The Travelettes Guide to Liverpool
“But… why?“ was the most common reaction to us announcing that we were going to Liverpool for the weekend. Why? The honest answer is: because the plane tickets were the cheapest we could find for the long weekend. Before booking them, we only had a vague image of the most populated city of Northern England — and it was one that involved constant drizzle, a gloomy post-industrial atmosphere, and generally not much to dream about.
However, three days on site proved us — and everyone we know — very wrong: we had a BLAST in Liverpool. The city boasts the largest collection of museums and galleries outside of the British capital (often with free entry), has tons of edgy shops and nice cafés, features many architectural oddities, and goes absolutely nuts on Friday and Saturday nights.
Liverpool is surprisingly affordable, entirely walkable, exuberantly friendly…. And because the main sites of interest are very concentrated, you’ll probably bump into the cool waiter that served you burgers at lunch sinking beers at the pub at night — which makes for a few laughs. Plus, not understanding anything anyone says (that Scouse accent!) is all part of the fun.
Now I wouldn’t recommend Liverpool for a romantic getaway with the boyfriend, but if you’re after a colourful place to spend a weekend away with your friends, run there before all the hipsters of Europe realise how cool it is and launch the invasion.
What to do
Architecture and walks
If it’s a nice day (and yes, we did get absolutely pristine weather in Liverpool — apart from the occasional hailstorm), rush to Albert Dock: the buildings reflected in the calm waters surrounding this stone and iron structure offer beautiful photo opportunities. Although the shops there are very touristy, the walk under the orange pillars is genuinely nice, with views of majestic ancient ships. Many of the city’s museums are also concentrated here (see Museums and galleries).
Albert Dock is also a good starting point to explore the Liverpool waterfront: it’s just a short walk away from Pier Head, where you’ll find the ‘Three Graces’, an ensemble of heritage-listed buildings. Pier Head is also where you’ll board ferries across the Mersey — which we didn’t end up having the time to take, although many locals strongly recommended the ride.
Even away from its famous waterfront, Liverpool concentrates a surprising number of bewildering constructions, and is a heaven for architecture lovers. My favourite was St Luke’s Church (71 Liverpool Rd): it might just look like your regular church from the outside — and we would probably have walked past without a second look, had it not been for the loud soul music that was coming out of it —, but what a shock when you walk in! It is actually roofless: St Luke’s was bombed-out during the May Blitz that stroke Liverpool in 1941, and left in the state of ruins ever since.
Brought back to life by arts collective Urban Strawberry Lunch, it is now home to various odd art installations, as well as a venue for outdoor cinema sessions, concerts, performances… and even weekly yoga and meditation sessions! (More information here.)
Not to be missed either is the monumental Metropolitan Cathedral (Mount Pleasant), built in 1967: it evokes a nuclear reactor more than a place of worship, and walking around the colossal circular altar is unlike anything you might have experienced before.
The streets around this area provide for a nice walk, and it’s not a bad idea to make your way back to the city center via Chinatown, where you’ll find the tallest Chinese arch in Europe.
Liverpool is a nice city to stroll through, with cute brick houses, bright-coloured doors, and many abandoned buildings which give it a very unique character.
Its oldest building, The Bluecoat (School Lane), was built to serve as a school but became an art space as early as 1906. True to this heritage, it now showcases cultural exhibitions and events, art classes… and sometimes a vintage fair! Find out more here.
Vintage fair at the Bluecoat
Museums and Galleries
Liverpool does not fail to honour those who put it on the global music map: the Beatles have their own museum, The Beatles Story (Britannia Vaults, Albert Dock; adult entry £12.95, concession £9.50). It concentrates mostly on the early years of the Fab Four, with memorabilia of the era and reconstitution of the first clubs they played at: you’ll get a good glimpse of the Liverpool of the sixties. The museum is very well crafted, with enlightening interviews of those who witnessed the Beatles’ rise to fame from up close. And you do get to walk through the Yellow Submarine!
For even more Beatles, you can also visit The Beatles’ Hidden Gallery, where some photos of the 1963-4 tour which had remained hidden for 50 years are displayed; or you can embark on a Beatles Tour (there are many options) to see Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields and Eleanor Rigby’s grave for yourself.
If you much prefer Leo to Ringo, Liverpool is also great for Titanic fans: as the White Star Line — the company which built the giant ship — was based in Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum (on Albert Dock, free entry) owns many objects from the wreck. If you visit before the end of 2013, don’t miss the very moving ‘Titanic and Liverpool: The untold story’ exhibition, which follows the destiny of several key personalities present during the drama and uncovers many mysteries (who’s to blame for the wreck? what about the bad omens observed before the accident?) through their insight.
If it’s modern and contemporary art you’re after, head to the Liverpudlian (yes, that’s the adjective derived from ‘Liverpool’) branch of the famous Tate Gallery (on Albert Dock, free entry except for special exhibitions). Although modest in size, it features a series of powerful works which will spark either love or hate reactions.
The current ‘Constellations‘ exhibition draws lines between works of Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, Man Ray, the disturbing Marina Abramović… all the way to way more recent pieces. The museography is particularly well done, with wall signs providing context and insight to better appreciate the works.
We feared that the mythical Cavern Club (10 Mathew St) — a careful reproduction of the venue the Beatles played at almost 300 times before it closed down in 1963, rebuilt almost on the same site and using many of the original bricks — and the adjacent Cavern Pub would be packed with tourists, but the crowd actually seemed mostly local. About 40 bands perform every week, true to the original spirit of the place; visit their website for gigs details.
While you’re there, look up before you walk into the club: you’ll see the infamous Four Lads who Shook the World statue by Arthur Dooley: the four Beatles are represented as cherubs in the Madonna’s arms. Funny fact? The cherub representing Paul McCartney was stolen in 1975, and returned 30 years later, wrapped in a plastic bag, with an apology phone call from the kidnapper.
Where to shop
Liverpool ONE (Paradise St) and the streets that surround it are the place to go for major UK and international brands. Worth knowing: some stores, like Urban Outfitters and Topshop, offer a 10 per cent discount if you have a student card — yes, even one from a foreign country. Ka-ching!
For vintage shopping, head to funky Ropewalks, and especially to Bold St and Renshaw St; check out this great comprehensive vintage guide by a local blogger for more precisions.
Where to eat
For breakfast, head straight to Leaf (65-67 Bold St): this teashop’s plates might not be the most imaginative, but the venue, which occupies two floors of an Art Deco building on hip Bold St, is ma-gni-fi-cent. The ground floor has a homely feel, with wooden chairs and vintage lamps; but do climb the stairs to sit on the marvelous second floor: lavish sunbeams splashing through the high windows, derelict paint pimped up by disco-balls, beautifully sculpted walls… Wow.
If you’re really hungry, opt for Moose Coffee (6 Dale St; there’s also one on 157 College Rd), which serves American diners-inspired breakfasts in generous portions, and for pretty cheap. I had the Liberty Moose (scrambled eggs with pesto, pine nuts and basil on a muffin), and everybody kept stealing in my plate. Be aware that they charge a fee for tables of 6 and more, though.
For lunch and dinner, the Ropewalks area is where you’ll find the highest concentration of great restaurants, especially around Bold St and Seel St. We loved Lucha Libre (96 Wood St), which serves quality Mexican street food — including many tasty slow-cooked specialties — in a warm decor of old movie posters and wrestling-inspired curiosities. The Margaritas are spicy, the service sweet, and the hip-hop beats chosen with discernment: what more could a Travelette ask for?
For good old Fish & Chips to eat straight from the paper, the place on everybody’s lips was Lobster Pot (20-22 Whitechapel and 19 Ranelagh St).
Around Liverpool ONE, two fool-proof chains are the always-tasty burgers from Byron (43 Paradise Street) and the transalpine creations of Jamie’s Italian (45 Paradise Street), where you can expect perfectly cooked pasta and well-balanced flavours at fairly reasonable prices.
Where to drink
The Philharmonic Dining Rooms (aka ‘The Phil’, 36 Hope St) seems to attract the 60-year-old classical music concert-goer more than the young Travelette, but having at least one beer there is highly recommended, if only for the extravagance of the decor. Some call it the most spectacular pub in England, and it does not fail to impress: the outside resembles a Scottish castle, while the interior is a succession of richly decorated small lounges with deep couches, spectacular sculpted ceilings and flamboyant glass chandeliers. Tip: everybody whispers you shouldn’t leave without checking out the men’s bathrooms and their legendary marble urinals… if you’re a brave enough Travelette!
If you’re a beer amateur, pay a visit to the Ship & Mitre (133 Dale St): the selection of ales is impressive, and the bartender is as happy to have you taste as many beers as you need before finding your favourite one as he is teaching you a few words of Scouse. Perfect for a quiet Sunday pub night.
Where to dance
Around 6 pm on Saturday, we saw a girl walking down the street with curlers in her hair. Then we spotted a second one. Then a third… What was going on with the hair situation? That’s when we got it: in Liverpool, it just being Saturday night is big enough an occasion to have your hair done professionally. It’s the night to get your Dancing queen on and hit the town!
Three rules: 1) No heels are too high. 2) No fabric is too sparkly. 3) No dress is too short (hell, we even saw a girl walking around in black underpants). But don’t worry too much if you didn’t bring a Beyoncé-style stage outfit: we were dressed pretty casually and had no problem getting in anywhere.
Alma de Cuba (St Peters’ Church, Seel Street) is not where you’ll actually find the true soul of the Crocodile-Island, but this ancient church turned restaurant and bar is definitely the most spectacular venue of the city — and probably your only chance to ever dance decadently in front of a marble altar. Music-wise, don’t expect trendy minimal here: the keyword is pure fun. The kind of fun that comes with little-dressed Carnival dancers, thousands of rose petals thrown from the balcony at 11 pm, and an overdressed crowd feverishly getting its groove on. Definitely worth a visit — and a good boogie. And they even take care of your next-morning recovery with a Sunday Gospel Brunch!
A few doors away, Heebie Jeebies is more of an indie club, with a younger crowd — and girls who are much less stable on their heels. Pretty much every local we talked to recommended it, and with reason: ear-pleasing music, comfortable couches, not-too-crowded dancing areas, a big outdoor space for fresh air breaks between two dance sessions, good-looking boys, a relaxed vibe… Within 30 minutes, we felt at home!
Where to stay
We stayed at HOAX (54 Stanley St), a super central hostel with spotless small dorms that come with private bathrooms — they also have a few private rooms. The staff is friendly, the decor nice and the free breakfast buffet pretty decent; however it is recommended to request a dorm/room that faces away from Matthew St, because the Quarry Quarter on the opposite side of the street plays loud (and I mean, very loud) club music all night, even on Sundays.
Special thanks to Clare from the blog Need an Other Holiday, who very kindly provided me with tuns of great insider tips. For more about Liverpool, check out her ‘Get to know Liverpool in 48H’ blogpost.
And thank you Liverpool for a boss weekend!
All photos © Marie Colinet, except the Beatles photo © Apple Corps Ltd. (scanned from postcard) and the Ship and Mitre photo (via Dave Wood Liverpool Images on Flickr)