“All t’fatties out!” shouts a joker in the crammed hotel lift. We’re headed for the Sky Lounge on the 13th floor of the DoubleTree By Hilton Hotel, a rooftop terrace bar which has been enthusiastically adopted by the locals. But we’re over the weight limit and the lift is refusing to budge.
Leeds is the UK’s fastest-growing city, driven by financial services and the business sector. And with economic renewal has come cultural vitality - the Lonely Planet Guide named Leeds as one of the 10 best visitor destinations in Europe for 2017.
Boasting a world-class museum (the Royal Armouries), internationally renowned opera and ballet companies, restaurants at the cutting edge of foodie culture and a clutch of sophisticated shopping arcades, the northern city’s transformation is breathtaking.
Dour decades of industrial grime have been scraped away, and what’s left is a confident, entrepreneurial metropolis which, just as in its Victorian heyday, embraces the glitz and glamour of prosperity.
But down-to-earth Leeds folk haven’t changed at all. So whatever your budget, the city adds up to an exceptional - and at times hilarious - travel experience.
Where to stay
Stepping into the DoubleTree by Hilton (doubletree3.hilton.com) is a dramatic, almost Harry Potterish experience: Descend from the bridge above Platform 17 at Leeds Railway Station into the Dark Arches (brick tunnels built in Victorian times to carry the tumbling waters of the River Aire), then emerge into a blaze of daylight by the Leeds And Liverpool Canal.
Enjoying the facilities one would expect of a member of the Hilton chain (42in TV, complimentary wifi, well-designed rooms), the canal-side location on Granary Wharf offers soothing views of narrowboats chugging gently along the waterway.
On the ground floor, the all-day Lock Kitchen & Bar has a chilled vibe; you can while away hours people-watching on the heated terrace by the towpath. The fashionable Sky Lounge roof terrace gets busy at weekends, so a good way to enjoy the panoramic views in tranquility is by taking advantage of the weekend brunch option (£17.50) or a full-blown afternoon tea (£19.95). From £73 per night room only.
A budget option is Art Hostel (arthostel.org.uk) in Kirkgate. Managed by East Street Arts as a social enterprise, each room has been individually designed using recycled materials. A private twin room (bed only) costs £55, while a bunk in a 10-bed mixed dorm is £22.50. There are cooking facilities on site and you can pick up fresh ingredients at Kirkgate Market, just moments away. Drop by to say hello and pick up the very useful Art Hostel Free Guide to Leeds’ independent scene.
What to do
The Royal Armouries (royalarmouries.org) is the national collection of arms and armour, much of it previously stored in the Tower Of London, and essentially a shrine to the ways people can kill each other. Horrible? Yes. But the collection is also about innovation, technology and superb craftmenship.
You can ponder the sad role of conflict in the world - or you can ogle the size of Henry VIII’s codpiece. It’s enormous. And there’s a war elephant. Pick up the free water taxi near the DoubleTree by Hilton and enjoy a 20-minute cruise along the River Aire to the steps of the waterside museum. Entrance is free.
Recently reopened following refurbishment, Leeds Art Gallery (leeds.gov.uk/artgallery) on The Headrow is overshadowed, architecturally, by Cuthbert Brodrick’s splendid 1850s Leeds Town Hall next door. The Gallery’s treasures lie within - built in 1886-8 by public subscription, the stunning Victorian glazed roof was rediscovered by builders after it was boxed in during the 1970s.
Explore the work of British watercolourist John Sell Cotman, or catch a major retrospective of the sculptures and drawings of Joseph Beuys (both exhibitions are on until January 21). The Tiled Hall Cafe, with magnificent marble columns and a mosaic ceiling, is a work of art in itself. Entrance is free.
Where to shop
The Grand Arcade is, ironically, the least grand of Leeds’ many covered shopping streets. These range from Thornton’s Arcade (opened in 1878 and home today to quirky independent retailers, such as OK Comics) to the much newer Victoria Gate, anchored by one of the largest John Lewis stores in the UK.
The jewel in the crown is The Victoria Quarter, designed in 1900 by Frank Matcham, better known for his theatres. A branch of Harvey Nichols now stands on the site of the original Empire Theatre. The remainder of the covered complex is filled with high-end stores from Space NK to Vivienne Westwood, and the Tesla car company has just opened a showroom. To describe it as one of the most beautiful shopping malls in Britain is no exaggeration.
Where to eat
You won’t go hungry in a city that understands the importance of “a bit of a do”. Issho (issho-restaurant.com), a rooftop restaurant in Victoria Gate, offers contemporary Japanese cuisine - small sharing plates of skewered meats (robatayaki) and upmarket sushi - prepared under the eye of Executive Chef Ben Orpwood, previously at Zuma and Sexy Fish in London. It’s popular with affluent young professionals who populate the city’s financial and legal base. Expect to pay £3.50-£10 per plate.
Friends of Ham (friendsofham.co.uk), near the railway station, is a classy option that needn’t bust the budget. Don’t be fooled by the decor - the rustic simplicity of the bar, with its rough-hewn communal tables, suggests a taverna in a Spanish village. But the tapas is to die for, as are both the fortified wine and craft beer lists.
Canny daytime shoppers should opt for a substantial Chorizo Monsieur (a Spanish version of the classic French toasted sandwich) from the brunch menu, which costs £7 and will set you up for the rest of the day.
A second branch in the Grand Arcade does pre-theatre suppers: Small plates of top-notch charcuterie and fabulous cheeseboards are a speciality, as well as three-course meals. Look out for special deals in conjunction with shows. They’re popular, so book in advance.
Kirkgate Market is Europe’s largest indoor market and the place where in 1894 the Polish Jewish refugee Mr Marks joined forces with English bookkeeper Mr Spencer to open a permanent stall. The market is the place to stock up on picnic items such as award-winning pork pies - and the building has Grade One listed status. The Fisherman’s Wife (thefishermanswife.co.uk) chippy, between the market and John Lewis, offers classic British street food (haddock and chips £5.39) and there’s a sit-down option too.
Where to drink
Leeds is famous for its array of craft beers, and one of the best places to sample what’s on offer is Whitelocks, a small complex of ale houses down an alleyway off Briggate. Dating from 1715, it was described by poet John Betjeman as “the very heart of Leeds”.
Try the Turk’s Head (turksheadleeds.co.uk), a modern bar with 14 British draught beers. The Cross Keys (the-crosskeys.com) gastropub on Water Lane, part of Leeds’ North Bar group, offers an impressive list, which ranges from the in-house Transmission at £5.30, Magic Rock’s gluten-free Fantasma at £7.40 and the exotic Pina Agrin Sour Ale with Pineapple from Colorado at £18.50.
Curiously for a city up north, open-air rooftop bars have been a hit in Leeds. Uplifting views across the city to the Pennines might have something to do with it, as well as Northern drinkers’ famous indifference to the weather.
As well as the Sky Lounge and Issho, there’s Belgrave Music Hall (belgravemusichall.com) in the Northern Quarter, a hipster area where seediness vies with new investment to create a district on the rise. Spread over three floors, the predominantly student clientele can eat cheap pizza slices (from £2.40) and enjoy a live band. It holds a Cask Marque Award for serving good-quality real ale with bottled beer from £5.
For more information about this destination, visit visitleeds.co.uk