Standing proud in the 1700s as the empire’s second city, Liverpool faced a dramatic change in fortune in the twentieth century, suffering a series of harsh economic blows and ongoing urban deprivation. But the outlook changed again at the turn of the millennium, as economic and social regeneration brightened the centre and old docks, and the city’s stint as European Capital of Culture in 2008 transformed the view from outside.
Today Liverpool is a dynamic, exciting place: it’s a vibrant city with a Tate Gallery of its own, a series of innovative museums and a fascinating social history. And of course it also makes great play of its musical heritage – as well it should, considering that this is the place that gave the world The Beatles.
The main sights are scattered throughout the centre of town, but you can easily walk between most of them. The River Mersey provides one focus, whether crossing on the famous ferry to the Wirral peninsula or taking a tour of the Albert Dock.
Beatles sights could easily occupy another day. If you want a cathedral, they’ve “got one to spare” as the song goes; plus there’s a fine showing of British art in the celebrated Walker Art Gallery and Tate Liverpool, a multitude of exhibits in the terrific World Museum Liverpool, and a revitalized arts and nightlife urban quarter centred on FACT, Liverpool’s showcase for film and the media arts.
Budget chains are well represented in Liverpool, with Premier, Travel Inn, Ibis, Express by Holiday Inn and others all with convenient city-centre locations, including down by Albert Dock and near Mount Pleasant.
Mathew Street, ten minutes’ walk west of Lime Street Station, is now a little enclave of Beatles nostalgia, most of it bogus and typified by the Cavern Walks Shopping Centre, with a bronze statue of the boys in the atrium. The Cavern club, where the band was first spotted by Brian Epstein, saw 275 Beatles’ gigs between 1961 and 1963; it closed in 1966 and was partly demolished in 1973, though a latter-day successor, the Cavern Club at 10 Mathew St, complete with souvenir shop, was rebuilt on the original site.
The Cavern Pub, across the way, boasts a coiffed Lennon mannequin lounging against the wall and an exterior “Wall of Fame” highlighting the names of all the bands who appeared at the club between 1957 and 1973 as well as brass discs commemorating every Liverpool chart-topper since 1952 – the city has produced more UK No. 1 singles than any other. There’s more Beatlemania at The Beatles Shop, 31 Mathew St, which claims to have the largest range of Beatles gear in the world.
For a personal and social history, head to the Albert Dock for The Beatles Story, which traces the band’s rise from the early days to their disparate solo careers. Then it’s on to the two houses where John Lennon and Paul McCartney grew up. Both 20 Forthlin Rd, home to the McCartney family from 1955 to 1964, and the rather more genteel Mendips, where Lennon lived with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George between 1945 and 1963, are only accessible on pre-booked National Trust minibus tours, which run from both the city centre and Speke Hall, seven miles south. The experience is disarmingly intimate, whether you’re sitting in John Lennon’s bedroom – which has its original wallpaper – on a replica bed looking out, as he would have done, onto his front lawn, or simply entering Paul’s tiny room and gazing at pictures of his childhood.
Seven miles north of Liverpool city centre, Crosby Beach was an innocuous, if picturesque, spot until the arrival in 2005 of Antony Gormley’s haunting Another Place installation, spread along more than 1000 yards of the shore. An eerie set of a hundred life-size cast-iron statues, each cast from Gormley’s own body, are buried at different levels in the sand, all gazing out to sea and slowly becoming submerged as high tide rolls in.
Most eating choices are in three distinct areas – at Albert Dock, around Hardman and Hope streets, and along Berry and Nelson streets, the heart of Liverpool’s Chinatown. Alternatively, take a short taxi ride out to Lark Lane in Aigburth, close to Sefton Park, where a dozen eating and drinking spots pack into one short street.
The Heritage Market at Stanley Dock attracts around 200 stalls, including delicious food (along with retro clothing and antiques) every Sunday. In the RopeWalks area, most action is centred on Concert Square.
The business district’s Victoria Street is a fast-developing area for bars and nightlife, as is Albert Dock. Liverpool’s club scene is famously unpretentious, with posing playing second fiddle to drinking and dancing.
Popular annual festivals include Beatles Week (last week of Aug) and the Mathew Street Festival (Aug Bank Hol; w mathewstreetfestival.co.uk), with half a million visitors dancing to hundreds of local, national and tribute bands.
As for the classical music scene, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, ranked with Manchester’s Hallé as the northwest’s best, dominates. The evening paper, the Liverpool Echo and w liverpool.com have events listings.
Liverpool gained its charter from King John in 1207, but remained a humble fishing village for half a millennium until the booming slave trade prompted the building of the first dock in 1715. From then until the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1807, Liverpool was the apex of the slaving triangle in which firearms, alcohol and textiles were traded for African slaves, who were then shipped to the Caribbean and America where they were in turn exchanged for tobacco, raw cotton and sugar. After the abolition of the trade, the port continued to grow into a seven-mile chain of docks, not only for freight but also to cope with wholesale European emigration, which saw nine million people leave for the Americas and Australasia between 1830 and 1930. During the 1970s and 1980s Liverpool became a byword for British economic malaise, but the waterfront area of the city was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004, spurring major refurbishment of the city’s magnificent municipal and industrial buildings.
Top image: Albert Dock at Liverpool waterfront - Shutterstock