Liverpool is Great Britain's second largest seaport, handling millions of tons of cargo a year along miles of docks. The city boasts the famous Grand National Steeplechase, is home to renowned soccer teams (and infamous soccer fans) and played host last summer to Britain's first International Garden Festival.

It has 2,400 acres of manicured parks, the world's largest Anglican cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral shaped like a space capsule, an international maritime museum and a new waterfront development that is a cross between Baltimore's Harborplace and Boston's Quincy Market.

But I went there because it is the birthplace of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

This gritty, impoverished industrial city on the River Mersey (population 550,000) is ready for people like me now. After years of ignoring, and even scorning, "the Beatles thing," Liverpool has rediscovered its most celebrated former citizens and is indulging the thousands of Beatles fans who arrive each year in search of Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields.

The enduring worldwide popularity of the Beatles -- together and as individual songwriters and performers -- is one reason visitors are drawn to Liverpool 15 years after the group broke up. The death of John Lennon, gunned down outside his New York apartment building in 1980, is another.

Earlier this month, on the fifth anniversary of Lennon's Dec. 8 murder, admirers made a poignant pilgrimage to his birthplace. They attended a memorial concert, took special coach tours of "Lennon's Liverpool" and explored the downtown former warehouse district where the Beatles first attracted attention playing at the Cavern club.

Located on England's west coast and less than a three-hour train ride from London, Liverpool has long had its share of Beatles-awed visitors, especially between May and September.

Yet until Lennon's death, according to tourist officials, the city the Beatles made famous did little to recognize or promote the group's Liverpool roots. There was no tourist office, and Beatles fans were hard put to find even a post card paying tribute to them.

"There's always been a fair amount of people coming here because of interest in the Beatles," said Ron Jones, Liverpool's tourism development officer. "But there was literally nothing for them to do and no information about where the Beatles lived or the clubs they played in."

Today, as my cousin and I discovered on a recent bittersweet stopover from Ireland to London, all that has changed.

"Ringo's first job was as a junior porter at Lime Street Station . But he quit because he found out that junior porters couldn't get a porter's cap for a year . . . George's first job was as an electrician's apprentice . . . This is where Paul worked delivering department store goods . . . Here's the former Registry Office where John's parents, George's parents and John and Cynthia got married. But John's Aunt Mimi wouldn't go because Cynthia was pregnant."

This report comes from Anne Morton, and she should know. For the past three years she's been guiding tourists around the Beatles' Liverpool, pointing out significant and not-so-significant landmarks in the lives of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. She knew Beatles manager Brian Epstein in the early 1960s and has interviewed family members, friends and former wives about how things were before and after Beatlemania.

The "Fab Four" grew up in tightly clustered communities to the east and southeast of Liverpool's city center, their trademark accents reflecting the Irish and Welsh ancestry common to most Liverpudlians. But the downtown sector, spreading inland from the city's Pier Head and meshing a dockside shipping center with classic-style civic buildings, opulent Victorian mansions and outworn pre-World War I housing, was as familiar to them as their own neighborhoods.

Morton, an authorized Merseyside County tourist board guide, conducts walking, car and coach tours. She relishes sharing personal tidbits about the Beatles -- while dispelling the myths.

"Everybody says 'those four poor boys from Liverpool.' Rubbish! John Lennon was NOT a poor boy.

"Ringo and George lived in some of the poorest, and not the most interesting, parts of the city . . . Paul lived in eight different houses in Liverpool. He used to live in the same area as George but moved to a better house when he was 13 . . . John was brought up by his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George because his mother was living with a man and it was not considered a good environment. Aunt Mimi's house was across the street from a park and golf course, definitely not a working-class neighborhood."

On this mid-October day, Morton is driving a yellow minibus full of Australian, English and American tourists. The crowds, of all ages, aren't what they were in August, when Liverpool held its annual weekend Beatles Convention for more than 2,000 avid fans. But the year-round interest is enough to justify a daily tour.

"The Beatles are an around-the-year attraction . . . but I can't see that we'll be going around like this 25 years from now for any other group."

Some locals say they never did like the Beatles and don't understand all this fuss over four guys who drank too much, took drugs and moved away. Other home-towners, no different from much of the world, loved them and their music but resent the heavy commercialism that has since sprung up around the group's memory.

Still, in a city with high unemployment, urban decay and major declines in shipping and related industries, there is general agreement that the Beatles have put Liverpool on the tourist map -- and that this is probably a good thing.

The infusion of tourists has had an effect on Liverpool much like that described by a critic when he first heard the Beatles -- and called their songs "musical boulders dropped into still waters." These days, the city seems again energized by its Beatles heritage and has been spurred to offer assistance and a variety of events to attract and accommodate even more fans of the group:

*Japan, home of the world's largest Beatles fan club, accounts for so many visitors that the tourist office now has a Japanese-speaking guide to show them around.

*The "Beatle City" museum, a truly stunning collection of personal and performance memorabilia -- everything from McCartney's childhood nursery rhyme book to the console on which Lennon mixed "Imagine" -- has attracted more than 300,000 people since it opened in April 1984.

*Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery drew thousands to its five-month "Art of the Beatles" exhibit last year. Lennon's first wife, Cynthia, an artist who designed one commemorative plaque and has helped plan some of the city's Beatles tributes since John's death, attended the show's opening. A catalogue of the exhibition, which featured paintings, drawings and photographs by and about the Beatles and their music, is a brisk seller at the tourist center.

*The city is already preparing for its fourth annual Beatles Convention, scheduled for Sept. 13 and 14 at Liverpool's Britannia Adelphi Hotel, an event expected to bring more than 2,000 enthusiasts to town for that one weekend alone. Conventioneers take in Beatles sights, exchange Beatles keepsakes and other souvenirs and listen to the group's old Liverpool pals tell how it all began.

*Mathew Street, where the group's future manager Brian Epstein dropped by the basement Cavern one noontime to see the show, has been spruced up and is now the hub of Beatles tourism. Once a strip of dilapidated warehouses and a few jazz clubs, this narrow side street off the city's center is where you'll find the souvenir-laden Beatles Shop and the John Lennon Memorial Society Headquarters.

*The posh Cavern Walks shopping complex, also located on Mathew Street, opened last year. It contains trendy stores -- and indoor statues of the Beatles that don't look anything like them. A more fitting tribute can be found on nearby Stanley Street, where musical comedy star Tommy Steele's "Eleanor Rigby" sculpture is as powerfully moving as the Lennon-McCartney song about all the lonely people.

*Liverpool's tourist office, which didn't exist five years ago, now offers several "MerseyBeatle Weekend" packages and "Day Tripper" excursions for Beatles lovers. And if you had a favorite Beatle -- didn't everyone? -- you can visit on the anniversary of Ringo's (July 7, 1940), John's (Oct. 9, 1940), Paul's (June 18, 1942) or George's (Feb. 25, 1943) birthday, and immerse yourself in tailor-made tours.

The standard tourist itinerary, however, includes a look (usually from the outside) at where each of the Beatles was born and lived, where they began performing together, where they drank and hung out afterward, where they got the inspiration for some of their best-loved songs and where they gave their last Liverpool concert (Empire Theatre, December 1965).

"Now this is St. Peter's Church where John went to Sunday school and where he was confirmed. But it's also an important spot, maybe the most important, because this is where John's skiffle group, the Quarry Men, was invited to play at a garden party behind the church. And afterward, in the church hall over there, is when John met Paul.

"John used to forget the words to songs, sometimes while he was in the middle of singing them. But Paul knew all the words and John invited him to join the group. They were very competitive at first. But if those two had never been introduced, who knows? There might never have been any Beatles."

There is some disagreement about the date of this fateful meeting, however. Some guides and guidebooks say it was June 15, 1956. Others say it was July 6, 1957. McCartney, according to interviews, just remembers that Lennon "leaned an arm on my shoulder and I realized that he was drunk!"

Though it's probably apparent by now, I confess that my cousin and I behaved like complete Beatles fools in Liverpool. Overcome by nostalgia and affection, two grown women who never once screamed at the Beatles' concerts hung on every tiny detail of their formative years.

We climbed off the bus for a closer look at their old homes. We snapped pictures of Hessy's, the music store where they and other Merseybeat performers (remember Gerry and the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas?) bought their instruments. We lingered at the ornate red entrance gates to Strawberry Field, which, unlike the Beatles song, has no "s" on the end, and where adoring graffiti has been scrawled in several languages.

"Strawberry Field is the Salvation Army Children's Home, and these were the gates to what was then a big Victorian mansion near John's home. As a child, he used to attend the parties that were held outdoors for the children. They were very elaborate and entertaining . . . and it probably did seem to him then, coming from a broken home, that this was the most beautiful place in the world, and that nothing was real . . . Yoko Ono sends money to the home on John's birthday."

But as self-conscious as we were about our behavior, we learned that others have had more fitful attacks of idolatry.

Some cry when they come face to face with a Beatles-related landmark; others trespass. Strawberry Field, for example, is locked to keep out curious intruders. The present owners of "Mendips," the semi-detached house where Lennon grew up, finally had to post a warning notice against unwelcome guests.

One woman was so overcome with excitement upon visiting Strawberry Field, and so intent on getting a photograph, that she darted across the busy roadway in front of it without looking and was hit by a car and killed.

Most Beatles tourists, however, behave more safely, if not sanely.

While roaming Ringo's old neighborhood, located in the decaying Dingle section of the city, one man hopped off the tour bus and ran inside the drummer's favorite pub to buy a bottle of beer. Other fans have been known to get their hair cut or "use the loo" in the vicinity of Penny Lane. And almost all of them stock up on Beatles books, buttons, T-shirts and other souvenirs.

For Liverpool visitors, there are several types of group, private and self-guided Beatles tours, including some that show off the city's other noteworthy attractions. The downtown tourist office can book most of the outings for you.

With a $1.25 "Beatles' Liverpool" map, fans can explore the city center and close-in sights on foot and on their own. A $4.50 minibus or "Magical Mystery Tour" coach -- the same one used in the film -- takes Beatles tourists further afield. About $25 to $30, depending on mileage, buys a guide who will chauffeur true Beatlemaniacs any place they want to go during a three-hour private car tour.

See where John went to art school, where his first son, Julian, now a fledgling song artist himself, was born; where Paul unsuccessfully auditioned for the church choir; where Ringo spent months in a children's convalescent home; where George and Paul attended high school -- right next door to where John was drawing humorous cartoons at art college.

Wander Penny Lane, where the street sign has been swiped so many times it is now permanently painted along the roadside. The "round-about" or traffic circle of the song still has some of the spots that inspired it, such as the bank, the barber shop and the bus stop, as well as newer touristy attractions like Sgt. Pepper's Country Kitchen.

"Actually, Penny Lane is an area to Liverpudlians, not just a lane. The old bus shelter is where they changed buses on the way to school, so you see, it was something -- the round-about, the bank, the barber shop -- they passed every day."

Be advised that some places once linked to the Beatles, such as Brian Epstein's record store and the original Cavern, don't exist anymore. The record store is now an electrical appliances shop. The subterranean Cavern club, where the Beatles drew increasingly frenzied crowds and gave 292 lunchtime and evening shows, was demolished in the early 1970s and replaced by a parking lot. A reopened replica gets mixed reviews.

Even the houses where Harrison, McCartney and Starr (Richard Starkey) lived have been neatened up considerably since the days of their famous inhabitants. The city, trying to put on its best face for tourists, also has set aside some funds for the general upkeep of those blocks where any of the Beatles grew up.

A special warning to George fans: The standard Beatles tour takes visitors to several homes associated with the Beatles. Three of them (Lennon's at 251 Menlove Ave., Paul's at 20 Forthlin Rd. and Starr's at 10 Admiral Grove) are where they lived as teen-agers and where their families remained until the group started having hit records.

But the Harrison house on the post cards and on the official tour (12 Arnold Grove) was only his home until the age of 6. To see where he lived during his early Beatles days, and where his mother let the group come over to practice, you need to go to the city's outlying Speke section. Here, too, the house at 25 Upton Green sits off a grassy cul-de-sac that is maintained by city funds just because a Beatle once lived there.

Other tour spots, such as Ye Cracke, still frequented by the art college crowd, and the Grapes Pub, where the Beatles and other Cavern musicians gathered after performances, remain virtually unchanged.

"Pete Best, who was the original drummer before Ringo replaced him, still lives in Liverpool and was a speaker at last year's Beatles convention. He's done a book about those early days. He used to work as a baker, but now he works for the city's social services department. He and his mother are reopening the Casbah, where he and the others played before they started performing at the Cavern."

When I told an English friend that I wouldn't be visiting his family in London until after my Beatles pilgrimage to Liverpool, he wrote back that he was "intrigued" by my choice. He remarked on the city's economic woes, its hooligan soccer crowds (held largely responsible for the deaths of 38 people at a Brussels match in May) and its current battles with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher over budget cuts.

"I warn you that a possible comparison to your visit might be for an English person to go to Detroit because that's the home of Motown," he wrote. "It ain't Stratford-upon-Avon!"

He was more approving of my plans to visit Chester, Liverpool's nearby picturesque neighbor, where Tudor-style shops and remnants of a medieval wall satisfy a tourist's idea of England.

All that aside, I would like to report -- and the tourist office would like me to report -- that there are perfectly lovely sights in Liverpool that have little if anything to do with the Beatles.

Guide Morton, for one, eagerly expanded our private Beatles tour to take in the city's two famous cathedrals, its Albert Docks waterfront complex and the ornate Philharmonic Pub, with its mosaic floors, rosewood paneling, stained glass and, in the men's facilities only, marble bathroom.

The cathedrals, one Anglican and the other Roman Catholic, were both built in the 20th century, but that's about all they have in common. The traditional-looking Liverpool Cathedral, besides being the place where Paul flunked his choir audition, is said to be the largest Anglican cathedral in the world and to have the largest organ anywhere, with nearly 10,000 pipes. The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King looks like an inverted space capsule or funnel, and the Lantern Tower stretching heavenward contains more than 25,000 separate pieces of stained glass in a continuous progression of every color in the spectrum.

"Liverpool is the birthplace of the Beatles, but a lot of tourists come here for other things," said Pauline Spencer, the Merseyside County Council's tourism marketing assistant.

It is hoped that Albert Docks, the new multimillion-dollar retail, recreation and residential development along the river, will become the city's beauty spot and spark other commercial renovations.

In 1984, Liverpool paid tribute to the Beatles by awarding its four members the highest honor it could bestow, the Freedom of the City. McCartney accepted his award in person, praising the people of the city as "more soulful, more intelligent, more kind, more filled with common sense" than anywhere else in the world.

"Neither presidents or prime ministers are half as nice as some of the people I know from Liverpool -- salt of the earth," he said.

None of the surviving Beatles or members of their immediate families live in Liverpool today. They long ago moved out and up. McCartney sometimes visits relatives who still live in the area, and Ringo Starr dropped by last year for the garden festival, which featured a Beatles exhibit. Last January, Yoko Ono gave Sean Lennon, 10, a tour of his father's home town.

"This is No. 9 Newcastle Road, where John lived with his mother and grandparents until he was 2 and moved to his Aunt Mimi's. Now he felt the number nine had a lot of significance in his life, and there does seem to be something to that. He was born on Oct. 9, he lived in No. 9 Newcastle, his son Sean had the same birthday, and he died on Dec. 9, according to British time."

Numerology skeptics should note that the Beatles made their American television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964. The group also met manager Epstein, who added professional seasoning, on Nov. 9, 1961, according to some guidebooks, and Lennon was introduced to Yoko on that same date five years later.

I ended my Beatles sojourn at the Beatle City museum on downtown Seel Street. Sponsored by a Liverpool radio station, it is a Smithsonian-quality collection of memorabilia, wonderfully displayed, that only a home town could put together. Admission is about $3, half that for children, the disabled and the unemployed.

Starting with giant-sized photocopies of their birth announcements in local newspapers, the exhibition uses music, photographs, drawings, letters and old newsreels and other filmed performances and interviews, including rare footage from the Cavern, to capture the Beatles and their times. It traces their childhood and teen-age years, the early Beatle days, the heady and brash success of Beatlemania, the transition from pop stars to musical legends, and the acrimony and sadness surrounding the breakup. Separate exhibits chronicle their later separate careers.

Ironically, and museum officials swear it was a coincidence, the ninth and final section of the museum is devoted to Lennon. The day I was there someone had left a rose.