WHY GO NOW?
This Friday sees the start of Baleart at the Recinto Ferial de Palma, just to the east of the old town off the Autopista Aeroport (until 8 December, 11am-9pm daily, €3, £2). This is the annual Mallorcan craft fair which brings together all of the Balearic island's indigenous producers under one roof. It's the perfect place to pick up unique Christmas presents at non-tourist prices: authentic ceramics, glassware, carved olive wood and the siurells – the white, Miro-esque earthenware figures decorated in red and green, which date back to prehistoric times. Elsewhere in a city renowned for its seasonal celebrations, the Christmas lights are strung across the narrow streets of the old town, nativity cribs grace every church and the bakeries are piled high with prettily wrapped parcels of turron, the traditional Christmas sweetmeat. Plus, Palma is just a couple of hours from the UK, it's well served by the budget airlines, and enjoys attractively mild winter weather.
EasyJet (0870 6000 000; www.easyjet.com) has daily flights from London Gatwick, Luton and Liverpool this weekend starting from £100. Go (0870 60 76543; www.go-fly.com) operates from London Stansted and has returns this weekend for £95.30. The Thomas Cook website (0870 0100 436; www.thomascook.co.uk) is offering return British Airways flights from Gatwick for £138.60. To travel the 11 kilometres from Palma's gleaming international airport to the city centre, get the number 17 bus, which takes around 25 minutes and costs €1.80 (£1.20), or jump in a taxi, around €15 (£10).
Once a provincial backwater, Palma has in recent years rediscovered its dynamism as the capital of the newly semi-autonomous region of the Balearics. Massive investment is preserving and renovating its historic Arab-influenced medieval core.This is a grand old Spanish city on a par with Valencia or Seville. The city is eminently manageable, with the sights, bars, restaurants, hotels and shopping within easy walking distance of each other, all dominated by the 13th-century cathedral. There are two tourist offices: Placa de la Reina 2, off the city's central, leafy boulevard, the Passeig d'es Born (daily 9am-2.30pm, 3-8pm, 00 34 971 712 216), and Carrer Sant Domingo 11 off Carrer Conquistador (Mon-Fri 9am-8pm, Sat 9am-1pm, 00 34 971 724 090).
There are a number of small, luxury hotels tucked away in the old town and in the narrow, ancient streets around La Llotja, the 15th-century stock exchange. Among the nicest are the newly renovated Palacio Ca Sa Galesa (see Room Service, opposite) and the new and chic Hotel Palau Sa Font at Carrer Apuntadores 38 (00 34 971 712 277; www.palausafont.com), which has just 19 rooms, starting at €132 (£88) for a double. Slightly further out, at Paseo Mallorca 6, is the much larger Hotel Saratoga (00 34 971 727 240; www.hotelsaratoga.es) with doubles from €134 (£89), which has a gym, pool and elegant rooftop bar. Cheaper options include the central two-star Hotel Born at Carrer Sant Jaume 3 (00 34 971 712942; www.hotelborn.com), with doubles from €69 (£46).
The first stop is undoubtedly the cathedral, La Seu (Mon-Fri 10am-3pm, Sat 10am-2pm, closed Sun), built on the ruins of the Moorish Great Mosque following the 13th-century Reconquest. It took 500 years to complete, and additions and renovations continue to this day. Particular points of interest are the intricate 14th-century Portal Mirador (Lookout Door) depicting the Last Supper, and the interior 20th-century embellishments of Modernista (Catalan art nouveau) master Antoni Gaudi.
Other sights, heading clockwise around the old town, are the Moorish Almudaina Palace (opposite the cathedral), the church of Santa Eulalia at Placa Santa Eulalia, the Basilica of Sant Francesc at Placa Sant Francesc, the Arab Baths at Carrer Can Serra 7 and the Museum of Mallorca at Carrer Portella 5. However, none of these are must-sees: the old town is best regarded as somewhere for a leisurely, atmospheric wander. Outside the centre, there is some beautiful Modernista architecture at Placa Weyler, including the Gran Hotel and Forn des Teatre (theatre bakery). And if time permits, take a taxi out to the 14th-century Bellver Castle, three kilometres to the west of the city on a wooded hilltop, and then stretch your legs with a bracing walk back along the seafront Avinguda Gabriel Roca, past the bobbing millionaires' yachts, drying fishing nets and visiting cruise liners.
For your fix of the latest Spanish fashion, you'll find all the big-name stores such as Carolina Herrera and Adolfo Dominguez on and around Passeig d'es Born. The smaller boutiques, tend to be in the side streets, such as Boeli in Placa Rosari, which stocks the unmistakable, wild designs of Catalan label Custo. For quirky modern interiors and furnishings check out Laoca on Berenguer de Tornamira behind the smaller of the city's two Corte Ingles department stores, where you can also stock up on gourmet Spanish food such as sausages, vintage cava and Christmas sweets and cakes. There are more arts and crafts on offer in a new artisan quarter called Passeig per l'Artesania, to the east of the old city in the Sa Gerreria district, where you can buy earthenware, glassware and textiles made on the premises using traditional techniques.
For breakfast and snacks, grab a mouth-watering flaky ensaimada pastry and a cafe con leche or take your pick of that day's tapas, at Bar Bosch, perfectly situated at the top of Passeig d'es Born for a bit of elegant people-watching. For the freshest fish and seafood, you can't beat lunch at Ca N'Eduardo, situated directly above the fish market on the waterfront Industria Pesquera: share an ambrosial €20 (£13) arroz marinera (seafood paella) or tuck into a merluza mallorquina (hake in a rich onion and tomato sauce). The best of the native bunch for atmosphere is Es Parlament at Conquistador 11, an elegant old restaurant decked in mirrors and chandeliers carved out of the Parliament building.
INTO THE NIGHT
Winter in Palma is for late-night bar-hopping in the maze of streets around La Llotja (see Rest Assured, opposite). Both Gotic and La Lonja, on Placa Llotja, are dark and atmospheric with a relaxed, funky music policy and a young, friendly crowd. Abaco at Carrer Sant Joan 1 has a magnificent palatial setting, but is really rather a tacky, overpriced cocktail bar, which attracts a large number of badly dressed Germans with unironic mullets. Bar Jazz, at Apuntadors 5, is good for the end of the night, staying open till four, and with live flamenco, blues and Latin sessions between 10.30pm and 2.15am.Reuse content