While Brighton takes the crown for being the gay capital of the UK, Manchester proudly holds the title as the gay capital of the north, acting as one of Britain’s most liberal and accepting cities. With an abundance of queer nightlife options, intense weekend-long events, and the campest drag scene in England, it’s easy to see why people from all over the UK flock to the north. Manchester acts as a safe haven for queer travelers, with niche locations that cater to everyone in the LGBTQ community.
Manchester’s LGBTQ scene began to thrive publically as early as the 1800s, when “fancy dress” balls allowed individuals to dress up as the opposite sex, creating a space to explore gender identity while surrounded by like-minded people. These events were often secretive, however, as anti-cross-dressing laws created tension between the police and the queer community. On a fruitful night in 1880, 47 men were arrested after attending a fancy dress ball in Temperance Hall, their charges being soliciting and enticing each other to commit “improper actions.”
More awareness for the community occurred in 1940 when the Union Pub (now named New Union) hosted drag nights to entertain US soldiers during World War II, attracting a sizable LGBTQ clientele while doing so. Despite this, gay clubs within the city remained secretive and hidden away for a long time, often found on desolate side streets and with inconspicuous signs. It wasn’t until 1990 that Manto opened its doors, the first gay club to be transparent about what it was: a gay club. Large, plate-glass windows acted as a political and social statement to bring awareness to the LGBTQ community, allowing passersby to view the inner goings of the pub. As a result, numerous more LGBTQ venues and safe spaces appeared along Rochdale Canal, eventually forming Manchester’s famous gay village: Canal Street.
Along the way, a number of activist groups and organizations began to station themselves within the city. The first arose in 1973 under the name The Manchester Gay Alliance. Originated by the Lesbian and Gay society at Manchester University, the organization provided resources for those in the LGBTQ community, including a switchboard people could call for advice and support. Following in its footsteps, the Manchester city council created the Equal Opportunity Committee in 1984, which paved the way for the first pride parade just a year later.
Nowadays, Manchester is at the forefront of queer acceptance in the UK and home to a large and proud LGBTQ community. Pride flags decorate the city’s streets, hanging from hotels, waving proudly outside bars, and interlaced within colorful street murals. And while the entire city is rainbow-centric throughout the entire year, pride season is the time that Manchester truly comes alive. More on that later.
Politically, Manchester is extremely liberal and protective of its thriving LGBTQ community. In 2003, the city council’s LGBTQ staff group was established, protecting LGBTQ rights within the workplace — as a result of this, the Stonewall Organization labeled Manchester’s city council as one of the top 100 employers for workplace equality. And recently, as of 2016, the city’s first openly gay mayor, Carl Austin-Behan, was elected.
Canal Street and Gay Village
It is undeniable that Manchester is famous for its active gay nightlife, and at the heart of it all is the notorious Canal Street. This prosperous gay village is the epicenter of all things queer in Manchester, with over 40 LGBTQ venues scattered along the Rochdale Canal.
While the nightlife options along Canal Street are like no other, Manchester is also home to an abundance of alternative safe spaces. Within the LGBTQ community, safe spaces are often found in alcohol-based venues, such as clubs and bars — and as much as a big ole’ gay night out can be piles of fun, it isn’t for everyone. For those who don’t drink and those who are too young to, Canal Street has a bounty of other queer-focused locations available, such as venues for queer youth to meet and explore their identity and events celebrating activism and gay literature.
Bars, nightclubs, and drag shows
Originally opening its doors in 1992, Cruz 101 is one of Manchester’s oldest and most popular gay bars. Initially, attendees would have to apply for membership 48 hours prior to their visit to be granted legal access to the club. That soon changed, however, after a lengthy court battle resulted in instant membership being permitted at the door. This ruling acted as a monumental moment for queer nightlife within Manchester, paving the way for more gay bars to open up along Rochdale Canal.
Nowadays, the lively club is split up into two levels: the main floor and Sub101. On the main floor, you’ll find crowds dancing away to cutting-edge house and dance music. Sub101 is located on the lower level, providing a more “underground” feel. When not operating as a part of the main club, Sub101 hosts special events, so check out the site to see what’s on.
Where: 101 Princess Street, M16DD
Vanilla is one of the only gay clubs in Manchester that caters specifically to lesbians, and it is one of the most famous lesbian bars in the entire country. From the outside, Vanilla may present as normal British pub — on the inside, however, you’ll find a strong LGBTQ community and allies dancing away to modern chart music.
Where: 39-41 Richmond Street, M13WB
With its rainbow, light-up dance floor, energetic live DJs keeping the mood alive, and 25 disco balls glittering from the ceiling, Kiki has a reputation of being the life of the party on Canal Street. The high-energy ambiance and cheap drink deals result in a packed bar until doors close. Be sure to check out the weekly schedule as fierce drag queens frequent this popular venue, acting as entertainment, bartenders, and DJs.
Where: 4 Canal Street, M13HE
Manchester is well-renowned for its flamboyant drag scene, and Bar Pop is the shiny star of all things drag within the city. On Saturdays, performances are held on the lower level by some of Manchester’s most notorious local queens, such as Annabelle Lector and Robbin Banks. Throughout the week, Bar Pop has a busy schedule jam-packed with events, with live viewing parties for the UK edition of Rupaul’s Drag Race, comedy nights, and lively afterparties.
Where: 10 Canal Street, M13EZ
Oscars is Manchester’s most notorious underground hotspot, where you’ll find locals sipping away on colorful cocktails and relishing in the jazzy ambiance. The entire cocktail bar has a classic Hollywood feel, with glittering black marble decorating the walls and old-timey musicals playing on the surrounding screens. Be sure to check out the event schedule as Oscars frequently host live performances, including drag queens, pianists, and vocalists.
Where: 34 Canal Street, M13WD
A night out in Manchester can easily continue into the early morning, with bars keeping their doors open until the sun comes out, and G-A-Y is certainly no exception. Known as the club that never sleeps, G-A-Y is open seven days a week and sports long opening hours, only closing a short eight hours a day. With themed party nights, lively drag queen performances, and rowdy bingo nights with cash prices, be sure to check out their event calendar before your visit to know what you’re getting yourself in for.
Where: 63 Richmond Street, M13WB
Restaurants and cafes
Located within Manchester’s prolific Gay Village, The Molly House allows folk to relax in a traditional shabby-chic pub setting, all while nibbling on fresh South American and Spanish tapas. The main pub room specializes in scrumptious food, local beers, and bitter ales — though, for a more stereotypical British experience, the conjoined tea room is home to 23 different varieties of Britain’s most signature beverage: steaming mugs of tea.
Where: 26 Richmond Street, M13NB
Located within Europe’s first purpose-built LGBTQ Centre, the charming Sidney Street Cafe provides customers with an abundance of healthy vegetarian and vegan food options. Don’t expect a fruity cocktail or local beer on the menu, though, as the cafe — and center — prides itself on being a non-alcohol safe space for the LGBTQ community. Within the connecting LGBTQ center, alcohol anonymous meetings are held weekly, alongside other social support groups for minorities such as lesbian immigrants and queer people of color.
Where: 49-51 Sidney Street, M17HB
Museums and landmarks
Alan Turing Memorial
Known as the father of theoretical computer science, Alan Turing was an English mathematician, computer scientist, and philosopher. During his highly accomplished life, he constructed the Turing machine (one of the world’s first general-purpose computer models) and sped up the process of cracking German codes in World War II. Basically, Turing was one smart guy.
In 1952, he was prosecuted for being in a relationship with another man, his punishment being chemical castration. Later, in 1954, he committed suicide. A memorial in Turing’s honor can be found in Sackville Park, often covered from head to toe in flowers.
Where: Sackville Park
As the national museum of democracy, the People’s History Museum is not solely LGBTQ focused, though it is home to a vast collection of LGBTQ historical documents. Within the exhibits focused on queer representation, you’ll have to chance to examine articles from the press regarding queer liberation, posters from the Outrage! Organization, and leaflets from the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group.
Where: New Ct Street, M33ER
Transgender individuals from all over the UK parade into Manchester in July to enjoy the national transgender celebration, the world’s largest annual free-to-attend celebration of gender identity. During the weekend’s festivities, Manchester’s iconic Canal Street comes alive with pride, with entertainment provided by trans and non-binary artists, live DJs, and a stocked bar. For those who are struggling with their gender identity, local support groups and charities are present to provide advice and assistance.
Where: Canal Street
First held in 1985, Manchester Pride quickly became one of the most iconic and popular pride events in Britain. During Pride weekend, you’ll struggle to find a corner of this thriving city not filled to the brim with rainbow flags, shimmering glitter, and flamboyant Brits living their best gay life. With everything from live musical performances from world-famous stars, to local drag queens strutting their stuff, it’s no wonder that Manchester Pride attracts countless queer travelers each year. Held in August, the festivities begin on Friday and end on Monday, with the notorious parade taking place on Saturday.
2019 was the year controversy hit Manchester Pride as ticket prices increased over 100% compared to the previous year, soaring from $36 to $84. Blame for the drastic price change was placed on the event organizers for wanting to transform gay pride into a festival event and for hiring better-known stars, such as Ariana Grande, to headline. Many members of the LGBTQ community decided to boycott the event as they believed the fundamental purpose of pride was being forgotten and in protest of the capitalization of the LGBTQ community for monetary gain.
Where: Canal Street
Held during the May Bank Holiday weekend, the Great British Bear Bash sees Manchester’s iconic Canal Street taken over by larger than life, hairy, and bushy-bearded gay men. The bash, running since 1998, aims to bring together the bearded and beard-loving for a weekend full of hairy fun. As the event progresses, attendees can expect pool parties, canal cruises, bar crawls, and social meet-ups. The Man Bears, the organization behind the event, host a similar — though smaller — event named Pre-HiBEARnation in early November each year.
Where: Canal Street
Found in the heart of Manchester’s thriving gay village, this award-winning hotel is in close proximity to some of Manchester’s most popular nightlife, being only a short walk away from G-A-Y, Vanilla, and Kiki. Home to high-class rooms and a glamorous bar down below, Velvet provides queer travelers the chance to rest from their busy schedules, all while having Manchester’s fruitful gay village on their doorstep.
Where: 2 Canal Street, M13HE
Not many hotels in Manchester can advertise that they played a key role in Manchester’s queer history, though the notorious New Union can proudly say that it has. During World War II, US soldiers arrived in droves to watch drag shows hosted in this quaint pub. The sleek and modern guest houses are located a floor above the thriving establishment, allowing travelers to sleep (and party) where queer history was made.
Where: 111 Princess Street, M16JB