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Shop till you drop in the Cities of Britain

Whether you're in search of Burberry in Harrods or Versace in Bond Street, London offers more retail choice than anywhere else in Europe, and some of the best known shopping areas on the planet. Hotels advertise special breaks for 'shopaholics' and the busiest thoroughfare, Oxford Street, attracts 200 million people a year. Outside the capital, the shopping experience is just as exciting, with a rush of new and upmarket retail centres opening over the last few years, more than a few providing stunning architectural backdrops and open-air art into the bargain, reflecting the 21st century renaissance that Britain's cities have undergone.

Almost everyone has heard of London's iconic stores such as Harrods (in Knightsbridge - the Food Hall alone is an eye-opening experience) and 300-year-old Fortnum & Mason (in Piccadilly), which seems to reside in a more elegant, classical age. But as well as the main shopping thoroughfares it is worth investigating the side streets and arcades. Off Piccadilly is Burlington Arcade, opened to shoppers in 1819 by Lord Cavendish to sell luxury goods "to fashionable ladies and dandies of the day". Uniformed Beadles still keep an eye on proceedings as people purchase their jewellery, perfume, and cashmere in the peaceful surroundings.

Behind Regent Street (don't miss Liberty, famous for its prints, or toy shop Hamleys before you go) is Carnaby Street and Seven Dials. A fashion epicentre in the Swinging Sixties, it seems to have come full circle and is again at the forefront of fashion, with stores such as Lee, Vans Footwear (for trainers) and American Apparel.

Behind Piccadilly is Jermyn Street, with its gentlemen's outfitters, perfumiers and cigar shops - and Paxton and Whitfield, cheesemonger to the Royal Family. Just north of Oxford Street is Marylebone High Street which has an eclectic variety of stores such as VV Rouleaux for handmade accessories; pavement cafés and a friendly, village atmosphere.

Outside the capital, Britain's cities are wonderful repositories of art and culture, brimming with new galleries, museums and landmark waterfront redevelopments. Shopping has also seen a complete makeover, not least in Birmingham in the Heart of England. The city-centre Bullring was the largest retail regeneration scheme in Europe when it opened in 2003, with Level 7 offering a cluster of high fashion stores, from French Connection to Zara. Just steps away is the curvaceous Selfridges department store, covered with a shimmering 'skin' made up of 15,000 spun aliminium discs. You feel as if you're entering a spaceship. Nearby, the former mail sorting office, beside the rejuvenated Worcester canal, is now the Mailbox Mall. Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton and DKNY compete for attention with oh-so-British department store Harvey Nichols, while the Artlounge gallery has the best in contemporary art.

Manchester in the north-west is another shopping mecca, also boasting Selfridges (a trip here is a day out in itself, containing numerous cafes, bars, and restaurants and each floor selling classic brands alongside newcomers) and Harvey Nichols stores in the Millennium Quarter. Harvey Nics has a vast food market and a restaurant providing bird's-eye views over the city. From Jimmy Choo shoes to Dries Van Noten handbags, there's something special for everyone.

Some 30 miles west, Liverpool has added to its retail variety in 2006 by opening the stylish MetQuarter. Armani, Gieves and Hawkes and Molton Brown rub shoulders with the only MAC make-up store outside the capital.

Moving to the north-east, Newcastle Gateshead, with its high bridges over the River Tyne, is stunning both day and night, and the press has dubbed the city's youth the trendiest dressers in Britain. It's certainly a shopper's dream with Grey Street a centre of exclusive fashion stores, while High Bridge is a street devoted to designer fashion for the young, and Princess Square is home to Red or Dead among others.

In Scotland, Glasgow is justly proud of its Princes Square mall, six floors of luxury a short walk from Central Station. Here are Calvin Klein Underwear, Lacoste and, for quality Scottish souvenirs, there's Scottish Crafts and the Watercolour Gallery, plus a good selection of restaurants and bars should shopping fatigue occur.

Spa towns have been centres of sophistication since the 18th century, and elegant Bath, under two hours from London by train, has been fashionable since the days of the dandy Beau Brummel. Established as a spa by the Romans, it claims to have more independently owned shops per head than most other UK cities. Square is one of the UK's leading designer stores, where Gucci, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana rub shoulders with creations by Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen. It's in Shire's Yard (off Milsom Street) where other shops also sell accessories, designer shoes and fashion items.

While not a spa town, Leeds in West Yorkshire has made a virtue of its Victorian architecture, converting breathtaking 19th century buildings such as ornate arcades with their stained glass and decorative ironwork, and the rotund Corn Exchange into bright, airy retail centres. The latter boasts 30 stores.

The Welsh capital, Cardiff, also has distinctive Victorian arcades decorated with intricate ironwork and is reassuringly compact. Among the highlights is Drooghi, in High Street Arcade, with the latest streetwear from labels such as Duffer and Nolita.

Portsmouth, home of the Royal Navy since the time of King Henry VIII, has Gunwharf Quays, with about 90 designer outlet stores selling big names at bargain prices including Fred Perry, Paul Smith and Ted Baker. Leisure facilities include a 26-lane bowling complex, and there's an events programme including carnivals and yacht racing. The Historic Dockyard and Admiral Lord Nelson's historic flagship HMS Victory are only a few minutes' walk away.

Nelson's formidable opponent, Napoleon, was probably right when he said the English were a nation of shopkeepers, but how the country's shopping opportunities have mushroomed in scale and ambition since then.

Information courtesy Visit Britain


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