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Best Free Things to Do With Kids in Manchester

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Greater Manchester is the second largest urban area in the UK, after London, and Manchester alone is one of the ten largest cities in England. Its long and proud industrial past is reflected in the buildings and environment.

Due to its geographical location in the relatively wet northwest of England, and the many parks that were often established or donated by philanthropists, it’s a very green city. Manchester has also been described as one of the ten friendliest world cities, so don’t be too surprised if people strike up a conversation with you for no apparent reason…

Table of Contents

Science and Industry Museum

Science and Industry Museum

What it is: Manchester has a strong reputation for science and industry – you can see it in the courses on offer from the city’s two universities and numerous further education colleges. This museum is a very popular destination, so it’s a good idea to book tickets in advance if you can. One of the main buildings is in an 1830s warehouse and the location is delightfully spacious. 

Why we liked it: The museum is packed with exhibits and displays that are gloriously interactive, and there are special events throughout the year, including during school holidays. This might involve designing your own fabric – it’s not for nothing that the city was known as Cottonopolis in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. You might also want to check out the sessions with the object-handling volunteers on Saturdays and Tuesdays, or just recreate Manchester’s landscape using foam blocks. If you’d like to know what to expect there’s a nice little video on YouTube which is about one and a half minutes.

More information about the Science and Industry Museum

Address: Liverpool Road, Manchester M3 4FP

Opening hours: 10am to 5pm daily, closed from 24th to 26th of December and New Years Day. 

Greater Police Museum and Archives Manchester

Greater Police Museum and Archives Manchester 

What it is: Find out more about the history of the local police force. Take a journey through time to see how different police vehicles used to look – spotted the 3.8 Jaguar from the 1960s yet? You can also see a Cosworth and a Ford Capri, and find out what police stations looked like in the past – you could literally have been living next door to one.

Learn about how and when women were first employed in the police, all the way through to the appointment of the first female assistant Chief Constable in 2007. 

Why we liked it: Although it’s a small museum, it’s specialised and unique, and there are open days on Tuesdays when you don’t need to book ahead. To visit on a different day, contact the museum directly, bearing in mind that they do get booked up very quickly. One of our favourite sections was the exhibition about how important women police officers had been in World War One and their role in helping to welcome refugees to the country and keep them as safe as possible – it really made us realise how relevant the history was to everything that’s still happening today. You’re advised to allow at least an hour for your visit.

More information about the Greater Police Museum and Archives Manchester 

Address: 57a Newton Street Manchester M1 1ET
Opening hours: Museum, Tuesdays 10.30am to 4pm (open days); last admission at 3pm. Archives only by appointment Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays (in term-time) and on Fridays.

Donkey Sanctuary

Donkey Sanctuary

What it is: You might think of donkeys as roaming green fields or sandy beaches around the UK, but this donkey sanctuary is in Greater Manchester and open to the public at weekends. Donkeys are known for their gentle and hardworking natures.

The Sanctuary, one of those started by Dr. Elizabeth Fencing in 1969, helps to raise awareness of their work around the world. The sanctuary has links to sister sites in other parts of the country, including Devon

Why we liked it: You do need to book, but we really liked the fact this meant that the relatively low numbers of visitors allowed us to get to know the resident donkeys a little better – you can see what they’re up to via the webcams. We loved seeing what Tiny Tim had been up to – especially since he’s anything but tiny.

He’s also been described as a bit of a Houdini as he’s mastered the art of kicking off his rug at night without even undoing the straps! Henry was another great character, even if he is getting on a bit and not with the best eyesight in the world. We loved hearing about the bond between him and the warden.

More information about the Donkey Sanctuary

Address: Donkey sanctuary green fold Abbey Hey Manchester M18 8RJ
Opening hours: Saturdays and the first Sunday of every month, 10am to 12 noon and 1pm to 3pm. 

Imperial War Museum North

Imperial War Museum North

What it is: Part of a national group of sites devoted to the history of war, this is where you can find out how just over a century of war has affected our world. It’s purpose-built and there’s always plenty going on. You can just walk in, but at busy times of year you might want to book your free tickets in advance. The exhibitions in this museum aren’t just about the conflicts, they also look at how people who’ve been caught up in war recover, as far as possible, once the wars are over. 

Why we liked it: You can walk through a timeline of history from World War One to the present day; there are more than 2000 objects in this timeline. Objects that really made us think included the First World War field gun which is the actual device that fired the first British round on the Western Front.

There is also some debris from the World Trade Center in New York which was hit by a plane on September 11th, 2001. And although the Big Picture Show was a little bit overwhelming, the experience in a 360 degrees panoramic display was also very moving. Our overall favourite exhibit was the colour photographs from World War Two – we take colour images for granted, but at the time colour film was very expensive.

More information about the Imperial War Museum North
Address: The Quays, Trafford Wharf Road, Manchester, M17 1TZ

Opening hours: 10am to 5pm every day. 

Bee Spotting

Bee Spotting

What it is: If you’re worrying about getting stung, don’t worry – this isn’t about those kinds of bees. The bee has been the symbol of Manchester for some time now – this is a city that’s been known for its hard work, determination, and industriousness for a long time, and everywhere you look you’ll see the symbol in statues, on railings, even on the pavements. 

Why we liked it: You can pretty much choose anywhere in Central Manchester and make a game of this – we kept everyone on their toes by asking them to find the highest number of bees in a five-minute time slot, or the biggest bee, or the one that let you take the best selfie.  Back in 2020 there was an official trail, and you can download an app or

More information about the Bee Spotting

Address: All around central Manchester. We teamed up to choose particular areas of the city and compared how many of our stripy friends we could find. We suggest trying around the Town Hall, King Street, Deansgate (these ones might not be obvious at first), and Manchester Cathedral for starters.
Opening hours: 24/7

Heaton Park

Heaton Park

What it is: Manchester is a surprisingly green city, given its industrial past, and Heaton Park regularly scores highly for usability and attractiveness. It’s owned by the council, and covers over 600 acres, with plenty of space to run around, let off steam, play family-friendly games, and generally enjoy exceptionally pleasant surroundings.

The boating lake is great for people watching, and there’s also an animal centre and Highland cattle in the park itself. 

Why we liked it: Apart from the green space, we really liked the view of the Manchester skyline you can get from this park and the fact that the gardens are well kept. It’s the biggest free park in the northwest, and the animals in the park include the usual suspects – chickens, geese, and ducks – as well as some more unusual friends from the Animal Kingdom.

It isn’t every day you see an alpaca, a peacock, and a tortoise outdoors in Manchester…. Plus we enjoyed the Lakeside Adventure Playground – slides, swings, balancing logs, and accessible play equipment as well as areas aimed especially at younger children.

More information about the Heaton Park
Address: Heaton Park, Middleton Road, Higher Blackley, M25 2SW

Opening hours: 8am to dusk every day 

Pankhurst Trust Museum

Pankhurst Trust Museum

What it is: Manchester has so many great museums that it can sometimes be difficult to choose. This house, which is now home to the Headquarters for Manchester Women’s Aid, was once the home of Emmeline Pankhurst. As one of the suffragette protesters in the early Twentieth Century, she was a pivotal figure in getting the vote for women – even though it was only very wealthy women in the first instance.

It’s in the grounds of what is now the Manchester Royal Infirmary – you do need to know there’s no parking on the site but there is a multi-storey next door, as well as a bike rack on the site, and the buses that go along Oxford Road can drop you off nearby. 

Why we liked it: We liked it as it made a very important non-Royal figure seem very accessible. We got a real insight into what her everyday domestic life was like, and it was great to stand in the parlour and think about the history that happened there. (This was where the first meeting of the movement that later became known as the suffragettes took place.

It’s small and cosy, and you do need to make sure you have a pre-booked ticket, there are only 10 tickets available for each time slot. Depending on the time of year when you visit, there might be costumes to try on, creative summer schools, or garden trails.

More information about the Pankhurst Trust Museum

Address: Pankhurst Centre, 62 Nelson Street, Manchester M13 9WP

Opening hours: Sundays 11am to 4pm; also some Thursdays. 

John Rylands Library

John Rylands Library

Why we liked it: It’s a stunningly beautiful building, sometimes described as a cathedral for books, with a kind of Harry Potter atmosphere inside and out. Staff were warm and welcoming and so helpful, although there are times when visitor numbers might need to be restricted.

More information about the John Rylands Library
Address: John Rylands Research Institute and Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH
Opening hours: 10am to 5pm Wednesday to Saturday

The Great Northern Giant Summer Sandpit

The Great Northern Giant Summer Sandpit

What it is: This installation only makes an appearance in the summer so you do need to double-check the dates and locations. It offers all the fun of the seaside – in the middle of Manchester. In 2022 there were 50 tonnes of sand to play in or wriggle your toes about – that’s when you’re not building sandcastles or indulging in other sand-based fun. 

Why we liked it: Everybody loves a day at the seaside, or in this case, in the sandpit – it’s definitely a sign that summer has arrived. And the fact the sandpit is only there in summer makes it a little bit more magical. So grab your shades and shorts, kick off your sandals, and chill in the sand. There’s always plenty going on throughout the year at Great Northern, with focus on creativity, and the amphitheatre in the middle focus on outdoor events. 

More information about The Great Northern Giant Summer Sandpit

Address: Great Northern, 235 Deansgate, Manchester, Greater Manchester, M3 4EN

Opening hours:  24 hours while in situ (check website for details)

City Centre Shuttle Buses

City Centre Shuttle Buses

What it is: As part of the Greater Manchester public transport offering, free shuttle buses travel around the city centre at different times of day. Bus number one runs from 7am to 7.15pm Monday to Friday and Saturdays 8.20am to 7.15pm, about every ten minutes or so; on Sundays and public holidays it’s a little bit less frequent and runs from 11am to 6pm, about every 12 minutes. 

Why we liked it: Manchester hasn’t generally been known for its warm and sunny climate, and this is a great way to get familiar with the layout of the city, especially when the weather isn’t fantastic. Depending on the route, you can travel to Deansgate, Lever Street, Dle Street, Church Street, Oxford Street (should this be road?) and Piccadilly.

More information about the City Centre Shuttle Buses

Opening hours: Operating times vary by service. Peak free bus 1: Every ten minutes 7am to 7.15pm Monday to Friday; every ten minutes 8.20am to 7.15pm Saturdays; every 12 minutes 1am to 6pm Sunday and public holidays (roadworks allowing). Free bus 2: every ten minutes 6.30am to 7.10pm; every twenty minutes 7.10pm to 11.30 pm Monday to Friday; every ten minutes 8.30am to 7.30pm and every 15 minutes 7.30pm to 11.30pm Saturdays; every twelve minutes 9.54am to 6.54pm Sundays and bank holidays. Free bus 3: every 20 minutes 7.25pm to 11.25pm Monday to Friday; every 15 minutes 7.28pm to 11.30pm Saturdays. 

Honourable Mentions


We’ve mentioned that Manchester is packed with museums, and for soccer fans, the Football Museum is definitely worth a visit – you really can’t spend much time in Manchester without picking up on just how important this national sport is to the city.  This museum is free to residents of Manchester City – you’ll need to check what other concessions are available if you’re from outside the city. You might also enjoy the People’s History Museum. If you’re happy to travel a little outside the city centre, you could also take a trip to Ordsall Hall and Salford Museum and Art Gallery – which incidentally has a claim to fame as the first “free public library” in the UK in 1850. 

For budding architects or book lovers in the family group, an alternative to the John Rylands Library is the Portico Library on Mosley Street (entrance on Charlotte Street). It often has special events and exhibitions – take a peek at its online jigsaws. If you’d like to step back in time, including raiding a dressing-up box or two, then Clayton Hall is another great place to spend the day. 

And if it’s green space that you’re looking for, every Manchester park has its own personality, from Chorlton Water Park to Wythenshawe. And then there are the frequent events that take place at Manchester Art Gallery, or the Whitworth Art Gallery on the University of Oxford campus, especially during school holidays. 

Written by
David Prior

David Prior is an NCTJ-qualified journalist and the editor of Big Family Breaks. He is also a father of five and an experienced traveller, especially with kids.

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