“Liverpool was an industrial town, a poor town. The people fought hard for what they wanted to achieve and there was a hunger there, and that hunger has remained with the musicians.” Pete Best
From the streets of Edinburgh to the shores of Hove with snippets of London life in between, my countrywide exploration of the UK continued with a trip up North to Merseyside. Probably best known as the birthplace of The Beatles and for its two premiership football clubs, Liverpool and Everton you may be surprised to know that Liverpool was also voted as the European City of Culture back in 2008, raising its profile beyond the realms of just music and football.
That year of culture may have increased Liverpool’s tourism significantly but it still attracts some bad press mainly because of its high unemployment and low income areas (nowhere near as bad as the ’80s though) that sit side-by-side its wealthy footballers and wags. Police helicopters circled above a few times when we were there and there were numerous inebriated people on the streets day and night but overall it’s an entertaining place that has more than its fair share of hotel, retail, dining and nightlife options, with plenty of history and culture thrown in too. There’s no denying that a night out in Liverpool provides great people watching as group after group of girls parade about with orange fake tan, false eyelashes and identical curly blows (disappointingly we didn’t see any girls out and about in their rollers), some scallys dotted about are on the scrounge for ciggies but generally everyone was super friendly and the vibe was good, who doesn’t love listening to the Liverpudlian accent and phrases too.
My trip with the other half and two friends was a four-day long weekend, the perfect amount of time to experience what this vibrant city had to offer. Luckily we had some great recommendations from a local friend (thanks Alex) that helped us find the best spots to eat, drink and be merry. We travelled by train direct from London in just over two hours and stayed at Hotel Indigo Liverpool, an ideal location to explore the city’s attractions on foot.
What we did….
While the Albert Dock is very touristy it is worth a visit to explore this part of Liverpool’s historic dockyard. Both the Tate Liverpool and The Beatles Story are located in the converted Grade I listed buildings alongside places to eat, drink and pick up souvenirs should you so desire. The former dockland warehouses, now an UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been transformed into different visitor attractions, the old restored buildings are punctuated by rows of bright red columns and walkways, an array of boats bob about in the water and several cafes and restaurant provide places for refreshments. Click here for the full list of attractions.
Adjacent to the Albert Dock is Pier Head built on the site of the former George Docks on the banks of the River Mersey. Some of Liverpool’s historic landmarks are also located here, the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool building, the trio are also known as ‘The Three Graces’. The Liver Building is home to the mythical Liver Birds, large metal sculptures of two birds (resembles a cormorant) that sit on the clock towers at either end of the building. The story goes that the female bird is looking out to sea for sailors while the male bird is looking towards the city for a pub, legend says if the birds were to fly away the city would crumble. The Liver Bird is the emblem of many of the city’s famous people and institutions such as Sir Paul McCartney, Liverpool Football Club and the University.
Love them or hate them John, Paul, George and Ringo aka The Beatles are ingrained in Liverpool’s history and the 1960’s music scene. The fab four are honoured throughout the city but the best place to really learn about their humble beginnings to their meteoric rise to fame is at The Beatles Story exhibition located in the Britannia Pavilion at the Albert Dock. Four scousers from working class families took the music industry by storm and The Beatles Story documents every step of the band’s success with memorabilia, photographs, music, places and the characters who were instrumental in their journey. I found it really interesting and would recommend getting the free headset to hear the whole story that compliments the visible exhibits.
While the main exhibition and Fab4 cafe and shop are situated in the Britannia Pavillion the second part of the exhibition is located at Pier Head along with a second Fab4 cafe, Fab4 store and Fab4D cinema. While we went to The Beatles Story the men went to the The Jam:About The Young Idea exhibition in the Cunard Building that I saw at Somerset House in London last summer (read more about that here). For those dedicated fans you can also take a two-hour Magical Mystery Tour aboard the colourful bus for a more in depth Beatles experiences that departs from Albert Dock.
Tate Liverpool is a sister art gallery to the Tate in London exhibiting a range of British and International modern art exhibited in galleries set over four floors. Housed in a converted warehouse it’s a place where old meets new and offers great views across the Albert Dock, the Mersey and beyond from its higher floors. Entry is free but a charge of £12 (free to Tate members, concessions also available) is made to visit the Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms and Maria Lassnig exhibitions on the top floor. The more art galleries I visit the more I realise my lack of understanding, some of the ‘art’ on display at Tate Liverpool was baffling to say the least (two exhibits were litter and dust in a pile on the floor which I thought the cleaners had forgotten to sweep up).
The Bacon exhibit had thirty of the British artist’s iconic colourful paintings and some drawings alongside forty of Lassnig’s unique works of art that feature many self portraits of the Austrian painter from across the decades. My favourite paintings were a collection of bold pieces by Ella Kruglyanskaya who is based in New York and exhibiting her first museum show at Tate Liverpool. The Bacon and Lassnig exhibitions are running until 18th September, Tracey Emin and William Bake in focus starts from 16th September. Tate Liverpool has a large ground floor cafe and a shop where you can purchase art related books, souvenirs and gifts.
Our visit coincided with Liverpool’s Brazilica Festival that lit up the streets with its colour and samba beats. The three day festival celebrated Brazilian culture with a live music stage in the city centre and a carnival parade for its finale. We watched the parade as it wormed its way down Bold Street in a riot of colour and rhythms showcasing drums, costumes and dancing from local and international samba schools and clubs.
Taking the ‘Ferry Cross The Mersey’ may be super touristy (especially when Gerry and the Pacemakers was played as we set off) but it had to be done. We took a trip from Pier Head on Mersey Ferries from Pier Head on board Snowdrop the brightly coloured Dazzle ferry that was designed by British pop artist Sir Peter Blake (more of his vibrant designs can be seen in the Tate Cafe).
Co-commissioned by Tate Liverpool and Liverpool Biennial, Blake’s boldly coloured and patterned Everybody Razzle Dazzle design can be seen on the passenger ferry for the next two years. The tour offers passengers the chance to disembark at two stops and we alighted at Woodside ferry terminal to see the U-boat Story which features the reclaimed German U-534 submarine and also had a quick scout about the Wirral. The fifty minute round trip gives you a good perspective of the Liverpool’s iconic skyline and history.
Liverpool ONE is a huge modern open-air shopping centre that offers high-street retailers and dining options in the city centre opposite the Albert Dock. On the top level is a Leisure Terrace overlooking Chavasse Park that offers a choice of dining and entertainment options with cafes, restaurants, bars and a cinema.
Where we ate…
One to avoid unless you like pub chain type food is The Pump House on Hartley’s Quay at the Albert Dock. This former pump house dates back to 1870 has been restored to its former glory, an unmissable grade II listed tower gives the now pub its distinguishing character. While the exterior looked encouraging, the interior is a mismatch of levels and alcoves, the menu is way too huge and the food was distinctly average.
The menfolk tried Salt House Charcuteria & Tapas Bar while we perused the additional galleries at the Tate because quite frankly happy men are better than ‘hangry’ ones! Located in Hanover Street near Liverpool One the restaurant, which was voted Liverpool Restaurant of the Year back in 2012, serves authentic meat, fish and vegetarian tapas along with a range of charcuterie and breads in a setting designed to feel like you are dining in a local quarter eatery in Spain. The men reported that it was delicious and they were all smiles again. The restaurant has a unique concept, Table 14 where strangers are sat together to eat, drink and chat, embracing the Northern hospitality, no tables for one at this establishment.
If you like Thai food then Chaophraya is a must visit. Located at Liverpool ONE this two-level venue offers authentic Thai food, service and decor. Design features include the glass fronted show kitchen, tropical fish tanks including one that separates the male and female toilets, Buddha wall and outdoor terrace. Connected to the restaurant is Palm Sugar, Chaophraya’s trendy cocktail bar and lounge complete with Swarovski crystal chandeliers and an extensive drinks menu. This restaurant got a big thumbs up from our party although the vegetarian options were limited if you don’t eat fish, basically veggie spring rolls and rice.
San Carlo Italian restaurant in Castle Street was the best meal I had in the city. Combining old school Italian dishes and service with a spacious modern venue gives San Carlo its edge and judging by the number of people it’s a very popular place that we just luckily stumbled upon. The food was delicious, the service impeccable and it had a great buzz, well worth a visit if you ever find yourself up North especially for the pizzas and desserts, there was a good wine selection and of course Italian coffees too.
Hanover Street Social (owned by the same people as Salt House Tapas) reminded me of an upmarket Bills for those of you who ever frequented those venues. Spacious, plenty of exposed brick, contemporary interior design and lots of diners gave this modern brasserie a good vibe. The menu had many options from steaks to burgers and everything in between as well as light bites and a good vegetarian selection too. Lots of wines, beers, spirits to choose from and a well-stocked gin shelf definitely added to the overall appeal. It also offers gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan menus to cater for everyone’s dietary requirements which is a real selling point these days.
Another of my favourite places of the weekend was Vincent’s Cafe and Cocktail bar in Exchange Flags opposite our hotel. Part owned by Liverpool football legend Steven Gerrard this huge venue offered breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner menus as well as a very cool cocktail bar and sushi counter. We went for some rather delicious cocktails early one evening and returned for an alfresco breakfast on the terrace on our last morning.
Where we drank…
I’m not going to lie the upmarket and trendy Titanic Hotel was a fair old walk from the city centre but it did do great cocktails so that was a bonus that made it worth the trek. This five-star hotel is quite frankly enormous housed in converted warehouses in Stanley Docks combining maritime history and location with contemporary design. Many of the original industrial features have been retained within the modern design, vast amounts of exposed brick, iron and rope have been incorporated into the interior as a nod to the colourful past of the area.
We indulged in a couple of cocktails from the Rum Bar on the terrace overlooking the Mersey estuary and warehouses that are currently still undergoing conversion. Although we didn’t eat there we did have a nosy around this stylish hotel, the huge lobby (complete with replica model of the ill-fated Titanic), bar and lounge and the signature restaurant, the Stanley Bar and Grill that had an impressive show kitchen and glass fronted meat fridge.
The heart of Liverpool’s old school nightlife takes place in Mathew Street, a lively place filled with pubs and the location of the city’s best known live music venue The Cavern Club. Those who remember the old days cite Mathew Street as a hub of creativity that is now just ‘piss-ups, punch-ups, and hen parties’ and I can testify to that judging by the feisty Friday night crowd and the numerous dressed up hens, more than a fair few police officers on duty in that area too.
The original Cavern Club closed down in 1973 and was relocated further up Mathew Street, a recreation built brick by graffitied brick that is still pulling in the crowds every day. It’s popularity soared due to the Beatles numerous appearances here as well as artists such as The Searchers and Cilla Black. Just like the Beatles era there is live music here most afternoons (Beatles manager Brian Epstein first saw the band at a packed lunchtime gig in the Cavern) and every night too.
The setlist is a mix of genres, we saw a great solo guy followed by a Beatles tribute band on the main stage. The downside of the Cavern is the temperature, three flights of stairs underground it’s boiling inside and the busier it gets the hotter it gets (back in the day the condensation used to run off the walls) but it’s a must do and jam packed with memorabilia dedicated to the many artists who have played there. Just as much a tourist spot as a live music venue these days it’s free to enter before 8pm and then a nominal £4 is charged per person.
Eric’s (Live) Liverpool is a bar opposite the Cavern Club in Mathew Street that enticed us in with its live music until the wee small hours. Much like the Cavern the original Eric’s was iconic in Liverpool’s musical heritage, a punk club attracting big names such as The Clash, Elvis Costello, The Jam, Blondie and the Sex Pistols to name a few of a very prestigious list of artists that graced their stage. Eric’s closed down and a new venue bearing its name was opened in 2011 offering up and coming acts a chance to play, judging by the covers band we saw the quality is high as is the enjoyment factor of the audience.
The Club House is located at Chavasse Park on Liverpool One’s leisure level next to Chaophraya and Palm Sugar. It’s designed in the style of a New England beach house complete with white painted walls, panelling and windows and decorated with chandeliers and a large outside lawned area, think chic Hamptons style meets North England. Famed for its impressive choice of beverages you can everything from local craft beers to cocktails on tap alongside a large food menu.
Wall of Fame Bar and Kitchen was a late night stop of for some drinks and live music. Two great singers and their guitars graced the very small stage one after the other, both very different styles but equally entertaining. A new venue that can be accessed via Mathew or Victoria Street it’s was a great place with a quirky American themed interior that’s open daily to 3am.
Take a converted catholic church, add in some scantily clad samba dancers, cocktails and tapas and you have Alma de Cuba, a shining jewel in Liverpool’s nightlife crown. The 18th century St Peter’s Church is now a trendy bar that is so popular you have to queue to get in at the weekend if you don’t have a dinner reservation. While Mathew Street is the home of live music and scallys, Seel Street is all trendy bars and clubs and the location of Alma de Cuba. If you like cocktails and dancing this is the place, it’s popular for all ages to dance the night away (the teenager did say ‘Good lord, surely they have an upper age limit’). Get there by 11pm on Friday and Saturday to see the petal shower and samba dancers in their colourful traditional costumes. A great place that was packed to the rafters, I would suggest booking a table upstairs for dinner to enjoy the view from above (and guarantee a seat).
Where we stayed….
With a superb central location near the docks and the city centre Hotel Indigo Liverpool is a modern and colourful boutique hotel that like the others I’ve stayed in embraces its historical and cultural surroundings in both its decor and menus (read more about it here). We enjoyed lots of drinks on the outdoor terrace and night caps in the trendy bar, breakfast was served in the Marco Pierre White restaurant on the ground floor which we had on two of our three mornings. The hotel had a lively vibe day and night, an ideal venue for our stay.
There was so much to see and do in Liverpool and for those who think it’s not a tourist destination you couldn’t be more mistaken. The city is full of street after street of cafes, restaurants, bars, clubs and late night venues that cater for every taste and desire. Good food, loads to drink, plenty of live music, a bit of history and culture with loads of laughs sums up our experience. The weather was pretty shocking at times as expected in British summertime but that didn’t stop us having fun, true to form Northerners were very friendly, the accents were great and the people watching was fantatic.
Unless otherwise stated, all photos on this page © Jo Brett 2016. All rights reserved. Four additional Tate Liverpool photo used with courtesy of © Tate, Liverpool. Chaophraya photo used courtesy of chaophraya.co.uk. Alma de Cuba photo used courtesy of www.alma-de-cuba.com
Read about more the UK in Discover the UK: London, Discover the UK: Brighton and Hove, Discover the UK: York, Discover the UK: Edinburgh, Scotland, Discover the UK: Cardiff, Wales and even more in Travel/UK