Leeds is the third biggest city in the UK, and that alone should make you curious enough to visit. There's no shortage of things to do in Leeds — spend an action-packed weekend threading through splendid shopping arcades, pootling along canals and suckling on the teat of a top-class brewing scene.
Getting to Leeds
Direct trains run between London King's Cross and Leeds regularly. Journey time is roughly between two hours 15 mins and two hours 30 mins. Until privatisation of the railways happens, coaches are the economical alternative, and will get you there in under four hours (so not horrendous if you're on a tight budget).
Leeds need to know
- Getting around Leeds: The bad news: there's no underground system in Leeds. The good news: there's a water taxi. Plus many of the places in this article are within walking distance anyway. If you're in town for a while, consider getting a three or five-day flexi bus ticket.
- Accommodation: There are plenty of the usual suspects to stay in of course, but for something swisher, consider The Bells, with its chic 70s-style suites and a rooftop jacuzzi. Or sleep on a narrowboat.
- Yorkshire Dales: On the city's doorstep lies a blanket of drop dead gorgeous scenery. Not all of it is easy to reach by public transport, but trains and buses do run out that way. Hop on the Settle-Carlisle Railway to ogle the jaw-dropping Ribblehead Viaduct, or hop a train to Skipton, a pretty, teashoppy town with a castle, on the edge of the Dales.
- Cricket: Leeds loves its football, but they're also cricket mad around these parts. Gen up on the latest test match to be armed with pub banter (people actually talk to you in Yorkshire). If it's the season for it, consider a day at Headingley.
Museums and galleries in Leeds
Like many northern UK cities, Leeds was a whirring powerhouse during the industrial revolution. Learn about its legacy in the textiles and fabric industry by strolling 30 minutes along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, till you reach Leeds Industrial Museum. Located in a grand old mill, its spinning wheels and looms are still put to use. Leeds City Museum is another place to see how the city made its mark, and stars a rail from the world’s first commercially successful steam railway. The Royal Armouries Museum is worth a look-in if you get a kick out of swords and armour and that sort of thing.
Artwise, Leeds Art Gallery is (believe it or) a good place to start — what with its Damien Hirst formaldehyde animals shepherded in amongst overblown Victorian artworks in hulking gilded frames. More into Moore? Check out the Henry Moore Institute, and its ever-changing sculptural exhibitions.
Just outside the city in Kirkstall is the wonderful Abbey House Museum — which recreates Victorian streets, including a walk-in pub (no booze alas) — and is across the road from the romantically ruined Kirkstall Abbey, where surely a few locals have popped the question over the years.
Lunch in Kirkgate Market
Foodies may be au fait with a YouTuber by the name of Danny Malin, who's often seen around Leeds, stuffing his face with the city's sundry delicacies. Kirkgate Market in the city centre is a much-frequented haunt of his, and frankly there are few better places for lunch — what with its Turkish fish kebabs, chilli paneer wraps and roast dinners rolled up burrito-like in a massive, handheld Yorkshire pudding. Oh my days.
While you're in Kirkgate Market, check out the Victorian style Marks and Spencer stall, on the site of the first ever M&S 'penny bazaar' (and if you've REALLY got a thing for M&S, visit its archives, open weekdays only).
For dessert, sink your sweet teeth into a 'Banoffington' or one of 'Mama's Macarons' at Mrs Atha's Coffee Shop, before drifting off into an afternoon food coma down by the canalside.
Pub and bars in Leeds
Here's a city that doesn't mess about with beer: among the brewery/taproom options are: Northern Monk (who've always got something out-of-the-ordinary behind the bar at their Refectory taproom); North Brewing Co (who've got three taprooms in Leeds alone — all with their own vibe); Kirkstall Brewery Taproom (which is really in Leeds rather than Kirkstall); and Nomadic Beers, up in Sheepscar. That's not a definitive list. There is great cask and keg beer sloshing around every corner in Leeds. Go drink it.
There are many magnificent boozers too — from the modern craft-oriented Brunswick, to the legendary Cardigan Arms near Burley Park — which does superb cask beer, pub quizzes and Tuesday kebab nights. Whitelock's Ale House—with its copper bar and mirrored walls—has been a locals' bolthole for over 300 years (and does a stonking gammon roast). The adjoining Turk's Head will mix you a nifty cocktail.
We are yet to find a finer cocktail in Leeds than at Domino Club, a subterranean jazz/blues bar you enter by walking through the back of an actual barbershop in the Grand Arcade. (Their barpeople are deft enough to make you any off-menu cocktail on a whim — we requested an Angel Face, and it was spot on).
If you're getting on it pub-wise, the student-saturated area of Headingley is infamous for its 'Otley Run' pub crawl—and if you are going there, then we'll leave you to your carnage, and head out for dinner instead...
Dinner in Leeds
Hungry again? Leeds does a banging curry — the best place we've been to is Bengal Brasserie, which does the richest, tastiest lamb rogan josh that's ever passed our lips, and gets so rammed, that at 10pm on a Saturday, it feels like more like a nightclub. Like neighbouring Bradford, there are so many great Indian and Pakistani restaurants, it's hard to go too awry.
The joyous Zaap Thai transports you to the streets of Bangkok, via sit-in tuk-tuks and various lovely things on skewers (although we've since been told the unassuming-looking Thai a Roy Dee directly opposite is where Leeds locals tend to go for their Thai fix).
Out Headingley way, burger mini-chain Fat Hippo stacks up some seriously extravagant burgers (think a peanut butter, jelly and cheese number) and — if you've room — very decent milkshakes.
Breakfast and brunch in Leeds
Hankering for a full English? We heartily recommend the one at Wapentake — a cute cafe/pub venue on Kirkgate, with a rash of beer clips and vinyls across the walls. More gutbusting breakfast fare is on the docket at Moose Coffee — which will set you up for many hours of walking the Dales/traipsing round the shops (see below), with its pancake stacks and Mighty Moose breakfast — a mountain of potato hash, eggs and bacon.
If you're out Headingley way, get your brekky fix at Heaney & Mill, where they do all the benedicts/royales/florentines your stomach desires. All of the above offer veggie/vegan options, too.
Shopping in Leeds
People flock from all round Yorkshire to shop in Leeds, although you needn't be a shopaholic to appreciate what the city's got to offer. Anyone with the vaguest of notion of beauty will appreciate the splendiferous Victorian shopping arcades that thread through the city centre: Thornton's Arcade, Queen's Arcade and especially Victoria Quarter, dripping with ornate ironwork (and tbf frequented by the kind of bougie shops that make you sneer at the prices).
Leeds Corn Exchange is another show-stopper of a shopping venue: this gargantuan arena filled with everything from fashion boutiques to coffee stands feels like you're shopping in a massive conch. Some of the boutiques here are keenly priced, but if you want to buy your flatmate a novelty 'Eeh by gum' mug or loaf of parkin cake, The Great Yorkshire Shop is for you.
Parks and walks in Leeds
Leeds is hectic (not London hectic, but still), and at some point you'll possibly require a breather.
Canalside strolls aside, you can get your 10,000 steps in with a wander around Roundhay Park, on the north eastern fringe of Leeds. It's twice the size of London's Hyde Park (show offs) — which is not to be confused with Leeds' own Hyde Park, more of a residential area than rolling greenery — and features a multitude of picturesque things, including woodland and a huge central lake. We've already mentioned Kirkstall Abbey, which you can walk or train to depending on how that hangover/sugar comedown is. Or hop the train to Temple Newsam — this Tudor-Jacobean pile has three lakes to wander round — and though you have to fork out to visit the house, the park's free to roam.
The Leeds music scene
Leeds has graced us with a few musical greats: Soft Cell, The Wedding Present, Gang of Four. (It's also given us the Kaiser Chiefs, but nobody's perfect.) The famous Cockpit club has sadly closed, but the city's still saturated with live sounds — while you're in town, catch a gig at the Brudenell Social Club (which again proves that pubs with flat roofs often make class music venues), The Wardrobe (bringing a steady supply of indie bands, funky club nights and stand up comedy) or Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen, which will also sort you out with slices of sausage or mock duck pizza, from Dough Boys (though resident food slingers change from time to time).
Or take it steadier at City Varieties Music Hall, a plush theatre where you're less likely to encounter Yard Act or Porridge Radio, and more likely to find yourself spending an evening with Fairport Convention or Giles Brandreth.
For next time...
- Leeds West Indian Carnival: A highlight of the Leeds summer calendar, there's a float parade, partying in the park, and all the curry goat you could ever want. Makes a nice alternative to Notting Hill.
- Harrogate: This posh spa town (just over 30 mins by train from Leeds) is home to a stunning Turkish baths, and Betty's Tearoom, where folk queue round the block to sample the Fat Rascals.
- Saltaire: This Victorian 'model village' (as quick as 15 mins by train from Leeds) has turned its chimneyed old mill into a super cool art gallery/restaurant/vintage shop. Saltaire is also home to not one but two excellent breweries.
- Bradford: Within spitting distance of Leeds, Bradford merits a visit for its National Science and Cinema Museum, its curry scene and the Record Cafe, where you can quaff local brews while flipping through vinyls.
- York: If you love a good minster/Railway museum/Viking experience — or just want to wander through well the Diagon Alley-esque Shambles, York is a must-visit. Throw in all its great boozers, and this might actually be more of a weekend in its own right, although it's totally doable as a day trip from Leeds.