As an unapologetically superior Londoner, I have come to Manchester and Liverpool armed with the usual array of prejudices about urban life "up north." Neighboring cities locked in the past, I thought. Poor, derelict, and down-at-heel, victims of the loss of major industries (manufacturing, in Manchester's case; shipping, in Liverpool's). And while Manchester gave birth to the pop group Oasis and Liverpool spawned the Beatles, the inhabitants of both cities are stereotyped as being chippy and debilitatingly parochial, while believing that the rest of Britain has something against them.
But Manchester's Oldham Street tells a different story. Vibrant and street-smart, this once-abandoned thoroughfare in the city's Northern Quarter is now alive with all manner of bohemia. I wander into Dry Bar, the drinking hole that kick-started the "Madchester" rave scene of the late 1980's. Founded by Tony Wilson, the force behind the city's influential record label Factory, the cavernous Dry Bar is already busy on a Saturday afternoon. A group of recuperating clubbers wearing high-tech running shoes and baggy combat pants lean against the long steel bar, nodding along to heavy dance beats and watching soccer results flash on a huge screen (in this city, football is religion). Across the street in the labyrinthine Affleck's Palace, four floors spill over with club gear and skateboard fashions, and the basement houses Isobar, a sexy dance club. A few doors down at Arc, abstract paintings by local graffiti artists hang beside brilliantly colored street wear. Above are the Smithfield Buildings, a former department store converted into highly desirable loft apartments.
The atmosphere reminds me of the way neglected parts of London-- Covent Garden in the 1980's; more recently Clerkenwell-- have been reinvented and revived. Districts like Kreuzberg in Berlin and Temple Bar in Dublin have undergone similar radical transformations. And, as I am to discover, the vibe is echoed in the heart of Liverpool around Concert Square. Previously an area of crumbling warehouses and stores, the square and its surrounding streets have become a mecca of slick bars and stylish cafés.
"A few years ago, no one ventured past the traffic lights at the start of Oldham Street," says Arc's energetic manager Ed Matthews, as he lunches on a toasted vegetarian-sausage sandwich and thick milk shake in the nearby Café Pop. Around him is a riot of kitsch: Elvis clocks, psychedelic furniture, 1970's album covers. "But now this is the counterculture, the flip side, what's next."
Matthews's attitude is typical of a certain indefatigable Manchester spirit. A proud and prosperous mercantile city once known as the workshop of the world, Manchester had become economically blighted. Imposing civic buildings were replaced by ugly 1960's and 70's architecture. The downtown became a hub of grinding poverty and organized crime. In the 1980's, the city was known as Gunchester, largely unlovely-- and unloved.
Things have changed dramatically since then. In the city center are striking modern buildings such as the Manchester Evening News Arena, Europe's largest indoor entertainment space, and Bridgewater Hall, home to the renowned Hallé Orchestra. There is even a new tram system that lends a surprisingly Continental feel. Although the city failed in its bids to host the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games (bids that many consider important symbols of new ambitions), Manchester won the competition to stage the 2002 Commonwealth Games. And in April, it got a significant addition: Malmaison, its first designer hotel.
Part of a chic, successful northern British chain, Malmaison is named after Napoleon and Josephine's château. During its time, the château became a symbol of refinement, and that notion continues today. The hotel's launch party was an unprecedented A-list event, attended by football stars, TV celebs, and members of Oasis-- proof that a serious new player had moved in. Not that the 112-room hot spot needed a plug. Malmaison Manchester has been full since opening night. While cynics might suggest that it has little competition, its instant appeal is easily grasped. A refurbishment of a 1905 textile warehouse, the building is a confident piece of design that combines a stunning glass entrance canopy with strong colors-- mostly red and black-- throughout.
Manchester's restaurant scene has also exploded. Former nightclub impresario Oliver Peyton jump-started it with 1996's Mash & Air, a triple-decker space-age restaurant and microbrewery. London's celebrity chef Nico Ladenis recently opened Nico Central, while the equally dazzling local chef Paul Heathcote has introduced Simply Heathcotes. At the latter, regional delicacies (grilled fillet of beef with peppercorn sauce, bread-and-butter pudding) are served in a stylish room with polished wood floors and subtle neon lighting.
Fashion has leapt forward as well. Hip fashion retailer Joseph recently opened its only branch outside London, and cool Britannia designers Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith have outposts nearby. The new men's shop Aspecto offers innovative clothing and design. At the other end of the scale, the conservative Marks & Spencer is building its largest-ever department store here. Even the IRA bomb that ripped the commercial heart out of the city in 1996 could not shake the resolve of the Mancunians (as residents are called). Simply known as "the Bomb," the explosion-- the largest in mainland Britain since World War II-- left 220 people injured and caused more than $650 million worth of damage. But in the end it had a positive effect on the city, opening the floodgates of development.
Spend some time in Manchester and you'll begin to pick up on the rivalry with Liverpool. Mancunians often mention Liverpudlians' crippling inferiority complex and self-pity; Liverpudlians believe Mancunians are humorless and arrogant. There is, of course, only one way to find out the truth. After three days of Manchester bar- and café-crawling, I head 30 miles west by train.
At first sight, Liverpool seems to have less to shout about. More ravaged by economic losses and political instability, it is smaller and less polished. There are more derelict buildings in the city center; plenty of for let signs hang on unrented houses and factories. The streets look grayer and littered.
But something is afoot. For one thing, Liverpool is grander architecturally than Manchester. Stroll out of Lime Street train station and you face St. George's Hall, opened in 1854 and perhaps Europe's finest Greek Revival building. It was here that Charles Dickens gave public readings from his novels. At the southern end of Hope Street is the world's largest Anglican cathedral. Built from local sandstone in a free Gothic style, it has sweeping views from atop its 330-foot tower. Other highlights include Rodney Street's Georgian houses; the Walker Art Gallery, with its superb Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art collection; and the converted warehouses of Albert Dock.
Perhaps the most nostalgic experience is to be had at the Adelphi Hotel. The subject of a 1997 BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary that exposed its shabbiness and inefficiency, it's not a place to stay. But the chandeliered, high-ceilinged lounge will transport you back to 1912, when the hotel was built to accommodate wealthy passengers overnighting before or after a transatlantic cruise. The luxurious Adelphi was the choice of royalty, presidents, and film stars. Roy Rogers stayed there in 1954, riding his horse Trigger up the front steps and into reception.