By Stuart Haggas
This gritty, industrial city in the north of England, 2hr 15mins by train from London, was transformed in the eyes of gay men and lesbians throughout the world when Russell T Davies set his groundbreaking TV drama Queer As Folk on the cobbles of Manchester’s Canal Street. Manchester was of course a great gay city before Queer As Folk – but the show nevertheless changed the world’s image of Manchester: from grim Victorian factories and rain-lashed streets, to a glitter-dusted gay Elysium. In less time than it took for young Nathan to lose his virginity to confident scene-queen Stuart, Manchester’s reputation as a must-visit gay destination was secured.
The actors who played Nathan and Stuart have gone onto even bigger things: Charlie Hunnam’s stellar resume now includes lead roles in blockbuster Pacific Rim and TV drama Sons of Anarchy, while Aidan Gillen went onto The Wire and Game of Thrones. Manchester has maintained a similar trajectory: fifteen years after co-starring on Queer As Folk, the city remains in the premier league of gay destinations.
OUT & ABOUT
The epicenter of gay Manchester is Canal Street. As the name implies, one of Manchester’s historic network of canals runs alongside this narrow, pedestrianised street. Canal Street’s queer status is often credited to Manto, a bar which, when it opened in 1991, was pioneering in that it featured large plate glass windows to show Manchester’s gay community that they no longer needed to hide – arguably changing the face of the city’s gay scene. A fixture on Canal Street for more than 20 years, this iconic gay bar closed in October 2013. One of the oldest, largest and busiest gay bars on Canal Street today, Via (formerly Via Fossa) features exposed brickwork, gold rococo mirrors and chandeliers. Sparkly G-A-Y Manchester, the northern cousin of London’s G-A-Y family, appeals to a younger, student crowd with pop hits and cheap drinks deals. A more traditional-style gay pub, Churchills has regular cabaret and drag shows. Some of the gayest venues are found in the adjacent streets, like large, men-only Eagle Manchester, attracting a sexy masculine crowd. Since opening in 1998, sleek lesbian bar Vanilla is regularly named the UK’s Best Bar by leading lesbian magazine Diva, and has regular DJ’s, live acoustic sets and open mic nights. Billed as Manchester’s oldest gay venue, Napoleons knows the benefit of well-applied make-up – perhaps explaining its popularity with the trans community. The New Union hotel and bar has had a gay clientele for decades (in the 1950s its owner went to prison for running a public house of ill repute), and it’s still a favourite with DJ’s, karaoke and drag cabaret. Finally, try dance club Cruz 101 – established for over 20 years, it’s the largest venue in Manchester’s gay village.
Via, 28-30 Canal Street, www.viamanchester.co.uk
G-A-Y Manchester, 10 Canal Street, www.g-a-y.co.uk
Churchills, 5 Canal Street
Eagle Manchester, 15 Bloom Street, www.eaglemanchester.com
Vanilla, 39-41 Richmond Street, www.vanillagirls.co.uk
Napoleons, 33 Bloom Street, www.napoleons.co.uk
New Union Hotel and Bar, 111 Princess Street, www.newunionhotel.com
Cruz 101, 191 Princess Street, www.cruz101.com
For more venues visit www.visitmanchester.com/what-to-do/lgbt/
GAY WEDDING HOTSPOTS
A former Victorian schoolhouse in the city centre, Great John Street has been transformed into an eclectic 4-star townhouse hotel with 30 duplex bedrooms and suites. There’s a range of private spaces available for intimate civil wedding ceremonies, and the whole place can be hired exclusively for a wedding of up to 200 guests. For the ultimate urban same-sex wedding, its roof garden sits amidst the rooftops of Manchester, so you can marry close to the stars. www.eclectichotels.co.uk/great-john-street/
Manchester’s Cross Street Unitarian Chapel was Britain’s first place of worship to offer civil partnerships to same-sex couples. The Unitarian Church is not part of the Church of England, has a number of openly gay ministers, and intends to offer same-sex marriage ceremonies in its simple, round chapel sanctuary as soon as the law allows. www.cross-street-chapel.org.uk
A landmark waterside building in Manchester’s redeveloped Salford Quays area, The Lowry has gallery spaces displaying the works of famous local artist LS Lowry, two theatres, and a flagship restaurant and bar. This striking glass and steel-clad building has two contemporary spaces licensed for civil wedding ceremonies for up to 150 guests. The circular Compass Room has floor-to-ceiling windows providing dramatic 360-degree views – for added wow factor, blackout blinds can descend at the touch of a button, so you may exchange vows in an intimate candlelit atmosphere. www.thelowry.com/landing-pages/weddings-and-civil-partnerships/
HOTELS, B&B’S AND HONEYMOON SUITES
Looking for a decadent place to stay in the gay village? Look no further than Velvet Hotel. Currently ranked TripAdvisor’s #1 hotel in Manchester, it’s directly on Canal Street. Some rooms therefore have noise intrusion from DJ’s playing downstairs on Friday and Saturday nights – but they compensate by offering these rooms at a reduced “Clubbing” rate, including a bottle of fizz and late check-out (so they’re perfect if you’re here to party!) The 16 rooms and 3 penthouse suites are individually decorated in an industrial boudoir style, with lavish king size beds, chandeliers, and exposed brick walls. Lovers and honeymooners can request the rose petal turndown service: chocolates, champagne, and a heart-shaped scattering of rose petals. www.velvetmanchester.com
Dating from 1853, Free Trade Hall is a grand colonnaded building that was once Manchester’s premier concert venue. Following a £45million reinvention, it re-launched in 2004 as the 5-star Radisson Blu Edwardian. The hotel’s four penthouse suites are named Bassey, Dylan, Fitzgerald and Valentino in recognition of the world-renowned performers who once played here. Famous guests now include the likes of Kylie, Beyoncé and Simon Cowell. There are 263 rooms and suites, two restaurants, a champagne bar, a destination spa, and oodles of contemporary glamour. www.radissonblu-edwardian.com
A former cotton merchant’s warehouse moments from Canal Street, ABode is a 4-star hotel that retains many original Victorian features but gives them a modern British twist. There are 61 bedrooms, the best being the FABulous On Fifth suites – five loft-style suites whose stylish décor includes work by renowned artists such as David Hockney and Yoko Ono. www.abodemanchester.co.uk
Home to major department stores and large shopping centres, Manchester provides many opportunities for retail therapy. There’s alternative retail therapy here too: established in 1982, Afflecks has an unusual array of shops, selling everything from vintage top hats to collectable Anime figurines. In August 2013, Pride To Be, a shop selling cards and gifts exclusively for gay and lesbian couples, joined this eclectic retail collective. Founded by Lorraine and Sara Donnelly, they came up with the idea while looking for items to celebrate their own civil partnership. Now that same-sex marriage is allowed under UK law, this sort of business is sure to boom. www.afflecks.com
A fantastical gay-frequented place, Richmond Tea Rooms is an Alice In Wonderland themed tea emporium one block away from Canal Street. Serving breakfasts and classic afternoon teas, there’s plenty to satisfy the most demanding Queen of Hearts! www.richmondtearooms.com
As well as the Lowry museum and theatre complex, there’s lots to see and do in Manchester’s rejuvenated Salford Quays quarter. Another major museum here is Imperial War Museum North, in a dramatic building by architect Daniel Libeskind. Among the thought-provoking objects on display is the field gun that fired Britain’s first shell of WWI, to pieces of twisted steel from New York’s World Trade Center. Old Trafford Stadium, home to world-famous football team Manchester United, is also nearby. Guided stadium tours include a visit to the dressing room where the likes of George Best, David Beckham, Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo changed into that iconic No 7 shirt. For football fanatical brides and grooms, the stadium is also licensed for civil wedding ceremonies. www.thequays.org.uk
GAY DATES FOR YOUR DIARY
Throughout August, Manchester’s gay village plays host to one of the biggest dates in the gay calendar: Manchester Pride. The month-long Pride Fringe celebrates the diversity of LGBT life, including art, culture and sport. This leads to the Big Weekend (Friday 22 – Monday 25 August 2014), including a massive Pride Parade and cumulating with the George House Trust Candlelit Vigil, a moving tribute to those who’ve died of HIV. www.manchesterpride.com
NEARBY HONEYMOON ESCAPES
One of the most popular honeymoon choices listed on British-based LGBT travel website FurtherAfield.com is The Love Shack – an architect designed eco retreat in the Lake District, 90 miles north of Manchester. Set in secluded woodland with stunning views over Lake Windermere, this romantic love-nest for two was described by Britain’s The Guardian newspaper as “one of the best cabins in the world”. There’s bespoke furniture by a local joiner alongside midcentury design classics, a compact kitchen, and sleek bathroom with Japanese-style square bath. The owners will even deliver delicious homemade meals like game pie and monkfish ravioli to your door. www.furtherafield.com/the-loveshack-cumbria-lake-district
Another recommendation from FurtherAfield.com, The Ashton is a stylish B&B in the outskirts of Lancaster, 50 miles north of Manchester. Owner James was a set designer, but now runs this 5 guestroom property with partner David – so expect decadent, theatrical interiors and lots of personal touches. You can also hire the house in its entirety for house parties of up to 10 guests or same-sex wedding receptions. www.furtherafield.com/the-ashton-lancaster-lake-district
Manchester is in the northwest of England, 200 miles from London. Regular trains connect Manchester to London in approx 2hr 15mins. Manchester Airport is 20 minutes by train from the city centre. The UK’s third busiest airport, it’s served by flights from Europe, the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Asia.