only thing unharmed. Look for it by the Marks & Spencer department store on Corporation Street.

Read more about Manchester, one of AFAR’s picks for Where to Go in 2024: This Northern English City Has Been Nurturing Its Arts Scene for Years—and It’s Paying Off.

Read the full list of Where to Go in 2024.

Billie Cohen is executive editor of Afar. She covers all areas of travel, and has soft spots for nerd travel, maps, intel, history, architecture, art, design, people, dessert, street art, and Oreo flavors around the world. Follow her @billietravels.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR