The Northern Quarter, Manchester’s Subcultural Heart

An area specifically mentioned by Friedrich Engels as “dirty, old and tumble-down” in The Condition of the Working Class in England and essentially abandoned in the wake of the Second World War, Manchester’s Northern Quarter (locally known as N4, or NQ) is today a radiant spring of urban creativity and character in the Capital of the North, renowned nationwide for the dense web of independent stores, cafes, and bars that have since found a home in the neighbourhood’s distinctive streets. Undergoing its first countercultural renaissance in the 1990s when it became the city’s final bastion of experimental music during that the so-called “Madchester Summer of Love” - when the city’s hedonistic youth would haunt N4’s streets to the tunes of the Happy Mondays and 808 State in tie–dye shirts and baggy flared jeans - this off-the-mainstream ethos has stayed in the city ever since. The modern-day Northern Quarter is now resplendent with businesses attempting to do things a little bit against the grain, from historic vinyl stores keeping the spirit of the independent record store alive to contemporary vegan dineries to bohemian vintage clothes shops and homemade goods bazaars, making the area a mecca for those in pursuit of what makes Manchester so ‘cool’. So, whether you want to do a bit of shopping, grab a bite to eat, or just see one of Manchester’s most vibrant neighbourhoods, the Northern Quarter is the perfect spot for you.

A street full of diners in Northern Quarter, Manchester.

- © Lachlan1 / Shutterstock

The Northern Quarter’s Most Iconic Spots

Afflecks Palace, the Northern Quarter’s Soul

Affleck’s Palace’s iconic walls.

- © JakeOwenPowell / Shutterstock

Often referred to as the “Gateway to the Northern Quarter”, Afflecks Palace (now mononymously known as “Afflecks”) embodies everything that N4 represents and has in its over four decades of operation gained a nationwide reputation as an emporium of eclectic esotericism that cannot be missed during a visit to Manchester. The 60-odd traders, all independent, who occupy the labyrinthine four-story, nineteenth-century structure offer everything from vintage clothes and badges to vinyls and posters to sweets and bubble teas to tarot readings and tattoos.

Although it opened in 1982, Afflecks Palace, along with the rest of the Northern Quarter, really came into its own in the 1990s with Manchester's Second Summer of Love, becoming famous as the go-to place for Madchester-drunk teenagers to buy their subcultural uniform of psychedelic T-shirts and vintage 70s Levis. As prominent local DJ David Halsam commented of the bazaar complex, "[it was] like a community for kids who wanted something different from the high street" and quickly became a favourite haunt of the likes of Morrissey, the Happy Mondays, and the Stones Roses during these formative years.” This legacy lives on today, the iconic Affleck’s staircases still being a mosaic of music posters that give a kaleidoscopic visual history of the city's many sounds throughout the years.

Practical Information

  • Afflecks is located at 52 Church Street (M4 1PW) and is easily reached on foot from anywhere in the Northern Quarter. It is a roughly three-minute walk from Piccadilly Gardens in the city centre.
  • Afflecks is open seven days a week, from 10:30am to 6pm Monday to Friday, 10am to 6pm on Saturdays, and 11am to 5pm on Sundays.
  • For more information about Afflecks, visit their official website here.

Our favourite hotel near Afflecks Palace

BrewDog DogHouse Manchester Manchester

BrewDog DogHouse Manchester

An up-beat hotel located on Fountain Street, Manchester.
£135 /night

Night and Day Cafe, a Mythic Music Venue

Standing alongside Band on the Wall as one of the Northern Quarter’s most iconic and most historic music venues, Night and Day first opened in 1991 as a chip shop and has metamorphosised into one of Manchester’s most important music venues in the intervening years, amassing a reputation as the place to go to see bands on the cusp of making it big. A noted favourite of local legends Johnny Marr, Guy Garvey, and the late Mark E. Smith, some 26,000 bands have played between its walls since it opened, among them Kasabian, Arctic Monkeys, MGMT, and Mumford & Sons. An integral part of the city’s musical tapestry, Night and Day Cafe is the perfect place to go in the Northern Quarter if you want to experience some of Manchester’s legendary live music during your stay in the city and offers an intimate 250-person capacity and tickets prices that rarely sail above £10 at the door. Alternatively, you can visit during the day for delicious food whose prices are among the best in the neighbourhood and to enjoy the local art that is proudly displayed on the eatery walls.

Practical Information

  • Night and Day Cafe is located at 26 Oldham Street (M1 1JN) and is easily reached by foot from the rest of the Northern Quarter.
  • Night and Day Cafe is open seven days a week, from 2pm to 2am Monday to Wednesday, 11am to 2am Thursday and Friday, then from 10am to 4am on Saturdays and from 10am to 12am on Sundays.
  • For more information about Night and Day Cafe and to see what events they have on, visit their official website here.

Piccadilly Records, One of the Best in the World

Located just across the road from Night and Day Cafe, Piccadilly Records is one of the most famous record stores not only in the UK but in the world, having been voted, to name just a few, Best Independent Record Store at the Music Week awards, Best Record Store at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards, and as The Independent’s No1 independent record store in the UK.

Piccadilly Records originally opened in 1978 and moved to its current Northern-Quarter location in 1997. It cut its teeth off the back of Manchester’s thriving post-punk scene in the ‘80s, selling a mixture of pop, indie, and alternative tracks courtesy of bands such as Joy Division and The Fall. Alternative music still forms the core of Piccadilly Records’ image, the store regularly hosting small gigs and record signings with local acts and artists looking to make it big. However, its selection now expands much further and is perhaps one of the most varied in the world, encompassing everything from indie to funk to house to Balearic to psych to prog. No matter your taste, you’re bound to find a record you’ll love at Piccadilly.

Practical Information

  • Night and Day Cafe is located at 53 Oldham Street (M1 1JR) and is easily reached by foot from the rest of the Northern Quarter.
  • Piccadilly Records is open seven days a week from 10am to 6pm, except on Sundays when it closes at 5pm. 
  • For more information about Piccadilly Records, visit their official website here.

Other Favourites

Another staple of the Northern Quarter is Manchester Craft and Design Centre, an art emporium housed in the spectacularly-restored Victorian Fish and Poultry Market. It is a cornucopia of bespoke and bohemian handcrafted goods, from clothes to jewellery to bags. Oklahoma offers a similarly eclectic range of handmade homeware and ceramics, while Blue Rinse, and Cow are some of your best bets if you’re in the market for vintage clothing and more quirky custom jewelry.

If you want a bite to eat or something to drink, Eastern Bloc is another iconic Manchester location. Originally opened as an Afflecks Palace record store in 1985 by John Berry and Martin Price of 808 State, the legendary shop now operates as a hybrid vinyl store, cafe, and bar in the heart of the Northern Quarter. Mackie Mayor, meanwhile, is a mecca for local foodies. Located in the Grade II-listed, nineteenth-century Smithfield Market building, there are nine independent kitchens and bars to be discovered here, serving everything from vintage wines to mouthwatering bao buns to good old fashioned English fish and chips. Other local staples are Almost Famous, an ambient burger joint with unbeatable flavours, and Northern Soul Grilled Cheese, whose sandwiches are the city’s undisputed favourites. These two restaurants started their lives as small independent eateries in the Northern Quarter and have since blossomed into flourishing local chains, a testament to the popularity (and quality!) of both.

As the evening falls on Manchester, Northern Quarter finds second life and its countless bars, covering the full spectrum from traditional to unconventional, open their doors. If you want that classic Northern pub feel, head to local favourite The Castle Hotel which has been pouring pints with a side of live music since 1776. Or, if you’re in Manchester on one of its rare warm days and want to make the most of the fleeting sun, go to FLOK for a Mediterranean-flavoured wine and sherry bar with a continental-style terrasse right on Stevenson Square. And for those in the market for something a bit further left-field, Twenty Twenty Two brands itself as Manchester’s number one ping pong bar, serving mouthwatering cocktails and table-top fun until late, while NQ64 contains a fully-functional, retro-style arcade to enjoy while sipping on of one of their video game-themed signatures.

Mackie Mayor in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

- © ElenaChaykinaPhotography / Shutterstock

Getting to the Northern Quarter

The Northern Quarter is located right in the heart of the city, being only a three-minute walk from Piccadilly Gardens, the city’s bus and tram hub, making it easily accessible from all over the city via public transport. To plan your journey and for more information, visit the Transport for Greater Manchester website.

If you’re travelling from outside the city, both Piccadilly and Victoria stations are only a ten-minute walk away. Driving is not recommended in the city for environmental reasons, however, a 24-hour multi-story car park is available should you need it.

Where to Stay in the Northern Quarter

As Manchester’s hipster haven, the Northern Quarter has plenty of stylish but affordable hotels and B\&Bs on offer. For more information, see our article on the top places to stay in the Northern Quarter and Ancoats here!

More Information and Useful Links

The Northern Quarter official website has plenty of additional insider’s information and news on the neighbourhood, as well as an encyclopedia of guides and recommendations. Be sure to give it a skim when you’re planning your visit!

by Jude JONES
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