This is a gritty district where the lifeblood is the music. Manchester's underground scene has spawned groups such as the Hollies in the sixties, the Smiths in the eighties and Oasis in the early nineties. When punk and new wave bands were looking for a place to crash in the late eighties,
they landed in the Northern Quarter, where cotton mills that powered the 19th-century Industrial Revolution were dying and rambling factory spaces were selling for a song. Painters, designers and the odd poet followed and soon the area was buzzing with late-night music clubs, vintage clothing shops and art-splashed cafés.
By the late nineties, the area had even acquired its own icon: The Tib Street Horn, a sculpture of a saxophone communing with symbols of dusk and dawn, perched atop a ruined Victorian-era hat factory.
These days, the Northern Quarter is known as the place to spot trends before they crest: Music-shop windows reveal the band Elbow is hot, restaurants are high on field-to-table cuisine, fashion boutiques are restyling mid-century garments with a modern twist and artisans are transforming old machine cogs into avant-garde jewels.
"This neighbourhood is full of independents," observes Mark Garner, publisher of the online Manchester Confidential magazine. "All these businesses that lasted 150 years may have died, but something very good came out of it."
From punk to funk (and then some) In the late seventies, aficionados of a new genre called punk began gathering at a 19th-century pub rechristened Band on the Wall. Closed for several years, it was reborn in late 2009 through a multimillion-pound renovation as a non-profit venue to promote musical forms from reggae to funk to soul. A century-old cinema next door serves artisan ales and runs footage of historic performances. 25 Swan St.; 161-834-1786; www.bandonthewall.org
The groove room The dimly lit Matt and Phred's Jazz Club showcases emerging musicians of every stripe, hosts poetry readings and exhibits local art. After midnight on weekends jazz luminaries may drop in to jam. 64 Tib St.; 161-831-7002; www.mattandphreds.com
Have a laugh The Frog and Bucket Comedy Club is a rowdy platform for edgy comics. Brave souls go on Monday nights when new talent competes in five-minute sets. There's an entry fee of $23 (£15) on Fridays and $24 (£16) on Saturdays for better-known acts. 102 Oldham St.; 161-236-9805; www.frogandbucket.com
Surgery at the Common Bar Guest artists repaint the interior of Common Bar several times a year. When we visited, the space had been transformed into a fantasy doctor's surgery with vintage eye charts on the walls and windows swathed in surrealistic "Apple a Day" murals. Along with time-honoured Real Ales and Ginger Beer, Common also serves England's beloved purple soft drink, Vimto. Locals gather for event evenings like Quiz Night on the first and third Wednesdays of each month, and pay a $3 (£2) entry fee after 10 on Saturday. 39-41 Edge St.; 0161-832-9245; www.aplacecalledcommon.co.uk
How odd is too odd? Odd, Odder and Oddest are three unconventional bars with roots in the Northern Quarter. At the mother ship Odd Bar, which appears to be furnished with granny's treasures from a youthful fling in Morocco, the crowd of local bohos and BBC renegades begins gathering in late afternoon. Downstairs, watch works by local filmmakers. 30-32 Thomas St.; 0161-833-0070; www.oddbar.co.uk
Adjust your attitude Behind graffiti walls at the corner of High and Edge streets, the tattooed barmen at Socio Rehab are mixing some of the swankest cocktails in town. Start with the Attitude Adjustor, a "short sharp sherbet slap in the face" of gin and fresh lime, moving on to a Drugstore Bandit, Jack Daniels and root beer served in a jam jar and a brown bag. If you're still standing through "dessert," make it Cinnabon-ago-go, vodka, vanilla cinnamon swirl ice cream, whipped cream and sprinkle. 100-102 High St.; 161-832-4529; www.sociorehab.com
Nouveau Goth at tv21 Once a hangout for the BBC, the crowd at television-themed tv21 now appears to veer toward nouveau Goth. Sci Fi is the genre of choice at this pub where music videos blare amid props that include a Star Wars Stormtrooper. On weekends, DJs spin chill-out, old skool dance and Mersey Boys (a.k.a. the Beatles) from the sixties through the nineties. 10 Thomas St.; 161-819-2221; www.tv21manchester.com
Take home the music The DJ Mecca Vinyl Exchange is one of northwest England's largest sellers of rare CDs, and dedicates most of its basement to vinyl. Prices are competitive and the staff know their way around industrial, rave, jungle, funk, techno, metal, punk and everything in between. 18 Oldham St.; 161-228-1122; www.vinylexchange.co.uk
Rock 'n' roll poster Beyond a superlative collection of fine-art photography and works produced by such music industry luminaries as Ronnie Wood, Graham Nash and Linda McCartney, the Richard Goodall Gallery exhibits an expansive collection of classic rock posters. Prices are high, but browsers are welcome. The gallery has two locations: 103 High St. has more fine art 161-834-3330; 59 Thomas St. carries posters and street art; 0161-832-3435. www.richardgoodallgallery.com
Fish-market chic Artists and designers inhabit the stalls of a Victorian-era fish and poultry market converted into the Manchester Craft and Design Centre. Acquaintances may keep their distance when you sport a barbed-wire bracelet from Colette Hazelwood ( www.colettehazelwoodjewellery.co.uk), jeweller Ciara Clark has a delicate way with metallurgy ( www.blacdesign.co.uk) and ceramicist Lee Page Hanson experiments is always experimenting with new finishes for his vases, bowls and boxes ( www.leepagehanson.com). Open Monday through Saturday. 17 Oak St.; 161-832-4274; www.craftanddesign.com
Golden-era glamour Not content to simply sell clothing from the thirties through the eighties, Rags to Bitches customizes garments in its dressmaking studio and runs design courses so that clients can remodel on their own. A new vintage makeover service transforms your hair and makeup to Hollywood screen goddess-style, then photographs the result. 60 Tib St.; 161-835-9265; www.rags-to-bitches.co.uk
Eat local, eat well Chefs at the Northern Quarter Restaurant and Bar source local ingredients from England's exploding field-to-table movement for imaginative dishes like sage scented roast sucking pig with black pudding, mushroom and chestnut Wellington, and Shetland scallops with smoked North Sea cod cheeks. Mains are under £20. The best tables are under the old market walls. 108 High St.; 161-832-7115; www.tnq.co.uk
Food and family At Sweet Mandarin, the three Tse sisters serve modern renditions of classic Chinese dishes including chicken curry from Grandmother Lily Kwok and mother Mabel's claypot chicken. A BBC documentary and Helen Tse's memoir, Sweet Mandarin, chronicle three generations of women behind this establishment. Open Tuesday through Sunday. 19 Copperas St.; 161-832-8848; www.sweetmandarin.com
Tea-time pink On a sliver of space along the Northern Quarter's main drag, Bread and Butter's childlike English garden furniture under powder-pink walls and glittering chandeliers belies its man-sized paninis and flatbread piadina sandwiches. 66 Tib St.; 07944-607405.
Special to The Globe and Mail
WHERE TO STAY
Both hotels are less than 10 minutes' walk from the Northern Quarter.
Velvet Manchester 2 Canal St.; 0161-236-9003; www.velvetmanchester.com. Nineteen bespoke rooms carved out of an old flour mill have four-poster beds, thick towels and eclectic art. The hotel offers complimentary Wi-Fi, iPod docking station alarm clocks and breakfast in the well-regarded restaurant downstairs. Rates from $148.
Radisson Edwardian Hotel Manchester Free Trade Hall, Peter Street; 800-333-3333; www.radissonedwardian.com/manchesteruk. There are 263 high-end rooms and suites in this architectural icon. Previous incarnations of this building hosted speeches by Gladstone, Disraeli and Churchill, and entertainment from Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Ella Fitzgerald and Bob Dylan. Traditionally, visiting performers would autograph a basement wall, and sections with signatures of Louis Armstrong, Yehudi Menuhin and Andrés Segovia are displayed. Rates from $203.
Crowne Plaza Manchester City Centre 70 Shudehill; 0161-828-8600; www.cpmanchester.com. A contemporary hotel on the edge of the Northern Quarter. 228 rooms and suites. Rates from $143.