The only way is Manchester: An Essex Girl Up North

I’m ashamed to admit that as of just over a month ago, I’d never been to Manchester.  All of these exotic climes I’d visited, and yet I’d not been to one of the UK’s most important cities – a city, I was to discover, which deserved my full attention: from the Lowry to the National Football Museum, and great shopping and restaurants thrown in too, it offers a whole array of delights for the tourist.  

When I think about the fact that my friend Tom has been living in Manchester for the past 6 years and my hubby had been to visit him 3 times prior to my visit, it’s really difficult to understand why I’d not been; every time Tom came back to Essex, he’d tell me about this new bar he’d been to, or this great shop he’d found, or even just about an excellent meal he’d had on the curry mile – and yet I’d still not been to visit.  So it was decided that 2012 would be the year that Essex-girl-and-hubby would be let loose in Manchester: and what a gem of a city we discovered! 
Season’s greetings!
Once it was decided that we were going, we timed our visit to coincide with the Manchester Christmas Markets; having once lived in Vienna, I am a sucker for a Christmas Market.  This does also mean that I have high expectations of what a Christmas Market should be like: Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park is not for me, it’s not authentic enough.  Manchester, however, did not disappoint: street after street of tempting stalls selling a beautiful variety of food and gifts from Germany, France and Holland.  It was all so authentic!  And what’s more, I even managed to find a gluten free Lancashire sausage and bun – what more could this Essex girl want from a Christmas Market?!  The Glühwein was hot and delicious, and, most importantly for me, served in an authenticity-inducing mug rather than a polystyrene cup – fuelled up on warm alcohol and tasty treats from the market, even the rain couldn’t dampen our spirits as the lights twinkled away amongst the joviality surrounding the town hall.
Above: Tom and I enjoying a Gluehwein in the Market, and below, the mugs!
From Christmas Markets to Culture
But it wasn’t just the Christmas Markets we’d gone for: I also had my heart set on taking in The Lowry.  I wasn’t disappointed – what a wonderful space to display such fantastic works of art!  As well as the striking Lowrys – which aren’t to everyone’s taste, but certainly suited mine – we were lucky enough to visit during a Peter Blake exhibition.  Colour and music abound, and the added touch of the 50’s jukebox and interactive social media board blended musicality and modernity seamlessly.  
As Tom lives in the Salford Quays, we took the opportunity to walk up to the recently constructed Media City UK, the new home of the BBC, too, and then visited the Imperial War Museum North: an incredibly interesting museum, housed in an equally interesting Daniel Libeskind designed building.  I was so impressed by all of the regeneration which has taken place in the Quays – the architecture is truly stunning.
Some of the stunning architecture in the Salford Quays 
We headed back into town that night, as that first sausage in the Christmas Market had set a precedent.  Tom remembered a restaurant he’d been to where he thought he remembered them serving gluten free pizzas – the wonderful ‘Dough’ in the Northern Quarter.  He had remembered correctly – the only thing on the menu which I couldn’t eat was the Caesar salad!  It was over that gluten free pizza that talked turned to Mancunian stereotypes.  Liam and Noel Gallagher have got a lot to answer for.  Tom advised that the city is actually an incredibly large melting pot of people and cultures – rather than one stereotype – all of which seem to get along.  This was later proved by our visit to the geek-chic TV21 bar – complete with scary alien at the entrance, where else in Britain would you find a sci-fi bar alongside quirky restaurants?!
Shopping, shopping, shopping!
After all that culture, it was time for some shopping on our final day (well, you can take the girl out of Essex, but you can’t take the Essex out of the girl!).  However, this wasn’t really shopping as I knew it; none of the generic shops of our Southern Lakesides or Westfields: this was shopping in the eccentric Northern Quarter.  What a treasure trove!  Tom took us to the likes of Afflecks Palace and the Oxfam Originals shop for a mooch around.  What surprised me was how friendly everyone was; of course, they were probably trying to make a sale, but I couldn’t put my finger on what was different about the atmosphere in Manchester as opposed to London.  

After the shopping, there was just time to visit the National Football Museum (well, the husband’s got to have some fun too!), which even I as a very-much-non-football-fan found interesting, with its many interactive exhibits, before a final visit to the Christmas Market.  “Ooh look,” Tom said, “They’ve got a pop-up Afflecks Palace in the Town Hall!”.  And so in we popped for more mooching around, amidst independent traders selling bright carnival masks and Christmas jumpers.  It was as we were leaving that I turned to Tom and said, “I like it here, it’s friendly and there seems to be always something going on.  It’s not as aloof as London.”.   “That’s exactly it!”  Tom replied, “That’s exactly how to sum up Manchester: More friendly, and less aloof than London.”  And that I think says it all: Manchester really is beautiful.  Oh and it’s more friendly and less aloof than London to boot!

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