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City life: Manchester

Manchester’s nightlife scene is booming in the Northern Quarter, Canal Street and beyond. Dine, drink, dance… just don’t expect to go home before dawn

City life: Manchester
Warehouse Project. Image: Nick Warner

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“The rose-tinted spectacles that make the mid-90s seem better than now have got to be pretty thick,” Jay says. “There were fewer venues, fewer bands playing, fewer comedy clubs, fewer galleries, fewer special events — it was dreadful. I don’t think that was the heyday; the heyday is now.”

Sitting at the bar of landmark Manchester venue Night & Day Cafe, nursing a mug of what he describes as ‘off-brand Lemsip’, Jay Taylor is 50-something, dressed in black and bearded, with shoulder-length grey hair pulled back by a headband. It’s early evening, already dark; the daytime crowd are finishing up their coffees and the stage techs are starting to work their mysterious magic for tonight’s gig.

Jay’s been the booker here for a few years, but he’s been coming to Night & Day since the early days, back in 1991, when it was a fish and chip shop that would sometimes put bands on a tiny stage in the window. Today there’s a bit more space, and the stage — which over the years has hosted everyone from Manic Street Preachers and Elbow to Jessie J — has expanded and been moved to the back of the maroon-walled, art print-plastered space.

I ask Jay about the big names he’s had through the doors, hoping for tales of rock ’n’ roll antics and ridiculous riders, but he’s having none of it. “Whenever anybody asks me that I don’t say those famous bands have played here,” he tells me. “What I’d rather say is Juniore from Paris are playing next month and Sonic Jesus from Italy are playing after that, and…” he flips through a scruffy, scrawl-covered diary. “HalfNoise are playing on Monday. I’m more excited by that than by saying the Arctic Monkeys came through.”

His response is typical of Manchester. It’s a place that doesn’t have to brag about its musical credentials because they’re so irrefutable, and the nightlife has maintained legendary status for decades. I spent three years living here as a student in the mid-Noughties, drawn as much by the promise of a good time in a big city as the reputation of the university — and I wasn’t disappointed.

Planning to return to Night & Day later, I meander through town and back towards my hotel. Manchester may have gained a few new architectural additions in recent years, but it remains a glorious mishmash, from grand Victorian red-bricks and art deco towers to shabby ’60s office blocks and glassy high-rises. Just south of the city centre, I pass the site that once housed The Haçienda, the club that was the epicentre of the ‘Madchester’ era. It’s been replaced by a bland block of luxury flats.

Just round the corner, in the 23rd-floor hotel bar, I have a drink with my friend Ben. An academic, he’s lived in Manchester on and off since our uni days, back when a good night out meant sticky dancefloors, Mr Brightside and double vodka Red Bull for £1. When I ask him where he likes to go out now, he replies: “Well, it depends whether you want the real answer, or the one I’d give if I were trying to show off Manchester.” The real one, I tell him, and he thinks for a minute. “Actually, there’s no difference — they’d both be the same place.”

manchester city life

Revellers on Canal Street. Image: Nick Warner

So, it’s over to Oscars, on Canal Street, the heart of the city’s LGBT scene. While over the past decade many of the venues have changed — hands, names, concepts — this strip, along the bank of the Rochdale Canal, still offers Manchester’s most inclusive night out. The canal itself was opened in 1804 to transport goods and materials between Lancashire and Yorkshire, but when it fell into disuse, the surrounding textile factories and warehouses were abandoned.

By the mid-20th century, derelict Canal Street had become somewhere for covert encounters between gay men, and eventually it evolved into the out-and-proud place it is today. Rainbow flags flutter from venues like G-A-Y and Bar Pop, and a painted sign welcomes us to Manchester’s Gay Village. Across the water, some of those beautiful old industrial buildings are still standing, reborn as apartments, while in the neighbouring Sackville Gardens are two sculptures, one honouring the transgender community and the other dedicated to Alan Turing, the Second World War code cracker. Convicted and posthumously pardoned of ‘gross indecency’ with another man, Turing did much of his ground-breaking mathematics at Manchester University.

Oscars Bar is easy to spot, with its red neon sign and velvet ropes — an aptly flamboyant entrance for somewhere that bills itself as a ‘musical theatre and cocktail bar’. Inside, the basement is all shiny floors, red leather stools and walls dotted with framed posters and playbills. On certain nights you’ll find performers — sometimes in drag, sometimes not — singing Broadway hits, but tonight the entertainment is simply a TV in the corner, sports-bar style. People chat across tables, looking over their companions’ shoulders to get a better look at the screen, but there’s no football match being shown; it’s clips of Oliver!, My Fair Lady and Les Mis, with a bit of Disney thrown in for good measure.

We sit, drinks in our hands, talking about musicals (what else?), when there’s a sudden buzz of excitement. “What is it?” I ask Ben. “Frozen,” he says, as the room erupts into song. All around us, the crowd — primarily 40-something-year-old men — are bellowing the words to the animation’s anthemic Let it Go, fists clenched, eyes on each other, at once playful and deeply sincere. The song ends with a round of applause, and I grin so much my cheeks ache.

Real connections

As we drift back towards Night & Day it’s drizzling (it wouldn’t be Manchester without rain) but no one’s bothering with umbrellas; instead it’s jackets over heads. The rain eases off and we meander across Piccadilly Gardens, which until a few decades ago was all manicured lawns and vibrant flower beds, but has since become a concrete-heavy space with an illuminated fountain at its heart. It’s somewhere Mancunians love to hate, and plans to redevelop it have been ignited and left to simmer several times over the years. One thing that has remained, though, for more than a century, is Queen Victoria; cast in bronze, she sits tall, her back to the gardens, gazing out towards what’s now a Travelodge.

manchester city life

Tib Street, Northern Quarter. Image: Alamy

Just to the left is Oldham Street, the main artery of the Northern Quarter, Manchester’s hipster enclave of coffee shops, craft beer bars, tattoo parlours and vintage stores. It’s the city’s answer to London’s Shoreditch, and the same debates rage about whether it’s peaked, whether its spirit has changed, and whether it’s become too commercial. I think back to earlier on in the evening, when Jay talked of Oldham Street being a “hellhole” just a few decades ago. His comments are a stark contrast to the buzzing place it has become, with tipsy crowds heading out of brightly lit restaurants, queueing for bars, and pausing to smoke in the closed doorways of thriving record shops.

The live music is over by the time we walk into Night & Day. A DJ’s on, playing electronica, alternative hip hop, atmospheric Frank Ocean jams; a few dancers cut dreamy silhouettes in the dim light, drinkers line the booths and tables. It’s the kind of place where you could sit solo at the bar, pouring your heart out to the bartender while they, in turn, pour you a pint. We perch at a table in the window for a while — the spot where the stage once stood — drinking gin and tonics and bottles of beer, letting the music wash over us.

The laid-back vibe couldn’t be more different from our next stop, however. After finishing our drinks we head south to Charles Street, closer to the university campuses. Joshua Brooks, an old dive bar I frequented back in my student days, has a queue around the block, and a couple of doors down there’s another line of people outside the street’s latest addition.

manchester city life

Band Roosevelt playing in the pink room at YES. Image: Nick Warner

Opened late last year, YES is spread across four floors of an old auction house. Part club, part gig venue, part bar and part restaurant, it’s in an area that once had very little at all to recommend it beyond its academic credentials. “How cities grow and shift is quite interesting,” co-founder Ruth Hemmingfield tells me. “Things seem to be happening around us; this whole area has changed a lot.”

Now in her 30s, Ruth has been involved in Manchester’s live music scene for more than a decade, having worked at respected venues The Deaf Institute and Gorilla. She and her two business partners spent a long time finding the perfect spot for their new venture. The Northern Quarter, she felt, was “oversaturated”, while this area seemed rather more “off the beaten track”.

The gamble has paid off. Tonight the place is packed; the over-30s are up in the Pink Room (named for its glorious rosy hue), dancing to DJ Gilles Peterson, while in the ground-floor bar, student-age girls in high-waisted jeans and shiny tops are throwing angular shapes to Caribou tunes and ‘vintage’ TLC, while the boys self-consciously try to do the same.

“I’m not from Manchester and most of my friends aren’t, but you make some real connections here,” Ruth says. “You can come out and find a little community for yourself, which I don’t think happens in a lot of other cities.”

As I queue at the bar, boistrous groups around me are buying shots, mouthing song lyrics to each other and discussing whether to get something to eat. A pizzeria and hip fried-chicken joint sit right in the middle of the club, with a tiled counter that makes it feel a little like you’re dancing in a takeaway. But then again, Night & Day started out as a chippy, so it might be a recipe for success.

When we eventually leave, the crowd shows no sign of letting up — they’re in it for the long haul, fuelled on chicken and mixed drinks. “Manchester’s a night-time city. It’s great in the daytime but it really comes to life at night,” Ruth says. And it’s hard to argue.

After dark: 6 nightspots

Warehouse Project — Best for all-out raving
The concept is simple: it’s like an illegal rave, but all completely legit. For each ‘season’ (September-January), Warehouse Project takes over an industrial-style venue, putting on big names such as Aphex Twin and Jon Hopkins alongside lesser-known acts — often running to 6am. After several years in a former air-raid shelter near Piccadilly, a new venue’s been secured — though co-founder Sacha Lord (see Q&A) remains tight-lipped about the location.

Band on the Wall — Best for living history
One of the city’s oldest venues, this Northern Quarter spot has been standing since 1862, back when it was the George & Dragon, and legend has it Marx and Engels would drink here in order to mingle with the working-class clientele. No one knows exactly how long it’s been hosting live music — since the 1930s at least — but over the years bands including Joy Divison, Buzzcocks and The Fall have taken to the stage.

Hatch — Best for pop-up bars
This smattering of brightly painted shipping containers, stacked up under the Mancunian Way flyover, houses a changing selection of pop-up boutiques, cafes and bars. You can usually expect spin-offs from local favourites (currently Chorlton’s Elektrik Bar and the Northern Quarter’s Takk coffee shop both have outposts here), and, with outdoor space, it’s ideal for an al fresco sundowner — Manchester weather permitting, of course.

Mackie Mayor — Best for late-night bites
One block over from Band on the Wall, this beautiful Victorian market building was restored and reopened in 2017 by the team behind Greater Manchester’s hugely successful Altrincham Market. Grab a spot at one of the communal dining tables or up on the mezzanine before picking up something to eat, from burgers to bao buns. Drinks, meanwhile, come courtesy of craft beer specialist Jack in the Box, and the oenophiles at Reserve Wines.

Hidden — Best for off-piste clubbing
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d lost your way en route to Hidden. Surrounded by warehouses, car parks and a canal, it’s on an industrial estate a few streets away from Strangeways prison, which can feel somewhat deserted by night. But once you get there you’ll find a multi-room space within the old DownTex textile mill, where house, techno and disco are the speciality. The venue also regularly holds alternative LGBT night Homoelectric.

Soup Kitchen — Best for laid-back fun
Open from midday, the ground floor of this hip Northern Quarter venue is given over to a bar and ‘canteen’ serving craft beers and hearty food (including soup), with cool decor and long, shared tables. After dark, stay and finish your pint, or else head down to the basement, where you can expect live bands and club nights, or even the occasional film screening or comedy show.

manchester city life

Canal Street. Image: Nick Warner

Essentials

Getting there & around
Manchester Piccadilly is the city’s main railway station, with services to most major UK cities. Manchester Victoria is largely served by trains to other parts of the north of England. Central Manchester is quite walkable, and free shuttle buses connect the two main stations with the likes of Salford, Deansgate and China Town.
A comprehensive tram and bus network links the city centre with destinations further out and into Greater Manchester. tfgm.com

When to go
Manchester is notoriously rainy, but forget the cliché about April showers — springtime is statistically when the city is driest. Alternatively, visit in July, when the chance of rain is slightly higher, but so are the temperatures (16C on average).

Where to stay
For a stay with a view, the sky-scraping Hilton Manchester Deansgate has room-only doubles from £121, and a 23rd-floor bar overlooking the city.
ABode Manchester has a very central location, just a couple of minutes’ walk from Piccadilly station and the Northern Quarter. Doubles start at £99, B&B.

More info
visitmanchester.com

Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)