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During the height of the British Empire in the 19th century, Liverpool was the second most important city after London. Given city status by King John in 1207, Liverpool's favorable position on the River Mersey, along with its direct canal and railway links to the industrial Midlands, gave it an advantage to develop as a major international trading port. Shipbuilding yards, repair yards and docks stretched for miles along both banks. In the days before air travel, passenger liner companies such as Cunard and Canadian Pacific carried millions of immigrants to new lives in North America, and other steamship lines connected Liverpool with South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. In the early 20th century, 100 passenger ships were Liverpool-registered.
At Pier Head, the liners moored alongside a half-mile-long landing stage while boat trains arrived at Riverside Station from London and other British cities for direct transfers to the ships. Just prior to WWI, Cunard Line built a brand-new headquarters facing the waterfront, flanked by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board (now Port of Liverpool Building) and the impressive Royal Liver Building that we see today. The four clock faces on the last-named are the largest in Britain, 2.5 feet bigger than London's Big Ben. Just inland from Pier Head rose other shipping line headquarters, mercantile trading companies and civic buildings, creating what is now (as of 2004) a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city boasts some 2,500 grade listed (historic) buildings and 250 public monuments. The Albert Dock (1848), a major tourist destination today, makes up Britain's largest group of Grade I listed buildings.
Beginning in the 1960's, when England declined as an industrial powerhouse, its colonies became independent nations, and shipping fortunes withered and moved elsewhere, Liverpool fell on very hard times. At the same time, Liverpool began to hit the headlines as the birthplace of the Beatles and the mania that followed. The present turnabout began about five years ago, and today the city is a major building site with new apartments, office buildings and hotels springing up, especially along the revived waterfront. Liverpool One, a one billion pound retail center and the largest in any city in Europe, is under construction just inland from Albert Dock.
Liverpool's designation as the European Capital of Culture for 2008 is a tremendous boost to the city's pride, and much work is in progress to celebrate the honor. For cruise passengers, the new cruise ship landing stage and a revamped Pier Head skyline will be the first and most visible signs. Several hundred celebratory events are planned throughout the year -- these events encompass music, visual arts, performing arts, sports, architecture and heritage.
Cruise passengers descending on the city will find a warm welcome from Liverpudlians who are enjoying renewed confidence that their city has overcome its beleaguered past. Nearly everything of interest to the visitor is within a 10- to 30-minute walk or a short train under or boat ride across the River Mersey.
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Other British Isles & Western Europe Cruise Ports:
Amsterdam • Antwerp • Belfast • Berlin • Bilbao • Brugge • Brussels • Dublin • Edinburgh • Ghent • Hamburg • Holyhead • Lisbon • Liverpool • London • London (Dover) • London (Harwich) • London (Southampton) • Newcastle • Paris • Paris (Le Havre) • Paris (Rouen) • Prague • Rotterdam • St. Peter Port (Guernsey) • Vigo
When in England, English is always your best bet.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the British Pound (the U.K. has opted out of the euro). At press time, 1 GBP was equivalent to approximately $2 U.S.; for current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. You will find ATM's at many bank branches. Banks usually take a commission from exchanging currency, while some travel agents and exchange offices advertise commission-free exchange. Check the rates they offer, as they do need to make their profit somehow! Credit cards are widely accepted, but please note that many taxis do not take them.
Beatles souvenirs of any kind -- post cards, photos, refrigerator magnets, mugs, glasses, tea towels, ties, socks, books and of course music. Purchases may be made at the Beatles Story, Albert Dock and several Mathew Street stores, located four blocks inland from Pier Head.
Where You're Docked
Most cruise ships now moor to the newly rebuilt Pier Head Landing Stage, a floating pontoon structure that allows gangway disembarking at any stage of the Mersey's considerable tidal variations. The location is adjacent to the famous skyline trio of the Royal Liver Building, former Cunard headquarters and the Port of Liverpool Building. It is but a ten-minute walk upriver to the Albert Dock for the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the Beatles Story and several good lunchtime restaurants. Buses, including the hop-on-and-off sightseeing services, are a five-minute walk, while the ferries across the Mersey depart from an adjacent upriver landing stage. The historic center begins one block inland.
Two hop-on-and-off bus operators are City Sightseeing and City Explorer Bus Tour. The latter's Web site gives details for mini-break passes that include such attractions as City Explorer, the Beatles Story, Mersey Ferries, Seacombe Aquarium and the Tower Experience at Liverpool Cathedral. Both operators, plus local buses, stop at Pier Head. The nearest Merseyrail (local trains) stop is two blocks inland at James Street Station behind the Port of Liverpool Building.
The song "Ferry Across the Mersey" is played when you board and leave one of Liverpool's historic boats that sail between the city and the opposite bank. During rush hours, the ferries carry commuters between Liverpool and Seacombe, a suburb, but it's the off-peak hours (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) that will interest most visitors. The roomy boats, built in the 1960's, have lots of indoor and outdoor seating, as well as a snack bar. Departing the landing stage, the boat heads down the Mersey past the former docks, warehouses and new housing construction, then crosses the river stopping at Seacombe (Wallasey) for the aquarium and an attractive riverside walk to New Brighton, an old-fashioned resort town. The second stop is Woodside (Birkenhead) for the city's heritage trail. Birkenhead had the first publicly funded park, serving as a model for what would become New York's Central Park. Ferries leave Liverpool on the hour from Pier Head, adjacent to the cruise ship landing stage. To make the 50-minute cruise, buy a River Explorer ticket that costs 5.10 pounds; seniors 3.70.
Mathew Street, four blocks inland from Pier Head, is the site for much of Liverpool's live D.J. rock and roll entertainment, including the Cavern Club and the Cavern Pub, both with Beatles connections. Several stores have Beatles memorabilia for sale. The Hard Day's Night Hotel, with a Beatles theme, is set to open in early 2008. A free music festival takes place here every August Bank Holiday.
The Merseyside Maritime Museum is a must, for it reflects the city's considerable shipping history as one of the world's greatest seaports. Exhibits include Liverpool's shipbuilders with some outstanding passenger liner models on display; ship disasters featuring the Titanic, Lusitania and Empress of Ireland (the Forgotten Empress); Battle of the Atlantic about Liverpool in World War II; videos showing the liner Reina del Mar's maiden voyage from Liverpool to Valparaiso, Chile, in the mid-1950's and a Booth Line voyage up to Amazon to Peru in 1960; emigration of millions from Liverpool to the New World; and personal accounts about the life of gay crewmembers working at sea. A brand-new section is devoted to international slavery from the Middle Passage days to the present and includes such current topics as human rights, personal freedom and racial discrimination. Videos reveal present-day treatment such as child kidnapping in India and household slavery. The Cafe on the 4th floor is decorated with steamship line flags and shipping posters. Albert Dock. Open daily 10am-5pm. Admission is free.
The Beatles Story reveals the singers' early lives in Liverpool and their rise to stardom, and it is located in the Britannia vaults of an Albert Dock warehouse. Be sure to take the audio tour narrated mostly by John Lennon's sister Julia for a room-to-room description, plus optional extra reminisces of the four lads' rise to fame and fortune. Examples of the various segments describe their living through working class childhoods and hard times; being discovered at the Casbah and the Cavern; meeting and teaming up with Brian Epstein; and taking America and the Ed Sullivan Show by storm. Albert Dock. Open daily 10am-6pm. Admission 9.99 pounds (6.99 for seniors and children).
A visit to the Liverpool Cathedral (Anglican) is highly recommended, especially on a day with good visibility as the view from the tower is outstanding. The Gothic church is visible from most parts of the city and when coming up the Mersey by ship. It's a half-hour walk from the waterfront; the second part is uphill as the cathedral sits on a high point of land in an attractive residential and park setting. You can plan your route to pass the Metropolitan Cathedral, a round 1960's Roman Catholic church topped with a glass crown of thorns, or you can walk past the oldest Chinatown in Europe, marked by the largest arch outside of China. The hop-on-and-off tour buses stop at the entrance.
Built over a long period during the 20th century, the cathedral was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974, but its Gothic revival architecture gives a much older impression. It rates as the largest cathedral in Britain, the second largest in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. Volunteers circulate to describe the vast interior's religious and decorative features. The worthwhile climb to the Vestry Tower (331 feet high) is via two sets of elevators and some 108 narrow stone steps. From the top, you can see the entire city, the River Mersey, and the distant Pennine and Welsh hills. Light meals and snacks are available in the Mezzanine Cafe Bar and hot meals in the Refectory. St. James' Mount. Open Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday Noon-2:30 p.m.; Admission to the cathedral is free; Admission to the Tower Experience is 4.25 pounds (3.50 seniors).
For art lovers, the Walker Gallery exhibits such periods as the 17th century masters (Rembrandt, Rubens and Ruysdael); 18th century British (Gainsborough, Reynolds and Wedgwood); Impressionism (Cezanne, Degas, Matisse, Monet and Rodin); Romanticism and early 19th century British (Constable and Turner); plus Medieval, Renaissance and High Victorian periods crafts, designs and sculptures. William Brown Street (next to the Library and World Museum Liverpool and opposite St. George's Hall for music festivals and the Empire Theater for staging plays). Attractive Gallery Cafe in the entrance lobby. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free.
Been There, Done That
A slightly out-of-town option is a visit to the attractive planned garden suburb that William Lever (the Sunlight Soap manufacturers) built at Port Sunlight in 1888. As the founder of Lever Brothers, his objective was to provide a then unparalleled standard of living for his workers. He hired 30 architects to create a square-mile village of residential housing, churches, recreational facilities, stores and areas of open space. The village is still very much inhabited, and the original factory building remains on the site. The Sunlight Vision Museum provides a new visitors' center and a film that shows life here in late Victorian and Edwardian times. Lady Lever, Lord Lever's wife, built an art museum to house her considerable collection of 18th and 19th century paintings and porcelain, decorative arts and furniture. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Free admission. Port Sunlight is easily reached in 12 minutes by Merseyrail with trains leaving James Street Station (two blocks from Pier Head) every 15 minutes to Bebington Station and a signposted ten-minute walk.
Several popular lunchtime eateries (open by 11 a.m.) are located within walking distance of the landing stage in the mid-19th century World Heritage buildings that make up the Albert Dock warehouses. Est Est Est is an Italian/Mediterranean-style restaurant located next door to the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Blue Bar & Grill offers an eclectic menu with grilled specialties, and dining is inside or outside on a balcony overlooking the waterfront.
One restaurant with an ocean liner theme is the Seven Seas Restaurant at the Liner Hotel, Lord Nelson Street, just to the left of Lime Street (railroad) Station and one block up. The lobby, bar, restaurant, function rooms, corridors and bedrooms are attractively decorated with shipping posters, prints and photographs. Fresh fish menu items are a good choice. The Liner is also a moderately priced and well-located hotel option.
Hope Street (along the way to the Gothic-style Liverpool Cathedral and the starkly modern Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King) is the city's "restaurant row," and two choices are the London Carriage Works at No. 40, which offers brasseries food at lunch along with the city's largest wine list, and Everyman Bistro No. 5-9 for what are billed as “Cheap Eats” -- pub-style food, homemade soups and salads.
Staying in Touch
The best location for Internet access is Liverpool Central Library located to the left of the Walker Gallery on William Brown Street.
In the Steps of the Beatles -- 3.25 hours, $69
First drive out to see Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields; then in the city center, walk along Mathew Street to see monuments to the Beatles and visit the Cavern Club, one of the night clubs where they got their start. In the Albert Dock, visit the Beatles Story, where an audio tour will take you step by step from their rough and tumble childhood upbringing to their triumphant arrival in America and their spot on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Village of Port Sunlight & Lady Lever Art Gallery -- 3.5 hours, $63
Cross the River Mersey to the Wirral Peninsula where in the late 19th century soap magnate William Lever established a model workers' village with residences, stores, recreational facilities and parks built to a standard never seen before. Lady Lever, his wife, amassed a fabulous art collection -- paintings, porcelain and furniture -- that is housed, or rather crammed, into the village art gallery.
Anfield: the Liverpool Football Experience -- 4 hours, $74
For the sports-minded person who wants to understand England's passion for the game, learn about the history of the Liverpool Football (American soccer) Club that dates back to 1892 and has won more honors than any other English team at home or in Europe. Take a tour of the club's museums and its trophies, and enjoy a behind-the-scenes visit to Anfield Stadium's dressing rooms, the tunnel and the dugout.
For More Information
On the Web: Visit Liverpool, Liverpool 08 and Mersey Travel
Cruise Critic Message Boards: British Isles/Western Europe
--by Theodore W. Scull, a New York City-based travel writer with more than four years at sea on cruise ships, ocean liners, cargo ships, cruise ferries, barges and river boats.
Image of Titanic appears courtesy of The Merseyside Maritime Museum; image of Beatles audio tour appears courtesy of The Beatles Story.