The alt city guide to Leeds | Travel

‘Leeds is quite modest,” insists Bryony Bond, creative director at the Tetley gallery. “It doesn’t market or push itself, which is endearing – but the stuff going on here is brilliant.”

That may be changing. Leeds is, after all, bidding to be a European Capital of Culture in 2023. But compared with Manchester or Liverpool, Leeds has been reticent about celebrating its creativity. Historically, it has preferred to sell itself as a glitzy shopping-and-dining destination. Perhaps such modesty is rooted in an inferiority complex. Leeds has never had a seismic pop-culture moment – a Merseybeat or Madchester – and its big bands (Sisters of Mercy, The Wedding Present, Kaiser Chiefs), are also-rans in the grand annals of rock history. But at a far grittier, more chaotic, underground level, there is always plenty happening here.

From the rave heyday of Back To Basics and Up Yer Ronson onwards, this city has maintained a club scene that is, arguably, the best outside London. Similarly, look past the shiny facade of developments such as the Trinity and Victoria Gate shopping centres, and there are numerous creative hubs, sustained by musicians and artists who have learned to exist in the margins: skint but resourceful, bolstered by the enthusiasm of the city’s students. If that creative ecology leads to transience – from Soft Cell to Hessle Audio, plenty of influential musicians meet as students in Leeds then leave – it has also fostered a DIY ethic among those who stay.

The visual arts scene, says Nicola Greenan, external relations director at East Street Arts, has been built by local activism, piece-by-piece: “It’s very DIY. That’s where Leeds’ strength is. There hasn’t been a lot of money to support [the arts]. Instead, artists have come together as collectives to create their own ecology. The visual arts infrastructure – studios, opportunities to make work and get it out there – is really growing but in an artist-led way.”

Online radio station KMAH was born of that not-for-profit spirit. “I was sick of DJ and producer friends leaving for London and Berlin, so tried to create something that might keep them in Leeds,” says co-founder Kristan J Caryl. “We wanted a project they’d feel part of, a scene focal-point. We now have hosts who range in age from 19 to their mid 50s, from Cuban jazz specialists to techno DJs. The talent here amazes me.”

It may not be in the spotlight nationally but in terms of how friendly and collaborative it is, the local music scene feels healthy, says writer and DIY music promoter Hayley Scott: “There’s no rivalry or superiority. It’s diverse and we don’t have much time for rock’n’roll anachronisms: the archetypal lads-in-bands and their shitty behaviour.”

Even Leeds’ flourishing independent food and craft beer scenes, which are closely linked to the art and music worlds, share a similar sense of community (see the annual Leeds Indie Food festival). “Generally everyone supports each other, and why wouldn’t you? It’s exciting,” says chef Ben Davy, the creator of cracking food outlets at the multifunctional Belgrave Music Hall and Headrow House.

That tension between wanting to promote Leeds and protecting its grassroots authenticity (“I’m all for civic pride,” says Greenan, “but maybe that’s what’s refreshing about it: it hasn’t been oversold.”) will be severely tested if that 2023 bid is successful. But for now, Leeds remains relatively uncharted cultural territory. Go, explore.


Cosmic Slop

Among regulars, this monthly party is talked about with an almost-religious fervour. That is not just because it is doing good works in the community (it funds a charity, MAP, which works with kids excluded from mainstream education) but because founder Tom Smith runs it as a personal passion project for like-minded music obsessives. For instance, he hand-built the sound-system (“Unequivocally the best in Leeds,” says Caryl), which has made the night a favourite of DJs-cum-audiophile aficionados such as Floating Points, Four Tet and Motor City Drum Ensemble. “The music policy is broad: Wiley will sit with John Martyn next to Shackleton,” continues Caryl, “and the crowd is more diverse than any other party in town – all ethnicities, ages, sexual orientations. It’s more house party than rave.” Sensoramic label boss and DJ, Laura Jones agrees: “Leeds should be immensely proud of Slop.”
Hope House, 65 Mabgate,


A DIY non-profit rehearsal rooms, music and art space run on “love and noise”, where – a short hop from the city centre – you are likely to encounter Leeds’ next generation of leftfield heroes in the vein of Esper Scout or Hookworms. “Chunk is excellent for smaller gigs and I’ve also had drum lessons there,” says Hayley Scott. “It’s got a lot of evolving to do and I look forward to seeing what the future has in store.”
275 Meanwood Road, on Facebook

Wharf Chambers

An arts co-op and home to leftfield gigs and club nights. “Like the best venues it’s nothing fancy. It’s a bit like playing someone’s run-down house. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Scott. “It’s my favourite place to put on gigs and just hang-out with like-minded people. It is constantly striving to be more inclusive.” In particular, Kristan Caryl recommends the LGBTQ party, Love Muscle: “The place to hear Paradise Garage classics in a properly sweaty, unbridled atmosphere.” Note: to visit Wharf Chambers you must be a member.
23-25 Wharf Street,


Wire Leeds

Photograph: Justin Gardner

Discerning house, techno and grime heads are well-served in Leeds. Its bigger clubs, Mint, Mint Warehouse and Canal Mills, frequently host credible names but if you crave something more intimate, Wire’s brick-lined, Funktion One-stacked basement is a good bet. The pick of its roster includes the reggae/dancehall night, Sub Dub, and the classy electronic music shindig, Butter Side Up. In October, it will celebrate its seventh birthday with DJ Sprinkles.
2-8 Calls Lane,

Brudenell Social Club

In the Hyde Park area – a short bus ride from the city centre – Brudenell is a non-profit social club complete with games room and televised sports that has evolved into arguably (Belgrave Music Hall runs it close) Leeds’ most interesting live music venue. For instance, in the next week it will welcome acts as diverse as AMOR, an Arthur Russell-indebted avant-disco project that includes Franz Ferdinand drummer Paul Thomson (15 September), and US indie godheads Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (18 September) . “It’s a special venue, the sound’s excellent and they’re currently building an extra events room, which I’m excited about,” says Scott.
33 Queens Road,


North Bar

North Bar, Leeds

Opened in 1997, North was arguably the UK’s first craft beer bar. It is still a benchmark drinking experience. You can get a pint of the house Prototype for £3.10 but among its vast stock, even the biggest beer geek will find many surprises. “There’s lots of good places in Leeds, but if you’re into beer and you don’t go to North, have you really been to Leeds?” asks Cody Barton from Tall Boys Beer Market. North Bar co-founded the brewery, North, whose brewtap is open on Friday and Saturday.
Pint from £3.10, 24 New Briggate,


Distrikt, Leeds

This basement bar, tapas joint and cool hidden courtyard is legendary in Leeds for throwing free parties that, on occasion, have featured some of underground dance music’s biggest names (Derrick May, Moodymann, Herbert). “The size of acts it gets is remarkable,” says Kristan Caryl. “Octave One had a three-metre table of live gear in there, that they just about crammed in! Bigger DJs like it because it’s a very different experience.”
Pint from £3.90, 7 Duncan Street,

The Reliance

The Reliance, Leeds

This boho cafe-bar and (excellent, unfussy) restaurant is at the forefront of Leeds’ craft beer scene but, increasingly, it is also evangelical about natural wines. It carries up to 30 bottles from new wave makers (such as Olivier Cohen from Languedoc and Partida Creus from Tarragona), several served by the glass and all available to takeaway. “When natural wine really kicks off, the Reliance will be talked about in the same way we talk about the North Bar and beer,” says Cody Barton. In October, the Reliance will open Wayward Wines, a bar/shop in Chapel Allerton.
Natural wine, glass from £5.25, 76-78 North Street,

Outlaws Yacht Club

Outlaws Yacht Club, Leeds

With its good-quality, snacky grub, interesting beer range, record shop and hair salon, there is a lot to love about this quirky, laid-back bar/cultural hub. Says Caryl: “It hosts Q&As, including the monthly Chinwag, with influential figures from music, art and fashion, such as Irvine Welsh or Andrew Weatherall, and at night it welcomes some of the world’s best cult DJs and “crate diggers”, from Ruf Dug to Japan’s Mori Ra.”
Pint from £3.75, 38 New York Street,


“There’s a cool micro-scene of bars here, such as Outlaws, 212 or Doghouse (home to Paula’s Record Store), which boast audiophile soundsystems and book excellent local DJs and interesting guests,” says Laura Jones. “The last couple of times I went to 212 were for my friend Brawther’s party, Hazy Grooves. He’s a Parisian DJ who now lives in Leeds. The time before that, I met Victor Simonelli there, one of New York’s original disco DJs.”
Pint from £3.95, 6A Brewery Place, on Facebook



Sadya, Tharavadu, Leeds

Photograph: Michael A. Sewell

Due to the popularity of its Mill Hill neighbour Bundobust, a purveyor of awesome Gujarati street food, it is easy to overlook the less hip but similarly brilliant Tharavadu. Light and vibrantly spiced, its south Indian dishes deliver big, bold yet delicately nuanced flavour. As chef Ben Davy puts it: “Tharavadu turns what people associate with ‘curry’ on its head.”
Main with rice from around £7.50, 7-8 Mill Hill,

The Greedy Pig Kitchen

Greedy Pig Leeds

By day, this unassuming cafe does a fine line in banging brunch dishes (such as smoked bacon, pig’s trotter, apple and home-braised beans on Leeds Co-Op sourdough), but on Thursday to Saturday evenings it becomes The Swine That Dines, when chef and co-owner Stuart Myers flexes his considerable culinary muscle across a seven-course sharing menu (£45 for two people, BYO). The dishes change constantly but might include polenta with charred leeks, blue cheese and hazelnuts or incredibly rich ox tongue arancini. “It’s well thought through in the way ingredients are put together,” says fan Afsaneh Kaviani, who runs a Leeds supperclub, Afsaneh’s Persian Kitchen. “Jo Myers [co-owner] is a very good baker, too.”
Brunch dishes from £6, 58 North Street,

Pizza Fella

Pizza Fella, Leeds

After building its rep on the streets, Pizza Fella has settled into a modish, raw-edged space on Vicar Lane, where it dispenses A1 wood-fired, Neapolitan-style pizzas. “It’s brilliant,” says Davy, who has his own NY-style slice joint, Dough Boys, at Belgrave Music Hall. “On a Saturday night I walked past at about 9pm and it was rammed. I get a proper kick out of seeing independents busy.”
From £6, 114–116 Vicar Lane, on Facebook

Sheaf Street Cafeteria

Sheaf Street, Leeds

Leeds outfit Grub & Grog, which runs this cafe, specialises in niftily creative, ethically aware, often meat-free cooking. The Sheaf Street breakfast menu includes an organic gammon hash with a poached egg and homemade brown sauce, while lunch might feature a sprout and cauliflower dahl or spiced beetroot salad. The cafeteria – it hosts foodie events and supperclubs – is part of the collaborative, creative workspace Duke Studios, which facilitates many music and arts events. Its free after-work Friday Residency has welcomed DJs such as Ewan Pearson and Eddy Temple-Morris.
Dishes £4-£9, 3 Sheaf Street,

North Star Coffee Shop & General Store


Photograph: Sara Teresa

New on Leeds Dock – which is served by a free river Aire water taxi – this cafe collaboration between coffee roasters North Star and Sarah Lemanski’s Noisette Bakehouse is big news in Leeds. Its sweet and savoury items (cheese and rye scones; Noisette’s trademark morning cakes; larger dishes such as a baked cheddar, kale and leek strata), are all, says Davy, bang-on: “It is a lovely setting and the food’s really well executed. Sarah’s baking is intelligent and delicious.”
Cakes from £1.50, plates around £6, Unit 33, the Boulevard, Leeds Dock,


Live Art Bistro

Arts LAB at The WYP at Transform 201428th March 2014. Transform Festival , West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. Photo Credit ©Richard Davenport. , Live Art Bistro, Leeds

Photograph: Richard Davenport

East Street Arts’ Nicola Greenan describes this artist-led performance space as “Fundamental to the city’s culture. There’s been risk taking in terms of its programming and it’s a real safe space for queer culture in Leeds. Also, Live Art Bistro’s roots nationally mean it’s been able to draw pieces, performances and acts to Leeds who wouldn’t normally come to the city.”
Regent Street,


Beth Hughes’ Bodies of Water at Serf, Leeds

Beth Hughes’ Bodies of Water at Serf

In its first year, this DIY art hive – a collection of studios with its own project space – has hosted a packed programme of intriguing, often-collaborative exhibitions from its tenants and outside artists. “Initially, they wanted to do something quick-fire to get to grips with it and involve as many people as possible. It’s been really good,” says Bryony Bond from the Tetley, which is currently showing Brotherhood Tapestry, a show by New York-based, Leeds-born Joseph Buckley.
23-25 Wharf Street,


Auditorium of the Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds

The Hyde Park Picture House. Photograph: Tom Joy/Heritage Lottery Fund/PA

“Pavilion works with artists’ films,” says Bond, “often at Hyde Park Picture House, a great little cinema north of the city centre. It tends to select a series of films around a particular idea or moment, and also commissions new works and shows them in unusual spaces. For instance, it did a project with Lucy Skaer in an abandoned cinema and had the original projectors repaired for the show. They’re really interesting – and, of course, Leeds was the site of the very first moving images filmed by Louis Le Prince.”
11–14 Blenheim Terrace,

Left Bank Leeds

Humans of Leeds at Left Bank Leeds

Photograph: Humans of Leeds

In recent years, Leeds has seen a growth in self-starting, grassroots arts activity. Be it collectives creating their own work and exhibition spaces (Assembly House is a notable example) or gallery and art-friendly spaces opening in bars such as the Brunswick or the Old Red Bus Station. Among other projects, East Street Arts also runs the fluid, flexible platform 130 Vicar Lane and the Art Hostel, which offers bed, board and project space to artists and boho visitors alike. A Grade II-listed church outside the city centre in Hyde Park, Left Bank hosts everything from gigs to beer festivals, and, as Greenan enthuses: “In the last couple of years it has really developed its arts programme. They’ve created a gallery and they’re commissioning artists, reaching out to people who wouldn’t normally get space like that to do stuff in and giving them licence to experiment.”
Cardigan Road,

Colours May Vary

Peter Mitchell exhibition at Colours May Vary, Leeds

Peter Mitchell exhibition at Colours May Vary. Photograph: Justin Slee

This design, typography and illustration-focused bookshop has latterly taken on more space “to put in exhibitions and give artists space to showcase their products”, says Greenan. “It’s evolved from selling prints to getting behind local artists.” Its neighbour, Gallery at 164, also hosts many exhibitions of illustration and photography, from collections of gig posters to explorations of food imagery.

Munro House, Duke Street,

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