If you enjoy a little retail therapy on your travels, Manchester is undoubtedly one of Britain’s most appealing cities. As the widely acknowledged Capital of the North, the metropolis boasts an impressive array of high-end department stores and designer boutiques, with something to tempt every taste and budget.
However, the former industrial city really shines when it comes to its outstanding selection of independent shops, which sell everything from vintage clothes and cult labels to vinyl records, artisan food products and quirky homewares, many of which are made locally. If you’re eager to hunt out some unique souvenirs and support local businesses during your stay, there’s plenty to explore – particularly in areas such as the famous Northern Quarter and the up-and-coming Green Quarter, both of which are known for their eclectic selection of stores, bars, galleries and restaurants.
“Manchester has been a melting pot of cultures for decades,” says Greg Hull, co-director of Manchester Three Rivers Gin, a premium, small-batch gin company based in the city. “After the war, there was a large amount of immigration into the city, and it brought with it a range of new ideas, culture, food and drink. In conjunction, the city’s industries had been declining over a number of years, and this left many spaces such as warehouses, railway stations and historic buildings all vacant. The people’s drive to be creative had not been stymied; they just needed a new outlet.
“Add in the notorious wet weather and you have a city full of diverse culture, creativity, industriousness and epic vacant spaces, where we people can revel in being indoors. This became the breeding ground for the music scene explosion, and more recently the boom in the diverse food and drink and craft production.”
To help you track down some of Manchester’s best hidden retail gems, we spoke to locals in the know about these fascinating neighborhoods. We discovered what makes the city such a great hub for independent shops and businesses – then rounded up some recommendations.
“For me, there’s a fantastically relaxed atmosphere in the Northern Quarter that helps nurture creativity,” says Matt Potter, owner and editor of the website NorthernQuarterManchester.com. “It’s a very accepting part of the city where people are genuinely interested in retaining and nurturing that independent and creative spirit. [It] has a real ‘neighbourhood’ feel to it, where you quickly get to know people and see familiar faces every day.” No wonder so many diverse shops and other businesses feel right at home.
So why did Potter start the what’s-on website? “I live in the Northern Quarter and nobody was telling me about the great things happening there. I figured that maybe there were other people in the same boat as me, so I decided to find out more for myself and put it up on the website and on social media and see if anyone else was actually interested. It seems they were!”
Manchester’s bohemian playground
Centered on Oldham Street in the city centre, Manchester’s Northern Quarter is a major cultural hub known for its edgy, unconventional spirit. Colourful and full of character, for years this has been the city’s go-to district for unusual stores, distinctive bars and cafés, and lively, bohemian nightlife.
The site is now a must-visit destination “to tell people about the area, places to go and things to do in this part of Manchester,” as Potter explains. So what can people expect from a trip to the Northern Quarter? “Incredible street art, an eclectic mix of shops, a huge choice of some of the best coffee shops, cafés, bars and restaurants in Manchester and some fantastic architecture. All in all, a wonderful place to explore!”
Shopping in the Northern Quarter
“I get asked for advice as to what to do and where to go in the Northern Quarter a lot and it’s always hard to answer with specifics,” says Potter. “There’s so much to do and so many places to discover that I think the real joy is in the exploration of the area.”
It’s certainly true that the streets and lanes around Piccadilly Gardens are a wonderful place to wander aimlessly, as you never know what you might stumble across next tucked away in the handsome red brick buildings. Here are a few of our favourite independent shops to look out for:
The first stop on any shopping tour of the Northern Quarter has to be this vast warren of independent shops and market stalls formerly known as Affleck’s Palace, which has been a Manchester institution since 1982. Scattered throughout its four storeys you’ll find everything from vintage clothes and retro homewares to skateboards, handmade cosmetics, fudge, vinyl, accessories and more. There are also restaurants, cafés and other services for when you’ve shopped yourself out. There’s even a store selling American candy, if you’re feeling a little homesick!
This cheerfully charming shop is packed full of beautiful stationery, homewares, soaps, candles and more, much of which is locally designed and produced. There’s also a friendly coffee shop on site providing quality coffee and mouth-watering cakes.
A stalwart on Manchester’s eternally lively music scene, Piccadilly Records has been serving up the best in alternative music since 1978. With extremely knowledgeable staff who can talk you through even the most obscure of music genres, this is the place to discover the most cutting-edge music out there, from up-and-coming local bands to classic, well-established artists.
Manchester Craft and Design Center
Home to more than 30 artists, designers and other makers, this bright and airy design center is the perfect place to pick up a handmade, personalised souvenir or gift. Formerly a Victorian fish market, the building itself is worth admiring, and serves as a fitting showcase for the high-quality work on display.
For fashion that’s fun, innovative and most importantly, sustainable, Junk Shop is hard to beat. Overflowing with striking clothing and jewellery by up-and-coming local designers, this colourful independent boutique is furnished with upcycled and reclaimed materials and also features its own labels – demonstrating that an ethical approach to fashion can be refreshingly stylish and affordable.
Distilling in the Green Quarter
Just north of the city centre, the Green Quarter is rapidly emerging as one of Manchester’s most up-and-coming districts. This vibrant, purpose-built development has already gained a reputation for its artisanal food and drink, and attracts many visitors keen to explore the diverse local businesses cropping up in the area.
One such business is Manchester Three Rivers Gin, based at the City of Manchester Distillery – the first distillery to be located in the city centre. “We knew it was not enough just to create a super premium gin,” co-director Greg Hull explains. “We wanted to create a space where people could come and take part in the Gin Renaissance and participate in the revival of production in the heart of the city.”
Even more intriguingly, this space happens to be located in a disused railway arch in the Green Quarter – a remnant of Manchester’s industrial past. “There are many businesses now taking residence in railway arches across Manchester,” Hull observes. “Speaking from our own personal view, the arches offer something practical yet interesting. They are not a normal office or purpose-built building – the very space itself gets you thinking creatively. It inspired many design decisions when we were building the distillery and creating the Gin Experience and bar.
“On a deeper level, we feel railway arches are a direct reflection of the city’s ethos of evolution. Having something historical that was so vital to the city being reinvigorated and regenerated is a great metaphor for the city itself, and the companies feel part of something new without forgetting whose shoulders they stand upon.”
So what can visitors expect from their Three Rivers Gin experience? “People can expect to tour the distillery, learn about the often illustrious, sometimes dark and unquestionably intriguing history of gin and be shown how gin’s diverse flavours are concocted,” Hull says. “We offer you four complimentary drinks, from our perfect-serve G&Ts to classic cocktails, before finally letting you loose on the most exciting part of all: making your very own full bottle of gin to take home! You get to choose from over 50 botanicals, whether it’s Madagascan vanilla, liquorice root or elderflower – guests can let their taste buds and imaginations run wild.”
Now that’s a souvenir of your Manchester trip you can’t buy elsewhere!
Exploring under the arches
While visiting Manchester, be sure to browse through some of the other interesting stores that have nestled into railway arches across the city – they’re sure to appeal to foodies, in particular:
This quirky ‘cycle café’ is a must-visit for bike fans. Not only does the reclaimed space offer storage for bicycles (great if you’re visiting the area on two wheels), but it also incorporates a bike repair shop and excellent coffee shop – to help you fuel up for the day’s freewheeling adventures.
Tucked away beneath Manchester’s Piccadilly Station, this small-scale bakery specialises in sourdough bread and viennoiseries – all prepared with simple, quality ingredients that pack in plenty of flavour. Drop by for loaves, pastries, cakes and more – your taste buds will thank you.
ManCoCo Roastery and Coffee Bar
An independent coffee roastery specialising in small batch, ethically sourced coffee beans, ManCoCo is a popular supplier for local restaurants and a must-visit for coffee lovers interested in distinctive single origin beans. As a bonus, you can watch them roast the beans by hand on site.