Some of the most livable and visitable cities in the world are those with histories of profound socioeconomic decline from formative periods of unbridled prosperity. It’s in those places, often in the looming shadows of greedy metropolises, in which gay travellers are most likely to find innovative expressions of art and culture by most interesting and welcoming locals. Manchester, in Northwest England, is one of those cities. It rebuffs the glamour and gravitas of London and so may not be a destination that springs immediately to mind for gay travellers planning sojourn in the United Kingdom. But as a city in the midst of rejuvenation, or for those looking to become truly acquainted with authentic British culture on an intimate level, Manchester really is worth a stop. It just might be among the most gay-friendly places you’ll visit.
Canal St is the epicentre of gay nightlife in Manchester.
Manchester Pride 2011 Grand Marshal Pam Ann and her flight crew before the parade.
Mixologist Ray demonstrates the Smokey Old Fashioned at The Alchemist.
Stops on the Lesbian and Gay Heritage Trail through central Manchester are marked by mosaic tiles laid into the pavement.
The Wheel of Manchester in Exchange Square, a short walk from the gay village, is due to be upgraded and perhaps relocated this spring.
"Father of computer science, mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, victim of prejudice," reads the dedication on the Alan Turing Memorial in Sackville Park.
A reveller in the 2011 Manchester Pride parade.
The hearth and home of Manchester’s gay community lies along and around Canal St in the city’s core. It’s here that the original 1999 television series Queer as Folk
was set and shot, which is perhaps why this charming and tidy cobblestone street with its contiguous string of spacious gay bars and clubs feels so familiar even to the first-time visitor. This is not by any measure a gay village or community in decline. The place hops at weekends, with a selection of nightlife for every taste. There is also a complete and mature gay community apparatus; the Western gay franchise system of rainbow flags, community centres and organizations, historical markers and Pride celebrations.
Central Manchester is very walkable. Following the city’s Lesbian and Gay Heritage Trail is a great way to find the lay of the land. On foot, grab a copy of the Manchester Gay and Lesbian Village Guide
from the Manchester Visitor Information Centre on Piccadilly Plaza. Then from Canal St, spot and follow the rainbow-flag tiles embedded in the pavement. Following the whole route could take a couple of hours, but you’ll likely get pleasantly distracted along the way. Tap into Manchester’s gay zeitgeist quickly by picking up a copy of local publication Outnorthwest
or by tuning in to Gaydio at 88.4 FM or online at gaydio.co.uk
. You’ll find Mancunians friendly and eager to know and welcome visitors, especially those from Canada.
, a large for-everyone social venue on Canal St the first night in Manchester: "Fancy a snog?" asked the gorgeous and smiling young guy with the tattooed arms.
I stood out as a stranger in the city, and likely as Canadian. He intercepted me on the way to the men’s room. I thought I knew what a snog is but didn’t want to be wrong.
"I’m sorry," I said. "I’m not from around here. What’s a snog?"
He rolled his deep brown eyes, glanced away and back.
"A French kiss," he dared with curled lip and raised eyebrow.
It was a soft and brief encounter, a warm, sincere and welcoming kiss between strangers, one of those tiny but unforgettable travel highlight moments. And it embodies the friendly cheekiness and swagger of Mancunians. That’s not to suggest spit-swapping is a customary greeting. The story is merely a titillating example of a sentiment expressed in myriad ways to visitors: random conversations on street corners, sample tastes in shops, friendly smiles and ribbing from those who overhear your accent, eh.
Football has been the most popular sport in the United Kingdom since the 1860s, and it is Manchester’s beating heart. Home to Premier League teams Manchester United
and Manchester City
as well as the National Football Museum
, the city revolves around the game. The season runs virtually all year, and even if you’re not a sports fan or know nothing about soccer, the spectacle ought not to be missed.
For the theatre buff, the architecturally fascinating Royal Exchange Theatre
offers a seemingly perpetual roster of affordable programming and community events. It’s also a good place for a quick coffee or tea when you’re out and about during the day.
A book lover? Chetham’s Library
is a remarkable example of 15th-century architecture, bearing distinction as the oldest working public library in the English-speaking world. It’s also the site of early collaboration between Communist theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Call ahead for access, tours and reading-room time.
Interested in artistic expression as activism and shaper of popular culture? Manchester Art Gallery
has a great collection of pre-Raphaelite works. Admission is free.
Make a brief visit to the Alan Turing
Memorial in Sackville Park. You’ll remember Turing as the genius who broke the Enigma Code, allowing Allied forces to predict the movements of German U-boats during the Second World War, and who laid the foundations for modern digital computing. Despite his contributions, he committed suicide in 1954 following his conviction and public humiliation for gross indecency after admitting to having had sex with another man. This year is the 100th anniversary of Turing’s birth, and there’s something about using your iThing to snap and face-tweet a picture of that statue that smacks of sweet justice and the circle of life.
One of the most tiresome cliché
s about the UK in general and Manchester in particular is the pork-pie and take-away curry reputation for bland, boiled and batter-fried food. Mancunians seem to preemptively and apologetically insist they have been trying really hard to build their in-kitchen brain trust. And honestly, it’s not at all peculiar when in Manchester to squelch hunger pangs by simply wolfing down whatever street meat you happen upon. Cuisine just isn’t as central to cultural expression as it is in some cities — nor is hockey, snorkelling or bullfighting — and that’s just part of the practical charm. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some real resto-gems to be found in Manchester. Australasia
offers a world-class dining experience. The décor and vibe are modern-chic, the service is incredible and the menu of Euro-Asian fusion delights is to-die-for. Every detail is topnotch here, making it easily worth a splurge. For a more casual choice, Smoak Bar and Grill
offers a delicious selection of beef dishes that might be described as British-American fusion. The place has great atmosphere.
For a truly unique cocktail bar experience, take your friends to The Alchemist
. Aside from fine food and amazing cocktail concoctions, this place offers a cocktail master class in which resident mixologists will teach your group of six or eight how to make some of the amazing drinks offered at the bar. It’s a lot of fun and you get to drink your work. Try the Smokey Old Fashioned; it’s more experience than cocktail.
, which falls in the second half of August, is a fantastic spectacle. This is a well-developed and -attended, star-studded celebration that seems to be by, about and for gay people. In 2003, having wrestled with the corporate-sponsorship-versus-community-constituents-conundrum and in the face of a looming financial crisis, the Manchester Pride organization took an initially controversial but ultimately effective approach to liberating itself and ensuring its future stability. Rather than relying entirely on corporate sponsorship and government support money to pay the bills, Pride’s constituents — its communities of gay people and festival attendees — became its financiers. Manchester Pride charges a cover fee — not for stage areas or beer gardens, but for general festival admission. The gay village is entirely fenced off for the duration of the event, a period of days, and admission is restricted to those who have purchased the requisite wristbands. Attendees actually pay for Pride, quite modestly, on an individual basis. The notion of paying for Pride may be something of a bitter pill, but Manchester Pride is not beholden to the whims of corporate sponsors or conservative politicians; it is run by gay people, it puts on an amazing celebration, and donates tens of thousands of pounds to local gay and lesbian organizations each year.
Inside the gates, the bars and clubs of Canal St do a swift trade. You can walk freely in the streets with a drink in your hand. The atmosphere is electric. It’s one of the best Pride experiences to be had.
For complete listings and more information on Manchester, visit guidemag.com.
And start planning your time there at Visit Manchester.