Home » LGBTQ+ Manchester, England London’s Sassy Northern Sister

LGBTQ+ Manchester, England London’s Sassy Northern Sister

Manchester is a city of constant renewal.

by Dan Allen
Millennium Bridge in Manchester (Photo by SAKhan Photography)

I’ve been back to Manchester several times since and marveled at its endless changes,

Millennium Bridge in Manchester (Photo by SAKhan Photograph)

Beyond the world’s obvious LGBTQ+ capitals, no city keeps drawing me to it again and again like Manchester, London’s less splashy but more sassy northern sister.

Just two hours northwest of the UK capital by train and 40 minutes east of Liverpool, Manchester is a city of constant renewal, perpetually finding bold new ways to reframe and repurpose itself.

I first felt Manchester’s irresistible pull more than three decades ago in 1991, when the city’s rave-fueled “Madchester” music scene was in full swing. Until then my British experience had been limited to London, so I was instantly taken in by Manchester’s mix of affability, affordability, and gritty charm.

By my next Manchester visit a decade later, the city’s Gay Village and its Canal Street strip of gay bars had vaulted onto the international LGBTQ+ radar after the 1999 debut of the original British version of the Queer as Folk TV series. In Sackville Gardens at the heart of the neighborhood, Alan Turing, the father of modern computing and perhaps Manchester’s most famous queer hometown hero, was honored with a memorial statue in 2001.

Canal Street (Photo by John Lazenby)

Canal Street (Photo by John Lazenby)

I’ve been back to Manchester several times since and marveled at its endless changes, but I was still unprepared for the magnitude of the latest wave of developments sweeping the city and its queer scene.

Leading the pack is the eagerly anticipated Aviva Studios (Water Street. Tel: +44-161-817-4500. factoryinternational.org/aviva-studios), a massive 143,000-square-foot, $260 million cultural complex that opened in October of 2023 and is already being called Manchester’s answer to the Tate Modern in London. Aviva will serve as the home base for Factory International, which programs some of the city’s meatiest creative projects and special events. Factory International was born out of the biennial Manchester International Festival, which will be centered at Aviva Studios for its next edition in Summer 2025. Meanwhile Aviva will host a slate of worldclass cultural shows and events, including the premiere of Laurie Anderson’s new stage work “Ark” in November 2024.

Less than half a mile away, virtually atop of the very place where the Romans first built a fort called Mamucium around 79 AD, Manchester now has its own version of New York City’s High Line at Castlefield Viaduct (Tel: +44-344-249-1895. nationaltrust.org.uk/castlefield-viaduct). Using a nearly 1,100-foot-long stretch of a Victorian-era and long-abandoned steel train bridge as its canvas, the UK’s National Trust has created a lovely elevated urban park, which opened to the public on a oneyear trial in Summer 2022. Locals have already showered so much love onto the viaduct that the project has been extended at least through September 2024, with the National Trust meanwhile raising funds to physically extend the oasis a full kilometer farther down the tracks.

Queer Lit Gay Bookstore (Photo by John Lazenby)

Queer Lit Gay Bookstore (Photo by John Lazenby)

One of Manchester’s most impressive recent upstarts is bookstore Queer Lit (27 Great Ancoats Street. Tel: +44-161-222-4049. queerlit.co.uk), which was born as on online shop at the height of the pandemic in 2020, and proved so successful that owner Matthew Cornford managed to open it as a physical shop less than a year later. So popular was that shop on Tib Street in the Northern Quarter that Queer Lit relocated in October 2023 to a dramatically larger 7,000-square-foot hub on Great Ancoats Street, making it the largest LGBTQ+ bookshop in the entire United Kingdom, with more than 4,300 titles on hand. Queer Lit also now includes a coffee house, an events space, and a co-working area, all within a complex called Social Refuge.

It’s worth noting that Queer Lit’s current locations is in one of Manchester’s hippest neighborhoods, Ancoats. A former industrial suburb, Ancoats has an eclectic vibe and has been recently touted as one of the best neighborhoods, not just in the UK, but the entire world.

Manchester’s museum scene has seen some major improvements lately, with the Manchester Museum (The University of Manchester, Oxford Road. Tel: +44-161-275-2648. museum.manchester.ac.uk) reopening in 2023 following a three-year $18.5 million redevelopment that included a new South Asia Gallery and Chinese Culture Gallery. Meanwhile at the city center, the Manchester Art Gallery (Mosley Street. Tel: +44-161-235-8888. manchesterartgallery.org) marked its 200th birthday in 2023 with a bold multi-year project called “Rethinking the Grand Tour,” which attempts to decolonize the museum’s holdings in innovative ways.

Manchester Art Gallery (Photo by Alastair Wallace)

Manchester Art Gallery (Photo by Alastair Wallace)

Several more major Manchester projects will have big debuts in 2024, including most notably Co-op Live (cooplive.com), which when it opens in April will instantly become the UK’s largest music venue, with room for 23,500 fans. Backed by Harry Styles and Bruce Springsteen, the super sleek venue will feature unparalleled acoustic and visual capabilities, and an innovative sound bowl design to bring the stage closer to everyone not to mention a whopping 32 bars, restaurants, and lounges. Shows already confirmed for 2024 include Olivia Rodrigo, the Jonas Brothers, Niall Horan, and Manchester’s own Simply Red and Liam Gallagher.

Also slated for 2024 is the long-awaited reopening of Manchester Town Hall (manchester.gov.uk/ourtownhall), the Neo-gothic architectural gem at the very heart of the city that’s been closed to the public since 2018. The $404 million renovation and transformation of the cherished 1877 structure, built at the height of the city’s industrial prime and arguably its most recognizable building, will include access to previously unseen areas, including Victorian-era police cells and the clocktower.

Manchester’s hotel scene includes some truly superb new properties, led by LEVEN Manchester (40 Chorlton Street. Tel: +44-161-359-7900. liveleven.com), which opened in late 2021 in a fantastic location for queer travelers, right on Canal Street in the thick of the Gay Village, just a quick walk from Manchester’s Piccadilly train station. Pretty much everything about LEVEN is hip, cozy, and welcoming, from the homey décor to the vibey communal spaces to the exceptionally friendly staff. Once a cotton warehouse, LEVEN’s industrial heritage gives each of its 42 rooms (no two the same) a loft-like feel, with big windows letting in lots of natural light by day, and great views down to the action on Canal Street by night. Opening downstairs by the time you read this will be Maya, a canal-side brasserie and separate finer dining room.

Smack in the center of town is the new Forty-Seven (47 Peter Street. Tel: +44-161-553-0047. fortysevenmanchester.co.uk), which opened last June with 32 one and two-bedroom suites set in a Grade II-listed former shipping warehouse from 1868. Now tastefully decked in bold colors and visually stunning, Forty-Seven is also blessed with a friendly staff and a great location. The hotel’s onsite restaurant, Asha’s, is owned by Bollywood legend Asha Bhosle, who discerning alt-rock music fans may recognize from the 1997 Corner shop song “Brimful of Asha.”

Manchester Gay Village Billboard (Photo by Juiced Up Media)

Manchester Gay Village Billboard (Photo by Juiced Up Media)

Back over in the Gay Village (often just called “the Village” these days) new bars continue to open and complement longtime mainstays like Cruz 101, GA-Y, and The Thompsons Arms. Trendy queer/mixed cocktail bar Red Light (4-2 Little David Street. redlightmcr.co.uk) opened in May 2023 as part the new upscale Village-adjacent housing and retail development Kampus, which debuted in 2021.

Cabaret and cocktail bar The Cockatoo Club (20 Richmond Street. thecockatooclub.co.uk) opened in 2021, and presents drag shows and other queer entertainment, as well as rotating theme nights. The Brewers (4 Canal St. thebrewersmanchester.co.uk), which launched in 2020, offers a similar lineup downstairs with a popular dancefloor upstairs.

A few blocks to the east and inside a former railway depot, the sprawling Ducie Street Warehouse (Ducie Street. +44-161-503-9460. duciestreet.com) began its latest incarnation as CulturePlex in 2019 before retooling under its current name the following year. A multi-use restaurant/bar/co-working space that packs in gays from the Village and creatives from the Northern Quarter, Ducie Street Warehouse hosts queer-friendly events like disco and drag brunches on Saturdays, and features a 36-seat mini-cinema that often screens LGBTQ+ indie films.

Deeper into the Northern Quarter, wives Aimie and Kiera Lawlor-Skillen opened the wellbeing-themed coffee house and bar Feel Good Club (26-28 Hilton Street. feelgoodclub.co) in 2020, and by 2022 managed to expand the space by 50% and launch their self-help book of the same name. Feel Good Club hosts many weekly events including the popular Queer as F*ck open mic night. In September they launched their first foray into nightlife with the successful club night Make Me Feel.

Manchester Pride 2023 (Photo by Bardhok Ndoji)

Manchester Pride 2023 (Photo by Bardhok Ndoji)

Dominating the city’s annual queer calendar is Manchester Pride (manchesterpride.com), one of the UK’s largest and most elaborate Pride events. Every late August since 2003 (when Manchester hosted EuroPride), the entire Gay Village has been enclosed from Friday to Monday for four days of wild parties and stellar performances, all accompanied by the citywide Superbia culture festival, and wrapping up with a Candlelit Vigil in Sackville Gardens remembering those lost to HIV.

One of Manchester’s newest yearly events is Homobloc (homobloc.co.uk), a massive November festival of queer underground and dance music that grew out of the popular monthly club Homoelectric (instagram.com/homoelectric). Taking place every July, The Sparkle Weekend (sparkle.org.uk) is the world’s largest free celebration of gender diversity, a festival style family event featuring live entertainment, talks, and workshops. Superbia (superbia.org.uk) has expanded beyond Manchester Pride to bring LGBTQ+ arts and cultural events to the city throughout the year, including film screenings, performances, and talks. Rainbow Noir (rainbownoirmcr.com), meanwhile, programs year-round gatherings for LGBTQ+ people of color in the Manchester area.

Manchester Pride 2023 (Photo by Bardhok Ndoji)

Manchester Pride 2023 (Photo by Bardhok Ndoji)

For queer history fans, in 2023 Visit Manchester (visitmanchester.com) released Everyone Welcome: Manchester LGBTQ+ Trail ,which maps out the places most vital to Manchester’s queer heritage.

Local visual arts and theatre group IAP:MCR also released its own Digital Queer Walking Tour of Queer Manchester (iapmcr.co.uk/digital-walking-tour), which includes audio narration and interviews with veterans of the city’s biggest LGBTQ+ milestones. For expert in-person queer history expeditions, LGBT+ Manchester Walking Tour (instagram.com/lgbttour_mcr) has you covered with group tours every Saturday afternoon, or privately by appointment.

When planning your trip, you will discover that getting to Manchester from North America has never been easier. Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) now offers daily nonstop service from New York’s JFK airport, and several times a week from Orlando. The friendly service of Ireland’s national carrier is a natural when traveling to one of England’s most Irish cities, and business class seats on Aer Lingus lie blissfully fully flat for the hop over the pond. Beginning in June 2024, Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com), which also flies direct to Manchester from JFK and Orlando as well as Atlanta, will be operating a seasonal new nonstop three times a week from Las Vegas.

You may also enjoy A City Takes Pride: Manchester, England

A City Takes Pride: Manchester, England

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