Sometimes the places we find the most inspiring aren’t big-ticket attractions; they’re the tranquil spots to take a book, or top places to people-watch. These are some of our best-loved locations to linger, and they’re free – no obligatory coffee refills here.
Take selfies with a genius in tiny, peaceful Sackville Gardens. This green spot includes a life-size bronze statue of the computer pioneer, Alan Turing, on one of its benches. Turing invented the computer and was a wartime code breaker. It’s a short stroll away from the colourful bars and cafes of the Gay Village ranged down Canal Street.
Gifted to the city in 1903 and now cared for by one of the UK’s oldest astronomical societies (Manchester Astronomical Society), lovely little Godlee Observatory is tucked away on the roof of the Sackville Building (part of the University of Manchester and close to Piccadilly Station). The society meets weekly and welcomes visits from potential members – contact them to arrange a visit and glory in the beauty of the night sky.
The rivers and canals make Manchester a city of water that is mostly hidden in plain sight. We love meandering along the towpath, especially through Castlefield, with a stop off at the canalside suntrap near Bridgewater Hall. The sinuous bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava that crosses the River Irwell is also a high point: with the Lowry Hotel on one side and Bridge Street on the other, this white pedestrian bridge connects two cities that are just a river’s width apart.
Speaking of Castlefield, the Roman ruins and amphitheatre at Castlefield hosts outdoor music and arts events in summer, and is a decent spot to sit and enjoy the area’s peace and quiet. When Manchester lost its bid to host the Olympics back in the 1990s, those gathered at the amphitheatre to hear the live results responded in typical Mancunian fashion: the crowd broke into a spontaneous rendition of Always look on the Bright Side of Life.
The tiny winding streets of the Northern Quarter near Back Thomas Street and nearby Withy Grove are unlike any other district in the city centre, full of some restored, other half derelict former warehouses that are a reminder of this area’s former textiles and market-trading past. Crumbling brick, metal and the textures of old buildings make for good photography fodder, and the narrow streets and fire-escape clad brick buildings make this neighbourhood a popular stand-in for Manhattan with European film crews.
People who’re looking for things to do on one of our not-infrequent rainy days might enjoy perusing the North West Film Archive. This incredible archive of all kinds of film relating to Manchester – documentary, propaganda, fiction and much more – is available to browse via the special pods at the newly reopened Central Library. This is a world of incredible and rare film, and it’s all free.
If it’s fine, Grosvenor Square off Oxford Road sits on the site of the former All Saints church – now part of the MMU campus of the same name. It is a park surrounded by history: the blue plaque on a building opposite denotes the site of the world-changing Pan African Conference in 1946, while the original Manchester School of Art building is just next door. A fruit van at the top of the square provides cheap sustenance (loved by students, three pieces of fruit for £1.50); the annual degree shows at the art school are free and always good.
There are pretty churches too. Manchester’s Hidden Gem and Salford’s St Philip’s Churchin Salford are beautiful and a regular hosts to live music gigs (the latter most notably for the annual Sounds from the Other City). Less well known is the fact that Smirke built an identical version of St Philip’s church in London.
An officially sanctioned street art “exhibition” on Stevenson Square in the Northern Quarter,The Out House has turned a disused toilet block into a grass-roofed outdoor gallery for regularly changing exhibitions of the best street artists in the north. Contemplate from the windows of the Koffee Pot or Slice cafes.