Top 10 Things to Do in Manchester, UK (According to a Local)

A river flows through a cityscape with various buildings and a bridge under a sky transitioning from day to sunset.

Although firmly associated with two iconic football clubs, there is more to the UK’s second city than just the beautiful game. From world-class museums and gastronomic adventures to a spirited music scene and creative indie shops, discover the best things to do in Manchester.

This article is part of my Wander Like a Local series, where guest writers reveal the best-kept secrets, must-see spots, and unique experiences that only locals know. Discover hidden gems and authentic tips from those who call it home.

Manchester emerged on the global stage during the Industrial Revolution, leading the way in manufacturing and engineering. Unfortunately, the city’s fortunes declined in the second half of the 20th century when it experienced significant economic downturns. 

However, things are decidedly looking up again. The city is redefining its heritage and is emerging as a modern economic and cultural centre. It’s changing so rapidly that you are likely to see a new shiny tower going up every time you visit. 

I’ve lived in Manchester for the last four years and have witnessed its transformation firsthand. Although it’s not easy to narrow down the list of top activities in Manchester, here are my favourite things to do in the city that showcase its various sides. 

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The 10 Best Things to Do in Manchester, UK

Whether you’re seeking a cultural fix or vintage shopping therapy, Manchester delivers. This roundup features both headline experiences popular with visitors and more off-the-beaten-path activities that mainly locals enjoy.

A bronze statue of a man in a suit seated on a wooden bench on a paved area with grass and trees in the background.
Photo Credit: Ksenia Khor.

1. Go on a Free Manchester Walking Tour

If you’re a first-time visitor to the city, I highly recommend joining a free Manchester walking tour to learn about the city’s rich history. These tours run daily at 11:00 am and start from the Alan Turing memorial in Sackville Gardens right in the heart of the city. 

The three-hour tour is packed with fascinating facts about the city. You will see iconic landmarks like Manchester City Hall and the Midland Hotel, as well as lesser-known sites, including a secret Cold War bunker (yes, really). 

Bookings are not required—simply turn up on the day. Although the tours are free, tips are highly appreciated. 

People walk and look at exhibits in a grand, Gothic-style hall with a high, ornate ceiling and a large stained glass window.
Photo Credit: Ksenia Khor.

2. Visit the John Rylands Library

150 Deansgate, Manchester M3 3EH

Located on Deansgate, one of the main thoroughfares in the city centre, you might easily mistake the gothic building that houses the John Rylands Library for an ancient castle or cathedral. However, the library was only opened in 1900. It was commissioned by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her late husband, John Rylands, one of Manchester’s most successful industrialists at the time. 

Today, the library boasts an extensive collection of precious rare books and manuscripts, including one of the earliest known fragments of the New Testament. An ever-changing lineup of events and exhibitions showcases treasures from its collections. 

My personal favourite part of the library is the Harry Potter-esque grand reading room, complete with ancient books, stained glass windows, and gothic ceilings. It’s a great spot for photos. Entry to the library is free. 

Fun Fact: Manchester is also home to the Chethams Library. Opened in 1653, it’s the oldest public library in the English speaking world.

A photo of an outdoor plaza featuring traditional half-timbered buildings with people sitting at outdoor tables; the sky is overcast, and some modern buildings are visible in the background.
Photo Credit: Ksenia Khor.

3. Grab a Pint at a 16th Century Pub

4 Cathedral Gates, Greater, Manchester M3 1SW

Step back in time with a pint at the Old Wellington Pub. Housed in a Grade II listed building constructed in 1552, it is one of Manchester’s most atmospheric watering holes. 

Originally a draper’s shop, the building became a licensed pub in 1830. It was first built on what is now Market Street and was moved to its current location in 1998. 

The pub features traditional interiors with exposed wooden beams and classic sash windows, creating a warm and cosy atmosphere. On sunnier days, you can enjoy your drink outside in the outdoor seating area. 

The Old Wellington is the perfect place to enjoy authentic cask ale or a glass of fine wine. It also offers a great selection of hearty pub dishes, such as traditional pies, fish and chips, and burgers. 

People sitting at outdoor tables along a narrow street, with a large brick building and additional structures visible in the background, during a clear day.
Photo Credit: Ksenia Khor.

4. Eat Your Way Around Ancoats and Northern Quarter

The Northern Quarter and Ancoats are two neighbouring areas in the northeast of Manchester city centre, known for their trendy loft apartments, vintage shops, and quirky bars. 

However, the reason these neighbourhoods should be on your list is the incredible local dining scene. From bottomless brunches and independent bakeries to fine dining and world cuisines, there is so much to sink your teeth into. 

My personal favourites include Federal for Antipodean-inspired brunch, Sugar Junction for delicious cakes, and 63 Degrees for smart French fare. For a special occasion, consider Mana in Ancoats, the only Michelin-starred restaurant in the city. 

I also recommend checking out Mackie Mayor, a food hall located in a historic market building. It is home to a wealth of independents serving up world flavors, from Italian to Mexican to Thai. 

5. Catch a Gig at an Iconic Music Venue

Manchester punches well above its weight in the music arena. The city has produced iconic music artists including the Stone Roses, Simply Red, and Oasis. 

The music scene remains a vital part of local life, with numerous venues hosting both rising stars and established artists across various genres. If you love live music, I recommend including a local gig as part of your Manchester itinerary. 

Top music destinations include Albert Hall on Peter Street and Band on the Wall in the Northern Quarter. Both venues boast unique histories and offer exceptional experiences. 

Band on the Wall is excellent for discovering lesser-known artists, while Albert Hall is the place to experience performances by established independents or to enjoy its legendary club nights. 

A historic red-brick building with columns at the entrance, featuring banners on either side, under a partly cloudy sky.
Photo Credit: Ksenia Khor.

6. Go to the Whitworth Art Gallery

Oxford Rd, Manchester M15 6ER

One of the best things to do in Manchester for art lovers is to visit the Whitworth. This iconic gallery, located on Oxford Street, boasts an impressive collection of over 60,000 works of art and design. 

Visitors can enjoy historic prints and textiles, rare wallpaper designs, and modern art pieces by renowned artists like Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Picasso. The gallery also continues to expand its contemporary art collection with works by today’s most influential artists. 

The Whitworth is driven by its mission to use art to forge community connections and drive positive societal change. As a result, curators often combine historic works with contemporary pieces to explore various topics, from migration to economics. 

One of my favourite spots within the gallery is the beautiful gallery café with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the park. It’s a fantastic spot to refuel after all the art exploring.

Pro Tip: Craving more art? Be sure to also check out the Manchester Art Gallery on Mosley Street.

A historic building with a glass roof and a red-painted façade, featuring large front windows and a decorated entrance, stands behind leafless trees on a cobblestone sidewalk.
Photo Credit: Ksenia Khor.

7. Explore Manchester’s Independent Shops

Manchester boasts a wealth of independent shops of all shapes and sizes. Although you can find great indies throughout the city, the Northern Quarter has a particularly high concentration. 

At the heart of this neighbourhood, the eclectic Afflecks Emporium is an iconic shopping destination. Here, you’ll find dozens of traders selling everything under the sun, from fashion to crystals. 

Lovers of vintage fashion should add Pop Boutique and Blue Rinse to their list, while those looking to transform their homes might check out the Scandinavian-inspired Nordic Muse. 

No indie shopping destination would be complete without at least one record store. The Northern Quarter offers several options, including Vinyl Exchange and Piccadilly Records. 

My personal favourite is the Manchester Craft and Design Centre, housed in an elegant Victorian building. It is home to many local artisans who create beautiful jewelry, ceramics, and other unique items.

8. Relax at an Urban Park in the Sky

Catalan Square, Duke St, Manchester M3 4PU

As part of its post-industrial transformation, Manchester is repurposing its legacy infrastructure to accommodate the needs of its modern residents. A recent success story is the National Trust’s Castlefield Viaduct, located right in the heart of the city. 

The Viaduct is a fascinating urban sky park that has reclaimed an unused Victorian-era steel viaduct that previously carried rail transport in and out of the city. It provides a welcome spot of greenery and calm in an urban setting. You can learn more about the history of the viaduct by joining a free guided tour, which runs on weekdays. 

The urban park also hosts events such as theatre performances and yoga sessions to bring the local community together. While entry to the park is free, booking a spot on a guided tour in advance is required.

A modern, brown building with rounded corners stands on a city street. Visible signage includes "People's History Museum" and "Exhibition." Construction is seen in the background.
Photo Credit: Ksenia Khor.

9. Learn About UK Democracy at the People's History Museum

Left Bank, Manchester M3 3ER

Manchester boasts many excellent museums that cover various themes, from natural history to the Industrial Revolution. My personal favourite is the People’s History Museum, which explores the history of democracy in the UK. 

The museum puts a spotlight on the movements and individuals who have transformed the country’s political and social landscape. A visit here offers a poignant reminder of the importance of the rights and freedoms we enjoy today.

This Manchester museum is not huge, so a couple of hours should suffice to thoroughly explore its main exhibition. Entry is free. 

Exhibit on Manchester United's mascots and history, featuring trophies, memorabilia, and a costume of the mascot, Fred the Red. Walls are adorned with photos and descriptions of the club's legacy.
Photo Credit: YayImages.

10. Visit Old Trafford, the Home of Manchester United

Sir Matt Busby Way, Old Trafford, Stretford, Manchester M16 0RA

No article on the best things to do in Manchester would be complete without mentioning its iconic stadium. Old Trafford, located just southwest of Manchester city centre, is home to Manchester United, one of the most famous football teams in the world. 

The best way to appreciate the magic of the UK’s favourite game is to see a football match at Old Trafford. If that’s not an option, a guided tour of the football stadium is a great alternative. 

The experience includes a visit to the Manchester United Museum and the tour itself, where you can get up close to the legendary pitch. Tours cost £28 per adult, and advanced bookings are recommended. 

Pro Tip: Football fanatics will also want to visit the National Football Museum in the Urbis building which contains an impressive collection of football memorabilia.

Final Thoughts

I hope this guide to the best things to do in Manchester inspires you to discover the city for yourself. It is arguably one of the most exciting and rapidly evolving cities in the UK, and its appeal for both visitors and residents is only set to increase.

If you’ve been to Manchester before, now might be the perfect time for a revisit. Chances are, you will experience a new side of the city.

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