Free things to do in Leeds
Occupying the space left by Leeds’ oldest brewery, The Tetley opened in late 2013 and has quickly become the place to enjoy exciting, contemporary art exhibitions, screenings, talks and fairs. The building itself, a blocky art deco affair with original brewery features, is worth the visit alone, while the downstairs bar and restaurant are good for real ale (but of course) and hearty comfort food.
Recognised for being of 'national importance' and described as hosting 'probably the best collection of twentieth century British art outside London', Leeds Art Gallery is a must-visit. The gallery’s permanent collection includes works by JMW Turner, Paula Rego, Rembrandt, Francis Bacon and William Holman Hunt while a dedicated team ensure an inspiring, ever-changing programme of exhibitions which have recently included works by Damien Hirst, Grayson Perry and David Hockney.
These days Leeds is better known for real ale pubs and shopping, but there is still a place where you can relive the past and spectate at a good old-fashioned horse-back jousting contest. As well as such medieval weekends, the Royal Armouries plays host to some 70,000 arms, artillery and fetching chainmail suits dating back in some cases to before the Romans. Your great, great, great, great granddad would have been proud.
‘The creative habit is like a drug. The particular obsession changes, but the excitement, the thrill of your creation lasts’. Nowhere is this observation from the famed Leeds sculptor more accurate than in the Henry Moore Institute. An imposing black granite structure built in 1993, the education centre is made up of four galleries showcasing installation art and sculpture from across the world. It’s worth braving the slightly intimidating entrance to become immersed in the ground-breaking work that’s on offer and chat to the supremely knowledgeable staff.
Named after two local cultural philanthropists, the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery is based in the University’s Parkinson Building and boasts a regularly changing programme of exhibitions spanning ceramics, illustration, painting, printing and textile art. But perhaps the best draw up the hill and those many steps to the gallery is its workshops. All free - they’ve recently started asking for a refundable deposit since they’re so popular – the classes tie in with what’s hanging in the gallery at the time and are sometimes led by the artists themselves.
Home to the Leeds Tiger, a characterful example of Victorian taxidermy saved from destruction by public lobby, Leeds Museum is one of our favourite free visits in Leeds. Reopened in 2008 after a 40 year hiatus, the museum is a good place to learn about local history as well as see Nesyamun, aka the ‘Leeds mummy’ (we do like to lay claim to our artefacts, don’t we), a Roman floor mosaic uncovered a few miles down the road and plentiful crap taxidermy.
Before big money ad campaigns with Twiggy and Gary Barlow, Marks & Spencer was a tiny stall in Kirkgate Market. The Penny Bazaar of 1884 has recently been reinstated there (alas, charging a bit more than that now) and The Company Archive museum across town is a treasure trove of nostalgic clothes, homeware and food tins. Look out also for free events which usually include a talk about the collection and swing dancing lessons.
Attached to the City Art Gallery (we recommend entering through the Tiled Hall, a Victorian feat of decoration which now serves up really good cake) Leeds’ Central Library is an architectural gem and a brilliant place to while away a free afternoon. As well as quiet study areas, free internet access and all those books, they also host free, occasional lunchtime talks on Fridays with experts from the University and one-off performances and workshops with local groups.