x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Beyond the football pitch, Manchester is a his-and-hers destination

A certain football team's dominance in this season's Premier League title has helped to put the city on the map, but there are many other reasons to visit, says long-time city fan Max Davidson.

Football may have put it on the map, but Manchester is a city that is constantly reinventing itself. With its art, history, architecture and shops, it has the advantage, even if you never attend a match, writes Max Davidson

Since Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bought Manchester City in 2008, the club has become a superpower in the game, rivalling its more celebrated neighbour. City and United have dominated this year's Premier League and, when the two clubs meet on April 30, the match is likely to decide the destiny of the title. City fans, in particular, are talking about nothing else. If they do pip United to the title, it will be their first for nearly 50 years.

Even though Manchester and football have become inseparable in the public imagination, there is far more to the city than football - as ever more visitors are discovering. Who would have guessed 20 years ago that there would be daily flights from the Emirates to a soggy northern English city where an umbrella is more or less obligatory? Trips that began as sporting pilgrimages have become much broader voyages of discovery, as visitors revel in the heady mix of shopping, nightlife, history and culture that Manchester has to offer.

There are enough attractions to fill a week, and, as a his-and-hers destination, Manchester is hard to beat. He might go to a football match while she shops at Selfridges and has lunch at the store's elegant French restaurant perched above Exchange Square. Then they can meet for an evening together in the bohemian Northern Quarter listening to live jazz, or a candlelit dinner overlooking one of Manchester's many canals or waterways. No city in England outside of London offers quite so many options.

The hotel where I am staying, the Lowry, is part of the Rocco Forte collection, and has a sophistication that would have been unimaginable 30 years ago, when Manchester was in the economic doldrums. Huge picture windows look out across the jagged city skyline. Beautiful people throng the bar and restaurant, lulled by live piano music.

Eating out in Manchester - once a lacklustre experience perhaps consisting of a foray into the city's down-at-heel Chinatown - has become a real culinary adventure.

Nothing had prepared me for the seriously funky Australasia, a stylish basement restaurant in the city centre where ingredients from three continents are thrown together with verve and panache. From the wild mushrooms with truffle mayonnaise to the cannon of lamb with hickory aubergine and wild herbs, every dish is thrillingly fresh.

Part of me wants to sit here for hours, savouring the food and soaking up the atmosphere. But there is so much to see and do in Manchester that it is best to keep on the move.

As a football fan, my sightseeing naturally starts with visits to Old Trafford, home to Manchester United, and the Etihad Stadium, where Manchester City plays. Old Trafford is bigger and glitzier, with a terrific museum that is deservedly popular. The story of a great club, rising from the ashes of the 1958 Munich air disaster to become a global sporting brand, is stirringly delivered.

The smaller Etihad Stadium is barely 10 years old, but crackles with the electricity of a major sporting venue. The highlight is a stadium tour that takes fans behind the scenes to the press room, the private boxes, the tunnel in which the players muster before kick-off, and even to the home dressing room, the holy of holies.

If you are expecting to see a few lockers and pegs on the wall, think again. The tour brings home the sheer professionalism of the modern game, from the state-of-the-art gym in which players warm up before the game to the massage tables and ice baths where they recuperate afterwards. Nothing is left to chance, and there is a bewildering array of whiteboards and electronic screens on which tactics can be analysed and discussed.

"Manchester Thanks You, Sheikh Mansour", reads a sign above one of the stands. When you see the Rolls-Royce facilities enjoyed by the players, it is not hard to see why.

With football fever gripping the city as the climax of the Premier League season looms, there is yet more good news for fans. On July 6, the National Football Museum finally opens after being relocated from Preston to the Urbis building in the city centre. It promises to be a must-visit attraction, tracing the origins of the modern game back to school playing fields in 19th-century England.

But if you cannot stand football, don't despair. Manchester's shops, which never used to have the same cachet as London's Oxford Street, have suddenly become a major tourist magnet, particularly for visitors from the Middle East.

With Gucci, Armani, Burberry, Tiffany & Co, Karen Millen and Vivienne Westwood, the city centre Selfridges is like a who's who of high fashion. And whether your taste is for multistorey malls or quirky backstreet boutiques, Manchester will welcome you with open arms.

I spend a very happy morning wandering around the Northern Quarter - a rabbit warren of vegetarian cafes, vinyl shops, boutique bakeries, second-hand clothing stores and old-style barbers with red-and-white poles - then take a bus out to the weird and wonderful Trafford Centre on the southern outskirts of the city.

It's weird because, if you forgot you were in Manchester, under grey skies, you would think you were in a vast shopping mall in Las Vegas. The decor is magnificently over-the-top, from Greek pillars and Roman statues to dolphin-shaped fountains and restaurants themed on the Titanic, complete with lifeboats.

It's wonderful because, behind the kitsch, a lot of thought has gone into creating a 21st-century retail-cum-leisure facility, with shops and restaurants to suit every taste and budget. On a busy day, 100,000 people - more than the capacity of Old Trafford - converge on the Trafford Centre, and they get their money's worth, whether they are clothes shopping, dining with friends or going to the cinema.

Manchester's museums and galleries, almost all of them free, are equally impressive. At the Lowry at Salford Quays, a relatively new development, you can admire the work of L S Lowry, a great son of Manchester, whose paintings of working-class life - matchstick-thin figures streaming out of a factory or going to a football match - evoke the grey Britain of the mid-20th century with tenderness and humour.

The older Manchester Art Gallery in the city centre has an equally fine collection of 19th-century paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites. One thinks of the Victorians as a stuffy lot, but not when viewing these lush, romantic canvases with their voluptuously attired women.

If you are interested in science, you will not want to miss the atmospheric Museum of Science and Industry on the site of the world's oldest passenger railway station. It gives an informative overview of the Manchester of Industrial Revolution when, thanks mainly to cotton, a small northern town became an industrial powerhouse.

For history buffs, it might be a toss-up between the People's History Museum, celebrating the achievements of social campaigners such as the Manchester-born suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, and the Imperial War Museum North, which concerns itself as much with the human cost of war as with military campaigns. I find time to squeeze in both, and I am glad I did.

With its excellent Metrolink tram system, which Londoners would envy, Manchester is easily negotiable by public transport. But it is also, par excellence, a walker's city, with a new surprise around every corner, an ongoing architectural dialogue between ancient and modern.

In the up-and-coming area of Spinningfields, dusky gems of 19th-century Gothic, from the town hall to the sumptuous John Rylands Library, have to compete with shiny new shops and office buildings. The gleaming Wheel of Manchester, a smaller version of the London Eye, looks down on timber-framed inns that were built nearly 500 years ago.

All over Manchester, you get the sense of a city continually reinventing itself, as at the Royal Exchange Theatre, where cutting-edge modern plays are performed in a high-roofed trading hall that was once the centre of the world's cotton market.

Perhaps the canals - miles and miles of them bisecting the city - best capture the marriage of Manchester past and present. During the Industrial Revolution, they were major economic arteries, ferrying cotton all over the world. Now they are largely ornamental, pretty little waterways overlooked by modern apartment blocks. The narrow boats chugging through the locks tell of a life of leisure, not commerce.

Guaranteed sunshine, alas, is not in Manchester's gift. But as a great all-round city, offering something for everyone, it is rising inexorably up the European league table.

If you go

The flight Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) to Manchester from Abu Dhabi cost from Dh3,690, including taxes

The hotel Double rooms at the five-star Lowry Hotel (www.thelowryhotel.com), in the centre of Manchester, cost from Dh2,458 per night

The info For general information about Manchester, visit the tourist board website at www.visitmanchester.com