I must admit: Last month, when my husband and I first decided to take a train from London, England, where we were visiting family, to see some friends in Leeds, I wasn’t expecting much. All I knew about Leeds was that it was a former manufacturing hub in northern England, at one time home to mills and mines — not exactly enticing. Then I started reading up on it, and discovered that Lonely Planet had listed the Yorkshire city among their top 10 cities to visit in Europe in 2017, noting it had “shrugged off its industrial past.” I began to get excited, perhaps sensing that Leeds was about to prove to me just how wrong stereotypes can be.
From the moment we step off the train (Leeds is only about a two-hour journey from London’s King’s Cross station), we're wowed. It's a Thursday afternoon and the streets are packed, and though many of the buildings date from the Victorian era, the crowd is decidedly young and hip. (Leeds, with a population of about 760,000, is home to several universities.) We drop our bags off at the Leeds Marriott Hotel, located steps from the rail station on Boar Lane, one of central Leeds' top streets for nightlife, and make our way along the curving streets and across the Aire River. Our lunch destination is The Tetley, a 1931 building originally used as the headquarters of Tetley brewery (its signature product, Tetley’s English Ale, has been around since 1822 and is ubiquitous in Yorkshire). It’s now a contemporary art gallery complex that we’ve heard has an excellent cafe. It doesn't disappoint; Tetley Bar & Kitchen offers fresh and delicious selections (I have the rare-tuna salad; my husband goes for the fresh pea risotto), accompanied, of course, by delicious pints of Tetley’s English Ale.
After the meal, we stroll back through the bricked lanes, past independent coffee shops, and over the Aire again to take in Trinity Leeds. This four-year-old shopping centre boasts a unique architectural design: while it’s open air, all 120 shops and 40 eateries are protected by an iconic glass dome. Today, the sky is blue through the glass—but on a rainy day, how cool would it be to go shopping “outdoors” while sheltered from the elements? A giant metal sculpture of a packhorse carrying a roll of cloth reminds visitors of Leeds’ history as major centre for the wool and textile industries.
Later, at the Marriott, I get chatting with 24-year-old Lyneese Freeman, a warm and friendly front desk receptionist with a rich Yorkshire accent. (The Leeds Marriott, by the way, gets top marks: it has amazing staff and impeccable service, and the rooms are bright, refined and comfortable.) Lyneese was born in Leeds and has lived here all her life. I ask her what’s new and exciting about her hometown. “Leeds is more vibrant and lively now than ever,” she says. “There's lots more to attract and entertain students, but also young professionals—Leeds Trinity, Victoria Gate, the casino, and a lot more. There’s a new, good vibe.” She says it reminds her of the type of revival Manchester experienced a few years back and is still enjoying.
For dinner, we take the recommendation of our nephew Richard, who is visiting his younger sister, our niece Rachael, in Leeds. Rachael has just moved here from London and is in her first year of university, while Richard graduated last year. We all meet up at Bundobust, a vegetarian joint that serves up “Indian street food and craft beer," a combo that is as mouthwateringly perfect as it sounds. Richard insists we try the Biryani Bhaji Balls, and he doesn't steer us wrong — they come with a spicy sauce that is to die for.
Leeds is vying to be designated by the European Union as one of two European “Capitals of Culture.” According to the BBC, the winning cities organize a series of cultural events, and being chosen can bring increased investment, jobs and a boost to the local economy. Whether Brexit will affect Leeds’ chances is anyone’s guess, but I’d recommend visiting whether it receives this accolade or not. In our two days there, we didn’t have time to get to Opera North (yes, Leeds has an opera company), the Henry Moore Institute, one of the largest sculpture galleries in Europe, or the Leeds Art Gallery. We’ll check those out next time. Because as we walk into Leeds train station to head back to London the following day, Rachael's words over dinner the night before are still echoing in my mind: “I love this city.”