Travel - Magical Mystery Tour

Magical Mystery Tour

Chris Bradley overcomes regional prejudice to discover how Liverpool is shaping up as European Capital of Culture 2008

I should declare my partiality from the outset: I was born and bred in Manchester. Healthy disdain for our neighbours to the west is not so much a point of view as birthright. But perhaps I’ve judged too hastily. Change is in the air over Merseyside, and, following in the footsteps of Glasgow (another city which had a dubious reputation to overcome), Liverpool has been selected as European Capital of Culture 2008.

I won’t be the only one who needs convincing. Once a city of great wealth and prestige, in the early years of last century, Liverpool’s reputation plummeted following the collapse of its major asset, the shipping industry. So, how easily can negative perceptions of a city be turned around? ‘The Capital of Culture status will enable us to redefine the city of Liverpool in the eyes of a still sceptical world,’ says David Fleming, Director of National Museums Liverpool.

The process is already underway. In 2004, Liverpool was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This year is the city’s 800th anniversary, and there is a packed programme of cultural events being held to mark the occasion under the banner Liverpool 08. They include exhibitions, music, theatre, dance, film, fashion, science, visual art, talks, lectures and other special events. The birthday celebrations will culminate in a big party on Tuesday 28 August.

There is the UK’s first major exhibition of the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt and new work by acclaimed artists such as Jyll Bradley, Ben Johnson, Michael Nyman, Sir John Tavener and Richard Wilson. There will be performances by Seamus Heaney, Akram Kahn, Philip Pullman and Sir Simon Rattle. And, in June, the People's Festival is a weekend celebration of football, fashion and music. It climaxes with a specially commissioned work by composer Michael Nyman set against a backdrop of images of football’s greatest moments selected by fans across Europe, and includes Extra Time, a fashion catwalk show featuring ‘WAGs’.

The celebrations have been tailored to lead into the Capital of Culture programme in January 2008.

This year’s Turner Prize will be hosted in Liverpool and the winning piece will be displayed in the city, the first time it has been exhibited outside London since its inception in 1984. The Liverpool Philharmonic are planning a huge, Viennese-style ball and the legendary Cavern Club, which famously hosted the Beatles’ first gigs, has programmed an upcoming series of special anniversary concerts. A year of public art and performance has been commissioned by the directors of international art festival, the Liverpool Biennial, and, in a nod to the city’s shipping past, a huge maritime festival will coincide with the beginning of the Tall Ships Race, which is expected to attract in excess of 1 million spectators to the River Mersey.

So much for the future; as I discover, there’s a lot happening already. Take the network of backstreets behind the shopping façade of Bold Street, considered a derelict, no-go area as little as five years ago. It’s now one of the most interesting areas of the city: a thriving quarter packed with new offices, flats, chic bars and eateries, not unlike Glasgow’s Merchant City. The heart of this regeneration is undoubtedly the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT), which opened in 2003. Liverpool’s first purpose-built arts project for over 60 years, FACT is a hulking silver structure housing three cinema screens, various multimedia galleries and a café, which is possibly the busiest in the whole of Liverpool and undoubtedly the place to be seen.

Further along the street I step into the Open Eye Gallery. It is so small I have to check to make sure I’m in the right place, yet it packs fascinating exhibitions of contemporary photography into two pocket-sized rooms. Both venues will play a key role in the 2007-2008 cultural programme.

Among Liverpool’s many boasts is that it has more galleries and museums than any other city outside of London. It has also appeared in more films and television programes than any other British city outside of London, from 51st State, The Hunt for Red October, Alfie and The Parole Officer to television’s Hollyoaks, Grange Hill and Bread.

The city’s main nightlife hub is Concert Square, where the party stretches across its cavernous theme pubs, and doesn’t start until late. More interesting (and so über-cool it’s almost intimidating) is Alma de Cuba on Seel Street, a converted Polish church where you can quite literally break bread and drink wine at the altar. The place is overrun with beautiful people, but fortunately I happen upon Bond Street’s Soul Café. A steaming bowl of Memphis Soul Stew, homely surroundings and Marvin Gaye’s dulcit tones are more my bag, and the café is definitely recommended for whiling away a few early evening hours.

Despite myths about shellsuits and moustaches, Liverpudlians are clearly interested in fashion. I’m going to need to spruce up to fit in, so next morning I head for the Met Quarter, a recently opened upmarket shopping centre with chaise longues in the foyer and flagship branches of Armani, Diesel and Hugo Boss. On the morning of my visit I see more security guards than actual shoppers, but forgive my relapse into stereotype; it is early. The centre may be quiet for now but the owners clearly anticipate a lot of money coming in over the next few years.

Not everything is shiny and new in Liverpool: the huge revamp of the World Museum, housed in a grand neo-classical building on William Brown Street, shows that the city also sees a future in its past. An exhibition of world cultures, featuring treasures gifted from foreign dignitaries and traded with far off lands is particularly interesting, because Liverpool plays proudly on this history of maritime trade and immigration. The city also intends to pay its dues to the darker side of its shipping heritage, with a dedicated International Slavery Museum opening in August.

Also making its way through the pipeline is The Paradise Project, currently a vast construction site, which will give the city a skyline to rival Berlin’s, linking the docks to the city centre in time for the Capital of Culture celebrations.

A 10,000-seat arena is taking shape by Albert Dock and the brand new Museum of Liverpool at Pier Head should be ready by 2010. So will it all be worth it? Well, I’m going to struggle to live this down, but Liverpool has certainly exceeded my expectations. It’s an exciting place to be and it’s only going to get better.

For further information on Liverpool 08, see

Fact File

Getting there and around
There are direct flights to Liverpool from Aberdeen and Inverness. Virgin Trains ( offer return train fares from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Lime Street station from £35. Once in Liverpool city centre, it’s easy to get about on foot.

For clean, good value accommodation, Premier Travel Inn have two branches in the city, one in the centre and one by Albert Dock. See for prices and information. If you want to splash out a little you could do worse than the Hope Street Hotel (, voted one of the world’s 50 coolest hotels, with rooms from £140.

Albert Dock, one of the first areas of Liverpool to undergo redevelopment, is home to the Tate Liverpool and the Merseyside Maritime Museum, plus a selection of cafés and style bars. The World Museum and renowned Walker Art Gallery are both on William Brown Street, which is right beside Lime Street station. Visit for more information on these and other galleries. See also or for details of upcoming exhibitions at two of Liverpool’s newer cultural ventures. For news and information on the programme of events being held to mark the city’s 800th bithday in the run up to Capital of Culture year, see

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