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Extensive travel and tourism guide for Britain

Experience Britains' Cities

by Bob Barton

London has so much to offer that you could spend a lifetime of holidays there. To do so would mean missing out on Britain's other equally enticing cities. The rapid growth of flights (and low-cost airlines) to ever-expanding regional airports means that the UK's cities have never been more accessible.

How these cities have changed, with alfresco dining, open-air art and spacious, pedestrianised centres making them attractive for strolling and browsing. There is a wide choice of accommodation available, too, from the growing budget and medium-priced chains such as Travel Inn Metro, Holiday Inn Express and Malmaison, to luxury hotels in grand buildings.

The main problem is which city to choose? Perhaps a weekend amid the Georgian elegance of Bath, or days of Scottish indulgence in Edinburgh? Maybe a Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour in Liverpool, or a visit to the world's first International Festival of Musical Theatre? (The latter takes place in Europe's youngest capital - Cardiff, Wales, from October 18.)

One answer is to combine two or more cities in one trip - Britain is a compact country, so that is a realistic option. To help you select your next break, VisitBritain has produced a useful, pocket sized guide, "UK City Experience". Facts about 23 of the country's most-visited cities are presented in a concise format, including city highlights, insider tips and the 'unique selling points' of each.

About 119 miles west of London are the 'twin' cities of Bath and Bristol. Bath, with its elegant architecture, is the place of the Romans and Jane Austen. Bristol is a lively harbourside city, its history peppered with seafarers, transatlantic adventurers and daring entrepreneurs. The Romans established a spa in Bath in the first century and the remains are fascinating to visit. Nearby, a state-of-the-art, 21st century spa opens in October and this promises to be a superb place in which to bathe. New on the city's events calendar is a Jane Austen Festival (September 21-29) when you can step back to this romantic age.

Though it lies at the hub of England's motorway and rail networks, Birmingham, 118 miles north-west of the capital, is proud of its waterways. Surprisingly, the city has a larger canal system than Venice and, though dating from the Industrial Revolution, much has been rejuvenated and lined with bars, restaurants, shops selling designer labels and miles of traffic-free walkways. The cultural diversity of the city is reflected in its cuisine, with Balti curry - a dish of pan-fried meat and vegetables, originating in Kashmir and Pakistan - becoming something of a city-wide speciality.

Moving north, Liverpool and Manchester are contrasting cities lying just 35 miles apart and with a friendly rivalry between their inhabitants. Liverpool was the birthplace of the Beatles, and the two-hour Magical Mystery Tour, which visits Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields and the houses where the Beatles grew up is justly popular. Have a few drinks in the reconstructed Cavern Club and visit the Beatles Story attraction. Beatles Week, an annual extravaganza (August 22-27), attracting fans from around the world, will have added poignancy this year after George Harrison's death.

Manchester will have a year of special events. The highlight is the Commonwealth Games (July 25 - August 4), when athletes from 72 nations will compete. Around this, a five month long "Spirit of Friendship" festival (March 11 until August) is planned - the programme of concerts, performances, exhibitions and street carnivals will extend far beyond the city's boundaries. Add to this a selection of new and revamped museums and art galleries, along with an incredible variety of shopping (the Trafford Centre, an indoor shopping city, is one of Britain's biggest) and you have a city to suit all tastes.

Edinburgh, Scotland's beautiful capital and 'festival city' is perennially popular as a short break destination. The castle on its high rock, the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Royal Mile linking the two are well-known, but recent additions include the former Royal Yacht Britannia on show in the trendy port of Leith, and the new Museum of Scotland.

Not so well known is that Glasgow is barely an hour away by train or car. This city was one of the richest in the British Empire, a fact reflected in the large number of grand, 19th century public buildings. It also has a bustling café and bar culture, some of the friendliest people you could care to meet and superb shopping. It is the second biggest retail centre after London, and don't miss the elegant sights from the art nouveau legacy of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Britain is traditionally a maritime nation and the best place in which to soak up a salty atmosphere is Portsmouth--home of the Royal Navy--on England's South Coast. The Historic Dockyard, home to Lord Nelson's flagship HMS Victory, the iron-clad Warrior, and Henry VIII's Mary Rose, has been spruced up. At the new Gunwharf Quays, dine alfresco on the waterfront while taking in the harbour views. In the summer, watch the spectacle of hundreds of vessels sailing to the finish of the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race (August 15-18), and by Easter, 2003, you'll be able to take a high-speed lift for panoramic views from atop the new Spinnaker Tower.