24 Hours in Manchester

written by
Annie Warren

updated 15.09.2022

“...And on the sixth day, God created MANchester,” declares Mark Kennedy’s iconic mosaic, set into the wall of Affleck’s Palace in the city’s Northern Quarter. I've just spent 24 hours in Manchester. And the cheeky tone of Kennedy's statement – boldly linking itself to the divine with a wink and a refusal to take itself too seriously – rings true of the whole city. It's this anarchic attitude that has me immediately smitten. But where to start in so-called Cottonopolis when you’ve only got a matter of hours?

Where to eat

When it comes to food, Manchester will leave you spoiled for choice. For breakfast, try Pollen Bakery in the canalside district of Ancoats. It serves fantastic coffee, though it’s the baked goods that steal the show. Unfortunately, they’d just run out of cruffins when I arrived. Of course the croissant/muffin hybrids that come adorned with Lucky Charms, hazelnut praline, dulce de leche and the like would sell out fast, so arrive early if you want a taste!

I opted instead for an enormous slab of a ham and cheese croissant that kept me full until well into the afternoon. If the weather allows, grab a table outside. Keep your eyes peeled for the adorable spectacle of the doggy daycare centre that takes place across the canal.

Delicious croissants at Pollen Bakery © Annie Warren

For brunch, you can’t do better than Ducie Street Warehouse. Located between the train station and the trendy Northern Quarter, you can sit out on the sunny terrace that backs onto the canal or inside in the bright and airy restaurant.

You’ll find all your favourite brunch classics here. I opted for a homemade blueberry pancake stack and it did wonders for my sweet tooth. If you need a pick-me-up on a Sunday morning, the monthly disco brunch is the place for you.

Imagine enjoying your avocado on toast while two gold-morph-suited, disco-ball-headed dancers swirl around you to disco tunes played by resident DJs. Truly unbeatable.

Ducie Street Warehouse © Annie Warren

Ducie Street Warehouse © Annie Warren

When lunchtime comes around, I can’t recommend Idle Hands highly enough. One word: pie. The vegan chickpea and apricot tagine pie with harissa was – and I do not use this word lightly – perfect. The filling was delightful and the crust was made from buttery, melt-in-your-mouth pastry.

How many times have you heard food described as ‘melt-in-your-mouth’? How many times has anything actually ever melted in your mouth? Exactly. But there’s a first time for everything; go to Idle Hands. Trust me.

Given how often I was hearing the name Rudy’s Pizza from the Mancunian friends I asked for dinner recommendations, I had to see what the fuss was about. Well, here I am joining the fan club – because a place doesn’t become this famous without good reason.

With two locations (one in Ancoats and one in town), Rudy’s boasts pizzas with mouthwatering toppings. No committed carnivore will be able to resist the cinghiale pizza’s combination of wild boar salami, spicy nduja sausage and fresh chilli, alongside vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. I’m willing to bet that you won’t find better pizza outside of Italy itself.

Both locations are popular with locals and visitors, so be prepared to book ahead or wait at busy times. It’s worth it. A delicious fourteen-inch pizza for less than a fiver? London couldn't compete.

Lunch at Idle Hands © Annie Warren

Artisan coffee is thriving in the city. There’s no doubt that you’ll need a caffeine injection and a rest at some point during your day. Take a breather in the charming Fig + Sparrow, attracting guests with its wooden tables, speciality brews and strong emphasis on sourcing local ingredients.

Otherwise, try Icelandic-style Takk; with exposed brick walls and a laid-back atmosphere, this is an especially good place to spend a quiet half hour with a book or a laptop.

Where to wander

When I visit a new city, I love to wander around on foot and people watch to get a feel for the place. One enchanting neighbourhood to stroll around in Manchester is the New Islington Marina in Ancoats, perhaps powered by your cruffin breakfast from Pollen or pizza dinner from Rudy’s, which overlooks the canal.

The neighbourhood’s ability to look to the future whilst giving a respectful nod to its past is unique; the area around the marina is home to Manchester’s famous (now defunct) cotton mills, whose red bricks still cast their reflections into the water and which lend the canals and parks a peaceful air during the day. Yet it’s also an area of serious regeneration, with new bars, theatres and restaurants popping up every other week – as such, evenings along the waterfront are becoming evermore lively.

Castlefield is an inner city conservation area of Manchester in North West England. It is bounded by the River Irwell, Quay Street, Deansgate and the Chester Road © SAKhanPhotography/Shutterstock

Castlefield conservation area of Manchester © SAKhanPhotography/Shutterstock

Closer to the centre lies the ever-popular labyrinth of streets that is the Northern Quarter, brimming with colourful street art, trendy cafes, vintage shops and chic bars. There is plenty to recommend in this area of Manchester, but the best way to discover it is simply to mooch around at random, going into any record store, art gallery or beer garden that takes your fancy. Don’t forget to look up – the huge variety of architecture you’ll see in the buildings that rise up above you is not to be missed.

Perhaps, instead of exercising your inner flaneur, you’d prefer more of a purposeful walk. 24 hours is not long, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better use for three of those hours than taking one of the free walking tours that run every day at 11am from the Alan Turing memorial in Sackville Park.

Run by a small team of theatre-makers and history graduates who are truly passionate about their city, I had so much fun finding out about Manchester’s history and quirks as well as getting to meet other friendly people who shared my curiosity. Our amazing guide, Megan, even went to the trouble of emailing anyone who wanted it a list of recommendations after the tour was over, in order to further our Mancunian education.

Alan Turing Memorial Monument in Manchester © Dutchmen Photography/Shutterstock

Alan Turing Memorial in Sackville Park © Dutchmen Photography/Shutterstock

Where to shop

Afflecks Palace is a Manchester institution that is not to be missed. Shopping here feels less like a dose of retail therapy and more like a journey into the lair of a genie with a hoarding problem. A five-storey indoor market full of small shops, independent stalls and crafty boutiques, Afflecks sells just about anything you can imagine: handmade trinkets, vintage and second-hand clothes, CDs and vinyl, art and posters, fancy dress, jewellery, furniture and antiques are just some of the items you’ll find scattered around the warren of corridors and staircases in this huge building that first opened in the 1860s as a drapery business.

A self-proclaimed ‘emporium of eclecticism’ and ‘totem of indie commerce’, you’ll even find a tattoo and piercing parlour inside, as well as places where you can grab a bite to eat before you carry on the hunger-inducing work of browsing. Make a beeline for the ice cream at Ginger’s Comfort Emporium, whose best-selling flavours include Marmalade on Toast, Olive Oil and Sea Salt and ‘Chorlton Crack’ – salted caramel peanut butter. It’s impossible not to lose your way at least once, and equally impossible to leave Afflecks Palace empty-handed.

Afflecks department store in Manchester © Eugene Regis/Shutterstock

Afflecks Palace – a Manchester institution © Eugene Regis/Shutterstock

If you’re still hankering for more vintage (honestly, it’s unlikely after Afflecks Palace, but you never know), Cow and Blue Rinse are two more fabulous vintage stores in the Northern Quarter. Both these stores have incredible selections of reworked vintage items and fantastic men’s sections, absolutely ideal for perusing the rails and finding hidden treasures.

What to do

There is no lack of activities to entertain you in Manchester; a much more pressing problem will be how you choose to spend your time, as there is no way you can even begin to scratch the surface in just 24 hours.

Christened a UNESCO City of Literature in 2018, Manchester has plenty of options to tempt bibliophiles. As the home of the first lending library in Britain, it’s only appropriate to mention the various libraries you can visit. These are often as impressive for their architecture as they are for their collections.

John Rylands Library in Deansgate is a red brick Victorian library which opened to the public in 1900 and contains a Gutenberg Bible, Manchester Central Library in St Peter’s Square has a gorgeous grand-domed rotunda which calls to mind the Pantheon in Rome, and Chetham’s Library, housed in a beautiful sandstone building that dates from 1421, has been in continuous use as a public library for over 350 years.

Manchester is also the home of many literary greats including the renowned writer John Wilson, better known by his pen name, Anthony Burgess. For fans, the International Anthony Burgess Foundation is worth a visit. The Foundation is a charity that hosts various talks and events in a truly fascinating building; its exposed brickwork and pipes give the main room an industrial, rough and ready atmosphere.

Central library building Manchester © Ana del Castillo/Shutterstock

Manchester Central Library © Ana del Castillo/Shutterstock

Manchester Jewish Museum reopened in July 2021 following a lottery-funded £6 million redevelopment and extension. As well as a complete restoration of the grade II listed former synagogue, the museum now includes a new gallery, vegetarian café, shop and learning studio. It also has a fantastic roster of events, activities and exhibitions and should be high up any visitor’s list.

It would be remiss of me to write an article about Manchester and not mention football; even though football doesn’t feature highly on my personal list of interests, it’s also true that the region’s proud footballing heritage is something to be marvelled at. I saw many a blue Manchester city and red Manchester United shirt as I explored.

For those that way inclined, a trip to the National Football Museum will provide you with a deeper understanding of the beautiful game; check the website before you go to find out if it is currently hosting one of its many pop-up exhibitions which are always worth checking out.

Inspired? Discover the best free things to do in Manchester.

National Football Museum in Manchester © Marina J/Shutterstock

National Football Museum in Manchester © Marina J/Shutterstock

Where to drink

If you’ve made it to the evening and need to find a place to kick back and relax with a beer (or two, or three), you could do much worse than Society. It calls itself ‘Manchester’s social culinary adventure’ and in my experience, it lived up to its name!

There’s a relaxed, convivial atmosphere inside, where patrons sit together on long wooden tables and can choose from five independent street food vendors offering such delights as loaded fries and burgers, South Indian curries, pulled pork buns and delicious pizzas with seasonal toppings, as well as a cocktail bar and a specialist tap room.

Likewise, Escape to Freight Island is a world unto itself. Restaurants, bars and live entertainment including comedy, DJs and music as well as the occasional film night are packed into an open-air ex-freight depot. If that sounds like a wild ride, it absolutely can be – but somehow, Escape to Freight Island also manages to maintain a certain easygoing feel, which is surprising given just how much there is going on there to get stuck into.

Tib Street, a hot spot of indie bars and coffee houses in Manchester's innovative Northern Quarter © Lachlan1/Shutterstock

Bars and cafés on Tib Street in Manchester's Northern Quarter © Lachlan1/Shutterstock

Just outside of the city centre and a short walk from the Northern Quarter, the Marble Arch Inn (affectionately known as just ‘The Arch’) is a gorgeous and relaxed pub that has won multiple awards and that was used as a location during the filming of the BBC Drama It’s A Sin which aired in 2021.

The bar is beautifully ornate and the mosaiced floor slopes gently downward towards it. There’s a real charm to this pub, with friendly staff and a menu of traditional pub classics if you’re after a hearty meal.

Where to stay in Manchester

For those lucky enough to be spending MORE than 24 hours in Manchester (because while you can always spend more time in this stunning city, you can never have enough time here), Native Aparthotel is an ideal place to stay.

Here you’ll find 166 gorgeous industrial-chic apartments in a grade II listed building just a 3-minute walk from the station (I was extremely relieved to not have to lug my bags across town). The building and rooms themselves are works of art, but ones that are comfortable to sleep in. Who knew that those existed!

Native Manchester  © Annie Warren

Native Manchester © Annie Warren

It's ideally situated above Ducie Street Warehouse, meaning cocktails, coffee, brunch, doughnuts, and all-day deli and even a cinema are just a lift-ride away. All apartments come with living rooms and kitchens, so you have the option to self-cater if you prefer.

As is the way with many great love affairs, I wasn’t looking for romance when I visited Manchester; but the city totally swept me off my feet. After several months of a long-distance relationship, I’ll be making a big commitment in the not-too-distant future and moving my life up north to be with my one true love. This author is Manchester-bound.

Planning your own trip to the city? Find out why Manchester is one of Britain's cultural hotspots and find your perfect place to stay in the city.

Top image: Bars and cafés on Tib Street in Manchester's Northern Quarter © Lachlan1/Shutterstock

Annie Warren

written by
Annie Warren

updated 15.09.2022

Annie Warren is a Midlands-based writer, translator and editor at Rough Guides. Other than the UK, she specialises in writing about France, Italy and Austria. You can find her on Twitter as @notanniewarren or see more of her work at www.annie-warren.com.

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