To be fair, there’s just such an incredible diversity of places to visit in Northern England that a trip could be enjoyed assembling any number of different cities and towns. I just happened to visit Manchester and York, which is what I want to share today. Although they’re separated by a short and easy 1.5-hour train ride, the two cities could not be more different, offering a great balance for would-be travelers. York I always knew I’d love but Manchester won me over when, frankly, I wasn’t so sure. Together they’re a fun way to explore Northern England as a stand-alone trip, or added to a longer adventure. I was traveling in England following a conference sponsored by VisitBritain but, as always, all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.
Although Manchester’s roots date back to Roman times, most of us know it for its importance during the Industrial Revolution. Thanks to a boom in the textile industry, Manchester became the world’s first industrialized city, to be followed by many other advances in fairly quick order. In the 1850s, the city established its own ship canal, bypassing Liverpool and linking it directly to the Irish Sea, thereby once again increasing its fortunes. This is the city where the atom was first split, where the world’s first passenger railway was opened and where the modern computer was invented. I share these bits of trivia because, as it turns out, they’re important aspects of any visit to Manchester, even today. The ghosts of the past are everywhere, but so is the work ethic and creativity that catapulted the city to business and industrial fame in the first place. The city’s cherished symbol is the worker bee for a reason; this is a city that doesn’t mind rolling up its sleeves to get a job done that needs getting done. Today it means something different than in the 19th century, but it’s still important and is reshaping the city into something new and different once again.
Manchester Black Cab Tours
Former taxi driver turned tour guide, in just a few short years John Consterdine has established the Manchester Taxi Tours as one of the must-do activities in the city. John takes guests around town in a traditional black cab, sharing highlights of the city, but also heavily tailoring it to the individual. Whether it’s spending a few hours learning about the city’s incredible musical history (The Smiths, Oasis, The Stone Roses, etc.) or visiting some of the most scenic spots, there’s no better way to learn about the city and, from my own experience, no one better than John to share them.
Incredible Food Scene
Mancunians like to eat, and they’ve spent recent years perfecting that simple love into works of art. There are a number of creative and upscale restaurants popping up throughout the city, including one created by MasterChef UK winner Simon Wood, WOOD Manchester. I personally usually shy away from fine dining experiences, but as soon as I walked in through the front doors I knew this was something different. Everything about WOOD is approachable, from the staff and decor to its dynamic menu. Even better, I loved everything I tried, a true rarity for a picky eater like myself. Simon could have opened his restaurant anywhere in the UK, but chose his hometown for a reason and it’s that passion for the community that impressed me more than anything else.
I think it’s the more casual establishments around Manchester though that are the real stars. There are plenty of spots to grab a coffee, pint or bite quickly but without sacrificing taste or even style. The best example of this is I think the Mackie Mayor. A reclaimed Victorian market hall, this is the exact sort of establishment that the shift in food tastes has created. Inside you’ll find a variety of stalls, permanent food trucks of a sort, offering a little bit of everything, again with a fierce creativity and sense of style. It also doesn’t hurt that the space itself is gorgeous; light and airy but preserving the architectural bones from the 19th century.
Street Art Tour
Manchester isn’t only a city of hard-working people though, it’s also a fiercely creative place, as was further proved on an afternoon walking tour of the hip and trendy Northern Quarter. Still a little rough around the edges, that’s actually what draws people to this neighborhood and is what made it ideal for the incredible street art on full display almost everywhere you look. Skyliner started out as a blog to document and preserve the creative side of Manchester, but has also evolved into tours sharing these treasures with others. Spending a couple of hours touring the Northern Quarter, I didn’t just enjoy the artwork, but I especially loved learning about the city and its more recent history through a very unique lens. I’ve been on many street art tours around the world, but this may just be one of the best.
The last time I was in York, Bill Clinton was President and I was fresh out of college. Needless to say, I had to revisit the city as if it was my first experience. York though is the type of city I love dearly. Featuring an incredible history, gorgeous cityscapes and fun experiences, there’s a lot to see and do in this ancient city. I was in Manchester for a few days on a press trip with VisitBritain following a conference in Belfast. I had never been to Manchester before and loved getting to know the city. I was also excited though for my day trip to York, which couldn’t have been easier. Getting up early on what was a gorgeous Saturday morning, I walked the easy 10-minutes to the station where I boarded the train for the one-hour trip to York. That’s it. The trip was pleasant enough and I enjoyed having some quiet time to read. Once in York, it was a very easy and short walk from the train station to the center of town.
Climbing York Minster
This massive cathedral is the only thing I remember from my first visit, which is a testament to just how important York Minster is. There’s been a church of some sort on the site since the 600s but the massive Gothic cathedral we see today was finished in the 15th century. York Minster has played an important role in history any number of times, abut many people are drawn to it today thanks to its stained glass. The voluminous amount of medieval stained glass is some of the oldest in Europe and is impressive to see in person. While all of that was nice, I was there for a different reason – to climb up the Central Tower. I always love heading to the top of any city’s highest point and, thanks to the weather, I knew that I would be well rewarded in York. I almost didn’t make it though. I didn’t realize that access to the top of the cathedral is timed and kept to a scant 50 people per time slot. Thankfully I managed to snag a ticket for a later time, which, as luck would have it, was ideal for the afternoon light. Called the Tower Challenge, it is 275 steps up a narrow spiral staircase to the top of York Minster. While not for the faint-hearted, it also wasn’t the most extreme climb I’ve done and the views at the end were well worth any huffing and puffing along the way. I couldn’t believe my luck with the weather; I could see miles and miles off into the distance with the hills of the Yorkshire dales clearly in focus. It was the perfect way for me to end my afternoon in York and a great way to better appreciate the beauty of the city and region.
Biking Around Town
Since it had been so long in between visits, I felt like I needed a little help getting started which is why I joined the fine folks over at York Cycling Tours for a morning of biking around York. With some exceptions, York is fairly flat, making a bike tour a great way of seeing a lot of the city without too much effort. The tours usually last between 2 to 3 hours but, as my guide Andy pointed out, that depends on whether or not guests want to include extra stopovers, like a pub visit or two. I had a lunch appointment, so no pubs for us that day, but we instead enjoyed a small group tour through the entire history of York. Most visitors to the city concentrate their time in and around the old historic center, which is fine – there’s a lot to experience there. But one of the great advantages of being on two-wheels is that we were able to bike all around the city, to get a better idea of York beyond the typical tourist hotspots. Andy wasn’t just a great leader, he was incredibly knowledgeable about all facets of York’s incredible past, from the Roman era up through to modern times. We stopped at old gates along the city walls, the enormous racecourse and even an amble through a city park, complete with a stop to learn more about York’s long love affair with chocolate. It really was the perfect way to get reacquainted with York and set me up for a fun afternoon of exploration.
Just Enjoying The City
It was as beautiful a day as I have ever seen and the town was popping with people. The weather surely drew out a lot of folks, but there were also at least two or three festivals going on, which meant York was bustling with activity. I love that and I wanted to be part of it all, so I threw myself into the scrum to see what would happen. The result was one of the best days I’ve enjoyed in a very long time.
After an incredible lunch at Café No.8 Bistro, I set off to find the part of town known as The Shambles. (Side note, my one regret in York was that I didn’t have time to properly enjoy the culinary side of the city. It honestly looks amazing and I bet an entire trip could be centered on the food alone.) Often considered to be one of England’s prettiest streets, the Shambles is a very old street with overhanging timber-framed buildings, some of which date back as far as the 14th century. Modern stores aside, this is the street we Americans think every English street looks like and its quirky history was a big part of my afternoon. After getting lost more than once, I did eventually find my way to an important historic site, Clifford’s Tower. The tower is all that remains of York Castle, built by William the Conqueror and has been everything from a prison to a royal mint. I was there because my handy dandy guide promised “stunning panoramic views.” While that wasn’t quite true, it was still a nice place to visit and the views weren’t bad after all.
Like many other Americans, I click with the UK for any number of reasons but, most importantly, I just enjoy being there. For what is ultimately not an enormous country, there’s plenty to see and experience making every trip new and exciting. Combining travel experiences in England especially just makes sense and I couldn’t have been happier with the few days I spent exploring the great cities of both Manchester and York.