Renowned around the globe for its music and its football, Manchester is a great place for family breaks or short family holidays with a cultural flavour, while for those looking to combine a city break with an exploration of greener pastures, it’s just 25km from the Peak District or an ideally placed stop-off for those headed north to the Lake District or Scotland.
Modern architecture that now rises proud on Manchester’s skyline forms a compelling juxtaposition with Victorian red-brick cotton warehouses and factories converted into everything from museums to boutique hotels or loft-apartments and cutting-edge nightclubs. A lack of large green spaces can make the centre seem less friendly to those with young children than, say, London with its Royal Parks, but swizzy trams make Manchester much easier to get around – and, of course, it’s more compact than London. Indeed, many people see Manchester as another London – but one on a more human scale, with friendlier people!
Things to do with kids in Manchester
Head to the Museum of Science and Industry, where Manchester’s industrial heritage is brought stunningly to life through lots of hands-on experiences. You can crawl through a Victorian sewer (with the requisite smells, sounds and rats!), watch shows in the planetarium or 4D theatre (with moving seats, water sprays and air blasts), and see one of the world’s largest collections of working steam engines then ride around the site (the world’s first passenger railway station) on a replica steam train – and more besides! See also our Manchester City Break feature.
Discover other central attractions, including the Manchester Art Gallery, which runs lots of free events for children, has the permanent Clore Interactive Gallery specially for families, and offers free activity backpacks to 7–12-year-olds and both explorer tool belts and story bags for ages 3–6. There’s also a drawing trail and a handling trail.
Check out the People’s History Museum, which tells the story of democracy and of the working class in the UK, with hands-on activities for all ages in each of its galleries, regular family events, explorer packs for ages 3–6, and a picnic area in its engine hall.
Head for the National Football Museum, then venture out to Old Trafford, for a Museum and Stadium Tour of Manchester United’s ‘Theatre of Dreams’.
For more art, on the other hand, head slightly outside the centre to the Whitworth Art Gallery, where families are made welcome with all kinds of events and activities, including Colourful Sundays, Toddlertastic Adventures and an art-cart, plus a family-friendly cafe.
Also a few minutes’ outside the centre (close to the Whitworth), the Manchester Museum is worth a good half-day’s outing, with its mummies, dinosaur skeletons, stuffed animals and even live amphibians and reptiles. Family-friendly amenities and events include a Play + Learn area (plus picnic area), monthly Big Saturday themed activity days, under-5s Magic Carpet sessions, and free trails and family backpacks.
Discover Salford Quays, part of the Greater Manchester city that more or less merges with Manchester itself. An ongoing dockland regeneration project that now houses MediaCity (including several departments of the BBC), the Quays are home to The Lowry art and entertainment centre with three theatres hosting family blockbuster shows and smaller pieces by independent children’s touring theatres, art galleries with a family corner for drawing, reading and playing, and regular art, drama and dance activities, workshops and classes.
Cross the Millennium footbridge spanning the Manchester Ship Canal to reach the Imperial War Museum North, where you can bring your children to learn all about the impact that war has on lives. Some of the temporary exhibitions are aimed specifically at families, and there are family performances, gallery packs, arts and crafts activities, children’s tours, and Shipshape Saturdays (family fun days). See also our Manchester City Break feature.
Shop! Manchester is like a more manageable version of London when it comes to opportunities for a spot of retail therapy, with glossy department stores such as Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, boho shopping galore in the grungey Northern Quarter (most notably in the famous indie emporium Afflecks), and all the usual high-street offerings.
If you like malls, the Trafford Centre has more stores than you could ever need (including another Selfridges and a John Lewis), plus a crèche and soft-play area, and the Legoland Discovery Centre for ages 3–12 (including Miniland with Lego models of northern English attractions such as the Peak District and the Blackpool Illuminations). Other attractions at the mall include the Trafford Centre Singing Bears, the UK’s biggest multiplex cinema (20 screens), a Namco Staton with the fastest bumper cars in Europe and other games and entertainments, a Laser Quest, a climbing wall, and the Aerial Extreme high-ropes adventure course.
For further exertions, head for nearby Chill Factore, an indoor real snow centre, with year-round activities for all the family, from skiing lessons to luge and tubing, plus a snowplay area for children 2–10.
Go further afield. Greater Manchester includes Stockport, where you’ll find Hat Works, Britain’s only museum dedicated to headwear and the hatting industry – it may not sound like the first choice with kids but in fact runs lots of family-friendly workshops and events. You might also explore the town’s old Air Raid Shelters, with both family tours and children’s tours available, visit Tudor manor house Bramall Hall, with another very busy program of children’s events, discover Chadkirk Chapel and Country Estates, where you can learn the likes of bird- and bat-box building, and enjoy Staircase House combined with the Stockport Story Museum, taking you through the town’s history via displays and themed activities such as crime and punishment.
Also in Greater Manchester, Altrincham is home to the National Trust owned, early Georgian Dunham Massey Hall, where year-round family events include school-holiday Boredom Busters and free kids’ quizzes/trails.
If you’re interested in Manchester’s rich history, Treasure Trails has a 3km family walking trail taking in lots of the city’s iconic sights and buildings.
The Lowry Bridge
Those taking family holidays or breaks in Manchester are in for a culinary treat – offerings include branches of child-friendly chains Carluccio’s, Giraffe, Tampopo and Wagamama. But you don’t have to play it safe: there are also ethnic treats galore in Chinatown (we recommend Red Chilli, reassuringly popular with Chinese diners) and on the ‘Curry Mile’ outside the centre in Rusholme, with a bewildering choice of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and Afghan restaurants, cafés and sweet shops – Lal Qila and Jazera Charcoal Cuisine have both met approval from the TaketheFamily team, although everyone has their favourites and places do fall in and out of favour.
Outside the centre, the Trafford Centre (see above) is rammed with child-friendly eateries if you don’t mind the numbing mall ambiance. It’s also worth venturing into the affluent family southern suburbs of Manchester, all packed with child-friendly restaurants and cafés – try Croma in Chorlton, The Metropolitan in West Didsbury, and Felicini in Didsbury, to name just three.
The Lowry Hotel (see Accommodation) is another top spot for eating out with kids – see our Manchester City Break feature.
If you’re self-catering or just in search of an interesting nibble, the Manchester Real Food Market is held in the central Piccadilly Gardens on the second and fourth weekends (Fri and Sat) of each month, with stall-holders offering specialities from across the north-west.
Air & Space Hall at the Museum of Science and Industry
When to go to Manchester
No season guarantees freedom from Manchester’s infamous rain, but like all great cities, this is a wonderful place for a family break whatever the season or the weather. Among the heaps of world-class events worth looking out for are Chinese New Year (between late Jan and mid Feb), the Manchester Mega Mela (July), with Asian music, dance, sports, arts and crafts, food and more, plus a funfair, and Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights (late Oct/early Nov).
The Manchester International Festival, held biennially, includes family events, while the Manchester Science Festival each October hosts mainly free events, many of them at the Museum of Science and Industry (see above). October also sees the Manchester Literature Festival, with lots of events aimed at kids.
Manchester always goes to town at Christmas, with an ice rink, a Continental-style Christmas market offering everything from Dutch pancakes to German hotdogs, a snow-slide, and fantastic illuminations.
Manchester offers plenty of occasions to splurge, but if you choose self-catering accommodation and take advantage of the city's many free sights, you'll find that family holidays or breaks here don't have to be expensive.
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