Updated Jan 2021
There are lots of free things to do in Manchester with kids and, using the city’s affordable and efficient public transport system, lots of attractions can be visited in one day.
Free things to do in Manchester
Manchester City Centre
Science and Industry Museum
One of the best free museums in Manchester, the Science and Industry Museum is part of the nationwide Science Museum Group. This museum focuses on the development of science, technology and industry in Manchester.
Our favourite parts are the excellent textiles gallery and aeronautics section. Don’t miss the engaging ‘Experiment Gallery’ with 25 fun, hands-on experiments for children.
Check the museum website before your visit for the child friendly science show times.
Open daily, donations welcome. There are extra charges for temporary exhibitions.
MMM Tip – 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. Take a walk along one of the world’s oldest canals, wander over and under bridges, past flower-adorned barges and trendy shops and cafes. There is always something new to see here.
Don’t miss the ruins of the 8th-century Roman fort ‘Mancunium’, which gave the city of Manchester its name.
The People’s History Museum
The 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. They didn’t know much about the subject before our visit but were surprisingly engaged the entire time.
Our favourite parts were Hope (the suffragette made from Lego) and the colourful display of enormous trade union banners. It was interesting to learn about the symbolic colours and images used in these banners.
We were pleasantly surprised by our first visit to the People’s History Museum and would highly recommend it if you are looking for free things to do in Manchester. Due to the amount of reading involved in the exhibit, it is more suitable for older children.
Open daily, donations welcome.
Manchester Art Gallery
Located near St Peters Square, Manchester Art Gallery houses both permanent and temporary exhibitions. We were made to feel very welcome visiting with children.
Kids can borrow ‘explorer tool belts’ for free containing engaging activities to complete whilst visiting the gallery. Plus, the excellent Clore Art Studio is open every day with creative activities for families and there are free workshops on offer during the school holidays.
NB – The Clore Art Studio is closed until May 2021 when a new, purpose built art activity space for families is due to open. In the meantime, creative art sessions will be run on weekends and school holidays only.
Buggys are allowed in the gallerys and there are lifts to help you get around. There are baby change facilities and the excellent on site cafe also welcomes families.
We love the art gallery and think it is one of the best things to do in Manchester with kids.
Open Wednesday – Sunday, donations welcome
John Ryland Library Museum
The John Ryland Library is a museum, not a public library. Our son had been looking forward to some foot rest 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.
As the museum is a short visit, it may not be worth a special trip with kids in tow. But if you are in the Deansgate area, the library is worth visiting.
The red Cumbrian sandstone building is lovely. The ornate, quirky Victorian Gothic style is at odds with the modern glass offices surrounding it. Inside the gloomy stone corridors and sweeping 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 (with comfy sofas so our son got his rest after all).
MMM Tip – 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! Plus a handy baby change, nursing room, public toilet and cafe.
Salford is an ideal area for sightseeing with kids as there are several free attractions within a small area.
Media City is the northern home of the British media industry; BBC and ITV have studios here. Media City is easily reached by direct tram from Manchester City Centre.
It is a modern, sprawling canal side complex with cafes and restaurants. We found it a buzzing, lively place for a wander.
Our highlight (much to the kids bemusement) was visiting the iconic Blue Peter garden in front of the BBC building!
If you decided to break your budget-friendly sightseeing day, you can take a pre-booked tour of the set 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, opposite the Lowry Outlet shopping centre.
In addition to the Lowry art gallery, the Lowry complex houses a theatre, exhibition space and a cafe.
The art gallery is one of the best things to do in Manchester for free. It is small but brilliantly showcases Lowry’s paintings and sketches.
There are pens and paper for children to copy their favourite painting which can join a display near the rear of the gallery.
Kids will also enjoy ‘the Carole Nash Lookout’ creative hub just outside the gallery entrance.
Open daily, donations welcome. Children under 12 must be accompanied at all times.
MMM Tip – Avoid the short twenty-minute film about Lowry’s life if you have young children with you. The film carries an adult content warning and it needed it!!!
Imperial War Museum North (IWM North) – ONLY RECOMMENDED FOR FAMILIES WITH OLDER CHILDREN
The 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 modern, well presented and informative museum. However, it was designed to be disorientating and its dimly lit interior will not suit everyone.
Displays, artefacts and visual media explore the history and effects of the Two World Wars. Recent conflicts are also covered.
In main gallery, films are projected on the hour, every hour onto the gallery walls. This ‘Big Picture’ is a loud and immersive cinematic experience which young children may not like. Two of our children became upset during one moving film due to some of its images and dialogue. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a content warning.
As a history graduate, I feel it is important for children to learn about war but all of our family found our visit to the IWM North unsettling and upsetting (we did not feel the same after visiting the Imperial War Museum in London).
I found the museum thought-provoking and moving but it is not suitable for young children.
Open daily, free entry
The Manchester United Tour at Old Trafford football stadium
Ok, so the Manchester United Tour is not free but visiting the stadium and the stadium shop is!
From IWM North it is a ten-minute walk along the same stretch of canal to reach the iconic Old Trafford stadium, home of world-famous Manchester United football team.
Visitors can only access the Manchester United Museum and the stadium via a pre-booked guided tour. But you can walk around the stadium, see the Munich tunnel and visit the Man Utd mega store for free.
Taking a tour of Old Trafford was a ‘must do’ for our football mad son so we blew our budget and took a tour.
You can read our detailed review of the Manchester United Tour (and how we saved £25 on our tour) here.
Useful information for visiting Manchester with kids
Manchester city centre parks and playgrounds
Families cannot beat a park or playground for a budget-friendly, family activity!
Most large playgrounds in Manchester are in the suburbs but there are a number of green spaces in the city centre that are ideal 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.
The Manchester City Council website has a useful list of parks and playgrounds.
Alternatively, take a bus or short train ride into the ultimate outdoor playground – the stunning Peak District National Park!
It is possible to travel around Manchester City Centre for free!
Manchester city centre operates two, free bus routes around the city. The buses travel to, or near, principal attractions around the city so are a fantastic budget-friendly option for families.
Check out the Transport for Greater Manchester website for up to date timetables and route information.
Why not visit Manchester for a weekend break and use the city’s excellent transport connections to take a day trip from Manchester? Visit Liverpool (40 minutes by train) or discover the free things to do in York (1 hr 40 minutes by train). Even London is doable in a long day trip, and there are lots of child friendly free attractions in the capital.
Have you visited a free, family-friendly attraction in Manchester? If so, we would love to hear about it!