There are lots of fun, free things to do in Manchester with kids that are suitable for all ages and interests.
Manchester has an efficient, affordable public transport system so lots of attractions can be visited in one day. This makes the historic city of Manchester a great destination for a budget-friendly day out or weekend break. Or stay longer to enjoy a fun day trip from Manchester!
Free things to do in Manchester City Centre with kids
Science and Industry Museum
This large city-centre museum (part of the nationwide Science Museum Group) focuses on the development of science, technology and industry in Manchester.
There is an excellent textiles gallery and aeronautics section plus there are regular events and science shows for children.
Don’t miss the engaging ‘Experiment’ gallery with 25 fun, hands-on experiments for children.
Open daily, donations welcome. There are extra charges for temporary exhibitions.
After visiting the Science and Industry museum, leave time to explore the nearby conservation area of Castlefield.
Castlefield was the U.K’s first urban Heritage Park. Enjoy a walk along one of the world’s oldest canals, wander over and under bridges, past flower-adorned barges and trendy shops and cafes.
See the ruins of the 8th-century Roman fort ‘Mancunium’, which gave the city of Manchester its name.
The People’s History Museum
The three-floor People’s History Museum (also called the National Democracy Museum) charts the history of political and social protest in England.
The museum is packed with creatively displayed exhibits accompanied by simple text which our children found easy to read and understand.
Our favourite aspects were Hope (the Lego suffragette) and the enormous trade union banners. A helpful nearby display explains the symbolic colours and images used in the banners.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much our children enjoyed this museum.
Open daily, donations welcome.
Manchester Art Gallery
Located near St Peters Square, Manchester Art Gallery houses both permanent and temporary exhibitions.
Families are made to feel very welcome and children can borrow free ‘tool belts’ with activities to complete whilst visiting the gallery.
The excellent Clore Art Studio is open every day with creative activities for families. There are also regular free workshops during the school holidays.
Open daily, donations welcome
John Ryland Library Museum
The John Ryland Library is a museum – not a library that you can walk into for a read. Our son had been looking forward to some footrest with a good book!
If you wish to study any of the 1.4 million rare books, manuscripts or maps in the library collections you can do so by prior appointment and pre-arranged membership.
The museum will only be a short visit so may not be worth a specific trip with kids but if you are in the Deansgate area, the library is well worth visiting.
The Victorian gothic building is ornate, quirky and at odds with the modern glass offices surrounding it.
Built from red Cumbrian sandstone, the corridors and staircases look like they have been transported from Hogwarts. Our kids loved it!
Tours are available and there are regular free craft activities for children. Plus, there is an excellent cafe and bookshop here.
Manchester Central Library
If, like our son, you were hoping for a break from sightseeing to flop on a cushion with a good book then head to the magnificent Manchester Central Library on St Peter’s Square.
It has a lovely children’s section, ideal for resting tired sightseeing legs!
Free things to do near Manchester City Centre with kids
Media City is, as the name suggests, is the northern home of the media industry including the BBC and ITV and is easily reached by direct tram from Manchester City Centre.
It is a sprawling, modern canalside complex with cafes and restaurants. We found it had a buzzing, lively atmosphere and was a lovely place to wander around.
We enjoyed visiting the iconic Blue Peter garden in front of the BBC building reliving fond childhood memories!
If you decided to break your budget-friendly sightseeing day, you can enjoy a pre-booked tour of ITVs’ Coronation Street set and of the BBC studios. There is also a family-friendly CBBC tour.
Lowry Art Gallery
The Lowry Art Gallery is a two-minute walk from the Media City tram stop and is opposite the Lowry Outlet shopping centre.
The large Lowry complex houses a theatre, exhibition space and a cafe as well as the small Lowry art gallery.
The art gallery is small but beautifully lit, brilliantly showcasing Lowrys paintings and sketches.
There are pens and paper for children to copy their favourite painting which are then displayed near the rear gallery doors.
I would avoid watching the short twenty-minute film about Lowry’s life if you have young children with you. The film carries an adult content warning and having seen film, it needed it!!!
Kids will also like to spend time in the creative hub ‘the Carole Nash Lookout’ just outside the gallery entrance.
Open daily, donations welcome. Children under 12 must be accompanied at all times.
Imperial War Museum North (IWM North)
Not recommended for young children
The large, modern, Imperial War Museum North (IWM North) sits on the edge of the Manchester canal opposite Media City. There is a footbridge between the two areas for easy access.
The IWM North is a comprehensive, well presented and informative museum. It is dimly lit and was designed to be disorientating so it may not be popular with all ages.
Written information, artefacts and visual media explore the history and effects of the Two World Wars as well as modern conflicts.
The main gallery projects a range of films onto the gallery walls on the hour, every hour, called The Big Picture. It is a loud, immersive, cinematic experience which young children may not like.
Furthermore, two of our children became upset during one presentation due to some of the images and dialogue. Unfortunately, the moving film did not carry a content warning.
We have previously visited the Imperial War Museum in London as a family but all of us found our visit to the Imperial War Museum North unsettling and upsetting.
It is a brilliant, thought-provoking and moving museum on important topics. It just may not be suitable for your young children.
Open daily, free entry
Old Trafford football stadium
From IWM North it is a ten-minute walk along the same stretch of canal side to reach the iconic Old Trafford stadium, home of world-famous Manchester United.
You can only access the Old Trafford museum and the stadium itself via a guided, pre-booked tour but you can walk around the building and visit the mega store.
You can read our review of the Manchester United tour here.
Manchester city centre parks and playgrounds
Visiting parks and playgrounds are the classic, budget-friendly, family activity!
You will need to head to the suburbs to find large playgrounds but in the city centre, there are a number of green, open spaces perfect for a runaround or a picnic.
Visit St. Johns Gardens in Castlefield, Cathedral Gardens near Manchester Cathedral or Vimto Park near Piccadilly.
Alternatively, try Parsonage Gardens near Deansgate or Sackville Gardens on Canal Street.
Manchester City Council website has a useful list of parks, playgrounds and open green spaces in Manchester – you are sure to find one wherever you are!
Alternatively, take a bus or short train ride into the ultimate outdoor playground – the stunning Peak District National Park!
Travel around Manchester City Centre for free!
In addition to the excellent and comprehensive fee-paying Metrolink tram system and fee-paying buses, Manchester city centre operates two, free bus routes around the city.
The routes travel to, or near, principal attractions around the city. The buses are a fantastic budget-friendly option for families.
Check out the Transport for Greater Manchester website for up to date timetables and route information.
After your visit to Manchester, why not take a trip to nearby Liverpool, just a 40 minute train ride away, or historic York, 1 hour 40 minutes away. Both cities are easy, excellent day trips from Manchester and there are several free things to do in York in particular. You could even take a day trip to London, around 2 1/2 hours by train.
Have you visited a free, family-friendly attraction in Manchester? If yes, we would love to hear about it!