Stuck for family day out inspiration? Local family blog Rainy City Kids has put together a series of days out around Manchester that everyone can enjoy. Toilet stops and coffee breaks included.
When Manchester Confidential challenged me to have a child-friendly day out in the city for £20 or under, I had a little chuckle to myself... £20 for a day out? Easy! Manchester is so full of child-friendly things to do that I decided to make it a little harder for myself and come up with five family-friendly days out in the city.
The reasoning behind this is not that I’m some sort of masochist who wants to collapse from exhaustion, but that just like the regular humans known as adults, children come in all sorts of flavours and like different things (though ice-cream, funfairs and anything really disgusting do tend to be a big hit with all of them), so you can mix and match the suggestions here to your particular needs.
I have a small child, but the great thing about many, if not most, of the places mentioned here is that they have brilliant things for kids of all ages - and of course everyone loves the shop and the cafe.
Manchester is not known for its outside spaces but we’ve managed to find a few for a run about, plus a few suggestions for where to eat and where to sling down some parent fuel... coffee.
(This list reflects expenses for myself and my son. I’ve not included transport costs for getting into Manchester city centre itself – we used the Metrolink which is free for under 5s and £1-£1.40 for a single journey for 5-16 year olds – so obviously add those on to the total cost. We tried to balance being splurgy and saving. Picnics are an obvious money-saving tip and if you pack your own you really can have a free day out.)
First stop on our citywide trip is the classic Museum of Science and Industry. Manchester is a city with a rich industrial and scientific heritage, but kids don’t care about that, they want trains, planes and goo, which luckily amounts to the same thing. If you are getting here from Piccadilly you can hop on the free Metroshuttle bus which is a godsend.
Vehicles are a classic interest of small children and the Air and Space Hall has them in abundance, with vintage aircraft, an army helicopter and flight simulators. Then there is the Power Hall where you can experience the sights and sounds of fully functioning steam engines as well as peeping inside genuine steam trains. Make sure you load up with a power pack from the front desk.
MSI is especially good at holidays. At Christmas everything was on the theme of light, while this half term’s delight harks back to the peak of Victorian Industrialism in Manchester (without the disease, violence and child labour, thank goodness). Instead it is more photogenic treats such as the Cotton Mill Circus in the Air and Space Hall, a vintage funfair outside and the 1830 Express, a ride on the world's oldest surviving passenger railway.
MSI's Air & Space Hall
After MSI, we head to Castlefield to pick up the Waxi water taxi. This is a relatively expensive means of transportation but its not really about the destination but the journey, maaaan. It currently costs £3 for a child and £5 for an adult to go the short distance from Castlefield to Old Trafford, but it is a really exciting way to see the city. It takes about 30 minutes and is a trip out in and of itself.
The Waxi drops us off at Café Football, where, after much uhhming and ahhing we decide to splurge on lunch. It costs £10 for the adult set lunch (starter and main) and £8 for a child, which I think is on the expensive side but today is our treat day. Drinks were extra, £2.50 each, but an ice-cream is included in the price.
After Café Football we walk the ten minutes to get to Media City. This place is an absolute treasure trove of secret and not-so-secret kids stuff. First of all is the Lookout, an underused play area in The Lowry, which has recently been redone to reflect the Rambert exhibition in the Lowry Gallery (some of which may be of interest to older kids). The Lookout itself is stuffed full of arts equipment and is usually quiet – nice if you need a bit of a chill out. The whole of The Lowry itself is quite enthralling to little children, with its unusual curving walls and bright colours, plus any building with a lift usually wins.
Waxi water taxi to Old Trafford
When we get back outside we have a run around Media City, charging over bridges, enjoying the quayside views and exploring the Blue Peter Garden. There is also an ITV bench/sculpture that is magnetically attractive to children, who seem to think it is just a badly designed slide that will sort itself out given enough clambering. Then of course there is the thrill of potentially spotting Mr Tumble exiting the BBC building (I’d settle for Mr Bloom myself). Another parent trick is to get yourself a Booths Card. Head over to the Media City outlet of this posh supermarket (just behind Holiday Inn) and pick up snacks/wipes and score yourself a free coffee with this invaluable little black card. It’s what all the media-types round here do. Plus there is a toilet in the corner of the first floor – essential!
If CBeebies and free coffees aren’t doing it for you then last stop is the rather more grown-up Imperial War Museum North, which is in a stunning building and has a lot of thought-provoking exhibits. There is also the Fashion on the Ration exhibition, which we didn’t go on this time, but should be an eye-opener for any budding shopaholics (£6/£3).
For our second day out we head to the Universities end of town to get heavily into museums, getting the free metroshuttle down to MMU and walking the rest of the way (about 10-15 minutes).
First is Manchester Museum, which embodies a kind of platonic ideal of museumhood, with its Victorian architecture and vitrines full of taxidermy.
This is an absolutely fantastic museum for taking young kids to – they are starting to find the world exciting and as the museum is stuffed with archaeology, anthropology and natural history exhibits, there is bound to be something that sparks their imagination. The most immediately appealing room is the fossil/geology section featuring Stan the T Rex, the giant planets and, of course, frog-spotting in the vivarium. This time around we decided to bring a picnic to have in the designated picnic spot (do not attempt to eat anywhere else in the museum, seriously you could be responsible for the destruction of precious artifacts). The café is rather nice (children’s meals are a fiver) but it gets very full and you can have a long wait. Plus, we need to get going to our next stop.
Manchester Museum boasts vitrines full of taxidermy
Picnic consumed we head over to one of the University of Manchester’s other cultural jewels, The Whitworth (main image), which is basically the Manchester Museum’s artsier, hipper sister. We go down to the Clore Studio for the Early Years Atelier (Mondays), where children can get messy and explore art materials, usually to a theme inspired by whatever is going on in the gallery at that moment in time. Other family-themed events include Toddler Art Club (Tuesdays), Artbaby/Musicbaby sensory workshops (Wednesdays), and Artist Sundays (self-explanatory), and any day of the week you can pick up the art hampers filled with crafty bits and bobs so you can ‘respond’ to artworks as you feel. Plus, if the weather is good you should head outside, where there is an art garden, sculptures, good old-fashioned play equipment and some exercise gear should you fancy it.
About a 15-minute walk from here, are two great resources we should mention: Hulme Community Garden Centre, a little slice of nature in the city complete with treehouse and fishpond, plus the Z-arts centre, which won the Lever Prize for its commitment to learning and arts in the community, and has great kids’ theatre and drama/dance classes. Today, though, we are absolutely knackered after our cultural extravaganza, so head home.
We start off the day by stopping at Propertea for a second breakfast of coffee for me (£2.90) and toast with jam for him (£2) and then head over to Rockover Climbing behind Victoria Station for some soft play. You might not think of a climbing centre as the go-to option for entertaining kids in town, but Rockover Climbing has great facilities for children and is perfect for those days when they just need to be worn into submission... I mean get lots of exercise. There is a soft play area for little kids while bigger kids can tackle the bouldering. A Messy Monkeys session costs £7, while the soft play is £3.50 per child.
After Rockover, we walked for about 15 minutes to get to Exchange Square to sit and eat our picnic. If you are not in the picnic mood (or the weather is foul) then the Corn Exchange is a good option. All the premium casual chains are geared up for kids – Mowgli is a hit with older children but if you have a kid who has what is euphemistically known as ‘conservative tastes’, then the Cosy Club has a very trad kids menu (from £4.95) which should go down a treat. Plus they do a rather awesome sundae for £2.
Our next stop is the tiny playground at the Cathedral, the first one in town (there's also one at Piccadilly Gardens which has arguably better equipment but then you do have to worry about what happened the night before), then onto the People’s History Museum, which currently has a cartoon-themed craft table (free but donations are suggested, we gave £3).
The People's History Museum currently has a cartoon-themed craft table
Today we are back in Exchange Square to take advantage of the National Football Museum. After a spell as Urbis (which was a neat idea but never quite worked in real life) this ski slope-shaped building has settled into its groove dedicated to the beautiful game. While naturally some of its attractions are on the physical side (skills sessions, penalty shootouts) there is also plenty for the less physical among us. There are craft tables, a soft play room for really little ones that makes a great city centre pit stop, subbuteo games set up on a weekend, plus currently an arcade club, featuring vintage arcade games bound to thrill a few big kids I know too.
After a busy morning we are both hungry. Two of my favourite spots for kids’ food are nearby – chicken merchants Yard & Coop or The Pasta Factory. Both do an excellent value kids’ meal at £4. This time round we opt for the slightly healthier pasta – al pomodoro e basilica (i.e. tomatoey) for him and pesto for me (£6.50).
Having slurped up our pasta we head up to the Northern Quarter to have a look around. This might seem a bit counterintuitive, but kids love the graffiti walls. You can even go on a child-friendly walking tour of Northern Quarter street art, courtesy of Skyliner Tours, where the tour guide even brings her own baby along for the fun. We stop off at Ancoats Marina for a stroll and to feed the ducks (not bread, people! Try uncooked oats instead). Then we mosey on over to Piccadilly to have a look at the trains and catch a tram home.
Plenty to do at the National Football Museum
Our last day starts at Manchester Art Gallery, which has a dedicated children’s space. Fridays are good days to go because they often have either Baby Fridays or Mini Art Club on this day, which aim to support language, physical development and social skills by looking at artworks and exploring ideas and materials. We stop in for an early lunch at the café (£4.95 for a kids’ selection box of five items) where I do my usual trick of having just a coffee (£2) and then hovering up all the bits my child didn’t eat (usually the healthy stuff, alas).
After an artistic morning we head into Chinatown for a nosy. We go to one of my favourite shops for kids, T.La Arts, which is higgledy-piggledy with all sorts of treasures you never knew you wanted. A fun little activity is to give your kids a couple of quid and challenge them to find something that reminds them of the moon, or has all the colours of the rainbow on it, or some other bizarre instruction. They will always find something.
Treasures in hand we call in for a honey bun and a drink at Ho’s Bakery (roughly £5 for the two of us), which is looking a little bit shabby but has some great cakes. Then we make our way to the Central Library to look at some books in the kids’ section – which has a secret garden theme inspired by local author Frances Hodgson Burnet – and to use the facilities (there is a baby change, nursing room and a cafe here). Bliss.
Manchester Art Gallery has a dedicated children’s space
Find out about more to do with the kiddies around Manchester on Rainy City Kids.