A well-worn Londoner has the name of every department store, boutique and latest pop-up shop at their fingertips, but why not escape the capital's crowds for a more relaxed spending spree in Leeds
I love London but dragging myself through the crowds of Oxford and Regent Street, especially in the run-up to Christmas, can feel more like a chore than an 'experience'. Even the rain-free, temperature-controlled Westfield loses some of its shine after you take account of the queues outside Abercrombie & Fitch.
Enter Leeds. Not only one of the UK's favourite shopping destinations but also a compact, architecturally inspiring city, no more than a couple of hours train ride from other major hubs. And it's not dubbed the Knightsbridge of the North for nothing. With haute couture and well-known highstreet brands tucked into a handful of often pedestrianised streets, the headache is really taken out of shopping – this is a place to enjoy it. Don't miss Harvey Nichols, of course, and make time (if not money) for parading around Victoria Quarter – the beautiful arcades home to cutting edge fashion shops like Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith.
Some of my favourite finds include the posh Pop Boutique - a gem for lovers of vintage clothing. I like the way their bright pink bags brighten up the city. Leeds is full of some very trendy people, meaning that even the charity shops around the outskirts of the main shopping area are worth investing some time in. I also like to stop by OK Comics in Thornton's Arcade to buy graphic novels and old copies of sci-fi comics for my fanatic father. Their staff are among the most knowledgeable and helpful you'll meet. And a great place for presents is Rose & Co in the Victoria Quarter. It sells all the latest beauty and perfume products in a stunningly restored old apothecary - a lovely place to spend some time.
Leeds is so loveable because it has no pretentiousness. The legendary Kirkgate Market borders the main shopping district and its raggle-taggle mixture of stalls sit as proud as the others. In the middle of the covered section stands a clock in the unmistakeable Marks and Spencer's racing car green. It was here that the worldwide name made its tentative steps into business, trading as Marks Penny Bazaar. It's well worth a peep – stand beneath it and imagine yourself in Edwardian times, with Michael Marks making his first profits next to you.
The market is a bargain-hunters paradise, with everything from books, clothing and cakes on sale. In the outside section, one stalls sells the most amazing ginger biscuits and is definitely worth hunting around for. In fact, the great grub on sale is my favourite thing about this market. If I lived locally, I think I'd be picking up most of my groceries here but a visitor can still buy a few succulent snacks from Kostas Olive Bar, or pick and mix some candy from Mowers traditional sweet shop.
Where to stay
For reliable, 4-star surroundings and an absolutely fantastic breakfast buffet, book in to the Marriott Leeds. It's conveniently located at the bottom of the shopping district, and after a day's shopping you can stretch your weary limbs in the hotel's pool, sauna and steam room, or even burn off some more calories in the gym if you so choose. A bonus is that the renowned restaurant, Anthony's (http://www.anthonysrestaurant.co.uk/), lies just a few paces away. At around £50 a head, it's certainly upmarket, but you'd pay a lot more in London for this Heston Blumenthal-style brand of 'molecular gastronomy'. Crispy pig's ear, peas and rum, anyone?
Just up the road is the newly refurbished icon of the Victorian Corn Exchange (http://www.cornx.net/), the basement of which is now a modern brasserie where you can sample Anthony's menu at cheaper prices. When I last visited, its glossy newness was still waiting to fill up with new stores, but it's still worth visiting if only to admire its stunning spotlit glass ceiling.
Another superb hotel is the Malmaison Leeds. Located in the old bus company building, it offers stylish, luxurious rooms slap bang in the centre of Leeds. But if you'd rather save your cash for shopping, then pop into the bar for a glass or two of wine from their well-stocked cellar.
Yes, those Northerners love their night life and there's an abundance of bars, clubs and restaurants that come alive after dark. Two of my favourite places to eat are Kendell's Bistro for authentic French specialities (http://www.kendellsbistro.co.uk/), and Brasserie Forty 4 (http://www.brasserie44.com/) which offers some classic dishes in a romantic location overlooking the riverside. Jake's Bar on Call Lane is the perfect place to relax after a meal, cocktail in hand. The staff's attitude can be a bit hit and miss but boy, do they make a mean mojito.
A fantastic place to dance the night away is in the attic of Smokestack Bar, hidden up some stairs behind an unassuming entrance on Lower Briggate. Styled like a modern version of an American prohibition-era speakeasy, the funk and soul classics play all night. One of the clubbing capitals of the UK, Leeds has a number of big clubs, including Creation for commercial tunes, and the famous club night Back to Basics takes over Rehab every Saturday for some serious house music.
But don't let me undersell Leeds as just a place to spend money. The Royal Armouries Museum (http://www.royalarmouries.org/visit-us/leeds) is completely free, and a fantastic place to spend a few hours, full of lovingly displayed, engaging stories from history. You can even have a go at shooting your own crossbow! Leeds is also the gateway to the undulating, barrenly beautiful landscape of the Yorkshire Dales. So what are you waiting for? Grab your shopping bag and go!