It may well be the season to be jolly, but all too often the run-up to Christmas and New Year can turn into a stressful race to buy the perfect gifts and find the most extravagant way to celebrate. Happily, festive markets in our city centres are putting the emphasis back where it belongs by helping to spread the Christmas spirit throughout the north…
Walking around the chalet-lined streets with stalls selling everything from Dutch pancakes, gingerbread and homemade chocolates to Spanish paella, Hungarian goulash and French pastries, you could be at any of Europe's top Christmas markets. This isn't Berlin, Budapest or Bruges, though: it's Manchester, which has built a reputation for hosting one of the best festive markets in Europe.
This year's will be held from 17 November-23 December, spilling out across the city from the main market in Albert Square (outside the Town Hall) and is a great one-stop shop for Christmas gift ideas.
Clothes include scarves and leather bags, while hand-crafted gifts from across Europe include puppets, bird houses and sheepskin rugs. And don't forget to fuel your shopping with the quintessential winter market tipple - warmed gluhwein. Forget gloves: it's the best hand-warmer around.
Away from the hustle and bustle, take a stroll along Exchange Street and you will be met by a wide variety of arts and crafts stalls. Among the traditional silver and glass jewellery will be stalls selling German favourites such as handmade clocks, canvasses and cushions.
Meanwhile, the city's Christmas celebrations kick off in earnest on Friday 9 November with the Christmas lights switch-on and the opening of the North Pole Bar - an extravagant 500 square metre temporary establishment in the heart of Cathedral Gardens, which returns to Manchester for its fifth year this winter. With themed rooms and warming winter cocktails, it's the ultimate pre-Christmas nighttime hangout. Try the ever-popular Hot Toddy cocktail: Jameson's with honey, lemon juice and cloves. It's sure to warm your cockles.
The Spinningfields Ice Rink also returns to Hardman Square in November and, with enough room for 200 skaters at one time, it's one of the largest 'pop-up' rinks in the country. There's a 'mums and tots-only' session first thing in the morning, and late-night opening until 10.45pm, plus the rink opens past midnight on New Year's Eve so you can welcome the coming year in skating style.
Family fun can be had with The Lion King, which is on at the Palace Theatre from 1 December-31 March. And it wouldn't be Christmas without a pantomime - Peter Pan, starring David Hasselhoff as Captain Hook, is on at the Opera House from 8 December-13 January and is not to be missed.
WIN - One lucky winner will win a two-night stay for two people at the Marriott Victoria & Albert Hotel in Manchester, including breakfast and dinner on the first evening, plus return train travel on First TransPennine Express services to Manchester. Enter now at tpexpress.co.uk/explorercomp
At the heart of Leeds' Christmas celebrations is the Christkindlmarkt held in the stylish surroundings of Millennium Square. Open from 9 November-16 December, the market will have more than 40 wooden chalet stalls on site, with German traders providing a wide range of seasonal gifts including handcrafted toys, jewellery, Christmas cards and festive decorations. If all that shopping makes you peckish, there will be speciality foods and traditional German delicacies including gluhwein, bratwurst sausages, soups, stollen, gingerbread and candied fruits to fuel your fire. This year also sees a Moroccan market taking place on Briggate from 18 November-28 December, with the crafts, colours and tastes of Morocco making for an unusual take on the normal market fare.
Not content with its worldly offerings, Leeds will also be lit up throughout the winter months with the longest display of festive lights in the UK, stretching some 13 miles and casting the city aglow throughout the darker months. Plus, panto season will also be in full swing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (Sleeping Beauty and The Wind in the Willows) and the Carriageworks (Jack and the Beanstalk), adding to the festive atmosphere sweeping across the city.
The name 'Glasgow Loves Christmas' should give you a clear idea of how this Scottish city does things in winter, with George Square becoming a sparkling hub of festive fun and activity - after all, the Scots aren't known for doing parties by halves.
Five weeks of free festive events will take place at the square, with concerts, films, ice-skating, the Glasgow Wheel and more. The Christmas lights switch-on will take place on Thursday 15 November, while Glasgow on Ice - with skating on George Square, entertainment and funfair rides - starts on 24 November. St Andrew's Day celebrations are held from 30 November-2 December and promise to be every bit the highlight you'd expect, with live music, a traditional ceilidh, street theatre and much more. The Winter Café Bar will also offer all things Scottish, including Aberdeen Angus burgers, Scotch broth, and haggis, neeps and tatties.
Not to be outdone by any other major city, Glasgow will also host a Christmas market at St Enoch Square and, if like Bing Crosby your heart is set on a white Christmas, it can be found at the indoor snow slopes of Snow Factor at Braehead. Listen extra hard and you might even hear sleigh bells…
Newcastle is brimming with events and activities to get everyone into the festive mood, including the NewcastleGateshead Winter Festival from 24 November-10 February, which includes a winter wonderland, a special weekend of cultural shopping and the opportunity to buy some unique items produced in the area - not to mention the renowned New Year's Eve Winter Carnival.
The continental market arrives from 19 November-1 December with handmade gifts and food and drink from across Europe. Meanwhile, the Christmas market from 5-9 December gives North East traders an opportunity to sell local produce, and shoppers to stock up on tasty treats.
Elsewhere, one of the most eagerly anticipated events in the city in the run-up to Christmas is the unveiling of Fenwick's Christmas window. The 30ft-long display has been enchanting shoppers young and old for more than 40 years and another colourful display is promised at the Northumberland Street department store this winter.
Want to get your skates on? With the returning temporary rink located outside The Life Science Centre from 10 November-24 February you've plenty of opportunity, and one of the stars of ITV's Dancing on Ice, Susie Lipanova, will be on hand for some tutored sessions throughout January and February.
If you're after something a bit different, a short hop across the Tyne to Gateshead brings you to the BALTIC art gallery, which will be holding its Shop Christmas weekend from 10-11 November, with special seasonal offers on products exclusive to the centre. And just along the river bank, classical singer Katherine Jenkins will be bringing festive cheer to the Sage Gateshead with An Evening of Christmas Classics on 21 December, where ticket holders will be invited to sing along to their favourite songs and carols, guaranteed to get you in the festive mood.
After some more traditional Christmas cheer? Head to Newcastle's Theatre Royal, where this year's pantomime, Aladdin, runs from 27 November-
19 January and stars Clive Webb, Danny Adams and Chris Hayward. Oh, yes