Imperial War Museum, Manchester

Ten things to do in Manchester for free

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By Neil McQuillian
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The IRA’s 1996 bomb in Manchester city centre was one of the city’s darkest days. Extensive damage was done, but ultimately it served only to unleash a flurry of investment that carries on to this day. This means, of course, that there are myriad ways to spend your pennies here these days. Yet deep down, Manchester remains a city of the people, and it looks kindly on the stony-broke. On a practical note, the city centre is eminently walkable. Bring a hooded coat though (an Oasis-style parka, perhaps?) – it’s not known as the Rainy City for nothing. Here are ten ways to enjoy Manchester for free.

Explore the National Football Museum

With the monopoly that Manchester seems to have on the Premier League, it’s only fitting that they should have the National Football Museum. Located close to the site of the 1996 IRA bomb, Ian Simpson’s 2002 glass-clad building is an elegant, defiantly delicate-looking retort.  Other freebie museums to check out include the Museum of Science and IndustryWhitworth Art Gallery and Manchester Museum.

Head to the Northern Quarter

This hipster-rich neighbourhood was cut off from the city core with the opening of The Arndale centre in 1976, and it now feels like an enclave all on its own – even the street names are represented in tile mosaics, locally designed and made. The absence of big chains means there’s a resolutely uncommercial feel to the district – the penniless can simply dine out on the atmosphere (look out for the metal fire escapes, for instance, that have seen the NQ double for NYC in movie shoots). Browsers are welcome at the Craft & Design Centre – a former Victorian fish market – and at the music-themed Richard Goodall Gallery on Thomas Street.

The Northern Quarter, Manchester

Visit the People’s History Museum

This brilliant museum champions the politically engaged and the working class in a city where they have historically been champions. Two galleries tell the story of the role played by Manchester – the world’s first industrial city – over 200 years of political radicalism. Architects Austin-Smith:Lord’s acclaimed building design looks pleasingly like a ninja mask, but check out the nearby Civil Justice Centre, too – its cantilevered courtrooms gave rise to a “filing cabinet” nickname.

Explore Castlefield

They tried, but they still haven’t gentrified Castlefield. You can scrub up this landscape of canals and warehouses but it will always be redolent of the city’s industrial past. That, of course, makes it perfect for a spot of flânerie. Ponder this as you wander – Castlefield gave rise to the city’s name thanks to Mancunium, a Roman fort that was located near Deansgate.

Castlefield, Manchester

Get lost in a book at Chetham’s Library…

Marx and Engels were said to have been inspired by Manchester’s clash of wealth and poverty in the mid-19th century, and they chewed it over at this Oxbridge-aping institution – the world’s oldest free public library, founded in 1653. Occultist Dr John Dee is said to have caused the mark on the Audit Room table by accidentally summoning the devil (which must have earned him quite a ‘shhh’ from the librarian). The library is open Mon-Fri 9am-4.30pm (though closed for lunch).

…then skip to another at the John Rylands Library

Another library, yes, but make the most of them while you can – one of these days it’ll all be e-readers. This neo-Gothic beauty was opened in 1900 by Enriqueta Augustina Rylands as a memorial to her husband John. Amongst its rare books and illuminated medieval manuscripts is the oldest existing piece of the New Testament and, arguably, the first book to be printed in England – a 1476 edition of the Canterbury Tales. Since it’s now part of the University of Manchester, there’s only limited access to members of the public.

Reading Room in John Rylands Library

Try out a screening at Islington Mill

Salford’s Islington Mill has one of the city’s most respected music programmes, but you can get a freebie taste of the complex’s vibrant creative atmosphere by coming along to one of their visual art exhibitions or screenings. The walker’s most stylish route into Salford is by Santiago Calatrava’s 1995 Trinity Bridge, which looks about as sturdy as a moth’s wing.

Meander around The Quays

This sprawling expanse of former dockland a 40- to 50-minute walk west of the city core has redefined the boundaries of what can be thought of as central Manchester. The Lowry complex (free exhibitions and talks) and Daniel Libeskind’s 2002 Imperial War Museum North (also free) are monumental buildings fit for this landscape.  Head up the latter’s 55m Air Shard (a small charge applies) for views across the Ship Canal all the way to the Pennine Hills. Fans of The Smiths should take a detour to Salford Lads Club en route to The Quays – located on St Ignatius Walk, it featured on the album artwork for The Queen is Dead.

Salford Quays, Manchester

Take a tour of Victoria Baths

No spitting, bombing or heavy petting. And no swimming, either. But a long and passionate campaign has been waged to save this ornate public baths, and you can do your bit by popping in for one of their open day tours. Friends of Victoria Baths get in for free; otherwise there’s a small charge (see the Victoria Baths website).

Stop by the National Cycling Centre

With the recent successes of Bradley Wiggins and the GB Cycling Team in the Olympics and the Tour de France gracing the north for the first time, the sport is becoming ever more popular in the UK. If you time it right, you can catch Team GB training on a Siberian-pine track that has witnessed numerous world records since the centre opened in 1994. Weekday afternoons are your best bet. Those with £10.50 to spare can have an hour-long taster session.

Explore more of this area with the Rough Guides Snapshot to England’s northwest. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.