Manchester, England. If you’re of a certain age, the name conjures ‘Madchester’: dancing to the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses at the Hacienda Nightclub, and the 1991 techno classic, “It’s Grim Up North.” But times have changed. Nowadays Manchester, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and, in more recent history, ‘Dance Capital of England,’ is blossoming; building on its rich historical heritage, it’s a vibrant city with lots to do for all ages – New Order fans or otherwise – and the glorious Great British countryside a stone’s throw away.
Melanie and Andy Fraser, our local experts, are a Clinical Psychologist and a Sports Producer. Says Melanie, “I ended up in Manchester unintentionally after adding it as a destination, last minute, to an application to train as a psychologist. Soon after starting training, I fell for the city and one of its locals, Andy, who is now my husband. I was struck by the pride and passion with which the local people (Andy included) talked about Manchester, and a few months of getting to know the city and its vibrant music scene, I could understand exactly why. I soon became an adopted ‘Manc’. Andy and I have now firmly put down roots in South Manchester with Ben, aged 3, and continue to enjoy sampling the creative delights that Manchester has to offer.”
What do you love most about Manchester as a place to spend time with your little one?
Some things that Manchester is known for: the weather, creativity, industry and northern pride. These are all very much a part of what the city has to offer for families. The city has undergone a huge renovation in the last decade, with dilapidated industrial warehouses and buildings being converted into cosmopolitan restaurants, galleries and ‘living spaces,’ whilst retaining their historical charm. The people who were an important part of this transformation and creative development now have kids of their own, and this lineage is apparent in the wide range of creative and family-friendly activities on offer, regardless of the season.
The city’s tram system makes getting around easy, be that to different parts of the city centre or to family-friendly suburbs such as Chorlton and Didsbury, which offer a range of cool cafés and activities to keep creative little ones inspired: we like Pottery Corner, the pottery café on Beech Road in Chorlton. And despite the industrial history of the city, the countryside is not far away: 20 to 30 minutes south of the city by car gives you access to rural Cheshire, and lots of National Trust properties to explore.
Can you give us a run-down of your favourite things to do in Manchester with children in tow?
- There is a vast choice of museums in and around the city centre, ranging from transport, through football, to war, and even hats.
- However, ask any ‘Manc’ parent where to go in Manchester and you are likely to hear MOSI in their reply. The Museum of Science and Industry has planes, trains and automobiles for transport-mad toddlers: Ben’s number one recommendation! It combines science and creativity with a whole floor dedicated to interactive science experiments for kids of all ages– check out the earthquake table and the sound waves experiment. The large café is great, with kid-friendly pick-and-mix packed lunches. During school holidays there are additional events going on; check the website for details.
- The city’s Art Gallery offers activity tool-belts with magnifying glasses, and story bags complete with a blanket to sit on, to help younger visitors get the most from the exhibits. The interactive Clore Gallery offers opportunities to sculpt, draw and play. Mindful of the inherent childhood need to touch things labelled “Do not touch,” they have provided a ‘texture trail’ on the top floor, designed especially for touching. They run regular workshops for children of all ages to get creative juices flowing.
- The Manchester Museum on the Oxford Road near the University has a Natural History feel, offering dinosaurs, mummies and live reptile displays in beautiful Gothic buildings. They also offer activity packs for intrepid explorers, as well as monthly Family Fun days.
- In summer, the fountains at Piccadilly Gardens, right at the heart of the city centre, are teeming with children looking to cool off in the sun and hop on the fountain floor-lights. Surrounded by an expanse of grass and a food market, there’s plenty of space for parents to sit (dryly) while children splash around. Since the fountains light up and can shoot up at varying heights, any instructions to ‘not get too wet’ often go unheeded. Therefore it’s worth taking a spare change of clothes. The great kids’ toilets in Debenhams are good to dry off and get changed in. Throughout 2014, there is also a Ferris Wheel at Piccadilly Gardens: worth a ride to get a panoramic view from 60m above the city.
Do you have any off-beat destinations or hidden gems up your sleeve, that we’d otherwise miss out on?
- The Northern Quarter is the bohemian and independent heart of the city. Busy nighttime bars transform to cool cafés during the day, which are becoming increasingly child-friendly. We love Oklahoma, a colourful and quirky gift shop and vegetarian café, as well as the Manchester Craft and Design Centre (MCDC), an old Victorian market building which has been transformed into studios for artists to sell their wares. While the shops are not hugely family orientated, there is lots to look at, and the centre offers peace and respite from the busy city centre. It also has a great café selling hearty, home cooked, locally sourced food – along with good old spaghetti shapes on toast at our last visit. They provide crayons and paper for kids, so we were able to give the coffee and cake our full attention.
- Waterstones bookshop on Deansgate offer family activities every weekend. Ben’s favourite is Sunday Storytime from 2.30- 3pm. Sitting on a blanket in the children’s section, kids listen to a story read by staff member Jenny, who then leads a craft activity related to the story. They also do regular craft activites on Saturdays, usually related to a book release or special event, and during school holidays offer daily crafts. Check here for times and details.
- Elsewhere in the city centre, the bright lights, lanterns, and colourful arch of Chinatown is an interesting place to explore. With supermarkets, tea shops, a craft centre and a range of restaurants and bakeries, older children are bound to enjoy the delights that Chinatown offers. If you’re visiting at Chinese New Year (end of January), little ones will enjoy the traditional celebrations including a parade and dragon dance.
- Outside of the city, a 25 minute drive south is the Manchester Airport Runway Visitor Park, complete with picnic and play area and a prime view of the runway. Ben loves waving at the planes taking off, as well as exploring the aircraft on the ground outside. In a hangar next to the café there’s a Concorde which has a range of tours, though these are an additional cost and require advance booking. In our experience, the free outdoor aircraft, raised viewing platforms and big expanse of grass are enough to keep little ones busy on sunny days.
- 25 minutes south-west of town is Chill Factore, an indoor skiing and snowboarding centre with activities for kids of all ages. Ben loves the snow-play sessions for under 4s, an opportunity for sledges, snowballs and a ride on the tubing carousel while we drink hot chocolate from the hot chocolate hut. Older children (and adults!) will enjoy the exhilarating tubing and sledging or a ride on the luge. The centre also offers ski and snowboard lessons for older children and even tasters from age two with their Snow School.
- Just north of the City Centre is the city’s Velodrome where young BMXers will love the indoor and outdoor tracks.
What are your top child-friendly places to eat in the city?
- On Deansgate, the 6th floor restaurant in Kendalls (House of Fraser) has a small play area and TV to keep babies and toddlers entertained.
- A personal favourite of Ben’s also on Deansgate is Bella Italia, who do a mean Spaghetti Bolognaise on their comprehensive kids menu. They offer three courses and a drink for £5.95, as well as a great food-centred activity pack and crayons for mini foodies.
- Tampopo on Albert Square does great noodles and a kids’ explorer menu, which offers a range of dishes depending on how adventurous they might be feeling. It also provides special chopsticks for kids to practice with, should they wish to hone their skills.
- Wagamama also offer a broad children’s menu and their branch in the impressive Spinningsfield area gives you a great opportunity to see a part of the city that has transformed in recent years.
- Light and airy Dukes 92 in Castlefield sits next to a canal lock, and has big windows and a patio to watch the world go by. It offers a more traditional British kids’ menu and a huge range of cheeses for adults which go down particularly well with a glass of one of their fine wines (ahem). From here you can wander along the canals, feed the ducks, and watch barges and trams sail by.
What are the best Manchester spots for a walk in the park or a play in the playground?
- Our favourites are Dunham Park, with deer, wide-open grounds with lots of logs to climb on, as well as a café with a kids’ activity area, and Tatton Park with its two wooden children’s playgrounds, and a working farm where kiddies can feed the animals, build dens, explore the maize maze and participate in summer story-time sessions.
- We also like to hang out at Fletcher Moss Park on sunny days. This hidden treasure has a rock garden filled with ornamental plants, and a series of small waterfalls leading down to a pond. Outside the rockery, you can meander along the paths down to the River Mersey or along an elevated wooden walkway in Stenner Woods. There are tennis courts and a football pitch and a great little café with children’s books that sells quality coffee, tea and cakes. Just outside of the main park entrance, there is a great child friendly pub, Ye Olde Cock, which has board games behind the bar to borrow and a good children’s menu. The park is a short walk away from family-friendly Didsbury village.
- If you have a car, Bruntwood Park in Cheadle, just over the border into Cheshire but a mere 25 minute drive out of the city, offers a great playground, a bouncy castle in the summer, ducks to feed and a pitch-and-putt for sunny days. It also has lots of hide-and-seek opportunities in the trees on the grass by the café. If it’s chucking it down, Head over Heels, one of Ben’s favourite places to go, is just a bit further down the road . There’s also a branch Chorlton but this one is bigger and better, offering two play areas, a mini disco, mini cinema, sensory room and electric cars. Both branches have good cafés.
- Chorlton Water Park is centred around a lake and offers a nice family walk through woodlands down to the River Mersey. It has ducks to feed, a children’s playground an ice cream van, and picnic tables for sunny days. It links onto the Mersey Valley Trail where you can choose to walk to Didsbury or the Watersports centre at Sale if you are feeling particularly energetic. Good for cycling or walking on Sunny days.
Where would you recommend friends with kids stay while they’re in town?
- Manchester’s face-lift has resulted in a selection of good quality self-catering apartments. The Place Aparthotel has a great central location near to Piccadilly Train Station while Premier Apartments offer good value.
- For hotels, it’s difficult to beat The Lowry which offers a Teddy Bedtime Service and bath toys. Alternatively go for the iconic Midland Hotel in the heart of the city, a grade II listed Edwardian building which has entertained guests ranging from Bob Dylan to the Queen Mother.
- Always offering excellent value for tighter budgets is the Premier Inn Piccadilly near the central shopping area.
Is there anything you’d recommend families not do when they visit?
Legoland and the Sealife Centre, based next door to each other at the Trafford Centre, seem like an easy way to pass the time, but are victims of their popularity. Whilst the Sealife Centre has some good exhibits, and Legoland has a big Lego-centred play area, both can involve long queues during school holidays and weekends. Once you’re through the queues, you can easily be out again within a couple of hours, feeling shortchanged and wondering what to do next. Both venues offer post-4 p.m. discount tickets, however, and weekday term-time visits are usually much quieter (Legoland runs a special £12 for an adult + under-five Monday-to-Friday term-time offer), which together make the whole experience far more palatable.
What’s the best way to get around Manchester with children?
The city centre is definitely walkable and pushchair-able, with activities all within easy reach using the Tram system if needed. Outside the city centre, a car is recommended, as the wider public transport system isn’t the best.
You need a quick and easy escape from the city. Where do you head?
- Chester Zoo is 45 minute drive down the M56 and is highly recommended. It has its own monorail system to get around, whilst getting a bird’s eye view of the animals. The enclosures are generously sized and designed so that even small visitors get a good look. The orangutan enclosure is Europe’s biggest, offering great views of the apes literally hanging out at mind-boggling heights. It also has a butterfly house to walk through, if you don’t mind being swooped at occasionally. There are also lots of child-centred activities: face painting, playgrounds and a range of cafés. We easily occupy a whole day there.
- Heading 45 minutes north-west you can also get to the Cheshire coast and the resort of Southport, an old Victorian seaside favourite that has retained its charm. We love the fairground, the outdoor miniature railway centre, the arcades, and taking a ride down the pier on the tram. There are even donkey rides on the beach.
- A bit further afield you have two choices: to the West is the coast of North Wales,where you can reach Snowdonia within a 2 hour drive. To the north, 2 1/2 hours away, is the Lake District.
- Along the North Wales coast we particularly like Llandudno, with its promenade and cable cars, as well as Conwy Castle; the beaches get nicer the further west you head. Inland are the rugged mountains of Snowdonia National Park which is well worth at least a couple of days exploring. We enjoy heading up Mt. Snowdon on the pricey-but-worth-it mountain railway, and stay in the village of Betws-y-coed, which has a miniature railway museum, a riverside walk to the spectacular Swallow Falls, and a range of accommodation to suit all budgets.
- The Lake District is rugged, breathtaking and surprisingly family friendly. We love Ambleside, a relatively quiet village that avoids the heaving crowds of Windermere. In Ambleside there are easy walks, waterfalls, boat rides, bike hire and lots of accommodation. It has a great selection of shops and cafés, and is a fantastic base from which to explore the surrounding areas.
And finally, you’ve snagged a lovely babysitter, who’ll stay as late as you like. What does your perfect date-night consist of in Manchester?
This very much depends on the mood. For a quiet night out, we love Cornerhouse on Oxford Road; it’s the North West’s centre for all things arty and cool. It has a great bar and café upstairs with 3 cinema screens showing the latest international independent cinema releases. It also hold regular film festivals, with directors often attending for Q&As at the end of the film, and does a ‘reel deal’: pizza, beer and film ticket on Monday and Tuesday evenings for a bargain £8.
For a livelier night out, we avoid the high-heeled, climate-defying fashion of Deansgate Locks and head to the laid back, retro pubs in the Northern Quarter. Personal favourites here are Trof, which does a great range of bar food to line your stomach with before sampling their cocktails or beers. The quirky Odd Bar offers similar fare, as well as regular live bands and DJs, as does the arty and inconspicuous Common. There are also a range of good restaurants here to choose from: we like the Northern Quarter Bar and Grill who continue to win awards for their scrumptious cuisine, and are regularly recommended in the Michelin guide. Then we would head on to Revolucion de Cuba for rum cocktails, and late night dancing to live bands in the club rooms downstairs.
Thanks, Melanie and Andy!