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.
The major impetus behind the new Liverpool is its bar and club scene. Within a few hundred yards of the redeveloped Concert Square are more than a dozen bars. And unlike the closed-by-11 pubs in most British cities, these are allowed to stay open until three in the morning. DJ's and bands play on weekends, transforming them into free nightclubs.
"Liverpool bars are way ahead of those in almost any other British city," says Miles Falkingham of Liverpool's Union North, the design firm behind many of Concert Square's haunts. Baa Baa, opened in 1991, was the blueprint: a confluence of exposed beams and welded steel furniture, the converted warehouse was the first late-license bar-cum-club. A more recent Union North project was the ultrahip Modo complex, which encompasses Not Sushi, a basement Japanese noodle bar. In the complex's Rocomodo bar, girls in gauzy dresses drape themselves across huge sofas.
A five-minute walk north of Concert Square is Ziba. In a former car showroom, Liverpool's best new restaurant veers toward the creative (Lancastrian cheese boudin appetizer, marmalade brûlée). The airy space is done up in blond wood, punctuated by leather-and-chrome chairs.
On Saturday night I make my way to the nightlife epicenter. Opened in 1992 in an old ammunition factory, Cream is now a worldwide institution, with its own record label and clothing line, and a touring company that sends DJ's to clubs as far afield as Australia. On Saturday nights as many as 3,000 ravers from all over the north of England flock here. A recent survey among new students at John Moores University found that 70 percent chose Liverpool because they wanted to party at Cream. Taxi drivers aren't fazed by taking revelers home to Wrexham, 60 miles away; tour buses come from as far as Birmingham and Glasgow.
When I arrive just past midnight the club is kicking in. Mellow house sounds fill the terraced VIP bar; the beat is harder and the atmosphere more electric in the main arena. Dense fog-machine smoke is cut by flashing colored lights and the flailing hands of manic ravers. It's so packed I can't make my way across the room.
I've seen clubbers dressed more fashionably in London, but I've never seen any as wild and uninhibited as at Cream. While the guys wear roughly the same clothes-- T-shirts, button-downs-- the girls compete to be as indecent as possible: tiny bikini and tube tops, skintight short shorts. Makeup is heavy and streaked by sweat. It's closer to a Mediterranean beach party than an inner-city disco.
The shop that has had a Cream-like impact on the city's fashion scene is Wade Smith, packed with Gucci, Prada, all the big names. In the store's athletic area, a 45-foot climbing wall rises above the Tommy Hilfiger and Reebok boutiques. Previously known for wearing little more than T-shirts and strapless dresses-- even in winter-- Liverpudlians are now turning to designer and street-wear labels to make their sartorial statements.
On my last day in Liverpool, I could not resist taking the famous Mersey ferry (and yes, they actually play that Gerry and the Pacemakers song at the end of the journey). The 50-minute trip offers a crackly commentary on the city's history, and provides glorious vistas of the waterfront. No less impressive is the tall trio of buildings near the ferry terminal itself. Legend has it that if the 18-foot-high copper birds perched atop the Royal Liver Building's two sculptured clock towers-- seemingly part eagle and part cormorant-- ever fly away, Liverpool will cease to exist. It's true that they may need a spot of paint and have looked down on better times, but the Liver Birds seem set to stay put for a good few years yet.
Will these twin cities overtake London as the next big thing? Ask Tony Wilson, a man who has been inextricably linked with the area since founding Factory Records in 1979 (the label for groundbreaking cult bands like Joy Division and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark). "I've always thought this should be a major world-travel destination on the basis of one word: revolution," he says. "The northwest of England is the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. It has also seen the Romantic revolution of such Lake District poets as Wordsworth and Coleridge; and even the digital revolution-- one of the first commercial computers was invented here fifty years ago. And it's been the fount of pop-cultural revolutions for the past forty years, from the Beatles to Oasis. These are revolutions that have changed all our lives."
the beatles were here
Despite the city's newfound hipness, the spirit of the Fab Four remains very much alive in Liverpool. Take a sentimental trip to the Cavern Club (1 Mathew St.; 44-151/236-9091), where the Beatles first performed (they made 272 appearances between February 1961 and August 1963). The original Cavern was bulldozed; a brick pub has been built in its place. Skip the nearby Lennon Bar, Abbey Road Pub, and Beatles Shop open "eight days a week"-- they're soulless. A better bet is the Jacaranda Club (Slater St.; 44-151/708-0233), once owned by the group's first manager, Allan Williams. The Beatles used to play, rehearse, and hang out here; murals by Stu Sutcliffe, the bassist who quit before the band made it, are still on the basement walls. Another worthy stop is the Beatles Story (Albert Dock; 44-151/709-1963; $10.50), an exhibit with reconstructions of the Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road Studio 2. Even non-fans won't want to miss the Magical Mystery Tour (44-151/236-9091; $14.50) aboard a bus modeled after the one in the 1968 film. During the ride, guides tell stories and encourage sing-alongs as you visit Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields, and Paul McCartney's childhood house, where he and John Lennon wrote some of the band's first songs. The house was recently bought by the National Trust-- its first purchase of a council house-- and restored to its working-class 1950's décor. The tour is Liverpool's best ticket to ride.
Both in the north of England, Manchester and Liverpool are 45 minutes apart by train. Most visitors fly into the Manchester airport.
Malmaison Piccadilly; 44-161/278-1000, fax 44-161/278-1002; doubles from $120.
Crowne Plaza Midland Peter St.; 800/465-4329 or 44-161/236-3333, fax 44-161/932-4107; doubles from $241. A spacious Edwardian hotel.
The Palace Oxford St.; 44-161/288 1111, fax 44-161/288 2222; doubles from $225. Former headquarters of a large insurance company.
Trials Hotel 56 Castle St.; 44-151/227-1021, fax 44-151/236-0110; doubles from $161. A Victorian bank turned hotel.
The Swallow 1 Queen Square; 44-151/476-8000; doubles $194. A new boutique hotel on Queen Square, where a Princess Diana Memorial Garden recently opened.
Woolton Redbourne Acrefield Rd., Woolton; 44-151/428-2152, fax 44-151/421-1501; doubles from $148. A country-house hotel 20 minutes from the city center.
Harry Ramsden's 1 Water St., Castlefield; 44-161/832-9144; dinner for two $16. Home to that British culinary delight, fish-and-chips.
Market Restaurant Edge St., Smithfield; 44-161/834-3743; dinner for two $96. Before the designer newcomers, this was the place-- honest British cooking.
Nico Central Mount St.; 44-161/236-6488; dinner for two $77. A twist on standard brasserie: Aberdeen Angus Beef; pasta with squid in bouillabaisse sauce.
Simply Heathcotes Jacksons Row; 44-161/835-3536; dinner for two $112.
Sticky Fingers 2 St. Mary's St.; 44-161/835-4141; dinner for two $48. Bill Wyman's burgers-and-fries joint, full of Rolling Stones memorabilia.
Yang Sing 34 Princess St.; 44-161/236-2200; dinner for two $52. The best Chinese food in town.
Café Jazbar North Quay, Atlantic Pavilion, Albert Dock; 44-151/707-1004. A jazz-themed spot on the Mersey.
Hub Café 9 Berry St.; 44-151/707-9495. A veggie café attached to a bicycle shop; all the furniture is made out of old bike parts.
Not Sushi 2325 Fleet St.; 44-151/709-8894; dinner for two $40.
Taste The Colonnades, Albert Dock; 44-151/709-7097. Next to the newly refurbished Tate Gallery. Try scouse, the stew that gave rise to Scousers, the nickname for Liverpudlians.
Ziba 1519 Berry St.; 44-151/708-8870; dinner for two $34.
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (Doubleday)-- Hilarious perspectives on both cities in this British travelogue by an American writer.
Rock & Roll Traveler: Great Britain and Ireland by Ed Glinert and Tim Perry (Fodor's)-- A fun guide to rock-and-roll landmarks in the area.
City Life Guide to Manchester and the North West of England (4th Estate)-- Useful guide produced by the editors of the city's nightlife magazine. -- P.W.
On the Web
Virtual Manchester (www.manchester.com)-- Wander among chat rooms, then check out the walking tour, maps, and tram and taxi information. Coming soon to the site: the Northwest X Files, dedicated to the local spooky and supernatural.
Liverpool Visitor Information (www.liverpool.gov.uk)-- Official government site; loaded with useful tips.
A Dictionary of Slang (www.totalweb.co.uk/dweb/ted/slangint.htm)-- Ever get annoyed by how difficult it is to understand Brits?("Simon is such a wally. He hasn't belled me in yonks!") Now you can find the translation. ("Simon is such a dummy. He hasn't called me in ages!")
-- EMILY BERQUIST
The Designer Dozen
Alaska 69 The Arches, Whitworth St. W.; 44-161/236-2011. Good things come in small spaces-- check out the in-house art gallery.
Atlas 376 Deansgate; 44-161/834-2124. A former garage with a fantastic curved façade and views all the way up Deansgate.
Dry Bar 2830 Oldham St.; 44-161/236-9840. The original designer bar.
Barça Arches 8 and 9, Catalan Square, Castlefield; 44-161/839-7099. You know it's cool when Simply Red's Mick Hucknall is a part-owner.
Manto 46 Canal St.; 44-161/236-2667. Catalyst for a recent explosion of bars in the surrounding Gay Village.
Mash 40 Chorlton St.; 44-161/661-6161. So popular that on Friday and Saturday nights you'll need to befriend the bouncers to get in.
Arena 1 Concert Square; 44-151/709-2491. Next to the forward-thinking Modo Complex, this crowded bar defines hip.
Baa Bar 4345 Fleet St.; 44-151/707-0610. Where the ravers dwell before going to Cream (some never leave).
Beluga 2440 Wood St.; 44-151/708-8896. An industrial warehouse of riveted beams and exposed brickwork.
Biba Concert Square; 44-151/708-8721. Stake out a window seat for a view of the Concert Square hustle.
Mello Mello 4042 Slater St.; 44-151/707-0898. Cream's darker, gothic sibling.
Revolution Wood St.; no phone. This revolution is a wash of red, with Soviet art, Constructivist posters, thick velvet curtains, and a vodka bar.