Picture a city famous for ‘culture’. You might be thinking about grand and historic venues, home to nationally recognised opera and dance companies, or gallery walls hung with artworks by the Victorian greats. You might be thinking of internationally famous touring shows, with crowds to match, or festivals where virtuoso musicians come together in glorious collaboration. Or perhaps it’s something a little different.
That’s exactly what you’ll find in Leeds – a city where culture runs through every street, and every community. It’s a city of contrasts, where the biggest names take to the stage alongside undiscovered talent. Where you’re just as likely to find the joy of dance pounding the pavements in carnival dress as you are to find it sweeping across a stage in ballet flats. It’s this attitude that makes Leeds the ideal city break for culture vultures of all shapes and sizes, from families looking to add a little excitement and discovery to their holiday, to travellers who enjoy getting under the skin of a city and what makes it tick.
If culture around every corner sounds like your sort of trip or day out in Leeds, then we’ve got a few highlights to inspire your own itinerary. And there’s no better time than this summer – because 10 of the city’s leading hotels have come together to offer an exclusive deal to give you the opportunity to explore more of the top things to do in Leeds. Book two nights and you’ll get a third for free, thanks to the Be Our Guest campaign – you can find all the details here.
A truly memorable cultural experience is all about the spectacular, so let’s start with a night at the opera. Leeds’ own Opera North is one of the few nationally recognised companies around, and the only one outside London. You might find them bringing a Puccini aria to the stage at Leeds Grand Theatre, or even to happen across Mozart’s The Magic Flute in a neighbourhood coffee shop or a flashmob performance in Trinity Leeds. There are plenty of contemporary performances too, featuring innovative staging, costume design and themes perfect for family-friendly trips. Special ticket prices for first time visitors make taking your seat an even more enticing prospect.
It’s the same story at Northern Ballet, Leeds’ renowned dance company. Their interpretation of Swan Lake has been wowing critics, but you don’t have to stick with the classics. Watch out for their Ballets for Children series for accessible performances of childhood classics. Red Riding Hood anyone? Or there’s the upcoming production of Pinoccio, bound to captivate audiences of all ages.
But the spectacular doesn’t just have to happen indoors. Each year, Leeds’ very own West Indian Carnival takes to the streets to celebrate the culture, history, music and food of the city’s West Indian community. At over 50 years old, the event actually predates Notting Hill, making it one of the oldest carnivals in Europe. And certainly one of the brightest. The 2021 parade may be partly moving online, but there will still be ticketed events around the city for those in search of that carnival vibe.
If theatre is your thing, then Leeds is certainly well served. A great place to start is the recently refurbished Leeds Playhouse, one of the largest producing theatres in the north. Plenty of household names have honed their trade in front of audiences at the Playhouse over the decades, from Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, Lenny Henry and Christopher Ecclestone. Recent seasons have offered up a huge variety of the dramatic, and the comic – Shakespeare and Alan Bennet, panto and Peppa Pig – so you can easily fill a family-friendly afternoon, or an evening of grown up entertainment.
It’s not just Leeds Playhouse where such talent is to be found. There are stages all over the city brimming with all kinds of cultural output. Leeds Heritage Theatres is a group that encompasses a collection of venues which offer a big hit of history, no matter what’s happening beneath the spotlights.
We’ve already covered Leeds Grand Theatre, a must-stop venue for the biggest touring west end shows, which has been keeping audiences entertained since 1878. Just around the corner is the City Varieties Music Hall, where everyone from Houdini to Russel Crowe have been plying their trade for 155 years. It holds a Guinness World Record as the nation’s longest-running music hall, and you’ll still find that tradition of popular entertainment alive and well as a touring stop for popular stand-up comedians and ‘an evening with’ events.
Then there’s the century-old Hyde Park Picture House, the nation’s last remaining gas-lit cinema. This cherished independent venue is currently undergoing a big regeneration project, adding a second screen and preserving the picturehouse for the local community, and visitors from further afield. But when the reels begin to spin again, we’ll be grabbing the popcorn.
If original music experiences get your cultural juices flowing, then the Leeds International Piano Competition is one not to miss. If you’re a pianist, you’ll likely consider ‘The Leeds’ as one of the profession’s crowning achievements. The preliminary rounds take place in Berlin, Singapore and New York, before the best of the best battle it out over the ivories at the University of Leeds Great Hall and Leeds Town Hall.
Fans of classical music can also lose themselves in the Leeds Lieder, an annual celebration of song and poetry where some of the world’s best vocalists and choirs come together to stunning effect. Striking a similar note is the Leeds International Concert Season, hosted primarily at Leeds Town Hall. The programme covers all sorts, so you could fill a lunchtime with chamber music, or put your glad rags on for a night at the symphony.
For those whose tastes are a little more contemporary, Leeds is a hotbed of modern music. It’s the kind of place you might see the next big thing - bands before they hit the big time, or intimate shows from artists whose careers could soon go stratospheric. The yearly Live at Leeds festival gives you the chance to cruise the city’s best live venues on one ticket, stopping in and out of gigs of all shapes and sizes. Or there’s each summer’s rock and pop pilgrimage to Bramham Park for Leeds Festival - you might see Liam Gallagher one night, and Stormzy the next.
Leeds’ commitment to musical excellence is present everywhere, from the smallest gig rooms to the largest concert venues. If you prefer to keep things intimate, it’s well worth a trip to Brudenell Social Club, a 400-capacity social enterprise beloved by locals and touring bands alike. If you’re lucky, you might just catch a secret gig by rock royalty, or an intimate set by a true legend like Tom Jones.
At the other end of the scale, the first direct Arena hosts the world’s biggest shows, and the audiences to match. The arena was officially opened in 2013 by Elton John, winning the World’s Best Venue the year later, so you know you’ll be in good hands. You’ll also find the bustling Northern Quarter right on the doorstep, with plenty of places to eat, drink and relive all the action.
Though the spotlights and stages are certainly a draw for many, your own cultural curiosity might be just as well served by museums and galleries where you can explore at your own pace. Luckily, Leeds has quite the collection, so there’s always something to learn for kids both big and small. Leeds City Museum is a popular pick, with a collection that spans everything from Ancient Egypt to prehistoric beasts.
Those looking for a family-focussed day out could do worse than head to Thackray Museum of Medicine. The recently refurbished museum tells the story of health and medicine from ancient times to the present day, so you can explore a gruesome Victorian operating theatre, or see recent medical innovations that have changed the world.
Another big hit with families, and those who just love a good adventure, is the Royal Armouries, another Leeds city centre museum. It’s home to one of the largest collections of arms and armour in the world, with five floors housing over 4,500 objects from the 15th century to the modern day. You might come face to face with a huge suit of elephant armour, see knights jousting in the courtyard, or hear the tale of a weary WWI soldier straight from the trenches.
If the clash of steel on steel sounds a bit deafening, then head to Leeds Art Gallery where you can find martial prowess represented on canvas instead. Lady Butler’s famous Victorian masterpiece Scotland Forever, which details a heroic charge at Waterloo, can be found hanging alongside works by contemporary greats like Francis Bacon, sculptures from Grayson Perry and installations by Damian Hirst. It’s an expansive and diverse collection to suit all tastes.
Another place that’s perfect for taking Leeds sightseeing indoors is The Tetley, once the home of the iconic Yorkshire brewers. Their headquarters is now home to a collection of contemporary artwork, as well as an acclaimed bar and restaurant. A welcome stop for a quick coffee, or a half of local craft beer, before heading back to find more fun things to do in Leeds.
To explore more of Leeds’ diverse and different cultural offering, head to Visit Leeds for listings, events and itineraries to help plan your own trip, by visiting: www.visitleeds.co.uk
This article was written in partnership with Visit Leeds.