A northern powerhouse with industrial heritage and independent spirit
Yorkshire’s largest city may not have the medieval clout of York or the spa-town gentility of Harrogate, but what it does have is bags of personality. Leeds’ wealth was built on wool and textiles, and during the Industrial Revolution it was overrun with mills. You could say its lungs are tarred and its bones are full of soot. But in the past decade, urban planning has pushed hard for regeneration and relics of the city’s Victorian heyday are now key to its charm.
There’s a unique wow-factor in the ornate shopping alleys of the Victoria Quarter and inside the dome of the Corn Exchange. The burgeoning craft-beer scene has staked a claim on old red-brick mills and stone warehouses around Holbeck, turning them into taprooms and brew pubs. Street art keeps popping up in unlikely places. And because Leeds is on the doorstep of the Yorkshire Dales, you’ll find independent restaurants passionate about local produce, dishing up some of the country’s best modern British food.
48 hours in . . . Leeds
Organic eggs, avocado and slivers of hot buttery sourdough are the order of the day at Laynes Espresso (16 New Station Street; 0782 882 3189). Join the faithful locals who like to kickstart their morning people-watching over coffee at the large street-facing windows.
After that, it’s on to Leeds Art Gallery (The Headrow; 0113 378 5350 and the Henry Moore Institute (0113 246 7467). These conjoined repositories for modern art form part of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle. Pay homage to British greats like Anthony Gormley and Andy Goldsworthy at the gallery, before poking your head into the Institute to see what travelling sculpture exhibition is currently showing.
Take the Vicar Lane entrance into Kirkgate Market (0113 378 1950), one of the largest covered markets in Europe. Coming from this direction, the first area you hit will be the 1904 hall, by far the most beautiful section of the market. The stalls here still have old-fashioned shopfronts. Some serve tea to pensioners, others sell flowers, baklava – you name it. Beneath the wrought-iron, light-flooded atrium, look out for the racer-green centenary clock paying homage to Marks & Spencer, which launched its business from a stall here in 1884.
For lunch, head to Fish & Game Row to bag a table at The Owl gastropub inside the market. Ingredients come from the market itself or are sourced as locally as possible, and the tap room menu is a symphony of seriously tasty, elevated British classics such as North Sea fish pie, glazed guinea fowl or crumpet with smoked cod’s roe.
Work off lunch by strolling beneath the stained glass and Burmantofts ceramic decorations of Victoria Quarter and Country Arcade across Vicar Lane. If you want to while away the rest of the afternoon in a pub, walk north to the wood-panelled The Reliance (76-78 North Street; 0113 295 6060).
Leeds’ only Michelin-starred restaurant, Michael O’Hare’s unfailingly clever and arty The Man Behind the Curtain (68-78 Vicar Lane; 0113 243 2376), opens bookings five months in advance and sells out quickly for weekend evenings.
If you haven’t got a table, try Ox Club (19a The Headrow; 0113 487 1814). It’s much easier to get a booking and the food is exquisite and interesting. It’s a British grill restaurant, which might mean an 800g sharing slab of Wing rib Highland beef charred to perfection, but you could just as easily find grilled Caesar, pecorino and chicken skin to be the star. Afterwards work your way through Ox Club’s housemates at Headrow House, starting with the ground-floor pilsner bar and ending on the roof terrace.
Brush away the cobwebs by taking the water taxi from Granary Wharf to Leeds Dock, noting the shells of old warehouses, the regenerated mills and wharfs along the banks of the River Aire. At Leeds Dock grab a strong flat white from North Star Coffee Shop (The Boulevard; 0113 466 0025), Leeds’ artisan coffee roastery, before heading into the modern Royal Armouries Museum (Armouries Drive; 0113 220 1916) to explore the national collection of centuries-old war paraphernalia.
Back at Granary Wharf, head southeast into Holbeck conservation area, once Leeds’ gritty industrial heartland. Look skywards to find the three factory chimneys at Tower Works, instantly recognisable because of their resemblance to famous Italian bell towers. Expect to see some cranes – it’s now the anchor for the ambitious South Bank development that’s intending to double the size of Leeds city centre.
Walk along Marshall Street to see Temple Works, an 1836 flax mill built to look like a colonnaded Egyptian temple. It’s right next to Northern Monk brewery (Marshalls Mill; 0113 243 0003), where you should stop for lunch from their rotating guest kitchens alongside a pint of Northern Monk’s Faith Pale Ale. The brick-lined taproom sits above the brewing tanks inside a Grade II-listed mill.
Afterwards, join the canal towpath heading west for a 30-minute walk to Armley Mills, home to Leeds Industrial Museum (Canal Road). Take in the sheer size of the Victorian working loom, which occupies an entire hall, and watch stuttering sepia films in the recreated early-20th-century picture house.
Delve deeper into the local craft-beer scene at North Brewing Co’s modern city-centre taproom (3 Sovereign Square), grazing on tropical sours, coffee porters and hoppy IPAs while perched on stools, surrounded by strip lighting and blonde wood panelling. If you’d like a sit-down meal next, make sure you’ve got a booking for Tharavadu (7-8 Mill Hill; 0113 244 0500), Leeds’ Michelin-recommended Keralan restaurant. Order all the breads, to mop up the rich fish curries.
If your focus is still on the beer, head straight for the neon lights of Assembly Underground (12 Great George Street). Try to arrive before 8pm if you’re here on the weekend, or risk having to queue. This small bunker-like beer hall is run by Hebden Bridge’s Vocation brewery, but it’s also crammed with local street-food vendors. Squeeze in at one of the long communal tables and order Slap & Pickle’s ‘Bick Mick’ cheeseburger-crumble loaded fries with pickles and burger sauce.
Where to stay . . .
In the heart of the city’s fashionable shopping and restaurant districts, Dakota Deluxe is a luxuriously low-key hotel. With its candles, grey-on-grey colours and basement restaurant, it has the feel of a private members’ club, albeit a large one.
The Bells is a collection of six beautifully restored self-contained apartments within a historical building framed by stately trees. It offers a seriously stylish base from which to explore the independent shopping opportunities, dining and nightlife offered by one of Yorkshire’s buzziest cities.
An Art Deco flagship hotel, The Queens was built in 1937 for the former London, Midland & Scottish Railway that stands beside Leeds’ train station. Sympathetic restoration has helped it remain popular, mainly with couples and business travellers.
What to bring home . . .
Every Friday from 12pm, Northern Monk (Marshalls Mill; 0113 243 0003) sells its freshest beer releases, including the experimental Old Flax Store Projects brewed in the tanks on the ground floor, direct from the Refectory tap room.
Leeds illustrator Adam Allsuch Boardman’s brilliant graphic prints documenting forgotten local cinemas are a striking, unusual souvenir. You can get them at the design gallery-cum-bookshop Colours May Vary (Munroe House; 01132 442 704).
When to go . . .
Late spring and summer are generally the best times to visit Leeds if you want any chance of outdoorsy weather. This is the time of year when pavement cafe terraces and outdoor music gigs bloom, and locals flock to beer gardens.
Autumn is also a good time to visit. The return of students creates an unmistakable buzz, Oktoberfest celebrations are popular, and the Leeds Light Night around the third week of October has become a big deal.
Winters are cold, damp and foggy in Leeds, and probably best avoided unless you’re specifically coming for Christmas shopping – the festive lights in the Victoria Quarter and Corn Exchange are classy and full of twinkly magic.
Know before you go . . .
Visit Leeds has information on events, tours, sports, accommodation and more, plus some useful downloadable themed trail maps and a comprehensive digital visitor guide e-book. Its physical location is inside the Leeds Art Gallery shop on Headrow.
Since ditching London for Leeds five years ago, Lorna Parkes has mastered the art of taste-testing the city’s experimental hoppy craft beer, hunted out all the best pubs for Sunday roasts, and spends far too much time window-shopping in the Victorian arcades.