Why 2023 is the year to visit Leeds, Yorkshire's culture capital

Buoyed by a year-long festival of culture in 2023, Yorkshire’s economic powerhouse has become a hive of creativity with shops, food and events that give a nod to the city’s industrial past while looking to the future.

Public art sculpture at Leeds Dock.

Photograph by Alamy
By Daniel Neilson
Published 21 Mar 2023, 07:00 GMT, Updated 21 Mar 2023, 17:14 GMT

Despite the cold and the dark, the people of Leeds are out in force. A giant octopus appears to be escaping from the roof of the County Arcade. Nearby, Leeds Civic Hall looks like it’s in the throes of an alien invasion, as electrical pulses flicker up the spires. 

In Playhouse Square, a huge slinky tumbles across shipping containers and disappears into the shadows. A wave of onlookers is trailing a particularly dazzling drum troupe and the streets are thrumming with wandering families, whose children are whooping at the displays for Light Night Leeds — an annual celebration of illuminated art installations. In the run-up to Leeds 2023, the city’s self-proclaimed year of culture, this highly creative assault on the senses feels like a small preview of the festivities that are to come. 

Politicians talk about Leeds as a powerhouse, the engine that drives the economy of the North — and it’s long been so. During the 17th and 18th centuries, it was a major trading centre for wool and a significant mill town powering the Industrial Revolution. But today, Leeds is also an important cultural hub in the north of England. Northern Ballet and Opera North are both based here, and Channel 4 has made Leeds its new national headquarters. Yorkshire-born Poet Laureate Simon Armitage is also planning to open a National Poetry Centre in the city, describing Leeds as, “future-minded, community-aware and committed to cultural regeneration”.

Heading to Leeds Art Gallery, I find Armitage’s words embodied in an exhibition that celebrates the artwork of the hugely diverse communities of Leeds while re-examining the biases of the current collection. Along with the Henry Moore Institute next door, the gallery is a lynchpin of the nationally important Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle. The tone here is set by the interior’s colourful geometric stairwell mural by Lothar Götz, installed in 2017 to give a contemporary edge to a Victorian institution.

Leeds Water Taxi on the River Aire.

Leeds Water Taxi on the River Aire.

Photograph by Kym Grimshaw

Though sometimes overshadowed by Manchester and Liverpool, Leeds is a city that will challenge and wow those who make the effort to get to know it. 

“There’s a vibration about it,” says local musician Jonny Firth, singer and songwriter for the band Knuckle, which formed in Leeds in 2013, and founder of Wild West Yorkshire Co clothing. “Back when I started, I felt like I was in the New York punk scene or London in the 1960s. Leeds is a hotbed of creativity and a younger generation is now creating their scene.”

Grit and graft have always been a part of the city’s soul. You can see it on the mural-wrapped streets of Leeds, where old warehouses and mills have been ingeniously converted into brewery taprooms and boutiques. And you can feel it in the grassroot gig venues and entrepreneurial restaurants that dish out some of the country’s best contemporary British food.

Meanwhile, the area south of the River Aire is being developed to double the size of central Leeds over the next decade with new shops, apartments and a large park. As Leeds 2023 takes hold, the creative vibrations are palpable.

What to see and do in Leeds

Royal Armouries: Centrepiece of the rejuvenated Leeds Dock, this museum is almost overwhelming in its scale. It holds a large part of the national collection of arms and armour, consisting of more than 4,500 items including battle suits made for Henry VIII and elephant chainmail. The exhibitions cleverly contextualise war and weaponry in culture, including as film props and in art, and holds child-friendly combat demonstrations. It’s free to enter. 

Leeds Dock and Water Taxi: Running off the River Aire, Leeds’ busiest dock area now houses offices, restaurants and the excellent North Star Coffee Shop. Grab a coffee made with beans roasted in the city and find a riverside perch. Afterwards, jump in the yellow water taxi that pootles between the dock and Granary Wharf. 

Leeds Art Gallery: The city-centre art gallery opened in 1888 and was purpose-built to house the collection of the Leeds Fine Art Society. Among the collection of 19th- and 20th-century art, sculpture is an important focus and the gallery forms part of the internationally significant Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle. Yorkshire-born sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth feature alongside Auguste Rodin and Antony Gormley. The gallery’s Tiled Cafe is a beautiful, little known, spot. 

The Tetley: Formerly the headquarters of the Tetley Brewery, this art deco, red-brick building has been repurposed as a contemporary art gallery, bar and restaurant. Participation is a central facet of the creative spaces. There’s an outdoor Makers Lab for families, and a range of workshops and courses. Round off an afternoon here with a pint or a Sunday roast. 

Harewood House: This 18th-century country estate, seven miles north of Leeds, holds a spectacular swag of fine art and one of the world’s best collections of Chippendale furniture. Outside, there’s 100 acres of Capability Brown landscaped gardens and the Bird Garden, home to Humboldt penguins and Chilean flamingos. Inside, exhibitions celebrate the ethnically diverse city and squarely confront a past entwined with the slave trade.  

Kirkstall Abbey: Hop on a bus from the city centre and take the half-hour ride out to Kirkstall Abbey, a crumbling riverside relic founded by Cistercian monks more than 800 years ago. There’s a new audio guide linked to QR codes at key points around the site, delving into the monastery’s history. Visitors can take a stroll through the riverside grounds, then delve into the Abbey House Museum of social history across the road. Regular events include a popular makers’ market between March and November. 

Left: Top:

Victoria Quarter shopping arcade.

Right: Bottom:

In the grounds of Harewood House.

photographs by Kym Grimshaw

Where to eat

House of Fu: Chef Ben Iley created House of Fu after returning from nine years working in some of Tokyo’s best restaurants. The stars of the show are the ramen and gyozas, including inventive takes such as truffled miso mushroom ramen and specials like currywurst gyoza. And the restaurant, with its murals, photo booth and karaoke rooms, is enormous fun. 

Ox Club: Nearly everything served in this buzzy restaurant has been licked by flames or infused with the smoky aromas of burning wood, whether that’s hispi cabbage or a perfectly grilled bone-in sirloin. The mastery, however, is in the delicate touches throughout its inventive menu. 

The Owl: This contemporary British restaurant at Mustard Wharf is a joyful place to eat. Canal-side terrace seating makes it an ideal spot for an aperitif, but it’s the food created by Mark Owens that really sets The Owl apart. Try meaty dishes such as Yorkshire duck beignet with rhubarb and mustard or salt-aged hogget with beetroot and sorrel, to see just how creative and exceptional food can be. 

Where to stay

The Queens Hotel: This four-star railway hotel is the grand dame of Leeds, wooing visitors straight out of the train station (via a dedicated concourse entrance) since 1937. Following a £16m refurbishment, it’s once again one of the most desired residences in the city. There are 232 rooms, each sensitively restored with touches of the hotel’s jazzy art deco roots. 

Radisson Blu Hotel: This 147-room hotel is opposite the Leeds Art Gallery and inhabits a luxuriously restored art deco building that now forms part of The Light entertainment complex on the Headrow. The rooms are designed to calm, with whites and earthy tones, and the beds are exceptionally comfortable. 

Dakota: If it’s luxury you’re looking for, swing straight through the doors of Dakota. There’s an understated classiness running through the rooms and art-filled communal spaces. An excellent grill is worth the visit alone, and the bar is one of the best in the city, serving a range of inventive cocktails onto a balcony overlooking lively Greek Street in central Leeds. 

Left: Top:

Glazed pork with scallops and squash at The Owl.

Right: Bottom:

Plating up contemporary Yorkshire food at Ox Club.

photographs by Kym Grimshaw

Experience Leeds like a local

Kirkgate Market: This is where Marks & Spencer first set out in 1884. Today, beneath a colourful, wrought-iron canopy, traders still call out their wares from a warren of stalls. In the 1904 hall off Vicar Lane, old-school butchers and fishmongers rub shoulders with tea shops, textile sellers and stands hawking North and West African specialities. The diversity of the city is reflected in the street food on offer in a hangar at the back of the market — seek out Manjit’s Kitchen for local Indian food. 

Meanwood: Passing through its leafy streets and 19th-century mill workers’ cottages, you could mistake Meanwood for a quaint Yorkshire Dales market town. Nature lovers can hit the vast park, an access point for the seven-mile Meanwood Valley Trail. Drop into Tandem homewares and coffee shop, taste craft beers at Meanwood Brewery’s taproom, and book ahead for the tasting menu at HanaMatsuri, a Michelin-recommended sushi restaurant. 

Chapel Allerton: The honeypot of indie shops, bars and restaurants here, two miles northeast of Leeds centre, makes ‘Chapel A’ one of the city’s most desirable areas. Look for George & Joseph cheesemonger, the kid-focused Little Bookshop and the Chapel Allerton Flying High arts festival in September. 

Leeds after hours

North Taproom: When John Gyngell and Christian Townsley opened North Bar on Leeds’ New Briggate in 1997, it was one of the UK’s first craft beer bars. They have since launched their own brewery and bars across Leeds, including this busy taproom on Sovereign Street showcasing their best pours. Excellent bao buns help soak up all the booze. 

Belgrave Music Hall & Canteen: This lively venue covers many bases — and surprisingly, it manages them all extremely well. There’s a canteen with street food hatches and a craft beer bar, a cinema, a roof garden and a club that’s one of the most exciting music venues in the city. Bands or club nights happen most evenings. Food offerings include Dough Boys pizza and Patty’s Burgers (both delicious). 

Whitelocks Ale House: This pub is a Leeds institution — although that’s no surprise considering it’s been serving beer since 1715. The Whitelock family took over in the 1880s and installed the eye-catching marble and copper-topped bar, ornate tiling and etched mirrors. It has an excellent selection of beers. 

Drinkers at Whitelocks.

Photograph by Kym Grimshaw

Getting there & around 

Leeds is a key hub on the LNER train line, with frequent, direct connections to London King’s Cross, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh. Leeds train station is in the city centre, close to all attractions and hotels. 

Average journey time from London: 2h15. 

Leeds has a compact city centre, with most attractions, bars and restaurants easily accessible on foot. Kirkstall Abbey, Meanwood and Chapel Allerton are all just a short bus ride from the city centre. Landmark estate Harewood House is 10 miles north of Leeds city centre. A MCard DaySaver gives unlimited travel on any bus for £4.50.

When to go

Winters are wet and cold, but there are plenty of events and activities at this time of year. Summer is a great time to go, with average temperatures of around 20C. Autumn means lovely canal walks and trips to Roundhay Park or the Meanwood Valley Trail.

More information

For a local perspective while visiting, try one of the walking tour suggestions on Visit Leeds, such as a heritage architecture tour with Leeds Civic Trust, or a self-guided street art trail. Leeds Food Tours also offers highly regarded guided tours of the city’s independent food and drink venues.

Published in the April 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Sign up to our newsletter and follow us on social media:


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved