Premier Division Destination of the North

Costa Rica

Britain’s big cities are becoming day-trip, or weekend-away destinations to rival the best in Europe. And leading the pack is Manchester, with gleaming new museums, sizzling clubs, snazzy restaurants and some of the brightest new hotels in the north. Oh, and a football team or two. Gareth paid a visit to catch up on the Mancunian make-over.

City Spin

City centre wheels have turned a lot since Vienna –remember the famous wheel in The Third Man? The London Eye started the current craze spinning. Birmingham and York have one, and the Wheel of Manchester, in Exchange Square, is the latest. It comes from Paris on a long-term transfer, and the city hopes the deal will become permanent. Not as big as the Thames-side monster, at 195 ft high, with 42 capsules seating up to eight people, it still gives you more turns, and considerably faster spins for your money (£6). They serve champagne for celebrating groups. If you spot them, high up there, raise a glass to the city’s resident peregrine falcons. This is the simplest outdoor fun in the city. The longest attraction, in terms of time, is the all-day Ship Canal cruise, six hours from Salford to Liverpool (April to October). £32.

Shock of the New

There are two remarkable new buildings in Manchester. The aluminium-clad Imperial War Museum North, a shimmering spectacle alongside the Ship Canal. There are frequent visiting exhibitions. This museum is a short trip out of the city centre by tram.
The city’s other icon building is Urbis. Imagine New York’s Flatiron building, but in shining glass. Here, too, there are regular, changing exhibitions. A short walk from the pedestrianised city centre.

Figures from the past

A striking variety of figures from the past dominate the Manchester galleries and museum scene. The terrifying warrior goddess Astarte Syriaca, Astarte, magnificent and terrible in blue, stares out at me in Rossetti’s 1877 painting at the City Art Gallery. Lindow Man is the name given to the 2,000 year old body found in a peat bog in Cheshire in 1984. The remains bore the marks of a sacrificial killing. A new exhibition at Manchester Museum (to March 2009) will try to make sense of the many mysteries that surround him. The Whitworth Art Gallery is another gracious Manchester collection.

Sky High Drinks

The new city centre 47-storey Beetham Tower is the UK’s tallest residential building. It is so high, they had room for a hotel on the first 23 floors. The Hilton Deansgate opened in 2006, (rooms around £120 a night. Anybody is free to try out the new Wonder of the North (along with a local footballing hero or two) in the Cloud 23 bar. Yes, it’s on the 23rd floor. Designed by the Gorgeous Group (responsible for London’s Hakkasan), it has floor-to-ceiling windows, giving astonishing views and instant vertigo, if heights catch you that way. The really brave can gaze down on the city through two portholes cut out of the floor. In honour of the view out to Coronation Street they serve you Ena’s Sparkles, a fruit juice and champagne cocktail. And Sally Cinnamon, a brandy and cider concoction flavoured with tarragon and cinnamon. It is worth booking: 0161 870 1788.

Library Wonderland

I’m reading Lewis Carroll’s original handwritten version of Alice in Wonderland, a two minute walk from the shopping frenzy of Manchester’s Arndale Centre. The John Rylands Library must be the most serene antidote to shopping in any British city centre. A library as a visitor attraction? Why this not, when it’s one of the most beautiful in the world, with such treasur the the St John Fragment, the earliest known portion of the New Testament in existence. They opened it on January 1st 1900; then reopened it in 2007 after three years refurbishment. The work included sprucing up the glorious stained glass windows, and all the dark wood and Gothic twirls. And fitting a new visitor reception wing. The first thing you see is an electronic reader for very old books. On a screen, at regular size, was Alice. Simply press the screen to turn a page. There is usually an exhibition on –- History of Silk when I visited.

Fine food

No more bread and dripping culinary stereotyping, please. Fine food is all around in Manchester. Bluu (just one of many bright new places) offers halloumi and field mushroom vegetarian burger with red onion jam, cherry tomatoes and skinny fries (£6.75). Or crayfish tails, chorizo and broccoli rice for £5.50. And those are dishes on the bar menu, and not at scare-you-off restaurant prices Lunch in The River Restaurant (three course £25; with two glasses of wine £32) is a fair bargain, as it is in the 5 star Lowry Hotel. For pub lunches, the Ox coaxes stardom out of good honest northern fare in its Bury black and white pudding tarte tatin. Mr Thomas’s Chop House in Deansgate is a fine old Victorian alehouse, serving traditional British classics such as homemade corned beef hash.

The writer travelled with Virgin Trains (08457 222 333.)

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