TRAVEL – Very cool Britannia: Virgin Atlantic from LAX to Manchester

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    Classic meets contemporary in Manchester, England.

    Manchester, Manchester—what can I say about the world’s first industrialized city and one that has made its mark on the world in more ways than most people realize? Such is the undercover vitality of many cool cities when they are eclipsed by their bigger brethren (in this case, London). But let me begin by comfortably asserting that Manchester is a not only a fabulous British destination in its own right but is also a great gateway to the rest of England and, indeed, the world. I recently visited Manchester on a whirlwind tour thanks to Virgin Atlantic Airways, which in case you didn’t know operates three non-stop flights a week between LAX and Manchester International Airport. 

    First finding global fame as the heart of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester has a proud history in science, politics, music, arts and sports. This is the city where the atom was first split and where the world’s first passenger railway was opened. It’s where bands like the Smiths, Oasis, Joy Division and the Stone Roses broke out. It’s the birthplace of vegetarianism, atomic theory, women’s suffrage and thermodynamics—the place pioneers like Emmeline Pankhurst, Alan Turing, LS Lowry and Anthony Burgess all called home. And, of course, Manchester’s soccer teams (they call it football), Manchester United F.C. and Manchester City F.C., are the stuff of legends. In recent years, Manchester has experienced a contemporary resurgence and it’s difficult to keep track of bar and restaurant openings; for hotels, the new industrial-chic Dakota Hotel Manchester (dakotahotels.co.uk/manchester) is among the best. Here are a few of my favorite things about Manchester:

    First, you’re not in London anymore. You probably knew this, but just as a city like Boston is a completely different beast than New York, so does Manchester march to its own drum, with its evocative Victorian architecture, converted industrial warehouses and canals and youthful energy all making it teem with northern promise. Any fan of modern British pop music will thrill to dive into the city streets that inspired the lyrics of Morrissey and Mancunians (that’s what someone from Manchester is called) and take their musical legacy seriously: Behind the entrance of the former Hacienda nightclub, in front of a manmade canal that dates from the heyday of the cotton industry, there’s an oversized and elongated plaque that notes the famous acts that performed there: Simple Minds, New Order, Thompson Twins, Boy George and Madonna, to name a few. Something to contemplate over a crisp gin and tonic, perhaps—which you can easily do at Manchester Three Rivers Gin, a gin “school” tucked into a disused railway in the Green Quarter. Up to 30 people at a time can now take part in the experience, which allows guests to learn about how they distill each bottle on site, and then produce their very own bottle of flavored gin to take home (manchesterthreerivers.com). 

    Manchester is a compact city with roots that stretch back to ancient Roman times. If you take a tumble through it with John Consterdine of Manchester Taxi Tours, you will drink in the architecture and feast on the stories on a whistle-stop, two-hour tour of the city  from the comfort of a traditional black cab, which I highly recommend (manchestertaxitours.co.uk), as well as Hayley Flynn’s great street art tour (theskyliner.org). Speaking of feast, did I mention Mackie Mayor, the former meat market on Swan Street?  It was brought back to life Quincy Market-style in October 2017 and is a wickedly fun spot to enjoy some modern British fare with flair: The fish and chips I had here was better than anything I ever had in London (mackiemayor.co.uk)!  Oh, if you thrill to architecture that looks like it walked out of the pages of an Oscar Wilde story, do go for a traditional English roast dinner at The Refuge, located in The Principal Hotel on Oxford Street (refugemcr.co.uk). 

    Manchester is a veritable cultural smorgasbord and places like the Whitworth Art Gallery and fantastic People’s History Museum are among the essentials. Pop into the beautiful John Rylands Library, built in the 1890s, or the regal old Royal Exchange building, where there’s an excellent gift shop. For serious shopping, the famous British department stores of Harvey Nichols and Selfridges tempt. Town is so fun you might forget to get out of it, but don’t: England’s scenic Peak District is just about an hour out of town and the setting of stunning Chatsworth House, built in the 1560s and home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Afternoon tea within the estate at Flying Childers, with scones and such served in a three-tiered stand, is an elegant delight. In nearby Bakewell, you can make your own Bakewell tart (bakewellpuddingshop.co.uk) and they may not be low-fat, but how delicious they are!