With the world’s best-loved football team and a regenerated city centre, the unofficial capital of the north is bags of fun. Words: KIM SMITH

Soon after arriving in Manchester I ask a bus driver for directions. He answers by depositing me exactly where I want to go, despite the fact it’s not on his regular route. As far as first impressions go, the driver has given England’s uncrowned capital of the North a flying start.

Manchester is most famous for one of its football teams, but there’s a lot more to the city than Rooney and Ronaldo. Speaking of Rooney, the historian AJP Taylor wrote that Manchester has “everything but good looks … the only place in England which escapes our characteristic vice of snobbery”, which is a pretty good call. Everywhere I go, the mood is bright and Mancunians come across as a down-to-earth breed.

As far as aesthetic appeal goes, it’s been slowly improving since 1996 when the city was hit by an IRA bomb, the largest to go off in mainland Britain. The old buildings that were demolished allowed for the beginning of a new-look city centre, which had a knock-on effect, especially in the lead-up to staging the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

Nowadays, the city still isn’t altogether striking, but it’s come a long way and is still moving. Among the more remarkable buildings are the Manchester Museum on Oxford Road and the Manchester Art Gallery on Mosley Street. The museum, stocked with almost six million specimens and objects, is worth checking out, especially for its Egyptology section. The same goes for the art gallery, which houses 25,000 objects of fine art, decorative art and costume. Reopened in 2002 after a four-year £35m redevelopment, you could spend a couple of hours admiring its wonders.

Arguably the most stunning modern building in the city is The Lowry. Located bang in the middle of the redeveloped Salford Quays, it opened in 2000 to a mixed reception, which isn’t surprising. With its futuristic glass and metallic construction, you either love it or hate it. Regardless of which group you fall into, a visit is essential, whether to wander around the art gallery, see some theatre or simply relax in one of the restaurants or bars.

If football is more your thing, good luck trying to get a ticket to watch United – they’re as rare as natural tans this far north. Your best bet is to catch a Manchester City game at the City of Manchester Stadium or soak up the matchday atmosphere at one of the many pubs. Alternatively, you can visit the Manchester United Museum at Old Trafford or go on a tour of the ground to get your football fix – dugout, players’ tunnel and dressing room included.

While you’re out this way, you might want to check out The Trafford Centre: it’s a shopper’s paradise. In fact, Manchester has so much going for it retail-wise, you could plan a trip here based on shopping alone. There are also some decent shops around the city centre and Northern Quarter; keep your eye out for the Rags to Bitches boutique for some great vintage gear.

Another thing Taylor, said that makes a lot of sense is that it’s the only city “which can look London in the face … as a rival version of how people should live in a community”. From the football fans dripping in red and white to bus drivers who go out of their way to help you, this is a city locals are proud to call home, and deservedly so.

• Kim Smith travelled to Manchester with Virgin Trains. Fares from London to Manchester start at £12.50 single, £25 return