A self-guided tour of the street murals in Northern Quarter lets you explore a vibrant Manchester neighborhood at no cost © Alberto Manuel Urosa Toledano / Getty Images
Uncovering the sights, sounds and secrets of a city needn’t cost the earth. Despite its burgeoning popularity and upscale development, visitors will find a decent number of both free and cheap things to do in Manchester.
Museum trips, centuries-old heritage sites and strolls around pretty parks number among the best free things to do in Manchester. You’ll also find opportunities to experience the city’s legendary music scene without paying a penny. Intrigued? Here are our top picks for newbies to the city and budget-minded locals alike.
Make the most of the city's best museums
Just as in London, most museums and galleries are free in Manchester. And with over a dozen to choose from, you’re bound to find a cultural attraction that piques your interest.
The National Football Museum is a fail-safe choice for sports fans, while the Manchester Museum gives you a broad understanding of the city’s journey from a Roman outpost to an industrial leviathan through its archaeological and ethnological exhibits. For a more harrowing experience, try entering the 19th-century prison cells at the fascinating Greater Manchester Police Museum.
A museum visit is easily one of the best free things to do in Manchester with toddlers and teens, too. The Science and Industry Museum is our top pick for family days out thanks to its interactive exhibits on everything from space and computing to the city’s cotton mills.
The old master paintings at Manchester Art Gallery are always free to admire © Alastair Wallace / Shutterstock
Ponder wonderful paintings at a local gallery
While Manchester’s museums will broaden your knowledge of its history and culture, its free art galleries will appeal to your creative side.
With its grand Greek Ionic facade, the Manchester Art Gallery sits steps away from the impressive Grade I–listed Town Hall. A natural starting point for an art-themed day out, the gallery hosts permanent exhibitions dedicated to Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelitie masters, plus an ever-changing display of modern art.
You could also wander up Oxford Rd past the University of Manchester campus to the Whitworth Art Gallery, which has an impressive collection that includes works by Freud, Cézanne and Warhol. Opposite Salford Crescent tram station, the Salford Museum and Art Gallery is another lesser-known option that features wonderful paintings and artifacts from the Victorian era.
Take a self-guided tour of Manchester’s street art
Gallery trips aren’t the only art-themed free thing to do in Manchester city center. Bypass hectic Market St and enter the trendy Northern Quarter to spot striking murals adorning the district’s distinctive red-brick buildings.
This hip neighborhood hosts some of the city’s best street art, including depictions of worker bees on Oldham St and a giant painting of Anthony Burgess, the Manchester-born author of A Clockwork Orange, on Oak St. You’ll also spot a poignant mural of George Floyd in Stevenson Square, which sprung up in 2020 in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Stroll around a city park
After free outdoor activities in Manchester? You can’t beat hanging out in one of the city’s leafy parks. Some of the best lie beyond the city center in the suburbs of Greater Manchester. On this list are family-friendly Fletcher Moss Park in East Didsbury, which boasts beautiful botanic gardens, and Alexandra Park, the epitome of an elegant Victorian park, in Whalley Range.
The public section of Chetham’s Library is over 600 years old – and free to visit © Garry Basnett / Shutterstock
Indulge your inner bookworm at a historic library
Manchester has produced some amazing authors over the centuries, including Anthony Burgess and Elizabeth Gaskell – and the city’s literary prowess also extends to its libraries. There are three main contenders in the city center, each one with an extraordinary history and eye-catching decor. More importantly, they’re all free to visit.
John Rylands Library is unmissable for its dramatic Victorian Gothic architecture and extensive collections of rare books. There’s also the landmark Manchester Central Library near Town Hall. Built in the 1930s, this round, domed structure is home to thousands of books and a hefty archive of filmed features and TV series.
And then there’s the 600-year-old Chetham’s Library. It’s lodged behind Manchester Cathedral and was famously a hangout for Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx when they studied in the city in the 1840s. Dark-wood interiors, low-lighting and crumbling ancient tomes all add to its premodern ambiance. Visit the public library section for free or pay £6.50 for a private tour of the entire building.
Uncover Roman ruins in Castlefield
With its skyscrapers and cool converted warehouses, it’s easy to forget that Manchester’s history stretches back more than a millennium.
If you were hanging out in the Castlefield area of the city 2000 years ago, you’d be standing inside the fort of Mamucium. Though little of the original structure remains, you will spot reconstructions of both the fortress and its defensive walls a short stroll south of the Science and Industry Museum.
On warmer days, the grassy field next to the fort – known as the Castlefield Urban Heritage Park – fills up with sunseekers and picnickers.
Tap your toes to free jazz at Matt & Phred’s
This Northern Quarter gem on Tib Street has been one of the best spots for live jazz in the city for over a decade. Matt and Phred’s hosts gigs six nights a week, with performers hailing from across the North. Most events are free, making it the ideal spot for a cheap evening out in Manchester. You can book a table in advance or simply turn up on the night.
The beautiful and haunting “Fire Window” was commissioned after Manchester Cathedral suffered major damage in World War II © raspu / Getty Images
Admire Manchester Cathedral’s stained-glass windows
York Minster may get all the attention when it comes to Northern-city churches, yet the late-Gothic Manchester Cathedral, tucked behind the main shopping district, is ideal for those seeking a moment of calm.
The Cathedral’s kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows are its main attraction. The original Victorian windows were damaged during the Blitz, so what you’ll see dates from the 1960s or later. Look out for the flame-colored Fire Window, a vivid reminder of the damage it suffered during WWII. There’s also the rainbow-hued Healing Window, installed to commemorate the restoration of the building after an IRA bombing in 1996.
The ethereal building regularly hosts musical concerts – from classical quartets to indie-folk bands – although you’ll have to pay for entry.
Live out your Tudor fantasies at Ordsall Hall
Tucked away in a fairly dull area between Castlefield and Salford Quays is one of Manchester's most intriguing – and arguably most underrated – heritage sites.
Exploring Ordsall Hall’s landscaped gardens and carefully restored interiors is a great free thing to do in Manchester on the weekend. A building has sat on the site since the 1100s, with the existing manor house dating to the Tudor era.
Discover what was typically prepared in its 16th-century kitchens, admire the wonderful wood paneling in the Great Hall and learn all about the hall’s former residents, including everyone from a Pre-Raphaelite painter to a Civil War–era Royalist sympathizer. There’s plenty to amuse kids too, from workshops and Tudor dress-up stations to outdoor theater in the summer months.