Traveller Lowdown - LIVERPOOL

NICHOLAS CHRISOSTOMOU visits the charismatic maritime city of Liverpool, in the northwest of England, and is totally charmed by its honest people, stunning architecture and blossoming foodie scene.

2008 marked a noticeable change in Liverpool – England’s historic maritime city in the northwest of the nation, where the River Mersey meets the Irish Sea. A key trade and migration port from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, and famously the hometown of The Beatles, Liverpool had just celebrated its 800th birthday in 2007, when the following year the city became a European Capital of Culture. This very public opportunity to showcase its cultural life and development marked the veritable rebirth of this characterful metropolis, the effects of which have yet to slow down. In fact, Liverpool so deftly used its Capital of Culture status to completely transform its cultural base, not to mention the way in which the city was viewed internationally, that one decade on, Liverpool still continues to develop and grow at such a pace that few could have imagined ten years ago. In tandem with this progression, the city’s restaurant, nightlife and tourist industries have also blossomed exponentially, resulting in a fascinating and well-rounded cultural destination, which holds its own internationally and makes for a fantastic city break.

Today, Liverpool is a powerhouse of architecture, art, culture and music, and is thriving like never before. This is evident throughout the city, not just in its friendly and warm people, who are distinctly proud of their cultural heritage, but also in every business connected with the tourist and hospitality industries. And the fact that the people of Liverpool love to share their life stories, inextricably connects visitors to locals in a unique and genuine way.

It didn’t take long for me to feel the spirit of the city’s people, after I disembarked the 2-hour train ride from London, at Lime Street station. Where else in the world does one discover the intricacies of a taxi driver’s daughter’s love life except in the back of a Liverpool cab? I honestly didn’t want to get out, as we pulled up outside my lodgings for the next few nights. In the past few years, Liverpool has been consistently ranked as the UK’s friendliest city, by everyone from Condé Nast Traveller and the Daily Mail to a YouGov poll, and after just a few minutes in the city it was obvious why. The people. Scousers are honest, happy-go-lucky types and they’re welcoming to all. I have a few cherished Scouser friends who are some of the warm and kindest people I know, but I had no idea that their warmth stretched to an entire city. Almost every Liverpudlian I met didn’t care where I was from and didn’t give a rat’s ass about my background. I was universally greeted with a smile and an “Alright?”. Moreover, Liverpudlians can’t easily finish a short sentence without giving you a title, and there was a certain charm to being called “la”, “babe”, “hun” and “queen” at the end of every exchange! The tone of my visit to Liverpool was set in those first few minutes fresh off the train, and at that point I just knew that I was going to love this city. But, where to start?

From Liverpool to Blackpool and the Lake District, the city’s second-tallest building offers panoramic views across Merseyside, Wirral and North Wales, and is the perfect place to orientate oneself and kick-start your Northwest England experience. Originally designed to be a chimney (yes, really), St Johns Beacon stands some 450 feet above the heart of the city centre, and the 360-degree viewing gallery is situated on the level which once housed the famous Tower Restaurant in the 70s. Even here the staff were chatty and friendly, and the views from the top were quite spectacular (www.stjohnsbeacon.co.uk).

Liverpool has the most museums in the UK outside of London, and the largest amount of Grade I listed buildings in the country…and that’s just the buildings. The jewel in the city’s UNESCO World Heritage crown, St. George’s Quarter, boasts some of the finest Victorian architecture in the country and every museum is free to get in and open every day (www.stgeorgesquarter.org). In terms of art, the city’s exhibitions cover everything from the classical to the contemporary, and the controversial to the downright crazy. Within quite literally a few hundred metres of each other, I saw one of the UK’s most significant collections of ancient Egyptian and Nubian antiquities at World Museum, and a display of frocks owned by the cross-dressing artist and activist Grayson Perry at Walker Art Gallery. Called “Making Himself Claire”, the latter was the first display of its kind in the UK, and included the “Bo Peep” dress worn by Perry when he won the Turner Prize in 2003 (www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk). Such variety is one of the hallmarks of Liverpool that I enjoyed immensely during my time exploring the city.

The happening heart of Liverpool’s historic World Heritage waterfront, and another of the city’s cultural and hospitality hotspots, is the picturesque Albert Dock complex. Home to a multitude of museums, galleries, restaurants, bars, shops and boutiques, Albert Dock features the largest collection of Grade I listed buildings and warehouses in the country, and blends old with new in a modern yet affably attractive style. An afternoon or even a full day can easily spent in this fashionable part of the city, at the epicentre of which Tate Liverpool undoubtedly holds the city’s contemporary art crown.

Since opening in 1988, Tate Liverpool has become one of the most visited art galleries outside of London, and is the home of British and international modern and contemporary art in the North of England. Housed in one of Albert Dock’s bright, former warehouses, the museum contains four floors of public galleries, a very palatable café and a super gift shop. Past artists showcased include Gustav Klimt, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Claude Monet, and Tate Liverpool’s special exhibition programme, presented on the fourth floor, regularly brings together works from national and international collections, both public and private. Don’t miss the spectacular views across the Mersey from the museum’s top floor – they’re a hidden treat! (www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-liverpool).

Liverpool’s most famous international export is undoubtedly The Beatles. Utter the city’s name to almost anyone around the world, and they will probably mention Paul, George, Ringo and John. So, no visit to Liverpool is really complete without a trip to the world’s largest permanent exhibition entirely devoted to telling the story of The Beatles’ rise to fame.

Even if you are not a Beatles fan, the award-winning Beatles Story, located in the heart of Liverpool’s Albert Dock, takes visitors on an interesting and immersive journey through the lives, times, culture and music of possibly the world’s greatest band. Visitors are chronologically led through The Beatles’ journey, via a clever hand-held multi-media audio guide beautifully narrated by John Lennon’s sister, Julia. Available in a dozen different languages, jam-packed with information and featuring video interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, the audio guide gives visitors a unique insight into the story of the Fab Four, via believable walk-through recreations of key locations from the band’s career, including The Casbah Club, The Cavern Club and Abbey Road Studios. Dotted along the way are the original red gates to the Strawberry Field site, John Lennon’s New York piano, Ringo Starr’s drum kit, rare album sleeves and a ton of other fascinating memorabilia. (www.beatlesstory.com).

Liverpool offers a vast variety of accommodation to suit every taste and budget. From themed hotels and well-known international brands, to boutique properties, bijou guest houses and self-catering apartments to get a real feel for the city – there are plenty of places to rest one’s head in Liverpool. Combining contemporary touches with the genteel feel of a bygone era, Liverpool’s DoubleTree feels way more authentic and luxurious than a standard Hilton property. Situated on one of the city’s most historical sites, in the heart of Liverpool’s business district on St. Thomas Street, the nightlife of the Cavern Quarter, shopping at Liverpool ONE and the museums of St George’s Quarter are all barely a five-minute walk away, making the DoubleTree the perfect location for a city break or long weekend.

Housed within two architecturally and historically significant Grade II listed buildings – one of which began life in 1865 as the stately Liverpool Conservative Club, and was opened by then Prime Minister Lord Salisbury – and connected by a third new-build annexe, it took almost a decade to lovingly bring this boutique hotel to life, whilst retaining the property’s previous grandeur. 87 rooms and suites, across three labyrinth-like wings, feature characterful touches including fabric headboards and window-seat benches with lots of dark grey and green hues to complement the original wood panelling. Spacious, competitively-priced suites include a lounge, duplex bedrooms and black marble-lined bathrooms. (www.doubletree3.hilton.com).

Housed within a red brick, iron and steel Grade II listed 19th century former rum warehouse in Stanley Dock, and simply oozing industrial chic glamour, Titantic is a massive, spacious property, offering a very different type of hospitality experience to Liverpool’s city centre hotels. Yes, Titanic is located slightly adrift from the city’s main cultural and recreational hubs, a few miles downstream from Albert Dock and about a ten-minute taxi ride away from the city centre, but these small inconveniences pale into insignificance when you open the door to your hugely spacious guest room, the smallest of which are a whopping 56sqm.

Each of Titanic’s 153 rooms and suites offers the pared-back appeal of a cool, city loft apartment. Think red brick vaulted ceilings, exposed pipework, pale grey walls, chocolate-coloured sofas and king-size beds. Vast bedrooms are complemented by huge bathrooms which include twin sinks, deep-soaking tubs and walk-in monsoon rainshowers. It’s worth requesting a dual aspect “Superior Corner” room on the fourth (top) floor, with windows towards the hulking, abandoned 14-storey Tobacco Warehouse next door (made of 27 million bricks and at one time the largest brick building in the world) and the Mersey to the front. There’s nothing that makes you feel more like you’re staying in northwest England’s famous maritime city, than opening your curtains to views of the River Mersey in the morning. (www.titanichotelliverpool.com).

Liverpool’s beautiful Georgian Quarter is a legacy of the city’s former wealth, and the area boasts one of the largest collections of terraced Georgian town houses outside London. Treading the cobbled streets of this picturesque district is to uncover a different story at every turn, and hence, unsurprisingly, the Georgian Quarter has become a hotspot for production companies filming everything from Hollywood blockbusters to TV dramas against the backdrop of its gorgeous intact buildings. Start at Rodney Street – once the favoured domain of Liverpool’s elite merchants – then venture towards Hope Street, winner of the Academy of Urbanism award for ‘Best Street’. Be sure to drop into The Philharmonic Dining Rooms at 36 Hope Street, famous for being one of the most lavish and ornate pubs in the country. Commissioned between 1898 and 1900, ‘The Phil’ is a showpiece hostelry in the style of a gentlemen’s club, and a magnificent place to pause for a pint (www.nicholsonspubs.co.uk).

After Hope Street, make your way towards Faulkner Square, and seek out eccentric Peter Kavanagh’s at 2 Egerton Street, one of the city’s most famous boozers (+44 151 709 3443). If you have some spare time, visit neo-classical St Bride’s on Percy Street – the beautiful Liverpool church which feeds more people now than in the days of the Victorian workhouse. The real beauty of the Georgian Quarter is that even if you veer off the beaten track, you will almost always find hidden treasure.

Dominating the skyline at one end of Hope Street is Liverpool Cathedral, one of two great places of worship in the city, both of which are worth visiting. Completed in 1978 and containing around 1700m² of stained glass, Liverpool Cathedral took seventy-four years to build. It is Britain’s biggest cathedral, the largest Anglican cathedral in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. Two lifts and 108 stairs will get you to the top of the single, massive Vestey Tower, 500m above sea level, from which visitors enjoy spectacular views across the city (www.liverpoolcathedral.org.uk). At the other end of Hope Street, the contrasting Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral is another of the city’s magnificent landmarks, and the perfect place to stop and pause for a moment. This dramatic icon of faith, architecture and human endeavour is impressive in both scale and design, and Metropolitan Cathedral regularly hosts cultural events including music concerts and recitals. Its scrummy once-monthly Sunday cream teas are a bargain, GBP3.50 buys you fresh scones served with jam and clotted cream together with unlimited tea, and all monies raised go to the cathedral. (www.liverpoolmetrocathedral.org.uk).

As one moves around Liverpool it is impossible not to notice the city’s striking architecture, much of which tells its own story. Defining the city’s dramatic skyline and dominating Liverpool’s historic waterfront is a collection of three buildings which have come to be known collectively as The Three Graces; the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building. These majestic buildings were conceived and constructed in the early 1900s as visible symbols of Liverpool’s international prestige, and remain a focal point of the city’s heritage more than a century later. Of the three, the Royal Liver Building is the jewel in the crown, Liverpool’s signature landmark and is adorned by two, copper “liver birds”, each of which stands 18ft tall with a 24ft wingspan. One looks out to sea to guide boats safely into port, while the other keeps a watchful eye on the city, protecting its citizens. Legend has it that if the two birds ever face each other, Liverpool will cease to exist. The mythical liver bird is Liverpool’s emblem, and you’ll see them on architecture dotted across the city.

There are many ways to tour a new destination or get a feel for a city, but few offer the experience of multi award-winning Shiverpool. Throw away your Liverpool guidebook and give the open-top bus a miss. Instead, book a Shiverpool tour, and be chased down an alleyway in the dark of night by a ghastly ghoul with a shovel! Shiverpool is an utterly unique interactive storytelling experience, blending street theatre, dark humour and sinister tales to reveal Liverpool’s culture, hidden mysteries and supernatural secrets.

There are two regular Shiverpool tours – “The Hope Street Shivers” and “Auld City & The Dead House Tour”. The former starts outside Liverpool’s most famous ale house, The Philharmonic Pub, explores Hope Street and the surrounding areas, and ends in St James’ Gardens “where 58,000 souls are buried”. The Cultured Traveller experienced the latter and met our theatrical guide “Chilla Black” at the Queen Victoria Monument in the heart of Liverpool’s commercial district. The following 90-minutes were an intensely enjoyable journey on foot around the original seven streets of Liverpool, revealing the area’s ghostly medieval past. We chanced upon old plague pits and the old Liverpool Gaol, and were regaled with tales of the strange ghostly figures seen wandering barefoot along the city’s streets. The tour’s scary subterranean finale left us terrified but highly entertained and wanting more. (www.shiverpool.co.uk)

Liverpudlians know a thing or two about how to dine and drink, and it’s rare that you’ll see a local shying away from a bevvy (or three), a good slap-up meal or the opportunity to party. For starters, you simply must sample the city’s fine gin. A premium product, made from scratch in hand beaten copper stills in the heart of the city using only certified organic botanicals, Liverpool Gin is a distinctive, complex and aromatic gin with a bright citrus finish. Try the Rose Petal variation for a special G&T with a fragrant, almost romantic, nose. (www.liverpoolgin.com)

To launch a Liverpool weekend in supreme style, head up to Panoramic 34, 100m above sea level on the 34th floor of West Tower, and watch the sunset over the city’s magnificent skyline, with the Royal Liver Building practically at touching distance (www.panoramic34.com). Back on terra firma, The Alchemist (thealchemist.uk.com) and Neighbourhood (www.neighbourhoodrestaurant.co.uk) consistently serve some of the city’s best cocktails in glamorous and happening surroundings. Meanwhile Ma Boyle’s is a historic public house dating back to 1870, presided over by charming staff serving a selection of local ales and delicious home-cooked food. Ma Boyle’s’ Saturday jazz nights are also very popular (www.maboylesliverpool.com).

The restaurant scene in Liverpool has exploded in the last five years and now offers a complete British culinary journey, sufficient to satiate even the most discerning of palates. In fact, Liverpool’s blossoming foodie scene puts many other British cities to shame. From independent street food to traditional local dishes, modern British fare and top-end fine dining, Liverpool offers a vast range of places to eat which cater to every pocket and appetite.

Making the most of the fine local produce and seasonal ingredients available in and around Liverpool, renowned chef Paul Askew’s celebrated Art School restaurant almost certainly provides the city’s premium dining experience. Set in what was once the stunning lantern room of the 1888 Victorian ‘Home for Destitute Children’ building on Sugnall Street, to dine here is to be treated to the best food the city has to offer, complemented by a superb wine list and exemplary service. Don’t miss the recently unveiled Art School Cellars downstairs, perfect for a pre-theatre drink or post dinner nightcap (www.theartschoolrestaurant.co.uk).

For a more informal dining experience, drop anchor at the restaurant at Malmaison hotel in Princes Dock. Here, a fiery riot of exposed brickwork, high ceilings and industrial pipework provides the perfect setting for hearty, well-prepared brasserie-style food, served by warm and attentive staff (www.malmaison.com).

Other highly recommended places to eat in Liverpool, include 60 Hope Street (www.60hopestreet.com), multi award-winning London Carriage Works (www.thelondoncarriageworks.co.uk), Stanley’s Bar and Grill at the Titanic hotel (www.titanichotelliverpool.com) and Etsu – which almost certainly serves the finest Japanese food in the city (www.etsu-restaurant.co.uk). One thing’s for sure when dining out in Liverpool – you won’t go home hungry and you’ll almost certainly have a story or two to tell!

If you were to ask me what makes Liverpool feel so different to other British cities I would struggle to keep my list short. The city just has so many positives. Liverpool is a place that is so steeped in cultural references and artistic creativeness that there can be very people in the world who are not in some way captivated by its genuine charms. For me, the warm people are Liverpool’s iconic stars and the buildings its architectural gems, but these are just two of the city’s unique characteristics that will almost certainly see me returning to this metropolitan jewel of northwest England again and again.