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.