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7 Reasons to Visit a Reborn Northern

Spurred on by the drive to win the title of European Capital of Culture 2023, it’s all go, whether you’re after brewery brunches or barista classes, pop-up events or elegant arcades. Here’s our guide to the city’s thriving food, beer and coffee scenes, revamped markets and galleries and historic sights.

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 brewery brunches starring hop bread.

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 has been plotted as the centrepiece of a mixed-use development and businesses such as Burberry are putting down roots here.

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. There are grand plans to turn it into an arts venue, but in the meantime local artists are taking advantage of cheap studio rents within its decaying walls.

Leeds Civic Trust (leedscivictrust.org.uk) runs a heritage Supper Walk around the area, including dinner at Leeds’ Heritage and Design Centre.

Heritage shopping

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.

The 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 market). The section abutting Vicar Ln is the highlight of what is one of Europe’s largest covered markets.

Kirkgate remains a true locals’ market, selling a bit of everything, but in 2016 it also welcomed a new street-food hall and made a push to introduce gourmet, local produce. It’s now a favourite lunch spot: grab a curry from award-winning former food truck Manjit’s Kitchen, followed by a brownie from upmarket bakery Bluebird.

The North’s best food fest

If proof was needed of how far Leeds’ food scene has come in the past five years, Leeds Indie Food (leedsindiefood.co.uk) is it. Now in its third year, the festival spills across two whole weeks each May, and coveted events sell out in days.

The focus is on Leeds’ 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.

Artisan coffee

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 (facebook.com/kapowcoffee) in The Calls, Mrs Atha’s (mrsathasleeds.com) just off Briggate and Union Coffee House (facebook.com/theunioncoffeehouseleeds) on Great George St behind Leeds Town Hall.

New nightlife in the Northern Quarter

The slim tail-end of Call Ln on the southern edge of the city centre is a whirlwind of high-octane bars, cramped indie hang-outs and the odd cafe/restaurant. It used to be locals’ main go-to for alternative fun after dark, but the city has broadened its horizons in recent years. Bookending the city centre to the north, what was once a lonesome spot for a couple of stellar bars above Headrow has morphed into a nightlife zone called the Northern Quarter. Long-time residents are bemused by the new name, but everybody loves this trendy enclave of prohibition-style bars, gin palaces and craft beer taps.

Try retro Belgrave Music Hall & Canteen with its street food, intimate live-music space and quirky lawned roof terrace in a restyled 1930s block. On the second Saturday of every month, it hosts the Belgrave Feast street food and art market.