Your next port of call is Liverpool
With buzzing restaurants and boutique hotels, the 800-year-old City of Liverpool feels decidedly cool, says Anthea Gerrie
It is still nearly a year away from its stint as European Capital of Culture, but already the buzz around Liverpool is deafening. Four years ago, the city did not have a single boutique hotel. Now there are two or three — and you often cannot get a room.
The fact is that with an 800th birthday to celebrate this year, Liverpool has smartened up its act well ahead of schedule, and there is almost as much to see this year as there will be next.
More than £2 billion is currently being pumped into the economy of this, until recently, pretty ravaged and rundown port city. It is coming to Merseyside through a range of projects, starting with a £23-million refurbishment of St George’s Hall, considered one of the world’s finest examples of neo-classical architecture.
Its ornamental concert room will become a venue for recitals for the first time in 65 years and a gala opening of the building is set for April 23.
Another refurbishment is of the Bluecoats Arts Centre, which combines a gallery and performance areas with shops and a café.
Meanwhile, the University of Liverpool’s famous red brick Victoria building is being transformed into another purpose-built art space.
Perhaps the most exciting developments are those which hark back to Liverpool’s glory days, when the city was once a major embarkation point for New York.
A new cruise liner facility at Princes Dock is designed to attract back the big ships; 25 a year are expected to make Princes Dock a port of call, starting this year. And quite right, for the redeveloped waterfront has so much to offer, with its extraordinary Liver buildings, excellent Beatles museum, amphibious Duck tours that run round the city before plunging into the water. Plus the buzzy shops, cafés and restaurants of redeveloped Albert Dock, which is now a World Heritage Site.
It is down here that the darker side of Liverpool’s rise to prosperity is being marked with an International Slavery Museum due to open on August 23, the bi-centenary of the abolition of the British slave trade.
The site — only a few yards away from the dry dock where 18th-century slave trading ships were repaired and fitted out — will incorporate numerous exhibits from the Transatlantic Slave Gallery which has attracted huge visitor numbers since opening in one of the city’s museums in 1994.
Slavery will also be remembered in a maritime heritage festival which precedes the opening of the museum. On June 16-17 there will be a whole
sale celebration of the Port of Liverpool, with Tall Ships and Naval vessels.
The city will mark its actual 800th birthday on August 28 with processions, street parties and — allegedly — the largest firework display Europe has ever seen. One wonders what on earth is planned to kick off the Capital of Culture celebrations if all the big guns are going off now!
Given all these events, it will be particularly hard to get into the brand new Malmaison Hotel which opens in less than two weeks, marking the surest sign that the city has acquired measurable chic. There will be river views, along with hedonistic in-room comforts and the signature decor of rich colours which distinguish the brand.
The Princes Dock location will give the Malmaison one up on Hope Street, the boutique hotel which has, until now, had the smartest business since opening in 2003.
At the heart of this city centre hostelry — dubbed “the place where Brunel meets Carrie Bradshaw (of Sex and the City fame)” by a wag from the Sunday Times — is a fabulously buzzy ground-floor brasserie, the London Carriage Works. It has become one of the city’s favourite meeting points and vies with 60 Hope Street down the road, which has won many plaudits, while — closer to the waterfront — Simply Heathcotes offers modern bistro-style fare.
A special project dedicated to family trees in the city this autumn is bound to draw the spotlight onto Liverpool’s Chinese community — one of the oldest in Europe, which will host a spectacular new year celebration on February 18 — and its well-established Jewish community. The first Jews arrived in the 18th century, when a small group of Sephardim crossed the Irish Sea from Dublin. That community did not survive, but a new Ashkenazi settlement in 1780 flourished and was swelled by fallout from the one million Jews who passed through the port between 1880 and 1920 en route to the USA. Today’s population has spread beyond the city into outlying areas, notably Childwall, Allerton and the nicer Merseyside port towns reached across the Mersey — though you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy one of the sightseeing highlights, a ferry across the Mersey.
The city’s original Sephardim are celebrating, albeit amid the splendid Moorish architecture of the Ashkenazi Princes Road synagogue, built in 1874. With its colonnades, minarets and rose window, it may be the most beautiful synagogue in the country, and its excellent choir makes a Shabbat visit one of the finest weekend attractions in a city moving fast into the 21st century.
Liverpool’s renovated waterfront at the heart of the city’s £2 billion renewal
Liverpool’s futuristic Malmaison Hotel, due to open on January 29
Historic and modern blend at the waterfront, illuminated by night in readiness for the city’s birthday celebrations
A spectacular bathroom at Hope Street, the city’s first boutique hotel