Manchester Christmas Markets: Which is the best bit and why is it King Street?

Love them of hate them, the Christmas Markets have opened – here is our advice on making the most of it.
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The Manchester Christmas Markets are now in their 25th year and I have been to most of them. The first time I went was as a kid on a day out with my parents, but for the last two years I’ve had the privilege to go as a reporter covering the big opening –  which has become one of the most anticipated events in the Manchester social calendar. 

These days, Manchester goes all-out for the festive season. Within a matter of days after Halloween ending, pumpkins are replaced with baubles and the giant Santa is hoisted to its place outside the library. And as soon as the bars open, the crowds roll in from near and far.

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But despite – or maybe even because of – the increasing hype around the markets, they are starting to become a divisive issue. Last year, the volume of complaints about the market was widely reported. Many people said that they had become too crowded, too expensive and not “Christmassy” enough. And in many ways, I would have to agree. 

French cuisine at Manchester Christmas markets' King Street location.French cuisine at Manchester Christmas markets' King Street location.
French cuisine at Manchester Christmas markets' King Street location.

‘Piccadilly Gardens will never feel Christmassy’

A trip to the Christmas markets was always an annual event in our house. My mum loved browsing the craft stalls, my dad treated himself to a German beer and foot-long bratwurst (while complaining about the price, even back then) and my brother and I would try and see how many sweet treats we could persuade our parents to buy us.

But perhaps the most enticing part of it, for me at least, was the magic that the markets brought to the city centre. Wrapped up warm on a cold winter evening, with all the smells and sights of the food stalls, you did not feel like you were in Manchester. 

The only Christmas decorations on Albert Square (facing Carlton House) this year.The only Christmas decorations on Albert Square (facing Carlton House) this year.
The only Christmas decorations on Albert Square (facing Carlton House) this year.

Maybe this is just a rose-tinted childhood memory, but I think the location has something to do with it. By that I mean I miss the days when the centre of the markets was Albert Square. It may not seem like it now, but the Town Hall is the real jewel in Manchester’s crown, the historic heart of the city, and, when it’s decorated for Christmas, it’s like something out of a Charles Dickens novel, the perfect backdrop for the Christmas markets.  

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Piccadilly Gardens will never feel Christmassy to me. For most of the year, it’s a bleak place that people avoid unless passing through. And when the markets start, it can be noisy and chaotic, with queues of people lining up for the viral food stalls that dominate both social media feeds and the markets. Yes, the wooden sheds at Dock 53 and Alpine tipi are a nice touch, but you can also find them in quieter parts of the city centre, such as Kampus or First Street. 

Italian deli stall at Manchester Christmas Markets, King StreetItalian deli stall at Manchester Christmas Markets, King Street
Italian deli stall at Manchester Christmas Markets, King Street

Where to find some Christmas magic

But, there are some corners of the market that remind me of why I loved them so much growing up.

King Street and St Anne’s Square, like Albert Square, are home to some of the oldest and grandest architecture. It’s here you’ll find a smaller strip of markets, but wide range of cuisine, including Greek, fried chicken, French and Spanish, thanks to King Street resident El Gato Negro. When I passed through on a grey weekday afternoon, there were plenty of places to sit and enough room to wander around. This may not be the case on a sunny weekend, but it’s still worth a visit if you want to see the full range of market offerings.  

Also, the end of the Albert Square renovations is almost in sight. Our beautiful Town Hall, which has been encased in scaffolding for the best part of three years for some much needed and extensive repair work, is set to reopen in 2024 and hopefully the central hub of markets (and the giant Santa) will return to its original place, easing the pressure on Piccadilly Gardens and Exchange Square.

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The markets bring in tens of millions to the local economy and are now a national tourism destination, which is why I’m reluctant to complain about the large crowds too loudly. Manchester city centre is constantly changing and it’s only natural that the markets do too. We now have free public events like the Christmas parade and Festive Sundays aimed at bringing the city together over the holiday season, which is the way it should be. 

Christmas markets on King Street, Manchester. Christmas markets on King Street, Manchester.
Christmas markets on King Street, Manchester.

So if, like me, you find the markets overwhelming but want to still enjoy the city centre this Christmas, know that there are quiet corners where you can find that seasonal magic – or just enjoy a mulled wine or two. 

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