This summer’s big opening in Liverpool, the Museum of Liverpool is yet another reason to visit an unexpectedly family-friendly and fascinating city. Unfairly overlooked and even disparaged, Liverpool may still be run down in parts, but it’s very definitely a city on the up, since its UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2004 and role as European Capital of Culture in 2008. And it’s a truly cracking city to bring kids, with all kind of attractions on offer, a good many of them free – we visit often and still haven’t exhausted the list.
This summer, we've particularly enjoyed the René Magritte exhibition at the Tate Liverpool. Even as a toddler, my oldest son was drawn to the Belgian Surrealist’s works in the Tate Modern in London – unsurprisingly, perhaps, given their often witty exploration of the notions of reality, illusion and perception. A visit to this temporary exhibition (£11 for adults, free to under-12s) with went down very well with my 8- and 7-year-old sons, who used the excellent free trail to hunt down and tally up bowler hats, apples and pipes in paintings throughout the gallery, and also to create their own works based on some of Magritte's pieces. After the exhibition we headed for one of the Tate's free summer-holiday activities for ages 5 and up – in this case, a workshop to create Magritte-inspired Surrealist hats from recycled plastic bottles. As with a previous kids' workshop we attended here (to make our own bots), the staff couldn't have been more helpful or encouraging to kids.
About a minute's walk from the Tate, also on the city’s historic waterfront, the Museum of Liverpool – the UK’s biggest newly built national museum for more than a century – showcases Liverpool’s incredible contribution to popular culture, as well as looking at social, historical and contemporary issues. If that sounds heavyweight, be reassured that this new venue is extremely family-friendly. Its Little Liverpool gallery, a hands-on ‘fantasy world’ for under-6s, includes ‘Liverpuddles’, a water interactive based on the River Mersey, where kids can sail boats, run dinky cars through the tunnels and fish for pretend marine creatures and rubbish, and the ‘Liver Birds’ Nest’ multi-sensory pod for babies and pre-walkers. Entry (as to the rest of the museum) is free, but you need to pick up a ticket for a 40-minute slot at the Welcome Desk when you arrive. If it happens to be full or you have older kids, Winnie the Spider icons throughout the galleries denote things for the very young, including a storytelling tent and Tales of the Riverbank in the Wondrous Place gallery, and Build a City in the People’s Republic gallery.
Just north of Liverpool, there’s an equally intriguing and even less conventional artistic site that my boys also love to visit – Crosby Beach, where the sands have been given over to Antony Gormley’s art installation Another Place, featuring 100 iron casts of the artist’s own body, spread out along 3km of the foreshore and almost 1km out to sea, gazing towards the horizon towards which many emigrants from this coast set sail in trepidation and hope. A little further north still, another of our family’s favourites is Formby, where you can try spotting 5,000-year-old red deer footprints on the beach, rare natterjack toads on the sands, and endangered red squirrels in the surrounding pine woods.
If you’re heading to Liverpool, there really is so much to see and do that it’s worth spending a night or two here, and the ever-increasing number of places to stay means prices are kept competitive, ensuring good-value family city breaks. Our favourite place to lay our heads is The Nadler Liverpool, a funkily restored historic building in the UNESCO World Heritage listed Ropewalks area. Many of the rooms are family friendly, especially the two-level Secret Garden Suite for up to five, with its own decked outdoor space. All rooms and suites have mini-kitchens. Otherwise, the Novotel is good for its prices and its basement pool.
Meanwhile, the range of eateries ranges from some excellent family-friendly museum cafés to Catalan tapas joint Lunya, where kids 6–10 get Spanish lessons while their parents browse the Sunday papers over breakfast.