Flanked as it is by sprawling national parks, Leeds may not seem very green by comparison. But with lush city parks and an array of stately country piles and nature reserves on its outskirts, we’d argue it offers the perfect balance of bustling city living and proximity to the great outdoors. Keep central, of course, and you’ll also discover an enviable music scene, thriving theatres, busy shopping districts and atmospheric pubs – making this Yorkshire city the ultimate northern(ish) weekend break. So whether you’re here for the top-notch galleries, the pioneering restaurants and bars, or already lacing up those boots to make for the moors, here are 17 unmissable things to do in Leeds right now.
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Best things to do in Leeds
What is it? Part retail space, part food hub, this stunning Victorian building is home to an array of indie shops and boutiques that beckon shoppers away from the chain stores outside. The lower ground level has also been transformed into a hub for independent food traders.
Why go? Resembling the cross-hatched and cavernous inner chamber of some great airship, the Grade I-listed building is breathtaking to step inside. And you’ll quickly be distracted by quirky shops selling handmade jewellery, vintage cameras and more.
What is it? This trio of arcades comprising the Grand, Queens and Thorntons has gained a reputation for snootiness due to its pricey boutiques, but you’ll soon forgive its pretensions when you’re strolling along its elegant walkways and admiring the art nouveau shopfronts.
Why go? The major draw of these neat and pretty rows of covered shopping malls is that there are practically no chains to be found.
What is it? What was once a large nursery school in the city’s Northern Quarter is now a vibrant, youthful, multi-storey hangout that might well be the city’s best live music venue.
Why go? Capitalising on the contemporary trend for burlesque, cheekily named club night ‘The Wet Spot’ takes place every month here and delivers racy performances from the country’s best adult cabaret performers, hosted by brilliantly naughty compere Ryvita Von Cheese.
What is it? Brewtown tours offer novices and connoisseurs alike the chance to try an array of beers from three top-notch local brewers.
Why go? Yorkshire is riding high on the trend for craft beer and real ales, and Leeds is a great starting point to sample the best the county has to offer (it’s chock-full of independent breweries and pubs).
What is it? Opera voices reverberate, ballet dancers pirouette, and panto villains shout ‘oh no he didn’t!’ with theatrical gusto on the Grand’s stage. This is a key venue for local troupes Opera North and Northern Ballet, which regularly put on classic, avant-garde or lesser-known productions (and showcase world-class talent).
Why go? To admire the ornate ceilings, glitzy chandeliers and sweeping staircases before the show starts.
Why go? Both promise a vastly superior experience to your usual mammoth screen complexes, with pocket-friendly prices, half-time ice-cream vendors and a programme of art-house, indie and foreign films.
What is it? Stretching over 700 acres, Roundhay Park is one of Leeds’s most popular attractions. This patch of greenery is a go-to for picnickers, dog-walkers, joggers and sun-worshippers.
Why go? It’s the only park in Leeds that has a family of meerkats as residents. There are also lakes, woodland, gardens and the pièce de résistance, ‘Tropical World’, which is home to all things wild and wonderful.
What is it? A world-renowned contemporary sculpture gallery, where you can take in towering three-dimensional art, attend lectures on architecture and eyeball art at one-off exhibitions.
Why go? To survey work inspired by (rather than created by) Henry Moore. Those familiar with the great sculptor should know that his own work can be found at Yorkshire Sculpture Park or his estate at Perry Green.
What is it? Kirkstall Abbey and its adjoining Abbey House Museum, a short trip out of town, allows guests to wander through the ruins of a Cistercian monastery and learn about how monks live, while kids run around in the extensive grounds.
Why go? This 900-year-old abbey is an architectural marvel as well as a haven for wildlife, and in the summer months you can enjoy alfresco cinema among the ruins.
What is it? Often likened to Manchester’s famous Canal Street, Call Lane has earned a nationwide reputation for wild nights out and LGBTQ+ 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.
Why go? Roland’s, Call Lane Social and quirky neon bar Cuckoo are among the most popular venues, while Smokestack, Neon Cactus and Oporto provide alternative experiences without straying from the beating heart of the action.
What is it? A vast free-entry museum containing more than 8,500 war-related treasures such as Henry VIII’s tournament armour, elephant armour, and objects from popular culture such as the ‘Aliens’ pulse rifle.
Why go? Unfortunately, the museum doesn’t hand out real weapons for visitors to wallop each other with, but it’s fascinating for young and old, with a daily programme of dramatic performances, tours, talks and live combat displays bringing history to life.
What is it? Just beyond the city centre, this museum is a wonderfully dark yet incredibly informative place offering an immersive journey through the hit-and-miss history of healing.
Why go? Get hands-on with history, and learn about the past without even realising it’s an educational experience.
What is it? An imposing Tudor-Jacobean mansion with grounds landscaped by Capability Brown. There’s nothing as quintessentially English as a stately home, and thanks to period dramas like ‘Downton Abbey’ making everyone wish they lived in a sprawling country pile, vast estates such as this are more popular than ever.
Why go? Lose yourself in history and take advantage of the regular one-off events and exhibitions. And with tours and audio guides available, all you have to do is decide what your stately title would be.
What is it? The River Aire and the Leeds-Liverpool canal run through the heart of the city and lead towards scenic spots like Rodley Nature Reserve, a thriving wetland wildlife haven.
Why go? It’s entirely possible to spend hours here with your eyes glued to the skies (and a pair of binoculars), pond-dipping with little ones… or just walking off the stresses of the city.
What is it? Roughly translated, ‘tharavadu’ means keeping traditions alive, and that’s exactly what happens at this highly rated Keralan restaurant. The menu looks beyond the predictable kormas and tikka masalas to feature a mouthwatering selection of south Indian dishes.
Why go? Tuck into delicately spiced novelties such as a whole crab cooked in coconut sauce, fluffy fried lentil doughnuts and toffee-filled steamed rice cake.
What is it? One of the most popular attractions in Leeds is the mysteriously titled Tick Tock Unlock, a veritable noodle-scratcher of an experience, during which participants are locked in a room with a series of riddles and puzzles and the challenge of escaping within 60 minutes.
Why go? For visitors looking for a mental workout against the clock.
What is it? A good-looking 18th-century pile on the outskirts of Leeds set in 100 acres of lush Yorkshire countryside.
Why go? Perhaps unexpectedly, the mansion is home to a flock of hopelessly cute Humboldt penguins. Take the whole family along in summer to enjoy the bird garden and farm and to witness the daily feeding sessions.