Free Things to Do and See in Manchester, England

The Cotton Field Park Marina, in up-and-coming Ancoats, is one of the most pleasant spots of Manchester for a mooch
The Cotton Field Park Marina, in up-and-coming Ancoats, is one of the most pleasant spots of Manchester for a mooch | © lowefoto / Alamy Stock Photo | © lowefoto / Alamy Stock Photo
Simon Bland

As the thriving capital of the North, Manchester is known for its bars, museums and musical heritage. What’s more, a day trip or visit to Manchester doesn’t have to empty your wallet. From Heaton Park and Manchester Museum, to Salford Lads Club and Manchester’s Gay Village, there’s plenty of money-free fun to be found. Here are 25 of the best options.

View some artwork at The Whitworth

Take a walk right down to the end of Oxford Road and you’ll find The Whitworth. An impressive and ornate red-brick structure, this popular Manchester art gallery certainly looks the part from the outside – and once inside visitors will find over 60,000 internationally important artworks to explore. Everything from weaving to sculpture is included within its recently refurbished walls – and best of all, much of it is free to explore.

Relax in Angel Meadow Park

What Manchester City Centre boasts in cultural sights, nightlife and restaurants it somewhat lacks in available green space. That’s not to say there aren’t any parks to be found – you just need to know where to look. Manchester’s Green Quarter is a quickly developing part of the city and it’s here where you’ll find Angel Meadow, a grassy and secluded park that’s loved by locals for its peaceful vibes amid a busy backdrop.

Explore street art in the Northern Quarter

Manchester’s Northern Quarter is known for its wealth of eccentric independent shops and ever-changing array of restaurants and cafés – but it’s also an unofficial art gallery. For decades, street artists have been decorating its brick walls and shop shutters with a variety of colourful and controversial artwork. From the bright and cheery work of local artist The Hammo, to Lost Hills’s hard-to-spot illustrations of Adventure Time’s Jake The Dog in a number of disguises peppered in all manner of random spots – it’s a hive of graffiti goodness. Start at Stevenson Square and start exploring.

Visit rare frogs at Manchester Museum’s vivarium

Connected to Manchester University, Manchester Museum houses a collection of archeological, anthropological and natural history objects all within its magnificent neogothic building. As the UK’s largest university museum, it regularly attracts over 400,000 visitors a year all eager to explore its free-to-view collections and live vivarium, which features a variety of reptiles and extremely rare amphibians, including the vibrant lemur leaf frog.

Peruse the aisles at Manchester’s many record stores

Manchester is a city that prides itself on its musical history. Countless bands and artists formed here before leaving to conquer the world, while tomorrow’s hit-makers cut their teeth by playing the city’s many small clubs and music halls. Music is the life force of the city – and as such, a trip to Manchester’s record stores is a must during your visit. Culture Trip recommends starting at Piccadilly Records before moving onto Vinyl Exchange across the road. Happy hunting.

Enjoy arresting entertainment at the Greater Manchester Police Museum

The Greater Manchester Police Museum in the Northern Quarter was once a police station, housing the Manchester City Police and its successors – Manchester and Salford Police and Greater Manchester Police – until 1979. Today it’s one of the city’s free-to-visit museums, featuring a collection of images and historic policing objects, including handcuffs, whistles and clothing. It also hosts a range of free events – so be sure to check the website before you visit.

Soak up some greenery at Chorlton Water Park

A popular fishing spot with a built-in play area for kids, you’ll find lots of happy families in Chorlton Water Park, usually with ice cream in hand, courtesy of the many on-site ice-cream trucks. If you fancy escaping the pulse of the city centre in favour of something more calming and green, then a walk around the park’s central lake will take you on a tour of grassy fields, woodland and local nature. It’s also a great cycling spot for those after a bit of exercise.

While away the hours on Ancoats Marina

A popular new area in the city is Ancoats, with its taste-making independent eateries, cocktail bars and coffee shops all dotted along a series of cobblestoned streets. Towards the back of this thriving neighbourhood you’ll find the Islington Wharf Marina, which is home to a number of canal-boat homes. With benches dotted along the marina pathway, it’s a relaxing place to soak up some beams on a sunny day.

Take a Smiths selfie at Salford Lads’ Club

You may recognise The Salford Lads’ Club from the famous cover of The Smiths’ hugely popular 1986 album The Queen is Dead, with a bouffant-haired Morrissey and co stood outside its doors. Now you’re in Manchester, you’d be silly not to venture out to this same spot for a Smiths selfie with your fellow travellers. A popular venue for Manc-music fans; head inside to learn more about the band and to buy exclusive merchandise.

Get lost in colour at Fletcher Moss Botanical Gardens

Open every day of the year, from morning until nightfall – and completely free to visit – the vibrant Fletcher Moss Park and Botanical Garden in Didsbury is a lovely place to spend an afternoon. In spring, the space comes alive with a burst of colour from its various wild flowers – with deep purples and warm oranges. It’s home to a host of wildlife, too – including a wide variety of birds. Look out for the kingfishers.

Brush up on your history at the Imperial War Museum North

Over in Salford Quays by the creative hub of MediaCityUK is The Imperial War Museum North. It’s easily accessible from Manchester City Centre by the Metrolink tram service and houses collections that inspect the impact modern conflicts have had on society. Venture inside for a free visit and you’ll find over 2,000 objects, photographs and interactive displays in IWM North’s main exhibition space alone, each telling stories from the First World War onwards.

Go for a ramble at Quarry Bank Mill

There are many National Trust properties near Manchester City Centre – one of which is the leafy Quarry Bank Mill. While visiting the mill itself, worker’s cottage, Quarry Bank House and other industrial heritage sites require shelling out for tickets, it doesn’t cost anything to walk around the site’s gardens and surrounding woodlands. It’s rambling forest and fields are big – but not too big – making this a great place for a summertime stroll or frosty winter walk.

Stroll through Canal Street at dusk

Manchester has long been an avid supporter of LGBTQ+ communities, with its annual Pride celebrations taking over the city’s Gay Village each August Bank Holiday weekend. The good vibes continue year-round in this section of town though, with the vibrant Canal Street attracting tourists to its bars, pubs and clubs. Festoon lights illuminate its central feature – the Rochdale Canal – and on sunny afternoons, you’ll find the perfect sunbathing spot in the nearby Sackville Gardens.

Sit down for a picnic at Heaton Park

Heaton Park is Manchester’s most popular green space. Hosting a variety of events year-round including firework displays, gigs and the popular Parklife Festival featuring music’s biggest acts, it’s also home to a Grade I neoclassical country house dating back to the 18th century, which sits at its centre. If the sun’s shining during your stay in Manchester, grab some food, a blanket and head here for a picnic.

See the colourful arch at Chinatown Manchester

Located right by the city’s Gay Village is Manchester Chinatown, the second-largest Chinatown in the UK and the third-largest in Europe. Its richly detailed archway on Faulkner Street is covered in dragons and phoenixes and is a popular photography spot for many visitors. Along its interwoven streets you’ll find a number of restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores selling authentic Asian cuisine and food supplies, alongside gift shops and sushi bars.

Play free table football and pool at The Refuge

Oxford Road’s hotel-turned-bar and restaurant The Refuge might not be top of your list when looking for no-money fun in Manchester, but head to its secluded and spacious back room and you’ll find pool tables and table football – both of which can be enjoyed for free. All you need to provide is a contender and a will to win.

Say hello to Frank Sidebottom in Timperley

Ride the tram to Timperley, home of the one and only Frank Sidebottom. Known for his giant papier mâché head and oddball personality, Frank was the brainchild of local creative polymath Chris Sievey who rose to cult fame in the 90s and sadly passed away in 2010. Today, his oddball legacy is commemorated by a life-size statue of Frank in his Timperley home town where he regularly welcomes fans, eager for a selfie.

Brush up on your art knowledge at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art

Nestled between bars and restaurants on the Northern Quarter’s busy Thomas Street is the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art. This intimate art gallery celebrates Chinese art and culture and features a changing array of installations and takeovers from Asian artists. On the last Thursday of each month, the venue stays open until 8pm – something that’s particularly handy if your sightseeing schedule is jam-packed.

Browse Manchester’s many maker’s markets

Manchester’s ever-popular maker’s markets feature in multiple parts of the city on different dates and feature locally crafted food, drink, gifts and homeware items. If you’re staying in Manchester City Centre, you’ll find their stalls taking over the Northern Quarter’s Stevenson Square on the second Sunday of every month – but you can also find them in Oxford Road’s Great Northern Plaza on the first Sunday of the month.

Learn something new at Manchester Central Library

Take five with a visit to Manchester Central Library. Its building is hard to miss; a giant, curved structure adorned with white pillars sat on St Peter’s Square on Oxford Road. Inside, kids will be able to enjoy the venue’s secret garden, which substitutes flowers and plants for colourful literary works for children, penned by a host of local authors. For parents there’s a cafe and shop, alongside a range of rare collections featuring theatre materials dating back to the 18th century.

Expand your mind at the Science and Industry Museum

Manchester’s extensive industrial past is celebrated at the Science and Industry Museum, which offers educational installations and free play areas for kids. Wander through the venue’s main textiles pit, which features original machinery from the city’s 19th-century mills. Meanwhile, the venue’s expert Explainers are on-hand to ignite curiosity and encourage discussion about Manchester’s proud working history.

Read up on local history at The Portico Library

The Portico Library on Mosley Street is a slice of local history, dating back over 200 years. Originally a member’s-only institution that attracted an eclectic group of attendees that spanned women’s rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst and footballer Eric Cantona, this subscription library and exhibitions space is now free for anyone to enjoy. In addition to hosting regular events (check its website before your visit to see what’s coming up), the in-house collection features books, archives and illustrations that go back 450 years.

Take a lazy walk around The Arndale

You may have already visited the independently run Afflecks Palace or the Northern Quarter’s many boutique stores during your day trip to Manchester – but they aren’t the only retail spots. Sitting centre stage on the city’s main Market Street drag is The Arndale Centre, a two-storey shopping centre that boasts over 200 different stores to explore. Even if you don’t fancy splashing some cash, a wander around the shops is still worthwhile during your time in town.

Learn about the suffragettes at The Pankhurst Centre

It may not look like much from the outside, but inside two Victorian villas on Nelson Street you’ll find The Pankhurst Centre – a heritage site of women’s activism. Once the home of local Manchester political campaigner and icon Emmeline Pankhurst, who lived at 62 Nelson Street from 1898 to 1907, it’s here that the very first meeting of the suffragette movement took place. Cut to the present day and visitors can now drop by to explore the story of women securing the right to vote.

Visit The Alan Turing memorial in Sackville Gardens

Sackville Gardens is a little green getaway in the middle of a concrete-clad city that features a memorial to one of Manchester’s most famous sons – Alan Turing. As a pioneering figure in the world of modern computing, the park’s memorial of Turing is close to the city’s Gay Village, recognising his status as a gay icon who was persecuted during his lifetime. You’ll find him sitting on a park bench, with a University of Manchester building to his left and Canal Street to his right, signifying the mark he left on both aspects of the city’s future.

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