Visiting Liverpool (not to see the Beatles)

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Susan Gallagher

The River Mersey flows through the city of Liverpool, England. While the city is most famously known as the birthplace of the Beatles, it also has many other attractions, including a renovated waterfront, maritime museum and ferry cruises.
Photo © Silvan Bachmann

The last time I was in Liverpool, 40 years ago, the city was synonymous with the Beatles. But on a trip there last year, I decided to avoid the Fab Four commerce that has swelled since my last visit and helped the city shed some of its grittiness.

For me, no Magical Mystery Tour, no walk through the Beatles Story museum, nor ticketed entry to the boyhood homes of John and Paul.

With a week to look around, I wanted to take in personal touchstones, see new places, and maybe get a bowl of scouse — the meat stew that gives Liverpudlians their nickname: scousers. (The term is also used to describe their distinctive accent.)

I was born here in the city where the River Mersey meets the Irish Sea, though I grew up in the U.S. So I had rich memories of childhood visits to relatives.

But Liverpool also served as my base for the summer of 1975, when I toured Britain on a rail pass, on a final fling between finishing college in Oregon and looking for work. So when a hotel reservation service emailed me some months ago that “Liverpool is calling your name” after I browsed and then left the website without buying, my usual resistance to sales pitches didn’t flare. I took out my credit card and booked the trip.

Aside from the looking-back part of the itinerary, my visit ended up heavy on architecture and museums. They included the Museum of Liverpool, showing life here through wartime and peacetime, economic hardship and strength; the Merseyside Maritime Museum, an in-depth look at seafaring, shipbuilding and shipping; and the International Slavery Museum, covering the slave trade, in which Liverpool was pivotal.

Renovated waterfront

All are on the Mersey waterfront, where the dereliction that I remembered has been replaced not just by the museums, but by spaces that invite walking, and by modern buildings alongside the historic. Restaurants and bars occupy some of Albert Dock’s old warehouses. Nearby, the 196-foot Big Wheel (a Ferris wheel) offers riders an overview from its 42 capsules.

Sites in six areas of the docklands and the historic city center are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. That recognition includes the Pier Head and its stunning Three Graces: They are the Royal Liver Building, with Liverpool’s symbolic, copper-sheathed birds on top; the Cunard Building, once headquarters of the Cunard Steamship Co.; and the Port of Liverpool Building. All date to the early 20th century.

Nearby, Mersey Ferries’ 50-minute river cruise aboard the Snowdrop provides a superb view of the Three Graces and their neighbors. The Snowdrop’s kaleidoscopic paint commemorates the centenary of World War I, during which British ships were painted in “dazzle camouflage” to confuse the enemy.

The creator of the Snowdrop’s paint scheme, Peter Blake, was co-artist for the cover of the Beatles’ album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

For more art to think about, visit Crosby Beach near the north end of Liverpool and take in the 100 life-size figures made of iron with casts of British sculptor Antony Gormley’s body. Scattered along nearly two miles of shore and about half a mile out to sea, the sculptures’ exposure changes with high and low tide. The permanent exhibit is titled “Another Place.”

Other high points in a Liverpool visit include the massive Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, a Roman Catholic house of worship that is circular and modern. Fittingly, they are at the south and north ends of Hope Street.

Near the Lime Street train station downtown stands the neoclassical St. George’s Hall, built in the 19th century for courts of law and for performances.

If you need help with directions in Liverpool, spurn technology for the moment and ask people on the street in order to hear a delightful custom. Typically, locals provide the directions and then considerately bolster with a concise recap, before continuing on their way.

If you go

For scouse, check the menu at any number of pubs and restaurants. To get it for free, walk half a mile northwest of Lime Street Station and stop at the Ship & Mitre (www.theshipandmitre.com) on Wednesday evenings, when the pub offers scouse on the house.

The closest airport is in Manchester. Rail service is about a one-hour ride from Manchester Airport to Liverpool Lime Street Station. Flights in early March to Liverpool start at about $1,250.

The Jurys Inn chain operates a full-service, modern hotel next to Albert Dock; www.jurysinns.com. Rooms start at $155 a night.

In the city center, try the Britannia Adelphi Hotel built in 1914, www.britanniahotels.com. Rooms start at $81 a night.

— AP