For as long as any of us can remember, we've been talking up this city with all those clichés and more. Manchester, we said, was a never-ending whirl of madness and music, football and building – high-rise upon high-rise, the cranes above our heads swaying like uncut grass in Heaton Park. This was a city on the make, we said, full of doers, where you could turn an after-work pint into a blag, a business or a lost weekend (and possibly all three at once).
In truth, though, Manchester often failed to live up to its own hype. Until, that is, it did. Manchester International Festival roared into town, a biennial of new work by artists as diverse as Laurie Anderson and The xx. The Whitworth reopened, and almost every museum and gallery expanded or seriously spruced up. The Warehouse Project changed the way we went out. The Northern Quarter went from a few design agencies and bars to a hipster strip of man buns, sleeve tatts and indie-vegan-artisan beer and bars.
Nathan Coley's 'Gathering of Strangers' at The Whitworth Gallery © Alan Williams
That wasn't all. The BBC moved up. Media City opened. Start-ups in creative, digital, media and bio-tech sprang up like the weeds that once rooted in decaying Ancoats mills. Talking of which, Ancoats went from Wild West to loft-apartment best. We got a mayor, and with it devolved government. Sport got in on the act: the National Football Museum joined City and United to cement Manchester's position as the home of British football.
There have been dark times, of course. The economic crash squeezed the city; homelessness and drug addiction are rife. The date 22 May 2017 will always burn. Yet the city's overwhelmingly beautiful response to the Manchester Arena attack came as no surprise to us. This is Manchester. A city big enough to be interesting, international, worthy of your time. A city small enough to feel like a community, where in May 2017 we took another cliché – don't look back in anger – and made a decision: to come together, to do more, to be better.
So, although Manchester is always changing, one thing is constant. Manchester's sense of self. A collective identity that makes the city creative and collaborative, that makes Manchester genuinely welcoming. An identity that sees us serious when we need to be, and dancing on tables when we don't. An identity that I'd argue makes Manchester today the city that, way back when, we always said it could be.
Ancoats and Northern Quarter meandering
Join the dots between Manchester's industrial past and its creative present by taking a walk. Start at New Islington, leaving Will Alsop's Chips building behind – the iconic new-build that overlooks an old-build canal – and meander through New Islington Marina, with its narrowboats and nesting birds. It may feel miles from the city but is in fact only a short walk from the centre. It's also home to Pollen, a waterside bakery whose pastries, sourdough and brunches are worth the queues.
Head into Ancoats, along cobbled roads whose names – Jersey Street, Silk Street – conjure a time when the area boomed to the sound of the mills that made Manchester's fortune, refuelling at Ancoats General Store or Ancoats Coffee Co. The latter is a roastery located inside Royal Mill, a former cotton-spinning factory. Nearby, on Cutting Room Square, is Rudy's, where you'll find the best pizza in the city, and St. Peter's Church, now rehearsal space for the Hallé Orchestra.
Pizza at Rudy's © Rudy's
Great Ancoats Street separates Ancoats from the Northern Quarter, though street art project Cities of Hope provides unity; its murals adorn gable ends across both. The Northern Quarter is, though, peppered with paste-ups, Space Invaders and official public art. It's also known for its independence, for institutions such as Piccadilly Records (for vinyl and Record Store Day fun), Magma (for every kind of style magazine ever published), Oi Polloi (street-inspired menswear) and Fred Aldous (a craft store whose front window showcases local artists). There's plenty of other indies in between, including Afflecks and bookshop/café, Chapter One.
All meandered out? Regroup at Common, a design literate bar that's good for craft beers and bar food, the Koffee Pot, whose building is marked out via a mural by street artist Qubek, or The Pilcrow. The latter is right on the edge of the Northern Quarter but serves a great selection of beers alongside semi-regular markets, nights and events.
Where to eat
In Manchester you're never far from good food, and for a sense of what this city has to offer start with El Gato Negro. Spanish tapas are served in this three-storey former merchant's home, with the arched windows, bare brick and retractable roof creating a feel that's somehow very Mancunian. Idle Hands is at the other end of the scale, a coffee shop that stands out among the caffeinated tide thanks to genuinely good coffee, vegan cakes and occasional events and supper clubs.
Mackie Mayor, meanwhile, is a former Victorian market hall that spent decades in dereliction. Now restored, it's run by the people behind the rebirth of Altrincham Market and is all about indie food (it's essentially a food court surrounded by stalls that ply everything from fish to wood-fired pizza) and sociability (you can't book; take your chances at communal tables).
Finally, try The Refuge, a restaurant and bar attached to the Principal Hotel. Run by the DJ pair behind the Electriks empire, it's the acceptable face of Mancunian grown-up glamour. A winter garden, Edwardian tiling, luxe styling, DJ nights and mini festivals are matched by excellent food and drink. "Come as you are," says a sign by the door and, really, nobody minds if you do.
Mackie Mayor © Claire Harrison / Mackie Mayor
Manchester's cultural fix
Manchester's got it all going on when it comes to theatre, art, music and more. The Whitworth is a gorgeous, light-filled gallery, its glass arms extending over a park filled with sculpture, while HOME has something for everyone: arthouse cinema, theatre, exhibitions, bookshop, restaurant and bar. The best new theatre, though, is often found at the Royal Exchange, whose long-term relationship with actors such as Maxine Peake has brought about some startling new work.
In between the museums and galleries that Google will happily turn up are myriad smaller ones – Castlefield, Paper – alongside one of the biggest art schools outside of London, the Manchester School of Art. They're evidence, if it were needed, of a growing community that's giving Manchester the fresh creative blood it needs. Islington Mill is a case in point, home to artist studios, performance and exhibitions, and the focal point of Sounds from the Other City, the raucous new music festival that spills out onto the street and into churches and pubs (annual, May).
While we're on the musical tip: the legendary Band on the Wall does world, jazz and experimental; under-the-arches Gorilla mid-size bands, club nights and gin; and the Albert Hall the most atmospheric gigs in the city (with the monumental Albert's Schloss next door adding food, drink and noise). And, for those looking for the musical underbelly, there's Hidden, a club that's nailed that scuzzy 1990s warehouse vibe, with a next-to-Strangeways location to prove it.
Albert's Schloss © Jack Kirwim - JK Photography / Albert's Schloss
Top image: © Shahid Khan / Shutterstock