A port city in the north-west of England, Great Britain
, with a long, proud but also in part dark maritime history, ranging from the slave trade to the Titanic
After years of decline that began in the late 1970s, redevelopments of recent years and decades have turned much of the previously rather run-down harbour areas into a pleasant cluster of new modernist architecture as well as refurbished historic former docks and warehouses that are now home to all manner of shops, restaurants, hotels and museums. And that includes one about those dark aspects.
More background info: Liverpool traces its history back to more than 800 years ago, but it wasn't until the beginning of the 18th century that it established itself as an important trading port.
The first British ships partaking in the Atlantic
slave trade sailed from Liverpool from around 1700 and over the next hundred years or so this trade contributed greatly to Liverpool's wealth – as did the trade back from the Americas in goods such as sugar, tobacco and cotton from the plantations where those African slaves mainly had to work.
Cotton in turn was imported to supply the textile mills that were popping up all over northern England as the industrial revolution gained momentum, which meant even more riches for Liverpool.
While those early riches of Liverpool were gained through ruthless exploitation, they also fed into large-scale investment into the port infrastructure (such as docks, warehouses, cranes), and Liverpool became one of the world's foremost merchant harbours. And it remained so when in the early 19th century the British slave trade was abolished altogether.
Owing to the growth in trade and the industrial revolution, Liverpool's population exploded too – primarily through immigration. A large influx of Irish came in the wake of the Great Famine in Ireland
, which also brought a strong standing of Catholicism to Liverpool. But the city also became home to the first communities of peoples from further away, such as the first Chinatown in Europe and the first black communities. Coexistence wasn't always peaceful, though, especially in the immediate post-WW1
-phase when race riots broke out in Liverpool.
Other dark aspects of the city's history include its involvement in the whaling and sealing industries (cf. South Georgia
) as well as the fact that Liverpool was home of the White Star Line, which commissioned and operated the ill-fated RMS Titanic.
After surviving a major economic downturn during the Great Depression, in WWII
Liverpool became the target for several aerial bombing attacks by the Nazi
German Luftwaffe. The city's port also played a crucial role in the Battle of the Atlantic
, being one of the principal destinations for the transatlantic convoys. The battle was primarily co-ordinated from a fortified command post under a house right in the centre of Liverpool.
The city's greatest non-dark claim to international fame came in the 1960s. You really cannot talk about Liverpool without mentioning the Beatles (or football, but I won't go down that path). Whatever you may think of their music (I'm personally not such a big fan) there's no denying that the Beatles have been Liverpool's most massive contribution to the history of pop culture, even though they weren't actually together for so long, effectively disbanding in 1970 after not having performed live in years prior to that (only releasing highly acclaimed studio albums). And once John Lennon was murdered in New York
, all possible hopes of a reunion were crushed anyway. Yet their legacy is still colossal – and it forms a good deal of the attractiveness of Liverpool to tourists (see under non-dark combinations
After the rise of the Beatles and pop culture in general, however, Liverpool's economic fortunes began to wane. Like many long-established harbours, Liverpool's suffered from the structural changes that began then and within a decade or two completely transformed the shipping of goods. Liverpool's old docks soon became obsolete as large container ships took over and moved to newer, modern docking facilities away from the cities.
At the same time, other older industries declined too, and for a while Liverpool seemed to be hopelessly behind the times and with a poor outlook, with some of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
However, that already began to change in the mid-1990s and throughout 2000s. Regeneration is still ongoing but all these efforts have already transformed Liverpool once more, this time for the better, and today it is actually quite prosperous again, comparatively speaking. And it shows, especially in the shiny new developments on the waterfront and elsewhere (see below
Liverpool currently has a population of just under half a million in the city itself, and around 2 million in the larger metropolitan area, which makes it the fifth largest conurbation in Britain.
People from Liverpool are informally called “Scousers” (after scouse, a kind of stew related to the German Labskaus), and the word is also used to denote the distinctive city dialect of Liverpool (which I happen to really like, despite its less than glamorous reputation in other parts of Britain). The more formal word for both people and dialect is “Liverpudlian” (so don't ever refer to them as *Liverpoolers).
What there is to see: Two of the main dark aspects of Liverpool's history that were mentioned in the background info text above, slavery and the sinking of the Titanic, are both covered in the Merseyside Maritime Museum, so this is given its own separate chapter:
In addition to that there are several smaller-scale points of interest from a dark-tourism perspective, in particular some monuments commemorating various disasters.
Possibly the best-known maritime disaster ever was that of the sinking of the Titanic
. And since the (Belfast
-built) Titanic was registered here with the Liverpool-based White Star Line, it's no big surprise to find a dedicated memorial monument
here too. It is in particular dedicated to the “engine room heroes
”, i.e. those who kept toiling in the boiler rooms of the stricken vessel to keep the electricity going for as long as possible even though that was effectively self-sacrifice, since once the ship was going under, these engine rooms deep in the bowels of the ship became a death trap leaving practically no hope for anyone to reach the deck and survive.
Outside the Cunard Building, on its rear, i.e. facing inland, is another monument to ships, all under the Cunard flag, including the Carpathia
, famous for picking up survivors from the sinking Titanic
, and later sunk herself by a German submarine towards the end of WWI
. Also featured on the monument is the RMS Lusitania
, which infamously suffered the same fate earlier in the war.
One of the Lusitania's original propeller
s is on open-air display on the northern side of the entrance to Canning Dock, just behind the Pilotage House, not far from the Maritime Museum
Also on the waterfront, just south of Canning Dock locks, next to the Piermaster's House, is a sculpture
group dedicated to immigrants
– which I found a refreshing sight given all the recent anti-migrant sentiments in Britain
. As indicated above
, immigrants play(ed) a significant role in the development of Liverpool.
In the centre of the city, on Victoria Street just west of St John's Gardens outside St George's Hall stands the Hillsborough Disaster Monument. It commemorates one of the greatest tragedies in the history of football. In this case it was a stampede (or rather a 'human crush', strictly speaking) that happened in April 1989 in Sheffield at an FA cup match between Nottingham Forest and FC Liverpool, in which 96 spectators were killed and hundreds more injured (mostly Liverpool fans).
In the cathedral (see below
) there are also a few memorial niches, e.g. honouring the fallen of WWI
or those who perished in the Burma Campaign in WWII
(see Death Railway
Liverpool nominally also has its own War Museum, alternately called The Western Approaches Museum. That's the term for the parts of the Atlantic
and the Irish Sea to the west of the western coast of Great Britain
and around Ireland. This played a crucial role for the transatlantic convoy supply routes in WWII
, with German U-boats on the hunt for freighters, and the Royal Navy on constant submarine hunt. The museum is inside what used to be a command bunker, the nerve centre for the Battle of the Atlantic, so to speak, which also had a direct connection to the War Cabinet bunker
. However, this Liverpool museum remains closed at the time of writing and already was closed when I was in Liverpool in July 2017. So I had no chance to go and see it.
on the eastern side of the estuary of the Mersey River in north-western England, Great Britain
, some 30 miles (50 km) west of Manchester
, and some 200 miles (300 km) north-west of London
, and just east of the Welsh border.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: Fairly easy to get to and around in, not as expensive as London, but not necessarily cheap either.
Liverpool is well connected, by road and rail, as well as by air and sea. The latter will be least relevant to visitors, unless you're going from/to Ireland
or the Isle of Man. Liverpool's international airport, named after Beatle John Lennon, is not amongst the biggest in Britain
, but a couple of budget airlines offer potentially useful direct connections to various European cities.
Main-line railway services use Liverpool Lime Street station on the eastern edge of the city centre as the main terminus, whereas buses/coaches (incl. National Express) go to the bus station at Liverpool One, which is conveniently located right between the heart of the city centre and the Albert Dock redeveloped area.
If you're driving your own vehicle, you'll need parking, and (mostly paid) spaces are provided at various locations, especially along the waterfront or at the large Pall Mall car park. Driving within the city is not recommended.
Liverpool is best done on foot. All the sights described here are within walking distance (max. 30 mins.) from each other. If you want to explore further away parts (or have accommodation there), then buses and local trains provide public transport. For crossing the river (e.g. to see the U-Boat Story – see below
), you can take the legendary ferry cross the Mersey (as in the well-known song).
Accommodation options are plentiful, including some good-value ones in converted dock warehouses both at Albert Dock and nearby Wapping Dock, but also further north at Stanley Dock, and of course all over the city centre.
Food & drink
are available in similar abundance, with various ethnic cuisines well represented. To my delight I even found a Peruvian
place (called Chicha) in the redeveloped and now quite fashionable Ropewalks district right next to the city centre.
Time required: to see just the Slavery & Maritime Museum and the dark-themed monuments of Liverpool, a single day could suffice, but you may want to give it another day or two to explore the rest of what the city has to offer on top of that.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Still within the Liverpool metropolitan area, just a short ferry ride across the Mersey River, is a submarine museum of sorts, called “U-Boat Story
”. This features an original German WWII
-era submarine, cut up into four sections. You can see inside, but not actually enter the sub. The boat, with the designation U-534,was raised from the seabed in 1993 (it had been sunk right at the very end of WWII). There's an exhibition next to the actual boat providing more info about its history. (Open 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays and to 6:30 p.m. at weekends and holidays; admission 7.50 GBP, with ferry crossing/cruise: 10 GBP.) When I was last in Liverpool, only briefly in July 2017, I unfortunately did not find the time to check this sight out for myself. It'll give me another good reason to return to this appealing city one day.
Perhaps also of interest to some may be the tours offered at the George's Dock Building and Queensway Tunnel, constructed in 1934. You can see vintage ventilation technology and such like and go deep into the dark, dank and dirty underground … (by appointment with Mersey Tunnels only, regular tours lasting two hours run on Saturdays at 10 a.m. as well as Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 5 p.m.; participation costs a mere 6 GBP).
For those who, like me, get a kick out of old industrial architecture, the docks further north may also have a certain allure, e.g. Stanley Dock, which is home to the Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse, which is allegedly the world's largest such brick structure and is currently undergoing conversion into luxury apartments. Opposite stands the already finished ex-warehouse-turned-hotel, namely the Titanic Hotel, which, at least in name, celebrates the city's connection with that most famous ocean liner.
Other dock conversions are less appealing (e.g. Waterloo Docks) and the further north you get the more still working harbour facilities there are, and these are of course not regularly accessible to normal mortals. Others are still undergoing redevelopment and are construction sites or empty wastelands. Lots of further changes are to be expected here.
Outside of Liverpool, the nearest other dark-tourism attractions covered on this website are the IWM North
in neighbouring Manchester to the east and the Hack Green
secret nuclear bunker to the south.
For yet more further afield see also under Great Britain
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Liverpool's most iconic landmarks are the so-called Three Graces at the Pier Head section of the waterfront. These are the Port of Liverpool Building, the Cunard Building and the Royal Liver Building. The latter's towers are crowned with sculptures of Liver Birds, the symbols of the city. These also appear in its coat of arms and various smaller representations across the city (e.g. on fences and above doorways).
Arguably the George's Dock Building with its iconic art deco tower (actually a tunnel ventilation shaft – see above
) could be added as a “fourth grace”, standing as it does right behind the Port of Liverpool Building and thus forming part of the same ensemble.
The regenerated waterfront and dock area just south of the Pier Head, esp. the historic Albert Dock, rank high on Liverpool's tourist attractions list as well. The shops and restaurants/bars may give it an air bordering on too much commercialization, but the architecture is undeniably outstanding. And apart from the Maritime Museum, Albert Docks is also home to Liverpool's branch of the famous Tate Gallery.
From the waterfront you an also take a ferry cross the Mersey
), or a longer cruise, so you can admire the harbour front and city skyline from the water.
Liverpool is a city full of street art
, especially sculptures
. Still on the waterfront, near the immigrant sculpture (see above
) is a surprise: a statue that looks uncannily like Elvis – but it isn't Elvis. This is a very Elvis-look-alike Billy Fury, born in Liverpool, who was also a kind of British Elvis version in his performing heyday of the early 60s.
The city's most famous sons, the Beatles, are celebrated by a group of statues of the Fab Four near the Pier Head just in front of the Cunard Building. It's hard to find a moment when you can see them without any tourists posing with or hugging the Fab Four or imitating their uber-cool gait … this is also selfie central, of course.
The Fab Four feature in manifold other ways in Liverpool, and nowhere more so than at the dedicated Beatles Story – an entire museum about the legacy of John, Paul, George and Ringo. It's housed in the southernmost part of the old red-brick warehouses that ring the historic Albert Dock.
North of Albert Dock, the classic early industrial architecture contrasts with some hyper-modern edifices that are also well worth taking in. The Museum of Liverpool also forms part of these new modern developments. Yet more modernity can be found further north still and also even in the city centre.
A bit away from both the centre and the river are Liverpool's two cathedrals that are both also quite remarkable, though in very different ways. The Catholic Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral is a 1960s modernist, almost brutalist, circular structure that is vaguely reminiscent of a tent and hence has been given the nickname “Paddy's Wigwam” (“Paddy” in reference to the fact that Irish immigrants were/are usually Catholics).
The other, Anglican Liverpool Cathedral
, is a more conservative neo/faux-Gothic design, but is hugely impressive, if for its enormous size alone. Going back to a design from 1901, construction began in 1904, but was repeatedly interrupted (e.g. by both WWI
), so it was only finished as late as 1978. It claims to be Britain's largest church building and the fifth largest in the world.
In the immediate vicinity of the cathedral is Liverpool's historic Chinatown, featuring a typical kitschy Chinatown gate which is allegedly the biggest of its kind too.
In addition Liverpool has plenty of other museums and galleries and noteworthy architecture, but I can't go into all that here any further.
Outside the city limits, some of England's most pleasant landscapes can be found not too far away (by car at least), such as the Peak District National Park to the east beyond Manchester, the lesser-known Forest of Bowland to the north, and east of that the splendid Yorkshire Dales. And to the south-west of Liverpool lies Wales and e.g. Snowdonia National Park.
- Liverpool 01 - iconic buildings on the waterfront
- Liverpool 02 - Liver Building with bird and plane
- Liverpool 03 - Liver bird, symbol of the city
- Liverpool 04 - Liver building and Titanic monument
- Liverpool 05 - especially honouring the engine room heroes
- Liverpool 06 - memorial to Cunard ships
- Liverpool 07 - Lusitania propeller
- Liverpool 08 - emigrants monument
- Liverpool 09 - not Elvis
- Liverpool 10 - the Fab Four
- Liverpool 11 - they even have their own museum here
- Liverpool 12 - historic Albert Dock
- Liverpool 13 - pretty industrial architecture reflection
- Liverpool 14 - pumphouse
- Liverpool 15 - old boats
- Liverpool 16 - new buildings
- Liverpool 17 - across the Mersey, with submarine museum
- Liverpool 18 - city centre
- Liverpool 19 - Hillsborough disaster memorial
- Liverpool 20 - gigantic cathedral
- Liverpool 21 - inside the cathedral
- Liverpool 22 - cemetery
- Liverpool 23 - entrance to Chinatown
- Liverpool 24 - one of the oldest Chinatowns
- Liverpool 25 - even the pay-and-display machines are Chinese-ified
- Liverpool 26 - arty
- Liverpool 27 - art nouveau
- Liverpool 28 - modern facade
- Liverpool 29 - modernized old facade
- Liverpool 30 - canal and museum
- Liverpool 31 - iconic reflection
- Liverpool 32 - the Wheel of Liverpool by night