Yorkshire’s largest city was once defined by mills and industry, but Leeds’ Victorian centre has marched proudly into the 21st century. Its industrious soul and grungy guts remain intact, but cultural enclaves are flourishing, redevelopment plans are beautifying heritage areas, and there’s a new verve in town.
Leeds may have lost the chance to bid for European Capital of Culture 2023 thanks to Brexit, but in January 2018 local government secured £35 million for a six-year investment programme so that the 2023 year of culture can go ahead independently. Yorkshire will not be beaten, and it’s all go in Leeds – whether you’re after brewery brunches or barista classes, pop-up events or elegant arcades. Here’s our guide to the city’s thriving food, beer and coffee scenes, revamped markets and galleries and historic sights.
Craft beer and Northern Monk
If Leeds could be summed up in one sniff, it would be the aromas of hops and malt. In the past five years, the city has leveraged its proud Yorkshire real-ale heritage to create one of the UK’s finest craft beer scenes. This is a city of connoisseurs, where scores of hopheads worship at dozens of bars and microbreweries.
Northern Monk's Refectory is a top spot for beers and brunch © Lorna Parkes / Lonely Planet – artwork by James David Murphy
Leading the pack is Northern Monk, beloved for its sociable taproom in a Grade II-listed mill, its inspired collaborative brews and its revolving kitchen takeovers that support fledgling local indie food businesses.
Holbeck: an unexpected wonderland
Step out of the Northern Monk taproom and you’re slap-bang in the middle of an unexpected wonderland of 19th-century industrial relics. Holbeck may have a reputation as a rough-around-the-edges place (it’s Britain’s first legal red-light zone), but it’s also a fascinating conservation area with some great pubs and off-the-beaten-track appeal.
Amid clusters of converted flax-mill offices, three startling brick chimneys – modelled on Italian bell towers – shoot skywards from crumbling Tower Works. This former pin factory is a key component of the Leeds Southbank regeneration project, which intends to double the size of the city centre with new mixed-use developments and the creation of a city-centre park.
Around the corner stands the Egyptian-inspired stone facade of Temple Works. Some locals remember when its flat roof was covered in grass and grazed by resident sheep. The Grade I-listed building was snapped up by a property developer in December 2017 and grand regeneration plans are afoot, but for now local artists are taking advantage of cheap studio rents within its decaying walls.
Leeds Civic Trust runs a heritage Supper Walk around the area, including dinner at Leeds’ Heritage and Design Centre.
When textile magnates roosted in Leeds during its 19th-century industrial heyday, elegant shopping arcades were erected to burn holes in their pockets. The covered laneways fanning out from Briggate still retain many traditional shopfronts, behind which lie the city’s most interesting independent stores – selling artisan cakes, comics, craft beer and the like – tempered by high-end fashion boutiques.
Victoria Quarter is the undisputed beauty queen, but check out gothic Thornton’s Arcade for its chiming automaton clock featuring a life-sized Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. A five-minute walk away, the Colosseum-like Corn Exchange has been transformed into another bastion of indie shops and cafes, with deck chairs and pop-up events in its lower level.
Revamped Kirkgate Market
It’s hard not to be dazzled by the wrought-iron razzmatazz of Kirkgate Market’s ornate atrium ceiling. On a sunny day, light floods in through the glass, illuminating the colourful traditional wooden stalls below. This is where UK retail giant Marks & Spencer started its empire in 1884 (check out the Penny Bazaar homage to M&S inside). The section abutting Vicar Lane is the highlight of what is one of Europe’s largest covered markets.
Kirkgate remains a true locals’ shopping spot, selling a bit of everything, but in 2016 it also welcomed a new street-food hall and made a push to introduce gourmet, local produce. It’s now a favourite lunchtime destination: grab a curry from award-winning Manjit’s Kitchen, followed by a brownie from upmarket bakery Bluebird.
The North’s best food fest
If proof were needed of how far Leeds’ culinary options have come in the past few years, Leeds Indie Food is it. Now in its fourth year, the festival spills across two whole weeks each May, and coveted events sell out in days.
The focus is on independent restaurants, cafes and regional producers, reflecting the city’s growing reputation for innovation in the kitchen. Events are unique: you could find yourself at a doughnut-and-beer-matching event or experimental lobster workshop one day, followed by a foraging walk or secret-location dinner the next.
The trend for sophisticated coffee that’s swept London in recent years is also flourishing in Leeds thanks to bean lovers like Dave and James Olejnik, who run Laynes Espresso. The brothers make frequent forays down to the capital to snap up the best batches from producers such as Square Mile and Workshop Coffee, as well as using beans from Leeds-based North Star Coffee Roasters. The duo also run coffee-making and appreciation classes for budding baristas and serve excellent food in their newly expanded shop.
New nightlife in the Northern Quarter
The slim end of Call Lane on the southern edge of the city centre is a whirlwind of high-octane bars, cramped indie hang-outs and the odd cafe-restaurant. It used to be locals’ main go-to for alternative fun after dark, but the city has broadened its horizons in recent years. Bookending the city centre to the north, what was once a lonesome spot for a couple of stellar bars above Headrow has morphed into a nightlife zone called the Northern Quarter. Long-time residents are bemused by the new name, but everybody loves this trendy enclave of prohibition-style bars, gin palaces and craft beer taps.
Try retro Belgrave Music Hall & Canteen with its food, intimate live-music space and quirky lawned roof terrace in a restyled 1930s block. On the second Saturday of every month, it hosts the Belgrave Feast street food and art market. Most recently, a hugely popular vegan version has been introduced on select dates (check online).
The Royal Armouries
Most Brits aren’t aware that the UK’s national military museum is in Leeds. The Royal Armouries’ swanky lodgings in the Leeds Dock area are crowned by a glass tower menacingly titled the Hall of Steel. Spiralling skywards, it displays 2500 swords, scabbards and other military paraphernalia from the last 400 years. Part of the fun is getting here – on a free water taxi chugging down the warehouse-flanked River Aire from Granary Wharf.
Leeds Art Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute
In October 2017 Leeds Art Gallery reopened after more than a year of refurbishments that have created a series of light-filled, white-walled galleries with original Victorian building features. A striking, crowdfunded wall mural by Lothar Götz dominates the stairwell and a new barrel-vaulted gallery housing a single, dramatic installation has been unveiled on the first floor – the glass ceiling, boxed in since the 1970s, was rediscovered during the restoration works.
It is wonderfully surreal to see a medieval ruin transformed into a stage for pop-up markets, open-air film screenings and events. Cistercian monks put roots down in Kirkstall Abbey in the 12th century and the building, now partly gobbled up by nature, is Leeds’ most impressive medieval structure.
The ruins and surrounding parkland are peaceful ambling territory, and the abbey takes on a whole new persona when magical Christmas markets or ghoulish Halloween screenings take over its magnificent lofty arches and crumbling walls (check leeds.gov.uk). It’s three miles from the city centre; catch a bus.
Updated March 2018.