The last 20 years have seen Manchester shed its post-industrial past and transform itself into a cool and contemporary modern city. Amongst the grand red-brick architecture, the town is studded with independent boutiques, excellent restaurants, atmospheric bars and great pubs.
Culturally the city also has plenty to boast about: from the grand Victoriana of the Manchester Museum (University of Manchester, 0161 275 2634) to the contemporary visual arts exhibitions and independent film screenings on offer at the (70 Oxford Street, 0161 200 1500) Manchester’s far-reaching artistic scene puts most other British cities in the shade.
If you want to dive straight into said industrial past, take a trip along the canal. A good starting point is the Castlefield basin. Here ancient Roman ruins are criss-crossed by canals and iron railway bridges, while a newly refurbished wharf makes for a lovely spot for lounging around in the sun (it doesn’t rain as much in Manchester as some would have you believe).
From here there are two main walking paths: you can take the Canal Towpath for a scenic stroll past ivy-covered railway arches and melancholy old mills, then carry on towards the Gay Village where you can take afternoon tea in an indoor conservatory or theatre box at the Alice in Wonderland-like (Richmond Street, The Village; 0161 237 9667).
Alternatively, you can head in the opposite direction towards Deansgate Locks, passing through centuries of architecture from Manchester’s first medieval manor house, the Cheetham School of Music, to the avant-garde Urbis Museum.
For many locals, it’s the Northern Quarter that sums up what Manchester is really all about; its higgledy-piggledy lanes and alleyways are filled with edgy bars, quirky cafes and cool galleries and it all comes entirely attitude-free. Yes, it’s scruffy and a bit rough around the edges, but it’s easily forgiven when you stumble across one of the best collections of independent retailers in the country.
The Manchester Craft and Design Centre, a former Victorian fish market, is now the “plaice” to pick up one-off artworks, interiors pieces and funky jewellery. For first-rate textiles and bespoke furnishings, make for Calico Angel (Studio #23, 077183 40025) whose owner, Susan Kane, has an impressive portfolio of clients which includes Mary Quant, DKNY and Monsoon; nimble fingered visitors can also book in for embroidery, sewing and applique workshops. On Saturdays, the main thoroughfare of Tib Street is made-over into a swinging street market featuring the city’s best up-and-coming designers.
If you’re looking for all things vintage, retro and recycled, then stick with the Northern Quarter. Fuel up first at the hugely-popular (55 Thomas Street, 0161 832 3233) where they serve a cracking all-day breakfast as well as rainbow cake and coffee. Ready? Start with Pop Boutique (34-36 Oldham Road, 0161 236 5797) a mosaic-covered mecca housing everything from pretty post-war print dresses to kitschy 1970s ceramic pineapples.
Next, Dale Street, for the festival-goers favourite, Junk (2 Dale Street, 0161 238 8517); their cutesy shop has been entirely refurbished using recycled materials, specialises in sustainable fashion and has a great range of accessories to add a singular touch to any outfit. After an amble around the area you can finish up at the four-storey Affleck’s Palace (52 Church Street), a quite mad emporium bursting at the seams with homewares, vintage, tailors, tattoo parlours, milliners, jewellery makers and bookshops – you name it, it’s there.
And if all of this is a bit too modern-day hippie for you, there’s always the high street. Cut down from the Northern Quarter onto the main shopping drag of Market Street. From here you can fan out towards the high-end outlets around King Street and the chic new retailers that have flooded into the shiny new Avenue development around Spinningfields.
For an all-day sybaritic spa session, head over to The Lowry Hotel in Salford – the Total Care with Hot Stones is particularly good. Less expensive and a bit more authentic is the Bali Health Lounge (48 George Street, 0161 850 2288) in Chinatown.
This Tardis-like spa stretches across three-levels encompassing a chic tea room, rejuvenation pods surrounded by shimmering LED-lit curtains and Asian-style treatment rooms dripping in jewel-coloured silks. All of the therapists have been trained in the Far East and the prices are surprisingly affordable, too.
If you’re hankering for some home-grown flavours, try the Northern Quarter Restaurant (108 High Street; 0161 832 7115) for simple, seasonal classics like pork belly with fennel and apple. Around the corner, you can sample wines from around the world and a delightful bread-based menu at Bakerie (43-45 Lever Street, 0161 236 9015) – you can also book yourself in for baking classes and a wine school.
Back in the centre of town, the area around Spinningfields has a dizzying array of bars and restaurants. A local favourite is (The Avenue Courtyard, 0161 829 3830), a super-sociable bar and barbecue place with a sprawling terrace perfect for those long summer nights, while the Pan-Asian share plates and chic cocktails on offer at Australasia hit the mark every time (1 Avenue, Spinningfields; 0161 831 0288). Finish off with alfresco drinks at Alchemist (3 Hardman Street, 0161 817 2950).
If you want to try living like a WAG for a few days, the place to shop, spa and hang by the bar is the luxurious Lowry Hotel. Closer to the heart of things is the atmospheric Malmaison Manchester. A grand red and blonde brick building, it's home to the newly revamped Smoak Bar and Grill, a sweet city spa and 167 rooms with all the trimmings.
Further into town, the Great John Street Hotel has a range of tasteful duplex suites and the city on its doorstep. Manchester’s also got a burgeoning boutique apartment scene - both Roomzzz and the Light Aparthotel () are a couple of Manchester's more stylish places to stay at recession-busting prices.
Virgin trains () operate from destinations all over the UK to Manchester’s main arrival point, Piccadilly station.
The TransPennine Express () also links the north of England, Glasgow and Edinburgh. If you’re flying into town, Manchester airport is a mere eight miles away from the city centre.
"The Castle Hotel on Oldham Street has regular music and spoken word gigs. You might also fancy trying a Manchester Egg (pickled egg wrapped in black pudding) while you're there." - Manchester cultural blogger, Laura Maley; .
"If you want to get off the beaten track, jump on the Bury line tram and get off at Prestwich, about four miles north of the city centre. The Church Inn and Aumbry restaurant on Church Lane are gems worth travelling for." Garden designer and local blogger, Joan Mulvenna; .
"Stay away from the crowds and find the real Manchester nightlife in the Northern Quarter. Bars like Lemars and Keko Moku are a must-visit when you come to town." Designer and blogger at Mancunian Creative, Stephen Howson; .