Visiting the new Liverpool

Liverpool has changed.

I attended the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (the Paul McCartney “fame” school) for three full years and thought I knew the place, but in the six years since my last visit, a series of events — particularly its run as European Capital of Culture in 2008 — has led to impressive developments of the “and New York still hasn’t finished Ground Zero?” variety.

Firstly, everyone knows the Roman Catholic Cathedral, affectionately known as “Paddy’s Wigwam,” looks like a spaceship (or perhaps a wigwam). Now, it’s as though a newer, more modern spaceship has landed in the town center. The new spaceship is Liverpool One, an epic open-air shopping complex with over 160 shops you didn’t know Liverpudlians wanted or needed, as well as clubs, restaurants, a Novotel and a Hilton (on the left above) on the terrace and an enormous parking structure underneath it. The Grosvenor-backed project has brought a good deal of tourism to Liverpool, helping it to become the UK’s second most popular destination (after London); women come in packs for shopping trips and to go clubbing at the uber-fab bars.

%Gallery-86734%My only major issue with Liverpool One is that it seems to have been designed with style and not simplicity in mind. It’s pretty difficult to navigate. I couldn’t even find Bold Street, a street for which I once had a professional-grade radar, without assistance. When I did find Bold Street, many shops had closed or moved — this was the case with nearby Clayton Square, as well, and was a trend all around the outskirts of Liverpool One. Such is progress, though, and I can’t find much pity in my heart as most of the stores were national or international chains.

Albert Dock (above) is the same. The beautiful home of the Tate Liverpool and several nightclubs, some new, some not, is relatively unchanged and still carries its distinct old-world charm. The parking lot still has Humped Zebra Crossing signs, much to my delight (see gallery). The surrounding area, however, is majorly built up — you may have heard about the Echo Arena or the new Museum of Liverpool (opening in 2011), both of which are impressive achievements. There’s also new an extension of The Beatles Story (which is still in place), featuring a “Fab 4-D” experience; it’s one of those “rides” where you sit in a small movie theater in a chair that moves — you also get sprayed with water, and guess what scent they pump in during “Strawberry Fields Forverer”?

Dining and nightlife, if you ask me, have significantly improved. I had the good fortune of stopping into San Carlo, which is just three months old, on my first night by chance, where I had a truly immaculate appetizer (pictured below, Insalata Adriatica £7.25) in a terrifically classy and friendly ambience. I visited several of the new night clubs to take some photos and try some cocktails, and while none stood out as being the best, they were appropriately varied and well-attended; definitely serving the cosmopolitan locals as well as the tourists.

On the lighter and cheaper side, vegan best-kept-secret The Egg Cafe is still in place, and walking in the door still makes you nervous you’re about to break and enter into somebody’s house. Seriously, you climb like five or six flights of stairs and then there’s just a big purple door. If you didn’t know about it, you’d never find it — but now that you know, please go. The food is incredibly fresh, incredibly cheap, and it serves as a haven for artists and musicians with an array of long tables which encourage conversations with strangers. I’ve always loved it.

Despite the changes, Liverpool still has its charm. It feels a bit more London-like, but that northern, brass-tacks edge is untameable. The hard drinking, crass joking, bottle-blondes-in-tracksuits culture is still there — but it’s not the rule, and there’s something more relaxed about it. It’s like the blue collar city’s cosmopolitan dreams came true, and they’re are flaunting their hard-won identity. It’s a strange one, but that’s why we travel, right?

This trip was paid for by VisitBritain and VisitLiverpool, but the ideas and opinions expressed in the article above are 100% my own.