Our favourite anecdote of Manchester’s self-styled creative quarter comes courtesy of Oldham Street pub, the Castle Hotel. Sitting in its snug one Thursday afternoon, two drinkers notice a young couple in fancy dress: one as a cat, the other wearing a comedy moustache. Eventually the drinkers ask the pair why they are so attired. “We heard the Northern Quarter was really creative,” said the cat. “So we thought we should dress for the occasion.”
This arty bohemian neighbourhood is adjacent to the mainstream delights the city centre, yet its mix of vintage, vinyl and curry houses sets it apart. It’s a pleasure to get lost among its winding redbrick alleys and grand warehouses, which date from the Cottonopolis era. Long before the Northern Quarter turned all hip and happening, it was a place of hard graft, either for mill workers and weavers, or for those selling their market wares.
The sole survivor of the NQ’s mercantile past is the Manchester Craft & Design Centre, housed in a former fish market. Nearby is the recently rebranded Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (formerly known as the Chinese Arts Centre) and the Richard Goodall Gallery which specialises in music-oriented illustration and photography; multi-purpose spaces such as Kraak and Twenty Twenty Two also host exhibitions. But much of the art here is outside. This is the area in the city in which visitors will be most likely to be surprised by pineapples on rooftops, brooms, tropical birds and music panels embedded in the pavements. Some of this art is officially sanctioned, such as Stevenson Square’s Outhouse Project or at Affleck’s – but much of it isn’t.
Culture aside, the main pursuits here are eating, drinking (coffee or booze), independent shopping and hanging out. Current favourite cafes are the mighty North Tea Power and Teacup. Shopping options cluster around the main drag, Oldham Street; this bus-choked road boasts muso treasures such as Piccadilly Records, vintage shops galore and cute independent shops. And no retail visit to the NQ is complete without a wander around the stands at Afflecks, a diverse shopping emporium beloved of the city’s alternative tribes and host to ice cream parlour extraordinaire Ginger’s Comfort Emporium.
Back in its sketchier days, the Northern Quarter used to be off-limits after dark. Now it’s one of the city’s best haunts for nocturnal fun, with scores of after-hours drinkers hopping between independent bars. Neighbourhood mainstay Common hosts regular art exhibitions while sister venue, Port Street Beer House, pulls in serious beer drinkers. Live music options include the Night and Day Café and Band on the Wall.
Hungry? Good news: The Northern Quarter is arguably the city’s best location for cheap eats. Get past the unprepossessing décor and dig in at one of the “rice and three” curry houses; our favourites are Yadgar Cafe (Thomas Street) and This & That (Soap Street). Or choose between impressive tapas at Evuna, quality food and wine at Bakerie, or a fry-up at Koffee Pot, the closest thing in town to an American diner.