Do you travel for music? That’s always been something very important when I’ve considered places to visit, and many of my trips have been planned to enjoy the music of a particular location. Some cities have music that is woven into their culture. Try to imagine Memphis without the blues or soul, Nashville without country or Liverpool without Merseybeat and Manchester without Madchester. Here you’ll find destinations in the United Kingdom famous for all kinds of music. Whatever your choice of aural pleasures, you should find something here to inspire you. So if music makes you happy, get ready to assemble your playlists. We’re going in with 7 cool bucket list UK destinations for music lovers.
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Music Destinations in the United Kingdom
Nearly 31 million people attended gigs and festivals in the UK in 2016. With around one million of those arriving from overseas specifically to watch live music, you can see how many people are attracted to the UK’s music scene. That number has increased by three quarters since 2011, and there are indications that more and more people will travel to the UK for music. So where would you like to go?
London: All The Music Experiences You Could Want, and then Some
If you’re heading to London for music, then you’re in for a series of spectacular treats. There are way more venues to explore than you could possibly enjoy in a single trip, so I’m focusing in on some of the best and most unusual music experiences in the capital. Here are my musical snapshots of London.
Union Chapel, Islington
One of the most amazing spaces in which to hear live music has to be Union Chapel in Islington. Still a working church, with a project supporting those homeless or in crisis and a unique organ, this is a venue like no other. This Victorian Gothic edifice welcomes visitors, and Open Wednesdays offer lunches from £5 with free tea and coffee. There are pay what you can daylight gigs regularly throughout the year on Saturdays. We like a gig that also offers homemade cake. But more seriously, we also like the choice of a good gig doing good.
The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm
Sometimes you want to visit a place as much for its past as its present. The Roundhouse is the stuff of legend in London’s music history. Converted from a railway shed, the Roundhouse started with a Pink Floyd gig in 1966, swiftly followed by The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. The 1970s saw hippies, glam rock and punk take to the stage. If you were there in 1976, you could have seen the Ramones perform the “hottest sleaziest garage ever” according to NME. Faced by financial difficulties, the Roundhouse closed in 1983 until its renaissance as a creative venue in the 1990s. There may have been a few illegal raves and film shoots in between. Today the Roundhouse is the bearer of these brilliant memories and a space for young creatives. You can see acts from the Pixies to Ladytron within these historic walls.
Ain’t Nothin But, Soho
For what’s been described as the best blues this side of the Atlantic, you can’t go wrong with the bar Ain’t Nothin But. Situated on Kingly Street in Soho, not far from Liberty’s, this is one of London’s great venues. You’ll find live music seven days a week. Aside from Friday and Saturday nights when there’s a charge, admission is free. There are two sets a night – acoustic at 6.30 and electric at 8.30. The crowd is friendly and attentive during the sets. This place is understandably popular, so head here early if you want to get a seat or even a place to stand in this long narrow room.
Royal Albert Hall, South Kensington
This Grade I listed building is a spectacle in its own right from its glorious dome to the confectionery box of seating inside. The stars around the outside of the building commemorate significant players in the Royal Albert Hall‘s history. Don’t think that this is a building stuck in the past though. Whether you’re looking for storytelling and music sessions for toddlers, dance championships, jazz, a performance of the greatest hits of the classical repertoire or even tributes to classic albums, you’ll find them somewhere in the programme. Plus of course, The Proms, with the last night focused on the Promenaders and some fine traditional favourites.
Cecil Sharp House, Primrose Hill
This, the heartbeat of folk in London, is focused on the preservation of folk dance. Here you’ll find barn dances, ceilidhs, traditional instruments and the occasional random unexpected act like Goldfrapp. Cecil Sharp House brings you tango, Morris dancing, modern folk gigs, album launches, family dance and traditional song.
Liverpool: Merseybeat and More
Meet The Beatles
Famous for more than just Merseybeat and four mop tops who changed the face of pop, Liverpool is a UNESCO City of Music. If you’re here for the Beatles, then you’ll find The Beatles Story at Albert Dock. Don’t forget the Cavern Club, scene of their first performance in February 1961, and Lennon and McCartney’s childhood homes at Mendips and 20 Forthlin Road. The wonderfully named International Beatleweek Festival takes place in August. This year’s Beatleweek hosted bands from 20 countries and fans from more than 40.
Liverpool for Festivals
Liverpool’s a festival city. Here you’ll find Africa Oye, the biggest free live gig for African and Caribbean music and culture in the UK. It’s held annually in June in Sefton Park and over its 24 years of operation has attracted acts from Brazil, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Cuba and beyond. There’s also the Liverpool International Music Festival (July) and Sound City (May) at the Baltic Triangle. Check out the acts listed for the Echo Arena on the waterfront too.
Classical With The Liverpool Philharmonic
Classical’s not neglected in Liverpool, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at its home in the Philharmonic Hall, full of art deco splendor. Ask a cabbie for the Philharmonic, as we once did, and you could be asked orchestra or pub. The latter’s also worth a visit for its magnificent decor and room filled with mermaids and mermen eyeing each other across the ceiling.
Liverpool’s Smaller Music Venues
If your heart’s made happy by smaller gigs, we suggest you check out the Caledonian – aka The Cali – on Caledonia Street. The pub is vegan (serving a great selection of what it calls Vegan Junk Food). Monthly residents Bayou Noir bring Cajun two-steps, while house band Loose Moose have you covered for bluegrass. You’ll also find rockabilly and jazz here, with live music most nights. Then there’s Studio 2 and The Attic at Parr Street Studios, the former with weekly acoustic and jazz nights, and the latter playing soul, funk and indie. Finally there’s the Shipping Forecast in the Ropewalks with live gigs and club nights in the Hold and food and music over the other two floors.
Manchester: 24 Hour Party People?
Music In Manchester
If you’ve ever seen the film 24 Hour Party People, based on the Hacienda’s heyday, you’ll have some idea of the impact of Manchester on the UK and world music scene, making it one of the key UK destinations for music lovers. Now sadly demolished for apartments, the spirit of the Hacienda club nights still casts a spell over many of our listening pleasures.
We could play whatever we wanted to play. It was Manchester’s first scally night. It encompassed all the scenes, so there were almost indie-type scenes, Perry boys, Motown, Northern Soul. It was a really good night, but it was really Mancunian. I think that had a lot to do with it.” Mike Pickering
Above you’ll see the humble home of Factory Records, where much of the sound of Manchester emerged via Joy Division, New Order, A Certain Ratio and the Happy Mondays.
Manchester Venues To Visit
The biggest venue in town is the Manchester Arena, seating over 20,000, and the largest venue of its kind in Europe. Open air gigs also take place at Old Trafford cricket ground and the Etihad Stadium. You also have the Apollo, the Arena, and the Academy for other larger gigs.
Rising from the faded hopes of Brannigans nightclub, the Albert Hall, once a listed Wesleyan Chapel where Sir Winston Churchill gave a speech, is one of the city’s great venues. Now hosting acts from Goldfrapp to Mogwai, on a stage that was once the speaker’s platform, this is a wow of a space. You’ve got stained glass surrounding you, plus two floors to explore.
Band On The Wall in the Northern Quarter has been updated especially for live music, so it’s not surprising that it has one of the best reputations for shows and club nights. You’ll find a huge wooden dancefloor and some small balconies scattered around. Live music here is world and experimental, and this is regarded as one of the best jazz venues in the UK. There are plans to expand into the Cocozza Building next door, so keep an eye on the website for developments.
Also in the Northern Quarter, the former chippy Night & Day has alternative rock and local bands at value for money prices. You’ll find club nights aplenty and a cafe offering well-priced food. Nearby Soup Kitchen offers everything from its canteen to live music, comedy, club nights and art exhibitions, making it a perfect space for people who like to keep their options open.
Birmingham: From Led Zeppelin to UB40
Let’s talk Classical In Birmingham
Rebuilding of the city centre in the late 1980s delivered Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. Described as the venue with the best acoustics in the UK, it has a rubber floor support to address the noise of trains rumbling below to New Street Station. It also has a special ceiling which drops or rises to accommodate the varying acoustic needs of the performance beneath. Symphony Hall is home to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. You can also hear jazz, world, folk, spoken word, dance, comedy and plenty more here and at Birmingham Town Hall. Watch out too for free recitals at lunchtimes. And if you’re in the city at Christmas for Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market, there’s nothing better than to add to the festive spirit with a big singalong Christmas concert at the Town Hall.
Birmingham’s Moseley Folk Festival
Moseley Folk Festival – really more multi-genre than folk alone – takes place in a park setting in the suburb of Moseley, two miles from the city centre. Scheduled for the late August Bank Holiday over two days, it’s billed as a celebration of folk, world and roots. Acts appearing in 2018 included The Levellers, Teenage Fanclub, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, Nick Mulvey and Show Of Hands. There’s no camping in Moseley Park, but you’ll find Birmingham full of accommodation choices for all budgets.
Headlining Birmingham Venues
For headliner acts on tour, you’ll find yourself in the crowd of 15.000 at the Genting Arena. A similar sized venue, Arena Birmingham is also a way to catch the big names. The O2 Academy is smaller, with a capacity of around 3,000. You’ll catch acts on the up at The Institute in Digbeth. The Glee Club‘s not just about comedy; you can hear soloists and smaller acts there too.
Smaller Birmingham Venues
Keep your eye on The Flapper canalside just off Broad Street. It’s been granted a year’s reprieve for its music licence. You could also try the Sunflower Lounge; don’t be fooled by the tiny frontage, there’s space for 120 inside to see acts on the up.
In King’s Heath, you’ll find the Hare and Hounds, reliably hosting gigs for many decades through a programme of live music and party nights, UB40 played their first gig here in 1979, and over the years, the venue has seen lots of action by acts known and awaiting discovery. We love its chilled vibe and heritage setting. Also in Kings Heath, you’ll find the Kitchen Garden Cafe. By day it’s a deli cafe, but from Sunday to Thursday it’s also home to an ecclectic range of gigs covering folk, roots and Americana.
Delivering a mixture of jazz, soul and the occasionally unexpected addition, the Jam House is from the Jools Holland stable; his Rhythm ‘n’ Blues Orchestra have played here. Other acts from the live roster have included The Stylistics, Buddy Grecco and Steve Gibbons. Here you’ll find sophistication, champagne, and a restaurant to accompany your live show. Nearby you’ll find the Actress and Bishop, with a selection from tribute bands, rock and indie, plus great jams on a Sunday afternoon.
Described as “quite possibly the best small venue in the world” by NME, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut is the stuff of legend. Embracing a mere 300 lucky punters, Tut’s is a showcase for new and emerging bands. You’ve probably heard the tale that Oasis were signed here by Alan McGee, and if you head for the men’s toilets you’ll find a new understanding of the term Wonderwall. Everyone from The Breeders to La Roux and Mumford & Sons to Pulp has played here. Be prepared for it to be cramped, sweaty (I’ll swear the ceiling once rained on me) and mighty loud, and enjoy every second.
Other Fine Glasgow Venues
There’s something about Glasgow and venue names, so the brilliantly titled Nice N Sleazy should be on your list. This place has hosted some great acts, and you can find a reliably good time there with an incredibly diverse range of gigs, clubs and cabaret. There’s a Japanese kitchen on site too.
I may be a Belgophile, but even if I weren’t, I’d have to add Brel to the list of Glasgow stops. Belgian beers (including the lovely Orval), a selection of Scottish gins and plenty of moules will give you some sustenance for jazz, folk or whatever else might be in store.
Down in Sub Club, anything goes as long as it’s different. Since 1987, this tiny basement has been encountering everything subcultural, whether it’s decks or guitars. Check out the long-serving house night residency, and Return to Mono for house and techno.
Bristol: Trip hop Capital Of The UK
Bristol’s Thekla And Banksy
Only in Bristol could you find a venue that doesn’t pulse with the beat, but bobs gently instead. Thekla, one of the few venues to be set on a ship, hosts club nights and live shows. Thekla was brought to the Mud Dock in 1982 as a floating theatre and art gallery, becoming a club in the 1990s. Massive Attack played there early on, and Thekla was also part of the drum n bass scene. Now Thekla’s mainly used for indie and dance.
You can also get your art on the Thekla. The legendary Banksy piece is currently being assessed for conservation and is stored at a local museum. More street art is being added to the hull, with the first piece by Inkie completed in 2014.
Music Venues In Bristol
Bristol’s grown Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky and Roni Size, giving you some idea of the vibe of the music scene. The biggest venue in the city, the Colston Hall, is currently undergoing a major redevelopment programme. You’ll still find plenty going on while that redevelopment is underway.
If you’ve a love for folk, roots and acoustic, then Bristol Folk House is your venue of choice. You’ll find everything here from specialist festivals covering genres like Cajun music and international artists and dance events. The Crofters Rights has Neopolitan pizza in the front room and gigs ranging from punk to experimental noise out the back. Over at The Louisiana, 160 people can enjoy a very special place. On its opening week, when the stage wasn’t even built, Placebo and Super Furry Animals headlined after a fire at another Bristol venue sent them searching for a place to play. The Louisiana prides itself on being the first port of call for new bands.
Bristol’s Music Festivals
Bristol Harbour Festival takes place in July and is a free event including music, dance, and events on the water. Music at the Festival includes everything from sea shanties to funk, jazz, hip hop and indie. The Dot to Dot Festival includes indie, rock, dance and pop with a mixture of new and established acts.
Glastonbury Festival: A Unique Experience
Glastonbury itself is a small Somerset town, notable for its Tor and a somewhat mystical collection of shops. But every two years (odd years), the Glastonbury Festival rolls in to Worthy Farm near Pilton, bringing with it a whole carnival of acts, stalls, artworks and visitors. Glastonbury tickets are legendarily difficult to acquire; in fact, 2019 weekender tickets go on sale in October 2018. But it’s worth the hassle and the unsuccessful efforts in some years, because it’s an experience unparalleled in the festival calendar.
Starting out in 1970, when even I was too young for the full festival experience, Glastonbury has evolved from the first weekender, when 1500 people obtained tickets for £1 by post and there was free milk to be had from the farm. Forward to 1982 and it was a classically muddy show. 25,000 people donned their wellies to catch Van Morrison, while the first laser show took place to Tubeway Army’s Are Friends Electric? By 1992, donations from the Festival had moved from CND to Greenpeace and Oxfam. Ten years later, festival attendance had grown to 140,000 and the sun shone merrily throughout giving you the chance to try everything without your wellies including ballroom dancing. As you can see from the summary above, 2017 was also a sunny one, with the Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Ed Sheeran and even Jeremy Corbyn headlining.
UK Destinations For Music Lovers
Have you packed yet? And if not, why not? The UK is full of so much more music to enjoy than we’ve been able to include here. Even smaller towns have their own festivals – like the recent Solihull Summer Fest – and there is never a time when you won’t find plenty of live music. Not sure where to start? Check out our suggested UK travel itineraries and I guarantee you’ll find music wherever you go, whether it’s a local pub in Cornwall or big city stops like Birmingham.
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