That day, we also visited a dramatic, glass-and-steel museum of urban life that looks to the future. In the park outside, pale-skinned goths from the 15th century conservatory — in whose library Marx and Engels often met to discuss the sins of capitalism — lounged.
It's this ability to travel through time, to move through the layers of history, that makes trips to Britain so evocative.
Often, this juxtaposition was in the very bones of the buildings. The Royal Exchange, a Victorian edifice that served as a commodities market for the cotton trade, is the kind of "iconic" building that seems to exist to be seized in an anarchist revolution. Old cotton trading signs still hang from the ceiling. The contemporary Royal Exchange Theatre is now in the hall's center, with cafes and bars around the edges.
Throughout the trip, I saw this sort of adaptive reuse, where old exteriors had been saved and interiors had been hollowed out into airy, friendly spaces.
Still, I wanted some of that Victorian mojo. The best place to find the old, industrial Manchester, with its iron bridges, railway viaducts, picturesque brick walls and cobblestones glistening in the rain, is Castlefield, a beautifully restored section just south of the city center, so evocative of the old city that you hear Smiths songs just looking at it.
Once home to the city's original fort, Mamucium, which the Romans built about AD 79 , it became Britain's first urban heritage park and is now full of hip warehouse flats.
The entrance to the area is a bright little deli-cafe called Love Saves the Day, with cappuccinos and baked goods, and co-owned by a former member of the band Simply Red.
Mostly, it's a relaxed area to walk, see a working canal that was Britain's first and drop into gastropubs such as the Ox and Dukes 92 to nibble on fresh breads and local cheese while draining pints of Landlord or Boddingtons. The tableau is especially welcome in a city short on green space.
Next to Castlefield is the Deansgate Locks, now home to trendy bars and clubs set into a railroad archway. The neighborhood is also the setting for the Museum of Science and Industry, an enormous, family-friendly compound in an 1830s train station. The main wing includes an exhibit on the city's history and its importance to textiles, the invention of the computer and the splitting of the atom. Don't miss the annex with dozens of old planes.
Factory founder Tony Wilson, Mark E. Smith of the Fall, and members of New Order and Happy Mondays grew up just over the canal in Salford, which is next door to Manchester. Call it the East L.A. of Greater Manchester.
Much of it has been revived recently, and although the docklands called the Quays are now so clean as to be soulless, the two main attractions — the Lowry arts complex and the Imperial War Museum North — make it more than worth the 15-minute light-rail ride from central Manchester.
The Lowry itself seemed to have a lot to offer, with galleries as well as music performances and theater. I spent my time in the galleries, checking out an exhibit by a Northern photographer as well as one dedicated to the place's namesake, artist L.S. Lowry, who was a revelation.
Lowry's work, though obscure even among art enthusiasts, is a precursor to the high-low mix that speaks to today. These days, he might be considered an outsider artist, and some of his paintings, including "A Fight" and "Coming From the Mill," both from the 1930s, could come from a contemporary graphic novel.
In fact, a highlight of the Lowry exhibit was a video for the Oasis song "The Masterplan," in which the band members, who grew up nearby, walk through a cityscape of the artist's paintings.
The War Museum, whose complex, shard-like steel building was designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, was something else entirely. It's a heavy but somehow entertaining experience, and you get none of the celebratory spirit that war sometimes evokes: This is a culture that has seen clearly just how brutal war can be.
It's sobering to walk through an exhibit that makes you a foot soldier in World War I or to stand next to a (deactivated) nuclear bomb or watch an old public service film about what to do in case of an atomic attack. Every hour, the lights go out and images of war are projected on a wall.
For me, some of the highlights were more whimsical: The museum and gift shop have an extensive collection of recruiting and propaganda posters from World Wars I and II. "Women of Britain, Come Into the Factories!"
Too prosperous to inspire punk?
For better or worse, the environment that formed the heyday of Manchester music is gone.
If punk came from anger, boredom and art schools, then Manchester was a perfect breeding ground. Today, the city may simply be too prosperous and bourgeois.
It's easy to escape to London (about two hours by train) or to the village charms of the Peak District — England's first national park and home to some intensely green countryside.
But I'd urge visitors eager for a fuller experience of Britain to check out Manchester and its unknown pleasures: Pop Boutique and its '60s clothes and retro furniture, Oklahoma's vegetarian food and groovy gift shop, the artsy bookstore Magma, the neo-Gothic Town Hall, the just-restored medieval-style John Rylands University Library, and an outdoor market with artisanal Lancashire cheeses and smoked sausages.
In his witty and insightful "The English: A Portrait of a People," Jeremy Paxman writes that his countrymen, despite all evidence to the contrary, continue to imagine their nation as a rural, cottage-y southern hamlet.
This view led them to overlook the charms of the industrial north, and this self-image spread to America.
For lovers of music and culture, it's essential to get past this romantic prejudice. You're cheating yourself if you avoid England's grittier cities. A place like Manchester may not be for everyone, but for a certain kind of traveler, there's no better place.