Manchester, UK: The new 'cool' capital north of London

Manchester was once a powerhouse of the British Empire and one of the world's great industrial cities. The looms in its mills clacked, coal-loaded barges crowded its canals, steam engines spat and hooted. Start a visit at the palatial Royal Exchange and you'll get a good impression of the panache and power of the Victorian city. Pink, cathedral-like pillars froth with gilt like exotic palm trees and hold up a vast glass dome. The chamber beneath was once the world's largest commercial room, where cottons and textiles were traded. In the early 20th century, 80 per cent of the world's finished cotton goods were traded though Manchester.

High on the Royal Exchange's wall you can see the figures on its trading board that show its last day of trading on December 31, 1968. It's an epitaph to Manchester's slow slide from commercial fame and fortune. The empire was gone, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Britain's industrial base mostly vanished too. Manchester became a necropolis of empty buildings. The only thing left for the city, it seemed, was its famous soccer team and a reputation for music: bands such as Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Stone Roses and Oasis all emerged in this northern English city.

"Three significant events shaped the re-emergence of Manchester, and it actually started longer ago than people think," says my Blue Badge guide Emma Fox. "In the 1960s, the redevelopment of inner-city Hulme made it a hub of somewhat alternative culture. A Sex Pistols concert in 1976 kick-started the music scene. And in 1996, a massive IRA bomb devastated a swathe of the city centre, but ultimately transformed the downtown shopping district."

These seeds of change took some time to germinate, but in the last decade something extraordinary has happened. Manchester has reasserted itself, scrubbed down its blackened mills, updated its gritty, industrial image and hauled itself into the here-and-now to become one of Britain's most happening urban centres. If your perceptions have yet to catch up with this new reality, prepare for a very pleasant surprise, because Manchester is a destination well worth visiting.

What's particularly pleasing is that Mancunians have achieved this renaissance without abandoning their northern, down-to-earth friendliness or forgetting their impressive industrial heritage. A hipster city is only so interesting, but one that combines contemporary buzz with a keen appreciation of history adds more interesting layers to a visit. It's this clash and co-operation that makes Manchester a fine place to linger. The grandiose architecture that represents Victorian-era optimism is all around, yet so is a heady atmosphere of 21st-century optimism, too.

"Mancunians have a forward-looking, can-do attitude and a bit of swagger. We're proud of being at the forefront of the industrial revolution, and proud of what we've recently achieved to get our city back," says Fox.

The city centre, with its street buzz and air of affluence, is a good place to start wandering. The Gothic style is favoured, giving Manchester city centre quite a different look from the mostly Georgian downtown of nearby Liverpool. It has bulky, confident Victorian buildings, many with quirky modern additions. Neo-Gothic Rylands Library sits beside a contemporary Emporio Armani in the middle of an uber-chic complex that wraps around an old oast house. The main reading hall of the Central Library recently emerged from a four-year renovation, and is linked to the adjacent Rates Hall by a plaza over which a formless silver-metal roof floats like a blimp from outer space.

These are only two examples. Grand former cotton warehouses flaunting Italianate architecture are everywhere, often sporting extensions in glass and steel. It's well worth stepping into some of their lobbies for a look-see. Ornate curlicues blossom, statues of earnest Victorian do-gooders pose, but there might also be a cafe of scattered, funky chairs where hipsters tap on laptops; beards, it seems, have made a comeback, though flat caps remain a thing of the past.

The former Corn Exchange, recently reopened, is now full of fashion boutiques and eateries serving pho, tacos and Brazilian barbecued meat. Outside, the half-timbered, mid-1500s Old Wellington Inn sits plonk in the middle of Manchester's post-bomb shopping hub, as if it's fallen through a hole in time. At the other end of the pedestrian shopping street, St Ann's Church, pretty in pink local sandstone, stands equally incongruous in a clash of glass-fronted high-street stores.

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Some buildings haven't changed at all since the old days. The town hall is a mindboggling statement of Manchester's heyday wealth, and often stands in for London's Houses of Parliament in movies. Head inside the vast castle-like building to admire winding stone staircases like something out of a Gothic horror movie; the cafe in the lobby is one of the few places in the city where you can get a good Lancashire hotpot. For a quintessential slice of Victorian England, though, head into The Portico Library. Sagging armchairs, marble busts and shelves of leather-bound books sit in the aquarium light thrown down by a stained-glass dome. At the back is a private members' area in pools of lamplight.

There's more to Manchester, though, than just its downtown core. It has one of Europe's largest Chinatowns, and its Northern Quarter has become a quirky district of op shops, independent fashion stores, curry houses and live-music venues; a former fish market has been converted into a crafts centre. And the canal docks area west of the city is now home to Britain's largest theatre outside London, the northern headquarters of the BBC (where you can take behind-the-scenes tours) and an art gallery with a significant space dedicated to L.S. Lowry, an early-20th-century painter noted for his grim industrial scenes of Manchester.

Rather pleasingly, Manchester has taken care to preserve its industrial heritage. A railway terminus from which industrial goods were once sent across the world now hosts the Museum of Science and Industry, which takes a stroll through the story of textile production, electricity and Victorian-era sewage systems. It's part of a wider heritage park at Castlefield where you can also see the world's first public railway station (1830) and industrial canal (1764), now a backdrop to evening gastro-pubs and bars.

"Manchester was No. 1 in the world and then nothing, and we had to reinvent ourselves," Fox concludes over a beer. As reinventions go, it's an impressive result.

FIVE MUST-SEE MUSEUMS

MANCHESTER ART GALLERY

After a recent revamp and extension that nearly doubled its exhibition spaces, this is now one of the country's best galleries. Decorative arts are at the fore, including porcelain, silverware, furniture, metalware and glass, as well as fashion through the centuries. But there are also notable collections of Dutch Masters, Turner seascapes and Pre-Raphaelite works, and a strong emphasis on Victorian and Edwardian paintings. www.manchesterartgallery.org

IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM NORTH

This offshoot of the London museum outshines its parent, especially when it comes to high-tech, interactive experiences and exhibition spaces in the brilliant, odd-angled aluminium building that houses them. The focus is on wars of the last century, with audio-visual and other displays running the gamut from World War I to the Iraq conflict. Kudos for a lack of war glorification, and the museum's focus on how war affects ordinary people. www.iwm.org.uk

WHITWORTH ART GALLERY

This gallery reopened last year after a two-year revamp; a new wing provides big windows that wonderfully frame the surrounding park. It features ever-changing contemporary and outsider art and some splendid works by William Turner. The textile galleries have an impressive range of Islamic embroidery, Italian silks and historical fabrics, some of which date back to the 3rd century. www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk

MANCHESTER MUSEUM

This university museum epitomises the inquisitive spirit of Manchester's great Victorian flourishing, from the gothic revival building it inhabits to its wide-ranging exhibitions on archaeology, natural history and anthropology. The Egyptian gallery is outstanding; there are fine collections from Roman Britain and an interesting look at the history of writing. Kids will enjoy its vivarium, Tyrannosaurus rex and regular activities. www.museum.manchester.ac.uk

NATIONAL FOOTBALL MUSEUM

This is one of Manchester's latest museum additions. The triangular, glass building houses the memorabilia you might expect, from football jerseys to signed World Cup balls. Yet it goes beyond this with an excellent explanation of soccer history and of the importance of soccer to its fans, and has terrific interactive experiences in which you can attempt penalty shootouts or test your football commentary skills. www.nationalfootballmuseum.com

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.visitbritain.com and www.visitmanchester.com

GETTING THERE

Cathay Pacific has over 70 flights a week to Hong Kong from six Australian cities including Sydney (nine hours) and Melbourne (nine hours) with onward daily connections to Manchester (13.5 hours). Phone 131 747, www.cathaypacific.com.au

STAYING THERE

Innside Melia is part of First Street, one of Manchester's latest developments. Contemporary polish and comfort is matched by efficient service, and the city centre is within walking distance. Rooms from $197. www.melia.com

EATING THERE

Proper Tea opposite Manchester cathedral has light lunches of soup, sandwiches or scones, and an extensive tea menu. www.properteadeveloper.com

HOME arts and theatre venue has a restaurant with tasty share boards, salads, burgers and mains such as shepherd's pie or butternut lasagne. www.homemcr.org.

Mr Cooper's House provides upmarket, contemporary British cuisine such as hot-smoked salmon, Cumbrian rib steaks and pork chops. www.mrcoopershouseandgarden.co.uk

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Cathay Pacific and Visit Britain.

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