This Northern English City Has Been Nurturing Its Arts Scene for Years—and It’s Paying Off

Manchester has a long history of pushing boundaries, and its ingenuity is on the rise once again with new arts venues and creative programming.

A pedestrian-only street in Manchester, with people sitting at outdoor café tables

Manchester is a city of firsts: the first women’s vote in the UK, the world’s first professional soccer league, the first Rolls Royce, the first passenger railway, and it’s also where Oasis (and countless other bands) played their first gig.

Photo by Wambam Photography

Let’s start by saying that you know more about Manchester than you think you do—that the northern England city of red-brick Victorian buildings, old universities, and public squares already lives in your pop-culture subconscious, the backdrop for era-defining events that outshone the city itself.

This is where a heckler famously shouted “Judas” as Bob Dylan played the electric guitar, where punk band the Sex Pistols shook the walls outside of London for the first time, where mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turing set the wheels in motion for AI and lived his final days, and where Factory Records and the Haçienda nightclub ignited the 1980s “Madchester” era with all-night dance parties led by hometown bands New Order and the Stone Roses.

Today it’s perhaps the city’s overcast and rainy days, or the lingering industrial-revolution image from when it was the cotton-manufacturing capital of the world, or the rowdiness of its rival football teams (City and United) that have made its creative heartbeat harder to hear. But Manchester has been slowly, steadily turning up the volume of its cultural pulse, and it’s starting to come through loud and clear.

“I think this is the moment when the wider culture and arts scene is finally coming into the prominence that it deserves,” says John McGrath, artistic director and chief executive of Factory International, which has been running the acclaimed biennial Manchester International Festival since 2007. “A big part of that is to do with the Manchester City Council. They had a vision over the last 15, even 20 years that culture should be at the heart of the city’s future.”

Left: people dancing in avant garde show at Factory International’s Free Your Mind event. Right: a busy street near Sinclair's Oyster Bar.

From left: Modern cultural events such as Factory International’s Free Your Mind are vaulting the city forward; historic spots like the brown-and-white Sinclair’s Oyster Bar and the regal Corn Exchange have welcomed visitors for centuries.

Photo by Tristram Kenton (left); Wambam Photography (right)

One of the most visible successes of that effort is Factory International’s new Aviva Studios, a striking white building that allows the organization to commission and host innovative programming beyond the 18-day time frame of the festival, which returns in 2025. The space officially launched in fall 2023 with a wild burst of imagination called Free Your Mind, a cinematic dance event based on The Matrix dreamed up by director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), choreographer Kenrick Sandy and composer Michael Asante (cofounders of the Olivier Award–winning hip-hop dance theater company Boy Blue), and a team of other artists. The mash-ups will continue in 2024 with ARK, a multimedia experience from Laurie Anderson, and City of Floating Sounds, composer Huang Ruo’s interactive symphony project that guides audiences around Manchester and culminates in a concert back at Aviva Studios.

Manchester is also about to become the home of the largest live entertainment arena in the United Kingdom: the 23,500-capacity Co-Op Live, backed by pop star Harry Styles, among others. Opening in April 2024 with a lineup that includes Take That, the Jonas Brothers, and Eric Clapton, it was carefully designed to make music sound good. And to do good too: The building uses solar panels and rainwater, and proceeds will contribute more than a million dollars to charity annually through the Co-Op Foundation.

Innovation isn’t limited to new venues, either. The 135-year-old Manchester Museum reopened in February 2023 after an $18.4 million renovation with a mission to reevaluate Britain’s colonial past and build relationships with communities locally and around the world. Its new permanent South Asia Gallery—curated by a group of educators, artists, students, community leaders, and others from the South Asian diaspora—is a colorful, invigorating, and hopeful example.

It’s one of the many ways that Manchester, a city with origins dating back to Roman times, is proving that it has no problem keeping up with the modern moment—and pushing itself into the future.

Tips for planning your trip

For the full list of our favorite destinations this year, read 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.
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