Art & Culture

Why Manchester is definitely the UK’s second city

Birmingham has generally been regarded as the UK's second city for most of the 20th and 21st century. Now, it's Manchester's turn.

Georgina Pellant Georgina Pellant - 10th June 2021

Let’s be clear. The ‘second city’ is an informal title and the choice is clearly a subjective one. So, obviously, the victor has to be Manchester.

Over the years, people have struggled to make up their minds as to which area is the UK’s biggest (culturally speaking) besides London. In the early 19th century, it was Dublin, then later Glasgow and Liverpool battled it out for the honour, both being major industrial cities at the time.

But today, we think most would agree that the competition sits firmly between Manchester and Birmingham. I mean, Birmingham really seems to think they are definitely the UK’s second city.

In 2015, research conducted by YouGov proved more people think of Manchester as the second city more than any other after we beat Birmingham to the top spot with 30% of the vote. But how does the land lie now?

B’ham has a strong claim – given the city-region is the second-largest in England, particularly in terms of its urban economy. Manchester is only the fifth largest by population.


Progress in Manchester, however, has put the city in the spotlight in recent years and now it seems primed to take the crown, after being ranked as the second city in numerous polls since the 2000’s.

St. Peter’s Square in full spring bloom / Image: Adam Pester

When you ask people why, it really seems to come down to culture.


Perhaps this is unsurprising, given the famous cultural exports of Manchester ranging from the suffragette movement to the Hacienda and the world’s first professional football league.

The city is also home to the longest-running soap opera in the world and has spawned a staggering 25 Nobel prize winners to date, as well as famous authors like Elizabeth Gaskell and Anthony Burgess.

According to the Trinity Mirror Data Unit, Manchester ranks ninth out of 50 cities for culture, with more music venues per 100,000 people than anywhere else in the country. It is also second for most libraries and cinemas.


Birmingham, on the other hand, ranks 47th. Still, it beats us on Michelin stars with four more than Manchester (if you count Where The Light Gets In’s green award).

A birds eye view over the city of Manchester / Image: Adam Pester

The Midlands has also made some cultural strides in recent years with big club nights like Bigger than Barry and Moho, alongside arthouse venues like Yard and Ikon gallery.

It’s also started to get more food and drink independents popping up, as the dining culture moves away from big chains to a more local focus. Credit where credit is due.

Culture aside, there are other important factors to take into account such as universities, which are the lifeblood of many UK cities.

The University of Manchester currently ranks sixth in the country, whilst Birmingham sits at 87th. No competition to speak of there, then.


And what about sport? Well, in 2020 Manchester ranked the 8th best sports city in the world by BCW Sport. It also successfully hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2002, whilst Birmingham failed in its bid to host the 1992 Olympics.

However, Birmingham does host the international athletics meetings and will be the centre of the Commonwealth Games in 2022.

It also goes without saying that Manchester has two of the best football teams in the country, no matter if you’re red or blue. Yes, for a time Aston Villa were the best in England – winning their first division title five times before United or City – but since then Manchester has far out-stripped the Midlands teams in terms of titles.

Overall, it seems clear Manchester is the victor.

Even Birmingham’s own residents seem to agree, according to a study conducted in 2017 which discovered a massive 38 percent view the birthplace of Oasis, Corrie and The Stone Roses as the true second city. This figure increased to 44 percent when only 18 to 24-year-olds were asked.


Even though Birmingham might be the most populous city outside of London and a bigger contributor to national GDP, most people believe Manchester is worthy of the second city title. After all, size isn’t the only thing that’s important.

Feature image / Adam Pester.