Yorkshire’s largest city was once defined by mills and industry, but Leeds’ Victorian centre has marched proudly into the 21st century. Its industrious soul and grungy guts remain intact, but cultural enclaves are flourishing, redevelopment plans are beautifying heritage areas, and there’s a new verve in town.
Craft beer and Northern Monk
If Leeds could be summed up in one sniff, it would be the aromas of hops and malt. In the past five years, the city has leveraged its proud Yorkshire real-ale heritage to create one of the UK’s finest craft beer scenes. This is a city of connoisseurs, where scores of hopheads worship at dozens of bars and microbreweries.
Leading the pack is Northern Monk, beloved for its sociable taproom in a Grade II-listed mill, its inspired collaborative brews and its revolving kitchen takeovers that support fledgling local indie food businesses.
Holbeck: an unexpected wonderland
Step out of the Northern Monk taproom and you’re slap-bang in the middle of an unexpected wonderland of 19th-century industrial relics. Holbeck may have a reputation as a rough-around-the-edges place (it’s Britain’s first legal red-light zone), but it’s also a fascinating conservation area with some great pubs and off-the-beaten-track appeal.
Amid clusters of converted flax-mill offices, three startling brick chimneys – modelled on Italian bell towers – shoot skywards from crumbling Tower Works. This former pin factory is a key component of the Leeds Southbank regeneration project, which intends to double the size of the city centre with new mixed-use developments and the creation of a city-centre park.
Around the corner stands the Egyptian-inspired stone facade of Temple Works. Some locals remember when its flat roof was covered in grass and grazed by resident sheep.
Leeds Civic Trust runs a heritage Supper Walk around the area, including dinner at Leeds’ Heritage and Design Centre.
When textile magnates roosted in Leeds during its 19th-century industrial heyday, elegant shopping arcades were erected to burn holes in their pockets. The covered laneways fanning out from Briggate still retain many traditional shopfronts, behind which lie the city’s most interesting independent stores – selling artisan cakes, comics, craft beer and the like – tempered by high-end fashion boutiques.
Victoria Quarter is the undisputed beauty queen, but check out gothic Thornton’s Arcade for its chiming automaton clock featuring a life-sized Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. A five-minute walk away, the Colosseum-like Corn Exchange has been transformed into another bastion of indie shops and cafes, with deck chairs and pop-up events in its lower level.
Revamped Kirkgate Market
It’s hard not to be dazzled by the wrought-iron razzmatazz of Kirkgate Market’s ornate atrium ceiling. On a sunny day, light floods in through the glass, illuminating the colourful traditional wooden stalls below. This is where UK retail giant Marks & Spencer started its empire in 1884 (check out the Penny Bazaar homage to M&S inside). The section abutting Vicar Lane is the highlight of what is one of Europe’s largest covered markets.
The North’s best food fest
If proof were needed of how far Leeds’ culinary options have come in the past few years, Leeds Indie Food is it. Now in its fourth year, the festival spills across two whole weeks each May, and coveted events sell out in days.
The focus is on independent restaurants, cafes and regional producers, reflecting the city’s growing reputation for innovation in the kitchen. Events are unique: you could find yourself at a doughnut-and-beer-matching event or experimental lobster workshop one day, followed by a foraging walk or secret-location dinner the next.
The trend for sophisticated coffee that’s swept London in recent years is also flourishing in Leeds thanks to bean lovers like Dave and James Olejnik, who run Laynes Espresso. The brothers make frequent forays down to the capital to snap up the best batches from producers such as Square Mile and Workshop Coffee, as well as using beans from Leeds-based North Star Coffee Roasters. The duo also run coffee-making and appreciation classes for budding baristas and serve excellent food in their newly expanded shop.
Other artisan coffee shops worth savouring a cup in are Kapow in The Calls, Mrs Atha’s just off Briggate, and Union Coffee House on Great George St, behind Leeds Town Hall.