These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Leeds has few major sights or museums, but you’ll find plenty here to keep you entertained. A massive push to woo digital start-ups, a European Capital of Culture bid now reengineered as the Leeds 2023 culture festival, and the impending arrival of Channel 4 have all helped crystallize Leeds’ creative, go-getting spirit. The new South Bank development around Holbeck is regenerating 19th-century industrial relics and a push to develop the River Aire and canal waterfront is slowly building momentum.
Visit the Royal Armouries
The only nationally important museum in Leeds is this repository of armour and weapons, with five floors of thoughtful exhibitions and a vast global collection. At its heart lies a glass-and-steel tower lined with 300 years’ worth of sabers, cutlasses and guns. Displays cover everything from hunting to jousting and the world wars, but also the positive changes achieved by laying down arms.
Insider’s tip: Hunt down the Mughal-era Indian elephant armour on the fourth floor. Brought back to England by Lady Clive, the wife of the Governor of Madras, at the end of the 17th century, it’s extremely rare and seriously enthralling.
Contact: 01 13 220 19 16; royalarmouries.org
Price: Free; donations welcome
Get a load of Kirkgate Market
Mostly ungentrified but ageing gracefully, Leeds’ cavernous central market is one of the biggest of its kind in Europe. Its 1904 hall (accessed off Vicar Lane) in particular is well worth a look for its old-fashioned stands and fine racer green and claret-coloured wrought-ironwork, rising to a domed atrium. The market also has a claim to fame: it’s where Marks & Spencer launched in 1884.
Insider’s tip: If you’re feeling peckish, head downhill to the back of the market where a hangar has been converted into a street-food cathedral. It’s home to Yorkshire pudding wraps, Manjit’s award-winning Indian street food and sustainable fish and chips.
Contact: 01 13 378 19 50; leeds.gov.uk/leedsmarkets
Get hopped on homegrown craft beer
Leeds breweries are masterfully navigating Yorkshire’s ale-brewing heritage into the 21st century, and hop-driven beer tasting is a favourite local pastime. The two heavyweights with taprooms in the city centre are Northern Monk and North Brewing Co. The former is housed in a Grade II-listed mill in Holbeck, while the latter occupies a large airy site close to the train station.
Shop amid Victorian splendour
Some of the most attractive areas to shop in Leeds are regenerated Victorian architectural treasures. The Grade I-listed domed Corn Exchange, built in 1864, is one such place, now occupied by independent retailers and small cafes. Upmarket turn-of-the-century Victoria Quarter is another, with interconnected lanes of tall, blushing terracotta buildings, a kaleidoscopic stained-glass roof, open-invite grand piano and fountains.
Insider’s tip: Don’t miss Thorntons Arcade, across the street from Victoria Quarter. Inside it there’s a large Ivanhoe-themed automaton clock that dances and dings on the hour, plus three great local indie shops: Kapow coffee, OK Comics and the artsy Village bookshop.
Take a boat trip from Granary Wharf
Meet Twee and Drie: two canary-yellow water taxis from Amsterdam that now ferry passengers between Granary Wharf in the city centre and Leeds Dock, home to the Royal Armouries museum. The trip takes just over 10 minutes and passes the lifeblood of Leeds’ 19th-century textile and mill industries: regenerated wharfs and red-brick warehouses now inhabited by bars.
Insider’s tip: Look for the grey heron mural around Brewery Wharf. Funded by the Waterfront Enhancement Fund in 2019, it’s a nod to the birdlife found along the River Aire and designed to be submerged and reappear with the ebb and flow of the river.
Price: £1 per ride; free for under 5s
Admire unusual architecture in Holbeck
Holbeck may be the UK’s first legal red-light district but, more importantly, it’s a unique conservation area, once the beating heart of industrial Leeds, and home to some striking 19th-century relics. Tower Works is notable for its three skyscraper red-brick chimneys modelled after Italian bell towers, while Temple Mill on Marshall St bears a facade that mimics an Eyptian temple.
Insider’s tip: At Granary Wharf, look for remnants of Holbeck’s industrial past in the beer garden of Waterlane Boathouse, where giant iron ship-loading equipment still straddles the waterfront. The pub itself is a converted 19th-century canal warehouse.
Check out Yorkshire’s art and sculpture legacy
The conjoined Leeds Art Gallery and Henry Moore Institute form two important pillars of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle. The focus at Leeds Art Gallery is modern and contemporary British works, but the collection runs the gamut from Auguste Rodin to Anthony Gormley. The Henry Moore Institute hosts small travelling sculpture exhibitions, but no Henry Moore works.
Insider’s tip: Few people know about Leeds Art Gallery’s staggeringly beautiful Tiled Hall Cafe, smothered in Victorian tiling and with a forest of marble columns. It was originally the gallery’s library reading room, then between 1888 and 1941 it was used as a sculpture court.
Contact: 0113 378 5350, museumsandgalleries.leeds.gov.uk/leeds-art-gallery; 0113 246 7467, henry-moore.org/visit/henry-moore-institute
Heckle at a bawdy Victorian theatre
If stalls could talk, the 1865 City Varieties would have some stories to tell. It’s entered in the Guinness Book of Records as the UK’s longest running music hall, and everybody from Harry Houdini to Charlie Chaplin and Russel Crowe have trod its boards. The lipstick-red-and-gold auditorium is one of the most atmospheric places in the city to catch comedy, pantomime and music.
Insider’s tip: Until 2022, City Varieties is hosting BFI highlights and ‘on tour’ cinema from Leeds’ Hyde Park Picture House, which is undergoing major renovations. The programme includes arthouse films, new releases and classics. Check online for upcoming showings.
Get inside Leeds’ industrial past
If you’re curious about what life was like during the city’s rampant manufacturing era, pay a visit to the Leeds Industrial Museum inside rambling Armley Mills. The first section brings to life the (rather grim) daily strife of Victorian textile workers, with a chance to see original sweatshop machinery in situ. After that it’s on to Leeds’ fashion connections and cinematic history.
Insider’s tip:Come prepared for a walk. Armley Mills is on the Leeds to Liverpool Canal, a popular place for urban amblers. Take bus 15 from the train station, then return via the towpath; it’s 1.7 miles to Granary Wharf.