At this time of year some of the world's most exciting cities have a special sparkle - a perfect reason to combine a holiday with a seasonal spending spree.
Christmas shopping by September, you may be feeling very un-festive at the prospect of trudging up and down your local high street or trawling the internet for hours to buy presents.
But there is an alternative. Next year, why not use that present list as an excuse to plan a glamorous escape and combine your shopping with a London show or exhibition, a romantic dinner in Paris or Rome, or sightseeing in New York or Boston. Here, experts tell you where to shop in each destination to find the best buys and bargains - both at Christmas and year round.
At this time of year the capital is seized with a happily frenzied mood that brings mulled wine in the pubs, festive lights in the shops, carol singers by Tube stations and gangs of City workers sporting paper crowns. And there's you, climbing into a black cab with a fistful of smart carrier bags...
And while the traditional thrill of the post-Christmas sales can be undermined by early discounting, it's still a great time to go up to town - last year more than 8000 bargain-hunters waited eagerly for the doors of Selfridges to open on Boxing Day. Key diary dates are December 10 and 11, when Oxford Street stages a traffic-free shopping weekend, and December 26, when most sales start. A few stores, including Harrods and Fenwick Bond Street, wait until December 27, a public holiday this year.
Buy for Christmas
If you're a one-store Christmas shopper, make a beeline for Liberty (Regent St; liberty.co.uk) or John Lewis (300 Oxford St; johnlewis.com). Spitalfields Market (oldspitalfieldsmarket.com), nearby Redchurch Street and Brick Lane are cheerful hunting grounds for on-trend, independently crafted gifts (good for tricky teenagers). For old-school schmaltz in a glittering riverside setting visit the Christmas Market on the South Bank (southbankcentre.co.uk).
Menswear shops to check out are the new Topman General Store (98 Commercial St; topman.com) and the flagship branch of Liam Gallagher's Pretty Green (57 Carnaby St; www.prettygreen.com). Close by at 31 Fouberts Place, the skincare products at Cowshed Carnaby (www.cowshedonline.com) will go down a treat with most women, and harassed parents can seek instant salvation at the pop-up Harry Potter Shop at Harrods (87-135 Brompton Rd; www.harrods.com).
Muji (nine outlets; www.muji.eu) and Labour and Wait (85 Redchurch St; www.labourandwait.co.uk) are smart stops for stocking-fillers while Oh Baby (162 Brick Lane; www.ohbabylondon.com) has clothes for the rock'n'roll infant. If you want to get the family on their marks for next year's Olympics, bag some souvenir merchandise - including a jolly Union Jack teapot - from the London 2012 Shop at St Pancras International (Euston Rd; www.stpancras.com/shop).
Fine wine from Berry Bros & Rudd (3 St James's St; www.bbr.com), diligently sourced coffee beans from Monmouth Coffee (three shops; www.monmouthcoffee.co.uk), gourmet treats from Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly; www.fortnumandmason.com).
Head to Cass Art (www.cassart.co.uk) for discounted art materials and Daunt Books (www.dauntbooks.co.uk) for a wide choice of travel reading. Visit Tracy Neuls (two shops; www.tn29.com) for outstanding women's shoes, or, if you're a cautious type, bag a finely crafted umbrella from James Smith & Sons (53 New Oxford St; www.james-smith.co.uk).
Most department stores, including Debenhams (0844 561 6161; email@example.com), offer a free personal shopping service. For an upmarket bespoke tour, see www.londonluxuryquarter.com.
Where to stay
A two-night Christmas Shopping Break at The Cadogan (020 7235 7141; www.cadogan.com) in Knightsbridge costs from pounds 588 for two, including a pounds 100 Harrods Gift Card, a pounds 50 food voucher for use in the hotel, a full English breakfast, plus wine and mince pies on arrival.
- Nigel Tisdall
It's hard to imagine New York with an extra skip in its stride, but it happens in the weeks before Christmas. Perhaps it's the brandy punch cocktails, but more likely it's the shopping.
Just a stroll down the Holiday Walk - the Christmas-light nativity displays in the windows of the department stores on Fifth Avenue - will melt the most hardened consumer's heart. There's no Christmas sale season in New York - sales take place all year - but Black Friday, the rather un-festive sounding Friday after Thanksgiving (November 25 this year), is when major chain stores cut their prices by up to 50 per cent.
However, it's not all about sales - with the strong Aussie dollar, you'll find the prices of many items (particularly designer clothing) are much cheaper even without discounts.
New York has an extra skip in its stride at Christmas. Photo: Getty Images.
Buy for Christmas
The grand department stores are frenetic at this time of the year, so opt for smaller boutiques or design outlets away from the crowds.
Get a "scent" of the city at Bond No9 (www.bondno9.com), a chic perfumerie with five city shops, where the fragrances - Madison Soiree, Nuits de Noho, Park Avenue - are named after New York neighbourhoods.
You can get Paul Smith duds in the UK, but the Paul Smith Sale Shop (280 Grand St; www.paulsmith.co.uk) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a wonder: it sells marked-down items collected from all the other PS stores in the US. Suede shoes, porkpie hats and pinstripe suits sit alongside obscure miscellanea such as, er, ukuleles. For custom-made men's and women's wear (cotton shirts, suits, pyjamas), style slaves swear by Seize sur Vingt (78 Greene St; www.16sur20.com) in trendy Nolita, and in the Plaza Hotel in Midtown.
For great last-minute gifts, Il Papiro (1021 Lexington Ave; 212 288 9330), on the Upper East Side, is a jewel-box-sized Florentine stationer's selling exquisite photo albums, leather-bound address books and engraved paper.
Downtown, C Wonder, just opened in Soho (72 Spring St; www.wonder.com), is a preppy homeware store. Buy ceramic trays, graphic pillows, lacquer boxes and other giftware.
The presence of so many fabled department stores elevates the New York shopping experience.
The Midtown classic Bergdorf Goodman (754 Fifth Ave; www.bergdorfgoodman.com) has eight floors of designer wear featuring every name from Alexander McQueen to Zac Posen; don't miss the superb handbag collection, with the latest creations from Nancy Gonzalez, on the main floor.
A few doors south, Henri Bendel (712 Fifth Ave; www.henribendel.com) stocks cosmetics, jewellery and luxuries from established and promising designers, as well as its own-brand label. The famous brown-and-white striped Henri Bendel cosmetic bag, created by Mr Bendel himself more than 100 years ago, makes a great present.
On the East Side, Barneys (660 Madison Ave; www.barneys.com) is sophisticated shopping without pretence: try the superb collection of men's designer cufflinks. The new Co-op Floor offers funkier fashions for the younger set (as do three Co-op shops around the city).
Chic Inspiration (www.chicinspiration.com; firstname.lastname@example.org) is an acclaimed personal shopping and styling firm that advises corporate and private clients - men, too - on everything from Christmas gifts to where to get their hair done.
- Douglas Rogers
Paris' Galeries Lafayette department store offers vast choice, with magical Christmas windows. Photo: AFP
With its vast array of small boutiques, it's hard to beat Paris for shopping. The key retail districts, St-Germain-des-Pres, the Marais and rue St-Honore, are also beautiful historic areas to explore, and full of atmosphere at Christmas.
For one-shop buying, the boulevard Haussmann department stores Galeries Lafayette (above, www.galerieslafayette.com) and Printemps (printemps.com) offer vast choice, and their Christmas windows are magical. Many shops will be open on the three Sundays leading up to Christmas and they almost all offer a gift-wrapping service, which is free, though it's usual to leave a few coins as a tip.
Buy for Christmas
For a classic Christmas present, sniff out scents that are hard to find elsewhere at L'Artisan Parfumeur (www.artisanparfumeur.com) and Etat Libre d'Orange (69 rue des Archives; www.etatlibredorange.com). Maison Francis Kurkdjian (5 rue d'Alger; www.franciskurkdjian.com) stocks original scents, creates bespoke perfumes (by appointment) and even sells perfumed bubble mixture, a luxurious stocking filler.
Lafayette Gourmet (at Galeries Lafayette) has everything from grocery basics to modish macarons and incredible vintage bordeaux in the Bordeauxtheque; for heavenly but not extortionate chocolate try Jean-Paul Hevin (www.jphevin.com), especially the chocolate orange peel, bars of chocolate and this year's buche de noel (www.yule log). Sentou (26 boulevard Raspail; www.sentou.fr) has design objects, such as Aalto vases, or try Astier de Villatte (173 rue St-Honore; www.astierdevillatte.com) for wonky vie-de-chateau white faience, or find cheerful stocking-filler gadgets at Pylones (seven shops; www.pylones.com).
Don't forget museum shops for great gifts: Printemps Design at the Centre Pompidou (www.centrepompidou.fr) has eclectic design items, while 107Rivoli (www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr) at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, ranges from inexpensive badges and notebooks to fabulous modern jewellery and ceramics.
Winter sales start on Wednesday January 11 and last six weeks. Expect between 30 and 70 per cent off fashion, houseware and linen.
Sidestep the luxury fashion labels that you can buy anywhere and head for the mid-range boutiques that have recently shot into the limelight, such as Sandro (branches include 269 rue St-Honore, 16 rue du Vieux-Colombier; www.sandro-paris.com) and Maje (branches include 267 rue St-Honore, 42 rue du Four; www.maje-paris.com) for stylish, wearable clothes.
Try Isabel Marant (16 rue de Charonne or 1 rue Jacob; isabelmarant.tm.fr) for neo-hippy chic and Vanessa Bruno (100 rue Vieille-du-Temple; www.vanessabruno.com) for cult bags.
Good shops for children's clothes range from the Monoprix chain (branches include 71 rue St-Antoine and 50 rue de Rennes; www.monoprix.fr), with its high-quality basics, to Bonpoint's chic flagship (6 rue de Tournon; www.bonpoint.com), where luxury children's clothes are displayed around a 17th-century hotel particulier, and Serendipity (81 rue du Cherche-Midi; www.serendipity.fr) which has designer and vintage children's furniture and soft toys in a converted garage.
If you need help in coping with all the choice, contact Gail Radeau (www.gailshopping.com), a Londoner resident in the city, who will devise a tour to suit your budget and needs.
Where to stay
Hotel d'Aubusson (www.hoteldaubusson.com) has a great shopping location in St-Germain, with high-ceilinged rooms in a 17th-century mansion and a warming log fire in winter. Internet rate from euros 265 per double room a night.
- Natasha Edwards
Candlelit windows in Georgian brick homes; trees festooned with lights; carol singers on every corner: a Christmas shopping break in Boston is much more than just ticking off gifts on a list.
The city is more compact than New York (and offers even better prices), and is easily explored on foot. Sales tax is lower than in the Big Apple, so your dollars go further. The day after Thanksgiving (Nov 25) opens a five-week shopping spree, with reductions before Christmas and bigger ones from December 26, a working day in the US.
Buy for Christmas
For jewellery, try John Lewis (not that John Lewis), where chic hammered-gold necklaces are made on site (97 Newbury Street; www.johnlewisinc.com), or cross the river to the Cambridge Artists' Cooperative off Harvard Square (59A Church Street, Cambridge; www.cambridgeartistscoop.com), where much of the jewellery, and scarves, ceramics and more are made by local craftspeople.
At Faneuil Hall Marketplace (www.faneuilhallmarketplace.com), the choice ranges from stalls crammed with stocking fillers to specialist stores such as Orvis, where fly rods are cheap. For individuality, poke around Boston's up-and-coming South End district. OKW (www.pronounced o-koo; 631A Tremont Street; okwfashion.com) makes sophisticated clothes in a studio downstairs, while Gifted (2 Dartmouth Street; www.giftedboston.com) has delicate tree ornaments, handblown by the owner. Clothes, particularly sportswear and children's clothes, are good buys.
Compare prices in department stores in two indoor complexes: the Shops at Prudential Center (800 Boylston Street; www.prudentialcenter.com) and swanky Copley Place (100 Huntington Avenue; www.simon.com).
The top shopping destination is Newbury Street, a 19th-century row that mixes Bond Street glamour with funky boutiques, cafes and art galleries. At Dress, grown-up fashion comes in sensuous fabrics (No 221; www.dressboston.com); Britt Ryan's clothes are young and fun (No 291; www.brittryan.com).
Bargain-hunters head for Downtown Crossing's large discount stores. Find sporty menswear in the Eddie Bauer Outlet (500 Washington Street; www.eddiebauer.com), and clothes for men, women and children in TJ Maxx, TK's American sister (350 Washington Street; www.tjmaxx.com).
At Macy's, the nationwide department store group that offers good quality at fair prices, pick up a Welcome International Savings Card and get another 10 per cent off everything, including sales items (450 Washington Street; www.visitmacysusa.com).
Saks Fifth Avenue (800 Boylston Street; www.saksfifthavenue.com) offers a free personal shopping service: book a two-hour, one-to-one session on 001 617 937 5310.
- Kathy Arnold
Old-fashioned and unhurried ... Christmas in Rome. Photo: AFP
In Rome, Christmas shopping still has an old-fashioned, unhurried feel. There are department stores and global chains, of course, but the best Roman shopping experiences and discoveries are to be found among the one-off boutiques, food shops, vintage stores, jewellers and artisans' workshops that continue to thrive in the lanes and piazzas of the city's centro storico.
The 2012 sales begin on Friday, January 6 and, given the country's current austerity mode, you are likely to find plenty of very good discounts.
Buy for Christmas
For that unmarried High Anglican uncle, how about a pair of cardinal's red socks or maybe, bishop's purple socks from the Vatican-appointed religious outfitters Gammarelli (Via di Santa Chiara 34). They are cult items among globetrotting fashionistas.
At MMM (Via dell'Orso 57; www.massimomariamelis.com), Massimo Maria Melis crafts "archaeological" jewellery in gold, coins and precious stones based on Etruscan, Greek and Roman models.
Marina Sersale's and Sebastian Alvarez Murena's Eau d'Italie (www.eauditalie.com) perfume range distils the essence of the Mediterranean. The scents can be tracked down, for a price, in London, but in Rome the whole range is available - including a body line that makes for great presents. Go to the cutesy Roma Store in Trastevere (Via della Lungaretta 153) or the centrally located Profumeria Pantheon (Piazza della Rotonda 70a).
For shoes, boots, bags and belts at knock-down prices, head for the stalls that line one side of Testaccio Market (just off Via Marmorata).
At Il Discount dell'Alta Moda (Via Gesu e Maria 16a), regular discounts of up to 50 per cent on designer togs from the likes of Armani, Versace and YSL reach 70 or even 80 per cent during the seasonal sales.
If you have room in your suitcase, the Roman mini-chain Stock House Tessuti (outlets include Via Flaminia 283/285 and Via Alessandria 177; www.tessutistockhouse.com) offers high-quality ex-showroom fabrics at prices as low as euros 8 a metre.
For foodie treats, head for Volpetti (Via Marmorata 47), a gourmet-deli temple on the edge of the villagey Testaccio district.
Natalia Bianchi is an experienced personal shopper who speaks good English, takes no commission from retailers and is good on in-the-know, off-the-beaten-track places (0039 339 214 2009; www.shopping-rome.it).
Where to stay
The friendly, family-run Hotel Modigliani (Via della Purificazione 42; 06 4281 5226; www.hotelmodigliani.com) is a welcoming little refuge in the heart of the main shopping area, handy for the Spanish Steps, Via Veneto and the Trevi Fountain. Low-season double room rates average out at euros 150, but it currently has a "Winter in Rome" offer of euros 115, valid until December 26.
- Lee Marshall
The Telegraph, London