If you’ve ever been lucky enough to visit Liverpool, you’ll no doubt have become enchanted by this maritime city with the big heart that moves to its own beat. Grown from the shipping needed to support the Industrial Revolution, Liverpool became not just a major port, but also a hub for creativity. Today there’s plenty to enjoy, whether you’re day tripping, visiting for a weekend, or have longer to enjoy all Liverpool and the surrounding area has to offer. Here’s my pick of the best things to enjoy in the city.
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How To Get To Liverpool
The city is well served for transport links, being a short trip up the M62 motorway from the M6. Liverpool Lime Street is the main station, with services arriving from all parts of the UK. A rail trip from London Euston will take just under 2.5 hours, while it’s just over 1.5 hours from Birmingham New Street station. Finally, you can fly in direct to Liverpool John Lennon Airport.
What to do in Liverpool
This depends, of course, on your interests and time available. I’ve highlighted some of the key places I think are worth your time. I’ve added some magnificent extras in case you have longer in the city or have particular interests that make them essential for your visit. Let’s start with the main sights and visitor spots.
Royal Albert Dock
This fabulously restored collection of Grade I listed buildings is a feast for the eyes. As you cross the road to the dock, your eye is drawn to all kinds of marine artifacts. There’s a beautiful sailing vessel, festooned with flags, and with a smell of varnish from her restored decks. There are anchors and buoys. There’s the smell of the water. And then you have the quirky extras: an old-style bus and other modes of transport, all seeking to keep you fed at the waterside.
Albert Dock: How It All Started
The Dock itself is a whole blast of fascinating history. Opened in 1846, it was the first structure to be made of cast iron, bricks and stone, and therefore the first non-combustible warehouse system in the world. Ships were also able to unload directly into the warehouses, which was revolutionary in its day. This meant that valuable cargoes like brandy, cotton, tea and silk were more secure. The Dock was requisitioned to be the home of the British Atlantic Fleet in the Second World War, and was damaged during the May Blitz of 1941.
“There was a most brilliant display of flags, banners. All business is suspended. There are 200,000 strangers in town and all the inhabitants are in the streets. The sight was really magnificent, all the ships in the docks were decorated out in the gayest colours and the river was crowded with boats filled with people.”
The Pictorial Times of 1846, describing Prince Albert’s official visit to open the Docks.
Today the Royal Albert Dock has all kinds of spaces to entertain you. In fact, it’s the most visited multi-use attraction in the UK outside London and an integral part of Liverpool’s standing as a UNESCO World Heritage Maritime Mercantile City. There’s a flotilla (sorry) of bars and restaurants, plus shops to fritter away some time and money. There are some of the major attractions described below. There’s a big wheel for day or night time views. But to my mind, there’s no finer time than sunset to be wandering the Dock. It will be full of big sky and spectacular colours. Don’t miss it.
What links the Formby Red Squirrel, Strawberry Fields Forever, The Story of the Blues. Wheelie Bin Purple, Penny Lane, Red Rum, Everton Mint, Half Man Half Biscuit, Bread, A Flock Of Seagulls and Kazimier Garden? They’re The Colours of Liverpool, as laid out in a paint chart artwork by Dorothy X at Tate Liverpool. I spent a long time looking at all the cultural references and smiling.
In fact, Tate Liverpool is good at making you smile. Remember those Vegas big rocks all stacked and towering in technicolour? Liverpool’s got its own version outside the Tate. Ugo Rondinone’s Liverpool Mountain draws on the tradition of stacking rocks in a totemic formation. Whatever your taste in things arty, you’ll find a wide range of diverse work inside. I’d challenge you not to find at least something you enjoy, even if it’s the rather good cafe on the ground floor.
The Beatles Story
Over 4 million people had visited this museum in the Royal Albert Docks by 2015, so you know you’ll be in good company here. Telling, unsurprisingly, the story of the Fab Four, you’ll find recreations of the Casbah Coffee Club, the Cavern Club, and Abbey Road Studios. Plus George Harrison’s first guitar, John Lennon’s glasses and other memorabilia.
Merseyside Maritime Museum
All that maritime history needs discussing somewhere, and that place is at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, cunningly identified by a rather large anchor outside. Laid out over several floors, the museum takes you through the good, bad and ugly of maritime history. The top floor cafe with a magnificent view was being renovated when we last visited in January 2019, but the ground floor cafe is still open.
You can really understand Liverpool’s role as the gateway to the world here. It’s not all a rosy picture either, with exhibits on the transatlantic slave trade. You can learn all about the merchant navy, and the RMS Titanic, registered in Liverpool. Downstairs you’ll find Seized, setting out the UK Border Agency’s role in customs and excise.
International Slavery Museum
Having visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, we thought we were prepared to see Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum. But in truth, nothing can ever prepare you for one human’s inhumanity to another.
The three main galleries here focus on the lives of people in West Africa, their enslavement and their fight for freedom. You also have a focus on modern day slavery, discrimination and racism. The museum explores the experience of slavery through 400 annotated songs and a quiet area for contemplation and reflection.
Museum of Liverpool
Just across from Albert Dock, you’ll find the Museum of Liverpool which tells the story of Liverpool, the place and its people. Situated on the Pier Head, close to the Three Graces, the museum has a beautifully designed central spiral staircase like a seashell. Some 6,000 exhibits rotate in and out of the museum, with four core spaces telling of the Great Port, the Global City, People’s Republic and the Wondrous Place.
Have small children with you? Don’t forget to check out Little Liverpool, a gallery for the under 6s. An interactive history and archaeology section called History Detectives will have older children engaged.
The Three Graces: Iconic Symbols of Liverpool
Liverpool’s skyline is blessed with three beautiful buildings near the waterfront: the Cunard Building, the Royal Liver Building and the Port Authority, collectively known as the Three Graces. All three are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Maritime Mercantile City.
Port of Liverpool Building and the Cunard Building
The Port Of Liverpool building is an extravaganza in the Edwardian Baroque style, and was constructed between 1903-1907. The beautiful Portland Stone hides a structure made of something remarkable but less immediately iconic: concrete. The Cunard Building harks to the seafaring tradition of the Cunard Line. It is designed in a mixture of Italian Renaissance and Greek Revival styles and was built between 1914-1917. It too is constructed of concrete faced with Portland Stone.
The Liver Birds and the Liver Building
Look up to see the Liver Birds at close quarters on top of the Royal Liver Building. There’s the female, Bella, looking out to sea, waiting for sailors to return home safely. Bertie, the male, looks over the city from his perch, guarding the sailors’ families. Or to make sure the pubs are open, as a local story has it, while Bella is checking out the handsome sailors. The birds are depicted as cormorants, and often with a piece of seaweed – a pun on the word laver, a type of seaweed – in their beaks. Sir Paul McCartney’s crest is a liver bird holding a guitar.
If you’re a Brit of a certain age, the very mention of Liver Birds will give you an earworm dating back to the 1970s sitcom, the Liver Birds. In one of Carla Lane’s early pieces of writing, you can get a real feel for the Liverpool of the 70s through the lives of two young women. And for a further understanding of Liverpool in the 80s, check out Carla Lane’s later comedy series: Bread.
Even if you don’t want to follow the full Beatles history, the Cavern Quarter is a welcoming and interesting place. Wander in from the west, and you’ll spot that the hotel you’re walking past is the Hard Day’s Night Hotel. Just around the corner, Mathew Street is full of musical history. You’ll spot the Cavern Club to your right. Here it’s possible to pop in for free and get a sense of the cellar vibe. Opposite, you’ll spot John Lennon as a life-size statue, leaning casually against the wall. And the brickwork itself reveals a series of gigs that would make any music lover happy, with acts from Tom Robinson to Merrill Osmond and The Who.
Look down the street opposite the Cavern Club, and you’ll spot Eric’s: the club named in Yazoo’s Upstairs At Eric’s album. There’s still a live bill each night. Further down the street, there’s a woman in a 60s dress with her arms held wide. That’ll be Cilla Black then. The Beatles Museum is further down on the left, adding a soundtrack to your walk. You can even find Eleanor Rigby living in a dream here.
The Reds and the Blues: Liverpool Football Club and Everton Football Club
If anything defines Liverpool more than music, it’s football. Nowhere in the country is the sport taken so seriously and it’s rare to find a Scouser who doesn’t support one of their two major football teams. Liverpool are the best-known; their successes over the years (including eighteen league titles and five European crowns) have given them worldwide support, something neighbouring Everton jibe at, saying that theirs is the ‘real’ club on Merseyside.
That’s not to say Everton have been strangers to success themselves, with nine league championships and the proud boast of having spent more seasons in the top division of English football than any other club. In fact, Everton fans will tell you that were it not for them their neighbours might never have existed – Everton began life at Anfield and when they moved to nearby Goodison Park following a rent dispute, their landlord set up the club that was to become their great rivals.
If you’re looking to watch a Premier League game on Merseyside, try the Everton ticket office as Liverpool usually sell out well in advance. But if you’re determined to visit Anfield the next-best thing is the club museum and stadium tour.
Radio City: See Liverpool From On High
Look up from any part of Liverpool, and one of its most famous landmarks is easily spotted. The tower of Radio City, now known as St John’s Beacon, hosts a radio station and an observation tower. Including the radio antenna, it’s the tallest building in Liverpool.
At one time, the tower included a revolving restaurant, rather like the Rotunda in Birmingham. Two lifts will now take you to the observation platform at the top where you can see Liverpool and the coast spread out before you.
Further Afield: Merseyside And Beyond
It would be remiss not to check out more of what Merseyside has to offer. Liverpool is well blessed with public transport across the city and beyond, so don’t hesitate to travel onwards for more fantastic experiences.
The Mersey Ferry
If your ears aren’t immediately drawn to the melody of Ferry Cross The Mersey, then your trip to Liverpool will still be enhanced by one of its most memorable transport experiences. Operated by the vessels Snowdrop and Royal Iris, the Mersey Ferry service links the Pier Head in Liverpool with Birkenhead and Wallasey on the Wirral Peninsula.
There’s been a ferry on this route since medieval times, with the monks from the Benedictine Priory at Birkenhead offering a service to travelers. At the time, the weather could delay crossings for days, with accommodation being provided at the Priory. Sailing vessels were used for some time, with the first paddle steamer being brought into service in 1815.
Today the crossings see a balance of commuter services with river cruises and summer services which take in the Manchester Ship Canal.
Sefton Park: Merseyside’s Fabulous Green Space
The Register of Historic Parks and Gardens has a listing for Sefton Park, which was designed to provide open green spaces to offset the crowded housing of Liverpool. Two natural watercourses flow into an artificial lake covering 7 acres. Originally the parkland included a deer park, follies, shelters and pools, waterfalls and stepping stones.
One of the Park’s main features is the Palm House, a three storey spectacular conservatory. Around the Palm House you’ll find sculptures of explorers and navigators including Charles Darwin. You’ll also find a statue of Peter Pan and a replica of the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain from Picadilly Circus, now complete with a new Anteros statue. The bandstand? I’ll just whisper Sergeant Pepper as you head past.
Formby Beach and the Red Squirrels
It’s not surprising that the UK as an island nation has memorable beaches. And although the weather may not always be suited to basking in the sun, beaches still provide a beautiful opportunity to enjoy the sea. Formby Beach is a sandy haven, bounded by dunes, and with many typical seaside attractions.
One less typical seaside attraction here is the presence of one of the UK’s few remaining red squirrel colonies. Here you can find the beautiful bristly eared redheads of the squirrel world happily living their best seaside lives.
Crosby Beach and Antony Gormley’s Statues
If you like your beach with something a little out of the ordinary, then a trip to Crosby Beach should be on your list. A few minutes on the train from Liverpool Central Station will see you at Hallsteads Road. Walk past the lifeboat station and you’ll find Crosby Beach, lined with the houses of sea captains, who, it must be said, chose the best positions for their homes.
On the sands now one hundred iron men look out to sea. Cast life size from the body of the sculptor Antony Gormley, they are placed across the sand. Some are mostly submerged. Others are barely touched by the tides. Those that meet the water have evidence of their maritime lives: barnacles, seaweed between their toes, watermarks on their frames. They are a stark and beautiful sight, and worth visiting in sun and tempest alike.
Back in 1888, Lever Brothers (now Unilever) decided to build accommodation for the staff in their soap factory on the Wirral. Named after the most popular brand of cleaner, Port Sunlight was constructed (much like Bournville Village for Cadburys in Birmingham) to ensure the welfare of the workers.
The model village has 800 houses designed to accommodate a population of 3,500. It had allotments and public buildings such as the Lady Lever Art Gallery, an open-air pool, schools, a conference hall and a temperence hotel. Each block of houses was designed by a different architect, and the backs of the houses are hidden. You’ve got half-timbered houses, carved woodwork and masonry and even the use of Flemish brickwork. Port Sunlight is a glimpse into what life would have been like living in a community where factory workers could enjoy good quality homes, a beautiful living space and all kinds of facilities.
Recommendations for your Trip to Liverpool
Don’t forget that Liverpool’s a port city. That means that weather conditions can change quickly, and there’s the chance of sea fog. Keeping an open mind on the things you want to do and being flexible when you do them is key. On our last weekender, we had brilliant sunshine on the first day and dense fog on the second, meaning that we couldn’t even catch a glimpse of the Radio City Tower.
Liverpool itself is easily walkable. From Lime Street Station to Royal Albert Dock is a pleasant stroll, even with your bags. And it’s easy to cross the city on local train services, whether you’re picking up a train at the airport into the city centre, or venturing out to Crosby Beach.
Love music? Liverpool has plenty for you. If you are someone who will travel for music, why not check out our guide to the best UK music destinations. We’ve also got you covered for music in Memphis and music city: Nashville.
If you love Liverpool, you might also like Birmingham, the UK’s second city, which is full of heritage. Or why not check out our options for a 10 day itinerary for the UK, which squeeze lots of choices into your available time. And if you’ve already seen a lot of the UK, I’ve got some ideas for England’s secret places, where you can explore some of the lesser known destinations.
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