An alternative guide to Leeds: a city with an independent spirit

An alternative guide to Leeds: a city with an independent spirit

‘Leeds has an independent, thriving arts scene,” says Emma Beverley, the director of programmes at last year’s cultural showcase, Leeds 2023. “A lot of that is grounded in an artist-led movement that is pretty pioneering.”

In 2017, Leeds had put in a bid to become European capital of culture, with £1m already invested, which hit the buffers when Brexit automatically ruled any British cities out of contention. In typically stubborn Yorkshire fashion, the city pressed ahead with its own year-long celebration of culture.

As someone who has lived in the West Yorkshire city for five years, I can testify that it is worthy of being a capital of culture. There’s a strong food and drink scene, vibrant nightlife and live music, as well as offbeat cultural institutions where grassroots artists thrive. It also ranks as one of the best student cities in the UK, with many alumni staying on and contributing to an exciting cultural renaissance.

Leeds Kirkgate Market in the city centre specialises in street food. Photograph: Alamy

Leeds is a compact city and, with the recent pedestrianisation of its centre, has never been easier to explore on foot. The centre is where most of the action takes place: from the characterful Kirkgate neighbourhood, with its market and majestic Corn Exchange, to the creative waterside district of Leeds Dock. However, neighbourhoods such as Headingley retain an independent vibe, with boutiques, charity shops, eateries and the Cottage Road Cinema, the oldest cinema in continuous use in the city. From cultural spaces, including the Old Red Bus Station with its electronic music hub and Hyde Park Picture House, to on-point bars and innovative restaurants, leftfield Leeds is hidden in plain sight.


As well as big-name institutions (Royal Armouries, Leeds Art Gallery), you’ll also find alternative cultural spaces in Leeds. A 30-minute walk from the city centre is Hyde Park Book Club, a disused petrol station that has been transformed into a creative hub showcasing artists, musicians and writers. With a basement and outdoor area, a bar and a bookshop with a section dedicated to Yorkshire writers, this is the perfect place to soak up the creative energy of the city.

Hyde Park Book Club

For a mix of culture and retail, Leeds Corn Exchange in the city centre is a Grade I-listed landmark dating to 1863. Worth visiting for the architecture alone, it’s also home to independent shopkeepers, such as Indie Makers, Colours May Vary and Chinese Laundry, craft stores, chefs and collectors, as well as hosting record fairs, art shows and festivals.

Less than 10 minutes’ bus ride west of the centre, in Armley, is Assembly House, an artist-led community arts organisation with studios, exhibition spaces and galleries. Providing a stage for established and emerging artists, its calendar features exhibitions, performances and film screenings.


Belgrave Music Hall. Photograph: Wisdom Makubile

With more than 200,000 students living in the city Leeds offers one of the best nights out in the north. There are LGBTQ+ clubs in the Freedom Quarter near the Calls area, and a range of music venues: from intimate boltholes where grassroots artists play to large-capacity spaces, such as the First Direct Arena. A favourite for indie bands is the Wardrobe, one of the city’s oldest independent venues. Unlike the bar and restaurant on street level, the basement is a dark and cosy space where the gigs range from local bands to international acts.

Smokestack is another Leeds institution, a speakeasy-style bar showcasing the best funk, jazz and soul with a side of southern-style cocktails. For more jazz and funk, Sela Bar offers free or pay-as-you-feel gigs.

No night out in Leeds is complete without a visit to Belgrave Music Hall. A 1930s venue for live gigs, comedy, film and art spread across three floors, it offers pizza from the Dough Boys, cosy seating areas and a skyline view from the rooftop terrace. There’s also a 300-capacity venue where you can catch the latest indie acts.


The North Leeds food festival in 2023. Photograph: Stephen Midgely

The city’s self-proclaimed title of “foodie capital of the north” is a bold statement but, for a city of its size, Leeds has an impressive choice of independent coffee shops, bakeries and restaurants. Local produce shines thanks to its location on the doorstep of the Yorkshire Dales and east coast.

It’s worth planning a visit in May when the North Leeds food festival takes over Roundhay Park, one of Europe’s largest city parks. This two-day celebration features street-food vendors from around the UK, artisan markets, live music, chef demonstrations, interactive tasting sessions and family entertainment.

When the festival isn’t on, there’s street food to be had at Leeds Kirkgate Market. Its food hall specialises in global cuisine, including Turkish grilled fish at Mr Mackerel and Caribbean dishes at Jenny’s Jerk Chicken. For home comforts, head to the Fisherman’s Wife for fish and chips direct from the North Yorkshire coast or try a twist on the classic Sunday roast with a yorkshire pudding wrap – complete with all the trimmings – from the Yorkshire Wrap Company.

Wapentake cafe, bar and bakery

A personal favourite is Bánh & Mee, which serves Vietnamese dishes such as pho and crunchy summer rolls (mains from £5.50), while the award-winning Manjit’s Kitchen sells vegetarian Punjabi dishes (chilli paneer wraps and thali plates) with mains from £6.50. Near the market is Wapentake, a “proper Yorkshire” cafe, bar and bakery. It serves guilty pleasures such as crisp butties, cooked breakfasts and the bestselling gravy-drenched yorkshire pudding burgers (brunch from £5.50).

For something more refined, Ox Club is a modern, light-filled space whose grill transforms Yorkshire produce into imaginative dishes, including cod loin with seaweed butter sauce (mains from £21). It’s within the multipurpose venue Headrow House, so round off your meal with drinks on the rooftop terrace.

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Cocktails at Neon Cactus

Around the city you’ll find everything from traditional, no-nonsense pubs to cool indie bars. Call Lane, in a former industrial area near the River Aire, is lined with some of the city’s best bars. Hopping from one to the next, it’s possible to sample more than 50 types of tequila at Neon Cactus or sip sophisticated cocktails at the Maven.

A short walk from Call Lane is Duck & Drake: an old-school boozer in the Kirkgate area with original Victorian features, including marble doorway jambs, globe light fittings and bare floorboards. It’s known for its wide selection of local cask ales and free live music performances (pints from £4). Also in Kirkgate is Doghouse Bar & Bagel Shop, a casual and intimate venue where you can sink into leather armchairs and enjoy the retro artwork as you nurse a pale ale. There are lagers and cask options, too, as well as cocktails and wines. If you’re feeling peckish, the selection of bagels hits the spot (bagels and pints from £5.50).

Despite being in the centre, it’s easy to miss the discreet sign for Below Stairs. In the basement of a Grade II-listed building, this upmarket bar specialises in experimental cocktails. Its menu is separated into different sections – sugar, salt, acid and fat – and uses unexpected ingredients such as Japanese Togarashi spice blend and sea foam. It’s a tough choice, but its standout cocktail is the Corn & Silk made with Jack Daniels Old No 7, Mellow Corn, Cereal Milk, BS Cornsilk and Meadowsweet Liqueur, Grand Josiene and Oat Creme Fraiché (cocktails from £9.95).


George & Joseph cheese shop in the Chapel Allerton area. Photograph: Monica Wells/Alamy

A 15-minute bus ride from the city centre is Chapel Allerton, a lively village-like neighbourhood. Creativity is at the heart of the area, with the annual Chapel Allerton arts festival marking its 26th year this September. Even if you’re not there for the festival, Seven is worth visiting, offering an independent arts space that features film, theatre, comedy and dance.

The Little Bookshop features amid a run of independent shops and offers an eclectic selection, while Chirpy is a lifestyle design store with a range of workshops and events, and visit Oakwood Vintage for its curated furniture collection. George & Joseph is an artisan cheese emporium with Yorkshire and British cheeses, Wayward Wines sells natural and organic wines from a range of small producers and Caspar’s Bottle Shop sells craft beer.

Appetite whetted, check out Hern, a bistro where seasonal produce shines. Expect dishes such as crispy chicken terrine with chilli and blue cheese, followed by rhubarb pavlova with lemon thyme baked cream. For comfort food, Crust & Crumb serves brunch favourites, as well as wraps, soups and home-baked treats.

Hern bistro. Photograph: Oliver Lawson

Leeds has long been renowned for its breweries, and North Brewing Co is one of its finest with a bar and music venue in Chapel Allerton called Alley Cats, as well as Further North, a living room-like venue providing a homely atmosphere to catch up with friends over a large range of indie brews. Alternatively, the Woods is the ideal place to soak up the sun with craft beers and pizza on its outdoor terrace.


The bar at the Queens Hotel. Photograph: Jonathan Cosh of Visual Eye

Quebecs Hotel may be in the financial and legal quarter (a two-minute walk from Leeds train station), but you’ll feel as if you’ve just stepped into a French chateau. Each of the 44 bedrooms in the Grade II-listed 19th-century building have been individually designed with classic touches. Elsewhere in the hotel, the Gallery is a cosy spot with stained-glass windows, while the Conservatory offers views across the rooftops. From £129 a night room-only.

Next to Leeds railway station, the palatial Queens Hotel was built for the former London, Midland & Scottish Railway. Combining art deco glamour with modern touches, the rooms are spacious and elegant. There’s a bar and restaurant, but you’re also just a three-minute walk from the Trinity Leeds shopping centre and city centre eateries. Doubles from £94.50 room-only.

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