There's a lot of great things to do in Leeds, but with such a huge array of incredibly good things on offer we thought we might put together some of our favourites so that you can get started on exploring this city of ours. And although the bars, the museums, the gig spaces, the shops, the theatres, the clubs and the restaurants of the city are pretty much second to none, we haven't forgotten about the lush local landscapes, so lace up those boots and make for the moors should a yomp be your kind of yarn.
Sip cocktails in the clouds
The city is stunning by night – a fact that’s particularly appreciable when looking out over the twinkling lights, dainty beverage in hand. Luckily, several of Leeds’ bars are wise to this, and offer a panorama of views across the metropolitan skyline and beyond. Most of them serve cracking cocktails, too: head to the ultra-swanky Angelica at the very top of the Trinity shopping centre for a range of suitably classy mixes and bespoke blends, or take the dizzying lift ride to the top of the canalside Hilton Doubletree’s sophisticated SkyLounge for beautifully presented and infinitely Instagram-worthy concoctions. Those with more adventurous tastes should pay a visit to The Alchemist – also in Trinity – for a balcony view of the bustling Boar Lane and a stonking menu of unique drinks executed with scientific flair. If you’re after something a little more off the beaten track, head to Belgrave and its hip rooftop seating area. Since Leeds is in the north of England, it’s hard to rely on the weather, but time your visit for the blissful summer months and you’ll be rewarded with an unforgettable drinking experience.
Seek retail solace at the Corn Exchange
Part retail area, part food hub, the recently revamped Corn Exchange fosters a community of beautiful shops and boutiques that beckon away from the stressful boulevards and chain stores outside. Closely resembling the cross-hatched and cavernous inner chamber of some great airship, the Grade I-listed building is breath-taking to step inside, where you’ll quickly be distracted by a succession of quirky shops selling handmade jewellery, crafting equipment, sweets, gifts, unique clothes and books, as well as several pampering salons, delicious gourmet hot dogs and a good excuse for a mid-shop tea break. The centre also runs regular events, such as record, craft, and vintage fairs, plus family fun days and dance classes.
Image: ©Pascal Terjan
Spend an afternoon perusing the historic arcades
Leeds is lucky to be able to blend its independent shopping with a walk through history and beautiful architecture that deserves undivided attention of its own. There are plenty of surprises to be found in the Queens and Thorntons arcades – from high-end clothing retail, to dinky gift shops, comic book hide-outs and not-so-secret cafés. The wonder of these neat and pretty rows of covered shopping malls is that there are practically no chains to be found, and small, inviting independent businesses seem to thrive in the almost bazaar-like atmosphere. Shoppers can enjoy a cup of coffee and a slice of cake, buy a unique new outfit, purchase presents in offbeat gift shops, and discover a beautiful piece of vintage jewellery or a new graphic novel series to get stuck into – all without leaving the two bustling retail alleyways. Meanwhile, the wrought-iron palace of the Victoria Quarter lies within spitting distance of its two more bohemian cousins, and houses myriad high-end designer shops dotted around the large Harvey Nichols department store. This trio of arcades has gained a reputation for snootiness due to its pricey boutiques, but it becomes quickly clear that this is unfounded once you step along its stunning walkways.
Image: ©Harry Archer
Feel the wind in your hair
With the picturesque Yorkshire Dales only 20 minutes away from Leeds by train, and the 2014 Tour de France having triumphantly kicked off at the town hall, the city is an increasingly enticing destination for fans of two-wheeled travel. There are bike shops aplenty throughout the main retail area, and the CyclePoint located directly outside the train station is a convenient place to leave your pride and joy while shopping, purchase parts, or get a quick repair done. There’s also the option to hire a steed for just a few quid per day. The city centre – with its tightly packed roads and many traffic lights – is less of an ideal place to go for a ride than the surrounding countryside. Beginning from Millennium Square, a trip following the Otley Road will quickly take you out towards Ilkey and Otley, where respite can be found in the many pubs and tearooms that the upmarket towns have to offer. But real adventures are to be had around Skipton, Grassington and Nidderdale, if you’re looking for a more challenging outing.
Image: ©Lee Roberts
Lace up and run
Exercise alone may not be a good enough reason to visit a city, but try deterring any of the thousands who take part in Leeds’ many races and sporting challenges. The annual Age UK Abbey Dash (held in November) is the highlight for many athletes looking to achieve a 10K personal best on the largely flat route that attracts gigantic crowds of supporters and international running talent. During the summer months, a winter’s worth of tough training can be tested in events such as the Asda Foundation Leeds 10K (July) and the formidable Leeds Half Marathon (May). For less competitive runs, the grounds at Temple Newsam regularly play host to various Race For Life events, while the Mo Run in Roundhay Park is a fun way to raise money for good causes during Movember, and the city centre’s Santa Dash (dressing up obligatory) is a silly seasonal sprint for all the family to try.
Image: ©Bob Peters
Take in a show
There are entertainment options for all in Leeds thanks to a flourishing community of actors, dancers, musicians and artists. Different shows can be found at the city’s many venues and stages on any given night, with visitors flocking from far and wide to watch a famed Northern Ballet dance, a major play staged at the Yorkshire Playhouse, experience avant-garde artistry at the Howard Assembly Rooms, or sample the sophistication of an Opera North production at Leeds Grand Theatre. These are by far the largest and best-known platforms, but the university’s Stage@Leeds, the Carriageworks Theatre and City Varieties Music Hall are equally renowned for the quality and innovation of their performances with experimental theatre and locally penned pieces found on the calendar alongside classic and much-loved plays.
Shake that thing
Leeds is a city that loves to move, whether it’s throwing shapes in a nightclub, bouncing along to bands, or taking part in an organised dance event. The visually stunning Corn Exchange regularly plays host to salsa and lindy hop nights that whirl away a few hours for just £5 for both beginners and the more experienced. Fabulously vintage tea dances pop up all over the city from time to time, but tend to sell out quickly, and classes held at Yorkshire Dance allow beginners to join in with the fun, from street dance to lyrical jazz, to aerial hoop and flamenco for £6.50 per session. If you’d rather someone else put in the effort, world-class dancing can be witnessed at performances held by the Northern School of Contemporary Dance or the Northern Ballet. Capitalising on the contemporary trend for burlesque, cheekily named club The Wet Spot takes place every month at the Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen and delivers pulse-quickening performances from the country’s best adult cabaret performers, hosted by the brilliantly naughty compere Ryvita Von Cheese.
Image: ©Jonathan Kos-Read
Visitors looking for a mental workout have loads to choose from in Leeds, a city that’s bursting with activities designed to test the old grey matter. Alongside the usual outdoor treasure hunting, one of the most popular attractions is the mysteriously titled Tick Tock Unlock; a veritable noodle-scratcher of an afternoon, during which participants are locked in a room with a series of riddles and puzzles and the challenge of escaping within 60 minutes. If that all sounds a little too daunting, one of the city’s many pub quizzes may be the ideal go-to for more sedate intellectual exercise. Hipster hangout Nation of Shopkeepers goes for obscure and random questions; The Adelphi offers a £30 bar tab for the victors of theirs; winners of The Hop’s are bestowed with a gallon of ale, and the Outlaws Yacht Club’s quiz is just 50p to enter. Or, if you’re feeling simultaneously super hungry and competitive (or perhaps just greedy and reckless), NY Burger Kitchen, Mojo, Carpe Diem and Cattle Grid all serve up ‘Man vs Food’-style eating challenges. Bring napkins.
Sample some incredible cakes and bakes
Thanks to ‘The Great British Bake Off’, cakes are bigger news than ever. Leeds is not one to forego the trend for sugar-topped baking, holding its own with cupcake shops, tearooms, and a general emphasis on the cute and edible. It’s an oft-touted fact that the city has more Greggs per square mile than anywhere else in the country, but if you fancy something with a little more sophistication and flair, Leeds won’t leave you disappointed. Johnnie Cupcakes in the Trinity shopping centre specialises in creating pop culture-inspired treats, while Cupcakes by Charley in Queens Arcade serves pretty cakes topped with clouds of pastel buttercream in classic flavours. Chapel Allerton’s divine Sunshine Bakery is certainly worth the journey away from the centre, and serves delicious savoury dishes alongside its many desserts. Love Rouge in Headingley is new on the scene, but has won over a busy student population with its moreish goodies, vintage fete vibe and cute window-front tables for sitting down to afternoon tea at. If cupcakes are too fripperous, several coffee shops in town have caught on to the trend for bakes, with cafés including Layne’s, Mrs Athas, Hepworth’s Deli and Outlaws Yacht Club serving fat slices of layer cakes and squidgy brownies to enjoy with a hot drink. But if you’re feeling particularly creative, or merely fancy a sugar overload, the Good Cause Cupcakes competition, which takes place every month at The Adelphi pub will be pure heaven.
Image: ©Bhargavi Jannu
Go to the pictures
It’s always good to have the option of taking the kids to the cinema on a rainy day, but the modern age has brought over-inflated prices, sticky floors and an alarming rate of popcorn-based hooliganism. Thankfully, Leeds is fortunate to have two independent, vintage cinemas within a mile of each other – Hyde Park Picture House and Cottage Road Cinema in the leafy suburb of Headingley. Both promise a vastly superior experience to your usual mammoth screen complexes with pocket-friendly entry, half-time ice cream vendors and a programme of arthouse, indie and foreign films. The key event on the Leeds cinematic calendar is the annual International Film Festival in November, which sees buffs from across the country drawn to the city-wide celebration of the moving picture from a vast timetable of every movie genre imaginable. If that all sounds a bit too cerebral, there’s always the Leeds International Zombie Film Festival (usually in May), which sees non-stop horror films shown back-to-back throughout the day.
Get a taste of independence
It would be easy to hoot, tweet and harp on all day about the diversity of food available in Leeds. The cosmopolitan city offers a perfect platform for a thriving base of independent businesses showing off culinary and entrepreneurial spirit in tough financial times. Whether it’s breakfast, brunch, lunch, or dinner (or tea, if you’re Northern), rest assured that your appetite and needs will be catered for. For a fly-by taste of the indie action it’s worth visiting the pulsing student hub of Headingley where long-established restaurants like the award-winning and romantic Salvo’s, Mexican-themed Caliente Café and Thai Sabai feed Leeds folk with top-quality family cookery. Meanwhile, Café Lento, Love Rouge, Mint Café are trendy hangouts to enjoy a slice of something sweet in the afternoon. As night falls, take a short ride into the city centre and take your pick of independently owned pubs, bars and supper spots all supporting the trend for locally sourced products, seasonal ingredients and modern British flair. The Midnight Bell, Friends of Ham and North Bar are just a few suggestions, but step out on to the streets and see where your nose takes you.
Dance 'til dawn
Often likened to Manchester’s famous Canal Street, Call Lane has earned a nationwide reputation for wild nights out and LGBT hangouts. Stuffed with bars and clubs in every building, the entire road is pedestrianised at weekends to play host to thousands of revellers hopping from one bar to the next before finding their groove in one of the many clubs. Norman’s, Call Lane Social and Jake’s are among the most popular venues, while Smokestack, Neon Cactus and The Rock Bar provide alternative experiences without straying from the beating heart of the action. A little further from the lane, Space, Wire and Mission each provide the typical clubbing experience with famous DJs occasionally on the bill, while HiFi and Roxy’s Ballroom cater to a more casual crowd.
Spice it up
Birmingham may still be regarded as the nation’s epicentre of Indian restaurants, but with its large population of South Asian origin, Leeds (and neighbouring Bradford of course) boasts countless spice houses with the culinary prowess to rival not only the Brummies, but also the best in the world. Aagrah and Akbar’s are two of the largest chains and can be found throughout Yorkshire, but smaller restaurants with a more local focus offer menus that look beyond predictable kormas and tikka masalas. The acclaimed Hansa’s in the city centre, Prashad in the suburb of Drighlington and Prashad’s city centre sibling Bundobust serve vegetarian dishes that even the most ardent meat-lover will give in to, while Sheesh Mahal on the Kirkstall Road offers authentic and unpretentious Indian cookery. The Corner Café in Hyde Park has a long history, having opened in 1976, and is packed to the rafters at the weekend with devotees to the family-run restaurant, friendly service and top food. Meanwhile, Miah’s Kitchen, the glitzy AM Kitchen & Bar and the highly rated Tharavadu offer high-end dining experiences celebrating the best of international cuisine.
Beer, beer, beer
Yorkshire is riding high on the trend for craft beer and real ales, and Leeds is a great starting point to sample the best of what the county has to offer. Chock-full of independent breweries and pubs dedicated to unique malted beverages, the city caters to all tastes and budgets, meaning lovers of a quality pint are in good company. Tapped, Whitelock’s Ale House, Veritas, Friends of Ham and North Bar are just a handful of the venues that have carefully curated drinks menus, with an astounding range of rotating or limited edition choices on tap. If you have a taste for local brews, the Burley Street Brewhouse-owned Fox & Newt and The Packhorse (the one by the university) both stock the brand’s own selection of straight-from-the-brewery beers, as does the trendy Brewery Tap near the main train station and the cosy Kirkstall Bridge Inn. The annual four-day Leeds International Beer Festival – usually held in September at the town hall on The Headrow – is testament to the growing passion for brewed alcoholic drinks in the city, and offers novices and connoisseurs alike the chance to try an unrivalled array of hundreds of beers and ciders, alongside a street food market, live music and booze-related fun.
Image: ©David, Bergin, Emmett and Elliott
Stretch those legs
The best way to truly experience life in a new city will always be on foot, and it is entirely possible to spend hours wandering among the streets and sights of Leeds without feeling over-exerted. The River Aire and the Leeds-Liverpool canal run through the heart of the city and lead towards Wakefield to the south or scenic spots like Rodley Nature Reserve to the north for a simple and safe stroll. However, if a proper hike or compass-led walk is deemed desirable, the famous rolling Ilkley Moor and the challenging Otley Chevin Park are just 20 minutes away by train, and the brilliant Brimham Rocks a short drive into the countryside. To combine a non-challenging yet picturesque hike in the grounds of Bretton Hall with some of the best art the country has to offer, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield is easily reachable by bus or car and offers an enriching day out.
Image: ©James Whitesmith
Leeds’ reputation as a city of music certainly isn’t unfounded. Even now that the legendary Cockpit has closed down, there’s still an exciting and diverse array of live venues to be found, with a wide choice of acts performing every night of the week. The O2 Academy and the newly opened First Direct Arena are the two largest spaces and regularly play host to world-renowned acts and thousands of screaming fans. Leeds Beckett Union and the Leeds University Union venues are also favourite stop-offs for touring bands, and live acts can be found in the nearby grungy boozers The Packhorse, The Fenton and The Library. The Brudenell Social Club is a fair trek out of town in student-central Hyde Park, but is worth the journey for its cheap drinks, up-and-coming talent, and occasionally huge acts that are drawn to the quirky venue’s reputation. The Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen is another new kid on the block, but is quickly gaining a reputation for being one of the city’s hottest hangouts. Meanwhile, Wardrobe provides a stomping ground for the freshest talent from the neighbouring Leeds College of Music, and while you’re down that end of town it’s worth checking out the mysterious, not-so-secret urban gig spot Temple of Boom for alternative sounds and obscure artists.
Journey through time
Leeds has several top-quality museums and attractions that allow you to get hands-on with history, and learn about the past without even realising it’s an educational experience. The Thackray Medical Museum just out of the city centre is a wonderfully dark, yet incredibly informative place to go whether you have children or not, offering an immersive journey through the hit-and-miss history of healing. Those with weaker stomachs may prefer the eminently less gory Armley Mills, which exhibits working mill equipment and gives a flavour of factory life from the not-so-distant industrial age. Unfortunately, the Royal Armouries at Clarence Dock doesn’t hand out real weapons for visitors to wallop each other with, but the huge museum of warfare is fascinating for young and old alike with fun special events, exhibitions and lectures timetabled all year round. Leeds City Museum located just off Millennium Square has four floors of interactive and diverse galleries, featuring everything from Egyptian mummies and Roman finds, to a touchy-feely rainforest. Kirkstall Abbey and its adjoining Abbey House Museum a short journey out of town allows guests to wander through the ruins of a Cistercian monastery and learn about the simple yet strict running of a monk’s day, while the little monkeys run off some steam in the extensive grounds.
Feel at home
Nothing is quite so quintessentially English as a stately home, and thanks to period dramas like ‘Downton Abbey’ making everyone wish they lived in a sprawling country pile, these vast mansions are more popular than ever. Scattered around Leeds amid acres of greenery you’ll find several of these grand houses, including Harewood House, the family seat of the Earl and Countess of Harewood; the imposing Tudor-Jacobean Temple Newsam with grounds landscaped by Capability Brown; the Edwardian Lotherton Hall and its fairytale woodland, and the magnificent Castle Howard with its award-winning gardens and arboretum. It’s certainly worth dedicating an entire day to one of these storied establishments, allowing time to lose yourself in history and take advantage of the frequent special events and exhibitions on the calendar. And with tours and audio guides available at each, all you have to do is decide what your stately title would be.
Image: ©Michael D Beckwith
Join the party
There are many festivals and carnivals in Leeds that take place all year round, and not all of them revolve around music. Plenty of them do though, and it would be slightly insane to list the best things to do without mentioning Leeds Festival, sister to its Reading counterpart, which takes place in Bramham Park every August and sees the big fish of the music industry play to thousands of fans in a muddy field. Equally, the annual Live at Leeds festival is a must for those wishing to simultaneously take a tour of the coolest music venues and catch up-and-coming bands often months before they break the mainstream. Previous acts to have played include Frank Turner, Alt J, Melody’s Echo Chamber and George Ezra, and it’s amazing to discover new music in the secret backroom of a small pub. Music fans of a more alternative persuasion are likely to love the yearly pop punk bonanza Slam Dunk festival, which takes place at Leeds uni’s union, while Chapeltown’s marvellous Leeds West Indian Carnival showcases the vibrant community’s best music, dance, costumery, and food and gains national media coverage as the streets teem with life each summer.
Wear the kids out
It’s hard to decide where to take the kids on a day out in Leeds, but that’s only because there’s so much on offer. Children will love riding the miniature steam trains at either Tropical World in Roundhay (entry from £1.75) or Kirkstall Abbey (free), as well as meeting meerkats, exotic birds, butterflies and crocodiles in the former’s exotic exhibits. All of the city’s museums cater for the needs and attention spans of youngsters, but Leeds City Museum, the Royal Armouries and Thackray Medical Museum work hardest to ignite little imaginations with hands-on exhibits and vivid reproductions of the past. For outdoor-loving bairns, The Maize Maze a short drive away near Wakefield offers traditional fun, Meanwood Valley Urban Farm is a fab way of introducing littlies to agricultural life alongside a nature trail and play area, and the Curious About Leeds project offers a downloadable series of short walks designed to promote learning about the city while getting fresh air – either beginning or ending by the river. On rainy days, the whole family can enjoy bowling or a cinema trip at Kirkstall Fields retail park, go crafting at Jackrabbits Pottery in Oakwood or Firefly Pottery in Horsforth, or hare about a soft-play centre. Jungle Kids (Armley), Kids Club House (Horsforth) or Munchkins (Morley) are just three of many.