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.