Soaking up the Mersey Beat on a trip to Liverpool, where music seeps from every corner

From The Beatles to Scouse stew to living works of art, Liverpool offers many attractions with a pop culture twist

Whether it has been on your travel radar or not, no one could accuse Liverpool of being unsung. Music echoes through the streets and haunts the docks. It even plays on the ferry across the Mersey. Many visit with The Beatles in mind, but even, heaven forbid, had the Fab Four never existed, the list of Merseyside stars is one to marvel at. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, OMD, The La’s, Echo and the Bunnymen… I’m halfway to being lost in music at The British Music Experience, marvelling at how tiny some of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust costumes were, when a blast of The Spice Girls brings me back to earth.

Housed in part of the Cunard Building, the Music Experience (Spice Girls interruptions notwithstanding) is a devotee’s paradise. Not limited to Liverpool natives, it tracks the story of sound, from jazz and skiffle, to today’s megastars and manufactured pop. There are booths where you can have a go at drums, guitars and keyboards, and even teach yourself to dance. With a plethora of memorabilia, it also has moments of the surreal, such as when a hologram of Boy George pops up and gives us a blast of Do You Really Want to Hurt Me. But then, pausing at a display of stars on stages around the world, something of that huge energy-to-glory charisma, which enables someone to hold the attention of tens of thousands, catches me by surprise and leaves me breathless.

The Cunard Building is one of Liverpool’s Three Graces, a trio of iconic edifices built at the turn of the last millennium to demonstrate the city’s wealth and power back when it was one of the world’s biggest ports. We inveigle our way into the part that isn’t given over to the Music Experience for a peek at the former ticket offices of the world-famous cruise line. Today you go there to register your new Liverpudlian babies. Speak to people of a certain age, and they’ll have tales of The Beatles and the Cavern Club, but I get chatting to George McAleavey, on a break from his work as a cleaner. He tells me that his grandfather, Thomas, survived the sinking of the Lusitania by swimming 14 miles to shore.

“He was a fireman, and had come up on deck for a smoke. He had a scar on his forehead from being hit on the head with an oar trying to get into a lifeboat,” George says wonderingly. “I wouldn’t be here today if he hadn’t made it.” Liverpool is an incredibly friendly city. Perhaps it’s the Irish connection. Today, 75 per cent of the population claim Irish ancestry, and the unique “Scouse” accent is said to be a combination of influences from Irish, Welsh and Scandinavian sailors. There is also a great pride in the city evident and no wonder: it’s a place with many pleasures.


We take a tour to the top of another of the Graces, the Royal Liver Building, where a lift whisks us up, to where a short video plays inside the clock tower. Out on the rooftop itself, we have a view of the two famous Liver Birds, Bertie and Bella. At 18-feet high, it is said that one of the mythical creatures gazes out to sea to make sure the sailors come home safe, and the other into the city to ascertain that the pubs haven’t shut yet.

The Three Graces miraculously survived the onslaught of the second World War’s bombing raids, and newbuilds dot the city, making the original Georgian and Victorian structures seem all the more precious. The city’s two cathedrals, rather joyfully at either end of Hope Street, are – relatively speaking – new, while even the famous Cavern Club isn’t actually original.

You can see a replica Cavern as part of the interesting but definitely sanitised Beatles Story experience, where friends and family of the band have recorded audio memories. The Cavern itself was originally a tropical fruit warehouse, and it is said that the smell had so permeated the walls it clung to fans, who could later be identified by their “Cavern Perfume”. The Beatles played there 292 times, and Cilla Black was a hat-check girl. Beatles merch and tat is everywhere. Later, at Albert Dock, I will marvel at a portrait of the band made out of thousands of jelly beans in a sweet shop window.

The Cavern Club was closed in 1973 for a British Rail underground project that never happened, and today’s club has been recreated on some, but not all, of the original footprint. While the underground was never built, Liverpool is a very walkable city, and there is an excellent public transport system, with local trains to the likes of Birkenhead Park – a model for New York’s Central Park; and Port Sunlight, which was built by the original soap-making Lever family (founders of what would ultimately morph into global mega brand Unilever). A new exhibition exploring the history of landscapes by women artists opens at the Lady Lever Art Gallery on April 20th and runs until August 18th.

Liverpool is actually very well-stocked with art galleries, although Tate Liverpool is closed for refurbishment until next year. On my recent visit, a citywide museum strike had closed other museums, including the Walker Art Gallery, but it is due to end on April 14th. A train ride of just over half an hour will get you to Crosby Beach, where artist Antony Gormley’s Another Place includes 100 cast iron life-sized figures, spread out across the foreshore, and almost a kilometre out to sea.

The Mersey Ferry tour takes place on a living art work, as Sir Peter Blake, famed for designing The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover (with Jann Haworth) was commissioned to create a dazzle ship design for the ferry as part of the first World War Centenary Art Commissions in 2015. The original dazzle ships had wild designs that made them harder to target, as I discover through information panels on board.

We walk back to Stanley Dock through streets that seem oddly familiar. This is partly due to Liverpool having stood in for cities including New York, London, Moscow and Chicago in films and TV programmes including Fantastic Beasts, Harry Potter, Peaky Blinders and The Batman. The Titanic Hotel is sister to the one in Belfast, the ill-fated ship having been registered in Liverpool. The hotel is housed in a former rum warehouse, and the docks outside have seen Captain America in action, as well as Taylor Swift in her video for I Can See You. The spa in the basement makes me feel like a movie star myself.

This celebrity whiff is made all the more fabulous by the discovery that the hotel is homebase for Liverpool FC on match nights. Jurgen Klopp is a god in these parts, and, as we’re staying the night before the team hammer Sparta Prague 6-1, we keep our eyes peeled. Vaguely handsome men are in the lobby swinging sports shoes, but as they are clearly not on the squad, they’re either physios or opportunists hoping the adjacency might rub off. I look up the collective value of the players on the team, and learn it is more than £800 million. Every human life is precious, but seriously? You could buy the recently sold Shelbourne Hotel three times over for that. No wonder there’s a bouncer on the door this evening. We fly home before kick-off, but as there is so much to see and do in this fascinating city, and it is less than an hour from Dublin by plane, it’s definitely worth coming back for more – and soon.

How to get there: Aer Lingus Regional, operated by Emerald Airlines has daily return flights to Liverpool, from €29.99 each way as part of a round trip. Since Brexit, you also get Duty Free.

Where to stay: The Titanic Hotel Liverpool has large rooms in a very atmospheric former rum warehouse, close to the new Everton Stadium, and approximately 20 minutes walk from the city centre. From £99 (approx €115) per room, The Municipal Hotel: have a cocktail in the lavish Palm Court surroundings of one of the city’s newest hotels, in one of its oldest buildings. The former Local Authority Offices have had a swish makeover, including furniture from west Cork’s O’Donnell Design. Rooms from approx €115,

Where to eat: Ma Boyles: You can’t go to Liverpool and not try Scouse. A stew so quintessentially Liverpudlian, it gave its name to the local accent. Think Irish stew with a Scandinavian twist – it comes with pickled red cabbage or beetroot. Delicious at Ma Boyles, which dates back to 1860. Classic Scouse, £11. Maray: Delicious Middle-Eastern-inflected plates, waterside at people-watching spot Albert Dock. Don’t miss the Disco Cauliflower. Dishes from £5 to £15. Nord: Daniel Heffy’s stylish restaurant in the commercial part of town is based on a tasty package of locally sourced ingredients, northern hospitality and Scandi influences. Dishes in the region of €20. The Art School: Chef Paul Askew is aiming for Liverpool’s first Michelin star with delicious feasts that start with incredible cocktails, and take you through a series of locally sourced taste sensations in gorgeous surroundings in the city’s Georgian Quarter. The Menu Excellence menu is £89 per person.

Where to go and what to do: The Mersey Ferry River Explorer Cruise takes approximately one hour and costs £8 / £12, Advance booking prices at the British Music Experience are £10.50 / £17, Admission to The Beatles Story is £11 / £20, Anfield Tours start from £14 / £23, The Royal Liver Building 360 Tour is £11 / £16, For more see

Gemma Tipton travelled as a guest of Aer Lingus Regional and Marketing Liverpool

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture