Liverpool's food, drink and accommodation options have blossomed, catering to both Brits as well as foreign tourists.
When Eurovision rolls into Liverpool in May, the spotlight will shine on one of Britain's most soul-stirring cities. Home of the Beatles and two storied soccer clubs (the reds, Liverpool, and the blues, Everton), this vibrant city by the River Mersey has long appealed to certain tourists, especially ones who enjoy singing She Loves You or Help! in the shower, or dream of belting out You'll Never Walk Alone, Liverpool Football Club's anthem, during a match at Anfield stadium.
A long-time Fab Four and Everton fan, I've been lured to the city again and again and have seen it grow as a visitor destination, particularly since 2008, when a 12-month stint as European Capital of Culture showcased its other highlights, not least its architectural treasures and performing arts scene. Liverpool's food, drink and accommodation options have blossomed, too, catering to both Brits as well as foreign tourists. Many side-trip it from London, just over two hours away by train.
"Hello luv," beams the perm-sporting Liverpudlian pensioner as I near the exit of Liverpool Lime Street station. She's not talking to me - she's greeting an old friend - but I feel the warmth and can't help but smile. Pacing down the station's steps, I pass a bequiffed young lad on his phone. "That's boss that," he says, talking about something he definitely approves of, because "boss" is local slang for "very good". Also nicknamed Scousers, Liverpudlians are famously (mostly) friendly, welcoming and with a wit that veers from genial to acerbic, delivered in that unique accent, which is said to have been heavily influenced by the Irish and Scandinavian sailors who called by when this was one of the world's most bustling (and richest) ports.
Though heavily bombed in World War II, and scarred by 1960s and 70s eyesores, Liverpool has more heritage-listed buildings (about 2500) than anywhere else in Britain outside the capital. Most dot the compact, walkable city centre, including my base, a chateau-esque former Victorian railway hotel, now the new 201-room Radisson RED. Fusing funky local artwork with jazzed-up period decor (including stained glass windows and a sweeping staircase), it faces the St George's Quarter, where cultural draws, including a gorgeous domed library, occupy a cluster of grand neoclassical buildings.
You'll hear tunes all over this UNESCO City of Music, from buskers on Church Street, a mall-flanked pedestrian thoroughfare, to spine-tingling orchestras and choirs at the theatres and cathedrals of the hilltop Georgian Quarter. DJs and bands raise the roofs of Ropewalks, a district that used to make sailors' ropes and now brims with vinyl stores and Mediterranean eateries. Past Europe's oldest Chinatown, cosmopolitan flavours, including Thai and Venezuelan, fire up the Baltic Market, a food court in the Baltic Triangle, a gritty-hip industrial enclave with colourful murals, workshops and regular gigs and festivals.
"You coming in, lad?," asks the doorman at the Cavern Club, an atmospheric (does get sweaty) replica of the basement venue where the Fab Four played almost 300 times. It's in the cobbled Cavern Quarter, which heaves with revellers at weekends. The club has a tribute band that looks and sounds quite like a peak John, Paul, George and Ringo, while singalongs also reverberate around neighbouring pubs like The Grapes, bars Rubber Soul and SGT Peppers, and the Beatles-themed Hard Days Night Hotel.
Expect noise levels to rise city-wide for Eurovision (May 9-13), which Liverpool is hosting on behalf of last year's war-torn victors, Ukraine. Tickets for the song contest, at the M&S Bank Arena, are sold out, but free concerts, parades and street parties are being arranged elsewhere. A fan zone with big screens will attract crowds to Pier Head, a slice of Liverpool's waterfront where tourists pose for photographs by a larger-than-life statue of the Beatles and board sightseeing cruises on the iconic river ferry.
Gazing back at Liverpool's skyline, I'm captivated by the trio of palatial, early 20th-century riverside landmarks, dubbed the "Three Graces". The middle building, constructed for the Cunard shipping company, now stages the British Music Experience, a memorabilia-filled attraction that toasts British pop and rock stars, from Adele to Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie).
The Museum of Liverpool is another Pier Head delight, trumpeting the city's charms in a striking modern building. In its Wondrous Place gallery, there's even a karaoke booth with Liverpool tunes. "We all live in a yellow submarine," sings an impassioned young Spanish woman, before a middle-aged Scouse couple chuckle over The Power of Love by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I mangle There She Goes by The La's. Adjoining Pier Head, the Royal Albert Dock is a popular filming location and people magnet, its restored red-brick Victorian warehouses now housing apartments, souvenir stores and cultural gems.
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Museums share Merseyside's maritime heritage, murky links with the transatlantic slave trade and tales of emigrants who sailed from Liverpool to Australia, New Zealand and North America. The city's absorbing history will be channelled by artists at the 2023 Liverpool Biennial, the UK's largest contemporary visual arts festival, which takes over multiple spaces, including the dock's Tate Liverpool gallery (June 10-September 17).
A flurry of languages float through the dockside bars and eateries, among them Catalan tapas specialist Lunyalita, Middle Eastern-inspired Maray and The One O'Clock Gun, a cosy pub-bar serving pints of locally brewed ale and inventive cocktails (try the Banoffee, with discarded banana rum, caramel and bitters). Around the corner, the Beatles Story offers a stimulating, exhibit-crammed, multi-media trawl through the band's highs and lows, and also arranges the Magical Mystery Tour. Fab Four diehard or not, I'd heartily recommend buying a ticket to ride this nostalgia-inducing coach trip. It transports you to the leafy suburbs where the band grew up, taking in their childhood homes and hangouts.
Getting there: Manchester - less than an hour by taxi or train from Liverpool - has good long-haul international connections. Emirates flies there from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane via Dubai. See emirates.com
Staying there: Rooms at the Radisson RED Liverpool can be booked via radissonhotels.com; prices start at about $153 a night.
Explore more: visitliverpool.com; visitbritain.com
Steve McKenna was a guest of Radisson Hotels and Visit Liverpool