LGBTQ Travel Guide: Manchester

2019 Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival - Atmosphere - Day 3
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It's been more than 20 years since Russell T. Davies' groundbreaking, audacious 1999 U.K. TV series "Queer As Folk" put Manchester—and its lively and unique Canal Street gay village—on the international pop culture map. More recently, "RuPaul's Drag Race UK" brought fresh new eyes to the area thanks to a pair of contestants from the Greater Manchester area: Veronica Green and Cherry Valentine.

England's third-largest metropolitan county (approximately 2.8 million in the greater Manchester area) and fourth most populated city (553,000), Manchester continues to be an LGBTQ mecca for visitors around the world—and the Canal Street nightlife scene is as lively as ever.

This is also the birthplace of the bands The Smiths and New Order (the latter was chronicled in the film "24 Hour Party People"), and several teams including the amateur LGBTQ Village Manchester Football Club. Those into New York's "ballroom" culture will be pleasantly surprised to learn that a "vogueing" ballroom scene exists here as well, which was recently spotlighted in the 2019 documentary "Deep In Vogue."

Read on for our complete guide to this exceptionally LGBTQ-friendly city, with information on best things to do, what to eat, and where to stay. 

Events & Festivals

The jubilant annual Manchester Pride reportedly attracts more than 150,000 attendees over four days of celebrations. During the festivities, the city hosts events, a march, and headliner entertainment like Ariana Grande, who most recently performed in 2019. The 2021 edition is scheduled for August 27 to 30.

The Gay Village's Sackville Gardens is home to The National Transgender Charity's 16-year-old Sparkle Weekend in July, billed as "the world’s largest free-to-attend celebration of gender diversity." And local organization Manbears Manchester puts on events for members of the bear community and their friends, including the Great British Bear Bash (a date for 2021's edition is still TBA) and Pre-HiBEARnation.

The annual OUTing the Past Festival takes place during February—the U.K.'s LGBT+ History Month—with events and exhibitions in venues across the country, including Manchester.

For other LGBTQ-interest events and goings-on, check out Visit Britain's LGBTQI guide to Manchester, Visit Manchester's LGBTQ+ page, and Canal St. Online. The latter features listings and locals' insightful (and opinionated) articles about the Gay Village's history, present, and potential future. Be sure to see if any vogueing events featuring local groups House of Decay or House of Ghetto are on!

Alan Turing Statue

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Things to Do

A great way to start your exploration is through Manchester's LGBT Heritage Trail (a.k.a. Out in The Past trail): Over a dozen important locations are marked with ceramic rainbow flag mosaics embedded in the pavement. If not content to self-guide, local guidebook author Jonathan Schofield makes for a great, professional tour leader.

Some of those spots include a 2001 statue of Alan Turing at Sackville Park in the Gay Village. Turing, a mathematician and pioneering computer scientist, was responsible for breaking the Nazis' Enigma code, and many feel that in doing so, he won WWII for the allies. However, he was persecuted for being gay at the time, and he committed suicide in 1954 (an upbeat coda: Turing was posthumously pardoned in 2014 by the Queen, and now is acknowledged as a hero). Sackville Park is also home to the U.K.'s 12-foot-high National Transgender Remembrance Memorial and the Beacon of Hope, the latter "Manchester's answer to the threat of HIV/AIDS."

The People's History Museum chronicles the evolving tale of democracy and struggle for social justice in Britain, and its collection includes items relevant to LGBTQ activism; in fact, an LGBTQ-specific tour is often conducted during the annual OUTing the Past festival. Football (a.k.a. soccer) fans should check out the National Football Museum, while the Manchester Art Gallery caters to both classic and contemporary art lovers with its 25,000-plus item collection and temporary exhibitions. Located in the stunning Edwardian Corn Exchange complex and opened in 2018, The CAPE by Northern Quarter Gallery carries works for sale by local LGBTQ artists.

Retail junkies will find plenty of shops catering to LGBTQ customers, including the self-descriptive Gay Pride Shop in the multi-level Afflecks market complex—itself a wonderful haven of eclectic, unique, and local vendors.

Men can also check out Manchester's gay sauna, Basement, located in a former Victorian Mill (students get in free on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.).

England, Manchester, Canal St. Gay Village
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LGBTQ Bars and Clubs

To help navigate Canal Street's dozens of LGBTQ bars and clubs, you can check this interactive map at Canal St. Online. Do note that some Manchester clubs require memberships to enter, but these can be purchased at the entrance.

Impossible to miss with its big letter marquee just off Canal Street, the spacious G-A-Y Manchester (sibling to London's long running institution) is where you can drink, dance, and catch drag queen entertainers, including "RuPaul's Drag Race" stars from both sides of the pond. More drag can be had at Churchills (one of the Canal Street locations immortalized in "Queer As Folk"), New York New York, and multi-level Cruz 101. Bar Pop also keeps things lively with drag cabaret and comedy, quiz nights, and movies, and New Union Hotel & Showbar offers drag, karaoke, and theme nights.

Canal Street's Via adds some old-school classic pub décor and kitsch to the equation, and The Molly House takes its expansive, curated selection of hundreds of ales, wine, and spirits seriously. Although beloved bar KIKI and after-hours underground neighbor VOID closed in early 2020, they were soon replaced by equally fun The Brewers. Meanwhile, the leather, bear, and fetish crowd assembles at Eagle Manchester, while lesbian club Vanilla celebrates its 23rd anniversary in 2021.

Where to Eat

Although a more relaxed and casual city when it comes to restaurants, Manchester saw its first Michelin star in more than 40 years awarded to Chef Simon Martin's Nordic-influenced Mana in 2019. It's a must for innovative fine dining—and deep terroir—seekers.

Located in Kimpton Clocktower Hotel, the 10,000-square-foot The Refuge Dining Room & Public Bar absolutely buzzes with energy and LGBTQ folks. This is thanks in part to local celebrity DJ team The Unabombers—a.k.a. Justin Crawford and Luke Cowdrey—who first cut their teeth in the restaurant world when they ran bistro-style Volta back in 2016. Inspired by their foodie experiences while touring the world, The Refuge funnels locally farmed ingredients into flavorful international creations like spiced lamb flatbread, baby squid with chorizo, fish curry, and shakshuka with feta and grilled sourdough. Delicious original cocktails (and non-alcoholic craft libations) also make this an LGBTQ favorite.

If you want to stick to the Gay Village, Velvet Hotel's Village Brasserie serves up a British and Mediterranean pub menu that includes stone-baked pizza, steaks, pasta, and burgers (including a halloumi cheese variation!), plus cocktails and drinks. Turkish and Lebanese food reigns at Jasmine Grill, and popular gay pub Molly House offers solid pan-Mediterranean tapas, burgers, and brunch items.

Where to Stay

Opened in 2009 smack dab on Canal Street, the 19-room Velvet Hotel has earned and maintained its status as an LGBTQ favorite thanks to its unbeatable location, upscale kitsch design (rooms come in three distinct styles), massive beds, REN bath amenities, and the aforementioned on-site Village Brasserie.

One of Manchester's first contemporary chic properties when it opened in 1998, the nearby Malmaison Manchester has managed to stay fresh and modern over the years. Part of a colorful, upbeat boutique chain with locations in 17 cities, it also boasts a full-service spa, restaurant (Chez Mal Brasserie), and solid cocktails. It's just a few minutes' walk from the Piccadilly Train Station.

Occupying the landmark, 66-meter tall clock tower building, the 270-room Kimpton Clocktower Hotel opened in October 2020. Previously known as The Principal Manchester (and, before 2016, The Palace), this Oxford Street property retains the former's Victorian facade, with a chic modern design that nods at the city's industrial past. In addition to The Refuge restaurant, it's also home to the leafy yet enclosed Winter Garden dining area, which boasts a wide selection of gins.

Other centrally located hotels situated in historic buildings include the 61-room ABode Manchester and the five-star The Edwardian Manchester, a Radisson Collection property boasting great city views and an underground spa with a 12-meter aquamarine pool.

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