Liverpool was a European Capital of Culture in 2008, a prestigious accolade that celebrates arts, history and people of a city. The only other Capital of Culture from the UK was Glasgow in 1990, and as long as we’re out of the EU, that fact will stand! So what was it that convinced the panel that Liverpool was so deserving? Here, we’ll go through some of the highlights of Liverpool culture.
A little history
Today, Liverpool is home to half a million people, but unlike many UK cities, it hasn’t been a gradual growth over thousands of years. It was a small coastal town in the mid-1600s, with a population of just 500 (London’s was 400,000 at the time). It was the growth of the British Empire that made Liverpool explode as a port city over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. It brought mass migration from all over the British Isles and beyond –that’s why Liverpool is home to the UK’s oldest Chinatown, which sprang to life in the 1890s.
The city was heavily bombed during WW2, and the decline of the ports led to a low couple of decades, especially the 1980s. But it wasn’t to last. The docklands were redeveloped into retail and leisure areas and Liverpool found its feet again, and now, with the whole city centre being remodelled, it’s a thriving place, full of music, great food, dancing, art and laughter.
We’ve got to get this one out of the way – you might have heard of a little band that came from Liverpool in the 1960s and changed music forever. The Beatles left their mark on the city and brought pride to an embattled population rebuilding their city after the war. A visit to The Beatles Story is therefore a must, as well as a trip on the Magical Mystery Tour and a night out at the Cavern Club. In 1996, Paul McCartney opened the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, his gift to the city and a channel for actors, musicians, filmmakers, dancers and creative technicians to hone their crafts.
Liverpool music didn’t start and stop with the Fab Four, though. The city continued to produce great acts: Gerry and the Pacemakers; OMD; Echo and The Bunnymen; Frankie Goes to Hollywood; The Christians; The La’s; Cast; The Coral; The Wombats; Camelphat; The Boo Radleys and many more. They all hail from the city. Look up Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool events of the Liverpool Gig Guide to find upcoming and established acts to entertain you.
What is Liverpool culture if not football? Liverpool FC and Everton FC make up one of the great sporting rivalries in world football. Since the 1960s, Liverpool has been the dominant force in terms of domestic and European trophies, although Everton had high points in the mid-1980s and 1960s. On match days the city is a sea of red or blue, with bars, buses and, of course, stadiums packed to capacity. How about a tour of Anfield or Goodison? The city’s sense of humour is exemplified by the clubs’ merchandise stores. Both are in the Liverpool One development, and Everton’s store is called Everton Two, so imagine what the shop’s address is …
Liverpool is also home to the Grand National at Aintree, probably the world’s most famous horse race. And it has produced dozens of top sportspeople: Tony Bellew; Robin Reid; Katarina Johnson-Thompson; John Parrott; Jamie Carragher; and Steven Gerrard to name but a few.
Liverpool’s iconic waterfront did win its UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2004, thanks to its Three Graces (Royal Liver Building, The Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building). But as with all sea-facing cities, a scarcity of space meant new development encroached upon the front, and it was stripped of its title in 2021. It’s a pity, but the city decided it wasn’t a living museum, and in most people’s opinion, the developments were not only necessary but were carried out sensitively. Now, there’s a new museum, exhibition centre, arena and cruise terminal on the Mersey, and Everton’s new stadium is being built there. It has all been as important to the city’s renaissance as the Albert Dock development in the 1980s and is always popular with shoppers, tourists and skateboarders.
Up in the city itself, there are still architectural treasures, from St John’s Beacon and St George’s Hall to The Bluecoat and two cathedrals to admire. If you’re a fan of Georgian architecture, there are rows and rows of the most beautiful housing, too.
Museums and galleries
Any city of culture cherishes the past, and Liverpool is swimming in history. You could easily spend a week touring its incredible museum and galleries, such as the Museum of Liverpool, World Museum, Maritime Museum, Walker Art Gallery, Sudley House, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Tate Liverpool (venue for the 2022 Turner Prize), FACT and the U-boat story over the river.
Behind all the grandeur of Liverpool’s front, columned public buildings and comfortable housing is a less comfortable truth – much of the city’s wealth came from its part in the slave trade. The International Slavery Museum is a solemn reminder of the horrors of those times and is a moving tribute to the countless people who were victims of the trade. But don’t avoid it – it’s powerful and empowering too. It puts human faces to the numbers, and can even leave you with a sense of hope.
Where do we start to describe what’s going on in this buzzing city? You’ve got Liverpool Empire Theatre events that take in comedy, musicals and the whole host of acts, and the countless exhibitions and events going on at the galleries and museums. Wander the streets in the evening, especially at the weekend, and you’ll be able to savour the music, the tastes, the cocktails and the raucous laughter of a typical night out in Liverpool’s bars, clubs and restaurants. Liverpudlians love to get dressed up to go out too, so make sure you’ve paid a visit to Liverpool One and many boutique fashion stores to get kitted out. Your best bet is to have a look at the official Visit Liverpool what’s on guide to planning your entertainment. And don’t forget our 12 family days out guide for more evergreen inspiration.
Getting to Liverpool
Avanti West Coast trains can get you to the heart of Liverpool from London, Glasgow, Holyhead, Birmingham and all over Great Britain. Have a look at our dedicated Liverpool trains page to plan your visit.