Victorian warehouses and shiny 21st-century architecture collide to awesome effect in this gritty (not grotty) Yorkshire city. Go for the shopping, museums and nightlife. Stay for the craft beer and hipster lifestyle.
Brew: The Noonshine Café, Tall Boys Beer Market
When Tetley’s Leeds brewery closed in 2011, Yorkshire bitter drinkers wept into their pints. But not for long. A host of independent breweries filled the gap and Leeds could well be Britain’s craft beer capital. This café is above a beer shop, so pick a brew (coffee and/or beer) to go with your brekkie. It’s definitely appropriate.
Browse: Victoria Quarter shopping
High-street, designer and truly exciting independent brands have set up shop in spots that give the merchandise serious competition for your attention. The beautiful Victoria Quarter is the place for luxe buys amid marble, mahogany and stained-glass windows. Nearby, the Grade I-listed Corn Exchange is packed with character and independents.
Baulk: Thackray Medical Museum
For a more offbeat thing to do in Leeds, check out this warts-and-all history of medicine. It takes you from the quack ‘cures’ that prevailed on the grubby streets of Victorian Leeds to the driving force of modern military medicine, via lanced boils and surprisingly Instagrammable apothecary jars.
Lunch: Friends of Ham
If you love beer, ham and cheese then your spiritual home is this restaurant in Leeds. The finest cuts of cured meat and European cheeses make mouthwatering small dishes, and the range of ales stands out even in Leeds – try something from local Kirkstall or Northern Monk breweries. There’s a deli too.
Look: Leeds Owl Trail
Walk off lunch on the self-guided Leeds Owl Trail. Twenty-five owl statues roost along the route past key Leeds’ heritage sites. Look carefully and you’ll spot owls everywhere, from the modern Trinity Centre to the Victorian Town Hall. Why owls? Three of them feature on the Leeds Coat of Arms.
Linger: The Henry Moore Institute
Moore trained as a sculptor in Leeds and, with neighbouring Leeds Art Gallery, this eponymous black granite-clad gallery has one of Britain’s best collections of home-grown sculpture. Expect to see anything from a lecture on Peter Blake to film screenings to provoking exhibitions from the world’s top sculptors.
See: Tiled Hall Café, Leeds Art Gallery
Yes, the artworks in Leeds Art Gallery are world class, but it’s the Tiled Hall Café that earned the institution its place in locals’ hearts. It used to be a reading room, but now this ornately tiled room with marble columns and a mosaicked ceiling is the place for your Yorkshire tea fix.
Study: Royal Armouries Museum
Gaze in awe (and a smidge of fear) at the national collection of arms and armour. There are spears, crossbows (you can shoot them on floor 5) and Henry VIII’s actual suit of armour – he was a large man but the suit pales in comparison to the 18-stone elephant armour also on display.
Savour: Temple Coffee & Doughnuts
Doughnuts plus glitter, need we say more? This foodie newcomer based in Kirkstall - 15 minutes by bus or 30 minute walk from the centre of Leeds; we recommend the latter to burn off those doughy calories - has all your afternoon cravings covered. Everything about this place is instagrammable, from the lavishly-decorated doughnuts to the pastel pink lattes.
Relish: The Man Behind the Curtain
Dinner at the best restaurant in Leeds (the city’s only Michelin-starred restaurant) is more of an event than a meal. Each of the 10-14 “sequences” on the tasting menu is a work of modern art. Amazing, considering the ingredients include pig trotter reduction and the signature dehydrated squid ink. Book now – rightly, there’s a long waiting list.
Rollick: Call Lane
Wondering what to do in Leeds? Head to Call Lane, which has a warranted reputation for wild nights. Start at The Maven, a prohibition-era bar with exquisite cocktails from some of Leeds’ leading mixologists. On nearby Briggate, The Hedonist Project has a complete make-over every 3 months. Past reinventions include a surf shack and a winter mountain lodge.
Rest: 42 The Calls
This exclusive boutique hotel doesn’t try to hide that it used to be an 18th-century flour factory. The rooms still have their original mill mechanisms, so you could end up sleeping under machinery used to haul grain up from the river outside. Also, it offers 12 varieties of sausage for breakfast. Nuff said.
Good to know
Hop on the train and 30 minutes later you’ll be in Ilkley on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Get on yer bike and coast/sweat your way along the same routes used by the Tour de France pros.
Train: 2hr10 from London Kings Cross Station
Coach: 4hr20 from London Victoria Coach Station
Car: 3hr50 from central London