As denizens of the City of Leeds for in excess of a century between us, the MEETinLEEDS team is as well acquainted with the “Jewel on the Aire” as any Leodiensian (all but one of us were born and bred in Yorkshire; Matt hails from over the Pennines). We thought we could make the most of our hard earned knowledge by sharing some of our favourite places to visit in Leeds with you, our lucky reader.
If you are attending a conference held at the University of Leeds, are new to the city, need some inspiration, or visiting for any reason you could do worse than try one (or all!) of our suggestions. However, the list is not exhaustive (and are all based on personal experience and preferences, and in no way reflect any affiliation with the University of Leeds) so feel free to explore and enjoy the vibrant home of the Loiner.
1. Marks & Spencer Penny Bazaar
Michael Marks arrived in Leeds as a Belarusian refugee, selling goods for a penny on the Leeds Kirkgate Market in 1884. By 1998, the Marks & Spencer Company became the first British retailer to make a pre-tax profit of over £1 billion, employing 82,000 people in 2013.
In March 2013 Marks & Spencer went back to where it all began and re-opened the Penny Bazaar on Leeds Kirkgate Market, selling memorabilia and selected product lines (though, unfortunately, not for a penny).
Visit the store and get a sense of the history that surrounds this British institution, and while you are there you can stroll around and grab a bargain, a bite to eat (I heartily recommend the Caribbean Café; jerk chicken and mac cheese is the perfect way to middle a day) or just mill around the largest indoor market in Europe.
Off the Beaten Track: If you want to know more about the history of M&S, their Company Archive has a collection of over 70,000 historic items and was unveiled at the Michael Marks Building in March 2012. Well worth a visit if you are on campus, the staff are very knowledgeable and best of all it is free!
Is a visit to a new city complete unless it includes a visit to a local public house? Of course not is the answer, and in the home of John and Samuel Smith you are spoilt for choice. You could go for a no nonsense pint at the Fenton (apparent location for the formation of Leeds music scene legends Gang of Four), which is a mere foxtrot from the Parkinson steps, to a Taittinger soaked soiree at Épernay, where champagne flows by the Nebuchadnezzar.
But what better way to enjoy a flagon of the local brew than in Leeds’ oldest pub: the ubiquitous Whitelock’s Ale House. Situated in Turks Head Yard (the original name of the establishment until 1867 when John Lupton Whitelock put his name to the licence and above the bar) the dark wood and leather décor is highlighted by the multitude of mirrors and polished brass, illuminated by stained glass windows through which the milky light from the alley seeps in.
If Whitelock’s makes us come over all poetic, it is because it was a favourite haunt of the poet John Betjemen, who described it as “the Leeds equivalent of Fleet Street’s Old Cheshire Cheese and far less self-conscious, and does a roaring trade. It is the very heart of Leeds.” It has changed very little since Betjeman’s stint propping up the bar and is all the better for it.
Off the Beaten Track: The Reliance Bar & Dining Room is a 2 minute walk from the city centre but is perfect for an unpretentious pre-theatre dinner. Local ales, local food and home-cured charcuterie are their specialities, with a short but well-chosen wine list served by friendly and accommodating staff. The Pigs Cheeks are highly recommended for the adventurous diner.
Leeds has always been a bastion of shopping in the north. The Victoria Quarter is impressive not only for the amount of designer shops making their out of London debuts but also for the striking architecture. Built around 1900, designed by a theatre architect, the Burmantofts Pottery exterior is painstakingly detailed in a way that is oft neglected in new constructions.
However, on 21 March 2013 Trinity Leeds opened, with a roof design that mimics the glass panelled roof of the Victoria Quarter while simultaneously blowing it out of the water with its sheer scale. The dome consists of 1902 panels over an area of 40,000 square feet and is large enough to fit the former centre of Leeds trade, the Corn Exchange, with room to spare. Under this monolith are 120 stores in which you can shop until no longer bipedally stable, safe in the knowledge that the Yorkshire weather cannot ruin the experience. When the time comes to refuel the Trinity Kitchen plays host to a carousel of eateries (some permanent, some temporary street food vans) to cater to any taste bud impulse.
It might not be a secret, but good things rarely are.
Off the Beaten Track: The Corn Exchange is very much on the beaten track, but if you hunt around the area you will discover some independent vintage clothes shops where bargains can still be found. If you are looking to add to your music collection, Crash Records and Jumbo Records are perfect places to while away the hours, flipping through the LP’s in the hunt for that first edition Wu-Tang Clan 36 Chambers, or whatever makes your particular vessel buoyant.
Yes, it is one of our venues. Yes, we are slightly biased. Yes, we do realise that everyone who is anyone knows “Who” played there for their seminal “Live at Leeds” album. But when you are privy to a piece of local history you are entitled to shout about it. So we do.
Just walking around the Refectory you can take in the history, the placards on the wall recalling historic moments that occurred within the confines of the main catering outlet at the University. Every day on my way to work I am greeted by the grimace of Ian Dury; waltz past Elton John; rub shoulders with Brian Ferry. Anyone and everyone are welcome to visit the Refectory and soak up the atmosphere while tucking into some of the delicious food on offer.
Nostalgia is not the only reason to visit the Refectory; it also serves as a venue to many gigs and is the main venue for the Live at Leeds annual festival, held on the May Bank Holiday. Up and coming local bands mingle with established acts to create an atmosphere that is as good – if not better – than any festival, without the need for wellies and face wipes (well, that is dependent on the weather holding out) and with easy access to the finer things in life (eating lunch with metal cutlery springs to mind).
No visit to Leeds is complete without closing your eyes in front of the stage area of the Refectory. With the right ears the clang of chords that open “Substitute” will resonate around the columns.
Off the Beaten Track: For filling food look no further than Fuji Hiro. A traditional Japanese noodle bar where value and gastrointestinal fulfilment are at the fore in a relaxed Formica-table dining-room. The dumplings are a delight. For music lovers the Belgrave Music Hall is a must, with great bands on most nights of the week and a New-York-style roof terrace, though the views are decidedly un-Manhattan. The canteen serves slices of pizza that would be at home on Fifth and 53rd.
Leeds City Varieties may be well known to our, ahem, older readers who enjoyed music hall and saw “The Good Old Days” between 1953 and 1983 on the BBC. After a major refurbishment in 2009, the theatre reopened in 2011 with the link to the excellent White Swan Inn re-established, making it a perfect hidden alternative to the elaborate and vertigo-inducing Grand Theatre.
Nowadays the music hall plays host to a litany of comedians, shows, orchestras, and popular music concerts. The intimate setting (just 467 seats in total) and virtually unchanged interior make this a piece of living history, while other music halls have crumbled and faded.
The theatre is listed at #3 on the attractions to visit in Leeds on TripAdvisor, so book early to avoid disappointment!
Off the Beaten Track: Hyde Park Picture House is another blast from the past, a real old school cinema where you can take a bottle of beer to your seat on the balcony and watch either a new release or a screening of a classic (I was fortunate enough to catch Dr Strangelove 37 years after its big screen debut). Well worth a visit and is just a 5 minute walk from the University campus.
Stay in Leeds!
Now that you’ve read about our favourite places in Leeds why not come and see them for yourself? We have bedrooms available from just £44!*
Find out more on our Short Breaks page.