Manchester is a city known for its musical talent (The Smiths, The 1975, Oasis), it’s “radical literary history” (according to UNESCO), and its wide array of sporting triumphs (Manchester United soccer team), but it is also the perfect vacation spot for women who love women, featuring a famous lesbian bar, a gay village, and plenty of queer history. It’s pretty obvious why the side of lesbians flock to Manchester.
As you can probably guess, this article is going to focus on gay Manchester but more specifically places, events, and activities, that cater specifically for gay women and not on places that are geared towards just anybody, but we know the queer community is diverse and nuanced and that not every lesbian is into the same sort of things. Some of you will want to check out the bar scene in order to find a nice English girl or party the day and night away at Pride, whereas some of you will be more interested in discovering Manchester’s gay history and taking in the cultural activities. Don’t worry, I’ve found something special for everyone, no matter what your idea of fun.
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LGBT Manchester Hotspots
As with most big cities, Manchester has a thriving gay village on the world famous Canal Street – often graffitied to read “Anal Treet” for reasons that you can probably guess – set on the banks of the Roachdale Canal. But Manchester, on the whole, is welcoming to all people, no matter your sexual orientation or gender identity. (Although, it’s always important to keep your safety in mind.)
You might be wondering how Manchester became such a gay-friendly city and the answer to that is through the activism of local people. In response to an anti-gay law passed in 1988, activists in Manchester organized a mass protest – one of the biggest gay rights rallies ever in the UK.
This spurred Manchester City Council to do pioneering work to advance LGBT rights; including officially recognizing the Gay Village, promoting awareness over HIV/AIDS, and becoming the first council to support civil partnerships. That’s allyship, right there.
Manchester Gay Village, Canal Street
Canal Street is the vibrant hub of gay life in Manchester, where you can grab an alfresco lunch, relax by the river, have a quiet pint, or dance all night long, depending on what time it is, where you go, and the weather – it’s Northern England after all!
Here residents and visitors gather together to eat, drink, be merry, and occasionally smoke something that may not be entirely legal in the UK (but you didn’t hear that from me).
Many of the places below are centered in and around Canal Street, but its iconic status in the queer history of Manchester meant that it deserved its own section. Simply, no lesbian should visit Manchester without visiting its Gay Village.
Gay Bars in Manchester
Now, I have to be honest with you, we all know that specially dedicated lesbian bars can be hard to find in any city around the world nowadays, even in LGBT centers, and things are not all that different in England. (Plus, the majority of queer hotspots catered to gay men in the first place.)
Luckily, Manchester has an incredible lesbian bar run for lesbians by lesbians, but I’ve also included a couple of places that are open to all LGBT people, just in case you’re travelling in a mixed group or you want to vary your nights out. Don’t worry, I’ve labelled them clearly.
From the outside, Vanilla looks like a fairly ordinary pub or even just a traditional white brick house; certainly not somewhere you could find hundreds of gay women dancing to house music and drinking reasonably priced cocktails (for a bar in the heart of the Gay Village, anyway). I assure you, those assumptions are wrong.
In fact, it’s one of the most famous lesbian bars in the country and is frequently described as “the Lesbian Mecca of the north”. Who doesn’t want to go to Lesbian Mecca?
But don’t take my word for it. European lesbian magazine Diva has awarded it the coveted “Best Bar in the UK” title several times over the past 20 years. Best of all, Vanilla is a fierce champion of lesbian culture in Manchester and beyond.
And it has something different every night, so if you’re not looking for a rave, you should head there mid-week to play pool, enjoy a relaxing conversation, and listen to more mellow music.
But that’s not all. Although Vanilla was the only lesbian bar that I found in Manchester – sadly, ones that used to be there have now closed – there are some amazing venues that are welcoming to all LGBT+ people.
- The Molly House: This rustic pub features authentic Spanish tapas, real ale, and low-level music so that you can actually have a conversation with your fave girl.
- Satan’s Hollow: A nightclub featuring an alternative and rock playlist, as well as live music, for those of you who prefer girls with heavy eyeliner and dyed hair.
- No. 1 Canal Street: An upscale restaurant and bar run by lesbian couple Lisa and Danielle, where you can wine and dine your lady friend in style.
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Art and Cultural Activities
People’s History Museum
The People’s History Museum is dedicated to “ideas worth fighting for”, documenting the struggles of previous activists to bring change to our world, with the hope of inspiring the next generation of activists. While the exhibitions and galleries are subject to change, as of writing you can learn about queer women’s activism in the “2019 Banner Display” and the “OUTing the Past” series for LGBT History Month.
LGBT+ Heritage Trail
The LGBT+ Heritage Trail is also called the “Out in the Past” Trail, this highlights LGBT history in Manchester, marking important sites with rainbow flag paving stones. On this trail, you’ll pass the Beacon of Hope Aids Monument, the founding sites of two LGBT rights organizations, and some of the oldest gay bars in the city, learning the significance behind each.
Sackville Gardens is a small park just to the north of Canal Street is a lush green space where you can relax and embrace nature in the fast-paced city. However, it’s not just the chance for a quiet picnic that should draw you here because this park is also a spot for reflection for our community, featuring:
- The Alan Turing Memorial: A statue of the WW2 code breaker who was arrested for his sexuality and committed suicide as a result.
- The Beacon of Hope memorial: Mentioned above, this is the only permanent memorial in the UK to those lost to HIV/AIDS.
- The Transgender Memorial: Here several butterflies are carved into the tree to represent the “change from one state of existence to another”.
So this is what a lot of you have been looking forward to, Manchester Pride. This is always a massive event, but this year it’s taking on a new format and looks set to be bigger and better than ever, incorporating women-only events, as well as more specific offerings for families and people of color. (Psst, they’ve also adopted the 8-stripe Pride flag, which recognizes people of color!)
Now, it will be a four-day festival over the last weekend in August, featuring six core elements:
- Manchester Pride Parade: Last year, 10,000 people and 150 floats or walking entries took part in the Pride Parade and this year organizers are expecting an even bigger turnout.
- The Gay Village Gathering: The ultimate street party, featuring music, food, and shopping galore.
- Manchester Pride Live: A two-day ticketed event featuring world-class acts on two stages, but they’re keeping a lid on the artists at the moment.
- The Candlelit Vigil: A quiet reflection time in Sackville Gardens to remember those we’ve already lost in the struggle for equality, to reflect on the challenges we still face today, and to stand united against prejudice
- The Superbia Weekend: A range of free-to-attend events focusing on culture, including film screenings, community workshops, and a post-Pride Parade party.
- Youth Pride MCR: If you’re aged 16-25, you can attend Youth Pride and mingle with women your own age. (Specific details on this are still to be confirmed.)
Sparkle Weekend is hailed as the world’s “largest annual free-to-attend celebration of gender identity”, Manchester’s Sparkle Weekend is like a mini-Pride focused on the trans and non-binary community and open to everyone who believes in equal human rights regardless of pronouns.
Situated in the heart of the Gay Village, you can eat great food, enjoy entertainment by trans and non-binary artists, and access support from LGBT organizations.
LGBT Friendly Hotels in Manchester – Where to stay
There are plenty of amazing LGBT friendly hotels in Manchester, but how do you know which one to pick? Well, that depends on what you want out of it, because there are hotels to suit every taste, whether you’re looking for a luxury suite or a cheap bed to crash in at night; somewhere in the midst of the party or somewhere off the beaten path.
Some of you might also be concerned about finding a lesbian-friendly hotel, in case of encountering bigots who refuse to sell a double room to two women.
Luckily, I’ve never encountered that in the UK and the British Supreme Court ruled that sort of discrimination illegal in 2013, but I totally understand the desire to find hotels that cater to lesbians. (Plus, it might make it easier to find a date for the night if you’re flying solo.) That’s why I’m focusing on hotels around the Gay Village that have a reputation for welcoming LGBT travelers.
Hilton DoubleTree Manchester
I stayed at the Hilton DoubleTree while I was in Manchester. First, it’s location is prime. It’s in the gay village of Manchester and walking distance to a wide variety of shops, restaurants, and bars. The modern and spacious rooms at the DoubleTree by Hilton Manchester Piccadilly are small but upscale. The view from the rooms, location, restaurant in the lobby, and proximity to public transportation are really the winning features here.
Canal Street Apartments
The Canal Street Apartments are modern and stylish apartments are in the centre of the Gay Village, but they’re also within walking distance to a number of top tourist attractions. Each apartment has two bedrooms (making it great for small groups!), but also has a living area and kitchen, which is awesome if you’d prefer to cook for yourself. (Although, this shouldn’t discourage you from eating out!)
It’s perfect if you want to be able to be in the party immediately, but also want somewhere quiet to retreat to.
Radisson Blu Edwardian
Interested in a little bit of luxury? Then, you should head to Radisson Blu Edwardian. This converted Victorian trading hall, where chandeliers, natural oaks floors, grand stone porticos are just the beginning.
At this 5-star hotel, you can enjoy a classic afternoon tea, a couple’s massage at the health spa, enjoy Mexican-Japanese fusion food at the Peter Street Kitchen, or toast to your girlfriend at the Champagne bar.
If you’d rather save your pennies, then there are a number of chain hotels (or even hostels) around central Manchester that can offer you a reasonable price for a bed, but I’ve selected easyHotel Manchester for its unique mix of clean Scandinavian décor with the original industrial features.
Plus, it’s only a short walk from the Gay Village and, according to my English friends, “bloody cheap” for any hotel in the UK.
Alternatively, if you prefer something a little more eclectic, you can always hop on Airbnb to find barns, camper vans, tree houses, and houseboats that will really give your Instagram followers travel envy. (Fair warning: I don’t know how the UK’s anti-discrimination law applies to Airbnb hosts.)
Manchester is a great holiday destination for lesbians, whether you’re looking for a chilled-out, cultural city break or a dance-til-you-drop weekender. Hopefully, this has given you some ideas about what to do while there, but now I’m really interested to hear from you in the comments about anything that I might have missed.