10 things to do for free in Manchester

You don’t have to empty your bank balance to enjoy a day out in Manchester, writes Natasha Bissett.

[Photos: Natasha Bissett]

As a recently arrived Australian in the UK, it took a bit of getting used to handling pounds and pence (not dollars and cents). Fortunately, as I’ve started to settle in to Manchester I’ve found a bunch of places where I don’t even have to count out coins.

Manchester offers a great atmosphere for a walking tour. It would be a shame to try to squeeze all of these sites into one day but if you’ve got a couple of hours, it’s worth picking a couple on a similar route.  All are close to public transport (tram or bus) to make them even more convenient. It’s a great day out for tourists, or for locals wanting to explore more of their great city.

Route 1: Oxford Road to Manchester Town Hall

The University of Manchester is a wealth of history and beautiful architecture within the heart of a residential area.  Start at the University main campus which is bisected by Oxford Road. Along the main road is the central gate to the University: Whitworth Hall. The Hall was constructed in 1903 and named for local industrialist Sir Joseph Whitworth.  Inside the Old Quadrangle just beyond the gate is a touching memorial to academics and University affiliates killed in World War I.

Just next door is the Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester.  In 1821, the Manchester Natural History Museum was established from the collections of local manufacturer John Leigh Philips (1761-1814).  In 1890 the collection moved into the specially designed museum building, designed by Alfred Waterhouse, who designed main buildings for the University and the Manchester Town Hall.

Inside the museum are artefacts from Manchester and surrounding North-West areas’ long history, and special collections on culture from around the world. These include artefacts from Peru, Japan, Nigeria, and the South Pacific such as armour, weapons, art and tools. There are sections on Ancient civilizations including Roman and Egyptian, and a geography and geological section that are informative and far from yawn-worthy.  The museum has a major focus on the natural world, including an impressive collection of animals (stuffed and bones); The Vivarium (live animal gallery) of reptiles, amphibians and insects; and a re-assembled T-Rex model! Even if museums aren’t usually your cup of tea, it’s a very impressive collection with lots of interesting information. And it’s not overwhelmingly large so it won’t be a significant drain on your time.

All Saint’s Park is just up the way from the Museum (on Manchester Metropolitan University grounds) and is a nice little spot to stop and have a takeaway cuppa.  If the weather is nice there are lots of great places to sit and enjoy the outdoors, and the local university students tend to congregate which gives it a fun vibe.  Now that you’ve had a stop and a sit, how ‘bout continuing up to the Manchester Central Library, at the end of Oxford Road?

[Manchester Museum]

The Manchester Central Library was recently renovated and reopened in early April 2014.  The beautiful old building has been given a new digital lease on life. Inside the Archive+ area (just in the front door) features digital video stations (where you can sit and watch), interactive historical exhibits, and a café. Inside the main hall, where you’ll find many-a-studious university student (and others), it’s a great circular room of books and AC powered study tables. On other floors are more archives and special sections, including an impressive music collection of song-books, CDs, biographies, and theory books.

From one impressive sight to the next: behind the Library is the Manchester Town Hall, which is a beautiful old building.  In the forecourt are statues of famous locals, the largest reserved for Prince Albert.  Inside, public access to the Town Hall is often limited, but there are interesting sculptures to see.  If you’re in a rush to sample some of the great pubs and restaurants around this part of the city, it’s not a bad thing that the Town Hall, on the inside, is a little simplistic.

From the Town Hall you’re in a position to either continue towards the John Ryland Library, Manchester Cathedral and the Arndale Shopping District.  Or, head South West to the Castlefield Ruins, Museum of Science and Industry, and the Canal.

Route 2: Deansgate towards the Ruins and Canal

If you follow Deansgate from the Town Hall towards Castlefield you’ll find yourself close to the Museum of Science and Industry and the Castlefield Roman Ruins. Just beyond the ruins are the canals, which on a sunny day will be a popular place for people to soak up some local atmosphere.

The Museum of Science and Industry sits in the former Liverpool Road Station and was opened in 1969. The Museum, not surprisingly, focuses on the development of science and industry within Manchester, including communications, railways, air and space, generating power, the Industrial Revolution and textiles. Notably, the museum includes replicas of a tri-plane, and a 1954 Avro Skeleton, which was designed to fly continuously for 24 hours! There is also a section on the first Ford assembly plant outside of the USA – in Trafford.

Just down the street from the Museum is the Castlefield Conservation Area, which has Roman ruins of fort and granary set in a green space. It’s amazing to see Roman ruins that survived the industrialisation of Manchester, and it’s a great setting if the weather is nice. A short walk from the ruins towards the canal reveals cute cafes and moored canal boats, impressive in their design and that people live in them! If after wandering around Castlefield and the canals you don’t feel like a hike back to the city-centre, you can always catch the tram from nearby Castlefield Station.


Route 3: Deansgate towards Manchester Cathedral

Head East on Deansgate and you’ll walk past the John Ryland Library, part of the University of Manchester’s historic building collections. Immediately inside the Library is the book archive, which is fascinating for the vast number of books kept there. The building was constructed in 1889 in honour of John Rylands, Manchester’s first multi-millionaire, by his wife after his death. The Library often hosts special events, including musical performances to increase the ambiance of the historic building.

Continue down Deansgate and you’ll arrive at the Manchester Cathedral. It isn’t necessary to be religious to enjoy the atmosphere of this historic church. Although the current Cathedral dates from the 1800s (reconstructed in parts), there are artefacts and historic sections of the building that date from the 7th Century! Inside are the results of construction and reconstruction over centuries, which give a fascinating glimpse into the history of Manchester throughout time. A unique element inside the Cathedral is an interesting altar piece that depicts the Holy Trinity in modern times: eating fish and chips with beer!

The Cathedral has beautiful architecture which the guides will happily talk to you about, and has a large garden area adjacent. It’s a nice place to take in the atmosphere of this vibrant part of Manchester’s city centre.  Highly recommended is the tea and scones shop next door, or a number of the pubs just around the corner from the Cathedral. Across the plaza is the Arndale Shopping Centre.

If you’re visiting on a weekend, you might like to check out the local Piccadilly Street Food Market that runs on Fridays and Saturdays and features local live music, buskers, souvenir vendors, and great locally-made foods at very reasonable prices. It’s a great atmosphere in the heart of the city just a few minutes’ walk from the Piccadilly bus terminal, Manchester Coach Station, and Piccadilly Train Station. 

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