The outsized, confident Victorian-era buildings of Manchester's city centre suit Christmas. They favour an elaborate Gothic style of turrets and statues just asking to be draped in fairy lights and trimmed with green-and-red wreaths. To walk through town in December is like stepping through a giant pop-up advent calendar of glittering trees and tinsel-tickled gargoyles; below the chalet-like stalls of its Christmas markets sizzle with sausages and smell of soaps and lavender bags.
At the centre of it all – surely the grand number 24 window on the advent calendar – is Manchester's absurd town hall, which looks like a mad baron's castle and often stands in for the Houses of Parliament in movies. It glows with pink and purple illuminations, and an enormous glittering Santa rears like a sequined King Kong above the city's biggest Christmas market below. Chalet-like stalls are outlined in yellow fairy lights, trees in blue, and vendors are bedecked in mistletoe earrings and reindeer-antler hats. It's enough to bring anyone out in a festive grin. After you're into your third mug of gluhwein, the bonging of the town hall's Great Abel – its answer to Big Ben – might make you leap in surprise.
Albert Square outside the town hall is one of 10 concentrations of some 300 Christmas stalls that enliven the city throughout December. Among them, Cathedral Gardens is family-friendly, with entertainment for kids and an old-fashioned funfair. King Street's market has a French theme: vin chaud replaces gluhwein and a bowl of mussels with frites can be followed by a chocolate-smeared crepe.
Not all are confined to squares. Many stalls line city-centre streets and are integrated into the general shopping scene. You can browse for handicrafts and trinkets, kitsch decorative Dutch clogs, snow domes and Keep Calm cushions, but there are upmarket buys as well, such as sterling-silver jewellery and quality, handmade soft toys. The markets pull a million visitors into Manchester, but locals frequent them too, eating their lunches at food stalls and stopping off for after-work drinks in pop-up pubs or Parisian cafes.
There's no denying it's dark and cold, at least by Australian standards. ("This isn't cold," a Polish stall owner tells me as I stomp my feet. "Back home, it's minus 20 degrees and two metres of snow.") Gluhwein, rum-laced hot chocolate or roast chestnuts provide temporary respite, but when your toes have finally surrendered to Jack Frost head into the cathedral, which has underfloor heating. The adjacent Corn Exchange – a recently renovated Victorian trade building now home to ethnic eateries – will blast you with hot air as you step through the entrance. Its large hall hosts an indoor Christmas market. If traditional shopping palls, the big (and warm) department stores Harvey Nichols and Selfridges are just across the square.
Exchange Square features a pop-up beer house whose smoking chimney pays homage to Manchester's industrial heritage, although it's hard to resist the allure of the permanent Old Wellington Inn, which has been here since the sixteenth century. (Mancunians still huddle in the courtyard over beers, despite the weather.) From here, plunder the Christmas stalls along pedestrian Exchange Street for ceramics, glassware and handicrafts.
At Exchange Street's far end, shop-surrounded St Ann's Church is pretty in pink sandstone. St Ann's Square is the site of the German-inspired Christmas market of 1999 that started the whole festive-market movement in Manchester. Stalls here remain rather Germanic in homage, with a temptation of Stollen cake and marzipan, and stall eaves hung with icing-trimmed gingerbread hearts.
Manchester's Christmas markets are a seductive mash-up of pan-European stereotypes. Many stalls are run by owners who come for the season from as far afield as Romania and Spain. You can tuck into paella, small Dutch poffertjes (pancakes) with butter and powdered sugar, or large German bratwursts roasted on griddles the size of cartwheels. Several Bavarian-style beer gardens are popular socialising venues. Chorizos and salamis dangle amid the tinsel. You can hunt down local Lancashire specialties too, such as smoked fish pie, mini hotpots and Chorley cakes studded with currants. The weather might be frightful, but Manchester at Christmas is certainly delightful.
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Innside Melia is part of First Street, one of Manchester's latest developments. Contemporary polish and comfort is matched by efficient service, and the city centre is within walking distance. Rooms from $197. Phone + 44 161 200 2500, see melia.com
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Cathay Pacific and Visit Britain.