Guide to Christmas Shopping in Britain

If you’re dreaming of a traditional white Christmas, of fairy lights, festive atmosphere and seasonal shopping, here’s our guide on what to buy and where to go, from Christmas markets in historic towns and stately homes to London’s main shopping streets.

Lights twinkle, the aroma of mulled wine fills the air and somewhere in the distance the first strains of White Christmas can be heard. Fingers are firmly crossed for a light dusting of snow and with breath visible in the winter air, only eyes are visible between tightly wrapped scarves and snug hats. For me, Britain is at its best at Christmas. Candlelit carol concerts, ice-skating at Somerset House and, best of all, Christmas markets.

Manchester Christmas Market – Albert Square

They might be German by tradition – expect Glühwein and Bratwurst (fried sausage) at Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market (until 23 Dec) – but Britain’s historic cities are the perfect setting for these seasonal gems.

Take Bath Christmas Market (until 6 Dec), now in its ninth year. Could there be anything better than shopping in the shadow of the gorgeous Georgian city’s abbey? Carols fill the air and shoppers hustle and bustle between the hundreds of traditional wooden chalets which light up the night sky and are packed full of everything from handmade decorations to freshly-made foods. A warm mince pie smothered in brandy butter has never tasted so good.

At Manchester Christmas Markets (until 21 Dec) the sweet treats continue with shoppers clutching warm waffles as they make their way around Albert Square before warming up with a hot winter cocktail in the annual pop up North Pole Bar at Spinningfields. You can even create your own personalised Christmas shopping playlist thanks to VisitManchester.

Edible goodies from Bettys in Yorkshire

Food and drink are common factors at Britain’s Christmas markets and for some fine regional fare there’s Edinburgh’s Highland Village Market (until 4 Jan) set against the sparkling backdrop of the Scottish capital.

Fresh produce from the Highlands, including venison, oatcakes and fine Scottish cheeses will tantalise tastebuds, as will the Farmers’ Market (22 Dec) in York. Fill your holiday larder with local organic lamb and ostrich burgers, home-grown organic vegetables and bottles of Yorkshire Punch. Deli favourites can be found in the Hairy Fig, ‘purveyors of fine Yorkshire Fodder’ or Henshelwoods, winner of the ObserverFood Monthly Award, and sweet treats from Bettys – the curd tart comes highly recommended.

In fact, with its maze of cobbled streets and historic Shambles, York at Christmas is like something straight out of Dickens novel. It’s the perfect setting for specialist markets such as Made in Yorkshire (3-13 Dec), which showcases the finest arts and crafts in the region from budding young artists to beautiful bags from Bolsita, Sharon Winfield’s colourful collection.

Artisans will also be displaying their Christmas creations at the famous covered Greenwich Market (from 9 Dec) and a visit to this maritime town is a must. A giant Christmas tree, Santa, carol singers and decorations all add to the festive atmosphere as you make your way from Mr Humbug, an old-fashioned sweet shop selling over 500 varieties of sweets, to Arty Globe who stock a range of gifts emblazoned with British motifs such as tea pots and red phone boxes. Magpies won’t want to miss jewellery boutiques Autumn and May or Johnny Rocket.

Leeds Castle holds an annual Christmas gift fair

And it’s not just towns and cities that are playing host to festive fairs, stately homes celebrate the festive season too. Leeds Castle in Kent, beautifully decorated and lit up each Christmas, holds a fair within its grounds with more than 100 stalls overflowing with gift ideas, stocking fillers and food items (21-22 Nov this year). Likewise, foodies should venture to Waddesdon Manor near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire for the Christmas Food Market (5-6 Dec),
or to the farm shop on the Chatsworth estate.

The Palace of the Peaks’ theme this year is A Candlelit Christmas, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen and, in addition to live music and evening openings, the gift shop will be a hive of activity stocked with the finest Christmas creations.

Gift shops at stately homes or historic properties can be a great way of ensuring unique presents. Look out for the National Trust’s latest collection – including its own Monopoly edition – available online. The London shop at Blewcoat School, Westminster, is also worth a visit.

Tudor Silk Scarf (£19.65) from English Heritage

English Heritage, which looks after over 400 historic properties across the UK, has great gift
shops at most of its sites, or you can order from the comfort of your own home
on the recently relaunched online shop. Choose from items such as leather journals to historically-themed homewares and jewellery.

And the people at the Royal Collection certainly have some original ideas. They have gift shops at all their properties (The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace; Windsor Castle and Palace of Holyroodhouse) and you can buy online too.
How about a bottle of Buckingham Palace vintage champagne, or a piece of china based on a design from the royal china pantry in Buckingham Palace?

From royal palaces to retail palaces, London is without doubt the shopping capital at Christmas.

Regent Street lit up for London’s festive season

The atmosphere in the city in the run up to the festive season is electric, especially on the night the crowds gather to witness the illumination of central shopping destinations, Oxford Street and Regent Street.

Regent Street and Oxford Street are lined with designer and high street names but perhaps the biggest draw here is Selfridges.

This year’s A Cracking Christmas is themed on British pantomime, some 200 years after Cinderella – Britain’s oldest panto – was first performed at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Fairy godmothers will be available in store to advise on the exclusive gifts.

How about some John Smedley bloomers, or a one-metre-high chocolate beanstalk? Iconic British designers Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood have each created an exclusive Dame dress costing a staggering £16,000 each.

Tatty Devine necklace (£30), Selfridges

Selfridges’ fans and serious shoppers alike will certainly want to indulge in the Fashionista’s Style Sensation package (available until 30 Dec) at the five-star Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill, located moments from the landmark store. Not only do you receive a £250 Selfridges gift card, stay in an Executive Suite and get to sip Krug champagne, but you’ll also receive half a day with stylist to the stars, Joanne Black. The perfect shopping partner, she’ll introduce you to the stores favoured by the rich and famous along Oxford Street and Bond Street including Asprey, Mulberry and Church’s.

At the Piccadilly end of Bond Street, the theatrical theme continues in this year’s Fortnum & Mason window, which is inspired by Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. This world-famous department store, which dates back to 1707 holds many Royal Warrants and is renowned for its hampers packed full of the best British produce: wild smoked salmon, creamy Stilton and the legendary King George Christmas pudding. Other great gifts this year include the High Tea Set and the Clive Christian Traveller Set, which contains three bottles of fine fragrance with designs dating from 1872 and crowns bestowed by Queen Victoria. While in Piccadilly, explore some of the smaller boutiques of St James and Mayfair. Here’s Berry Bros & Rudd selling fine wines, Paxton & Whitfield for cheese and D R Harris, one of London’s oldest pharmacies.

Harrods in Knightsbridge

Continue your exclusive shopping spree in Knightsbridge, home to two of London’s greatest department stores,Harvey Nichols and Harrods. The latter dominates Brompton Road, lit up by thousands of LEDs like a giant Christmas tree. This year, however, the store will emit a green glow as it embraces all things Oz to mark the 70th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and friends will adorn the windows and eagle-eyed shoppers will spot the Wicked Witch of the East’s stockinged feet poking out from underneath the store at Door 5. Inside, the Ruby Slipper Lounge will mean that girls of all ages can sparkle in a pair of shoes priced £29.95 (ten per cent will also go to Great Ormond Street hospital) and upstairs on the fourth floor, Christmas World – a glittery array of angels, baubles, trees and teddies has to be seen to be believed.

In contrast to this historic store, which dates back to 1849, Westfield in White City is pretty much a newborn having only opened late last year. This is high street and designer heaven with over 256 stores all under one roof. If, by some remote chance, you find yourself stuck for ideas there’s always the option of the Westfield Gift Card loaded with anything from £5-£1,000. Useful? Certainly, as 26 December says goodbye to the shiny gift-wrapped presents and hello to the January sales.

Bag yourself a bargain 

Although we refer to January sales, stores now start reducing stock from Boxing Day (26 December). For the best bargains, visit:

  • Harrods, the original sale and still the best. Opened each year by a celebrity (previous guests have included Victoria Beckham, and Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria) expect discounts of up to 60 per cent on everything from food to furniture. Doors open at 9am but hardcore shoppers will camp overnight to make sure they’re first in line.
  • Selfridges, when there’s the chance of up to 50 per cent off womenswear, accessories, beauty, furniture, luggage and home accessories, expect big queues at the Oxford Street store (starting from 4.30am). Sharpen your elbows as shoppers fight for luxury items. Don’t miss the sales at the Manchester and Birmingham stores, too.
  • High Street heaven, get all your sale shopping done under one roof at London’s Westfield (Europe’s largest urban shopping mall) and Manchester’s Trafford Centre. and
  • Designer discounts of up to 70 per cent can be found year-round at the McArthurGlen Designer Outlets. Prices are reduced even further at sale time.