IF YOU WERE compiling a list of must-see British cities, the Yorkshire town best known for its football team and its Tetley’s Brewery is not necessarily the first place one would think of. But for anyone who fancies a weekend break in a city oozing with style, Leeds has plenty to offer. Not only does it offer fabulous shopping, a brace of stunning boutique hotels and great restaurants, but since the millennium, it has been undergoing the kind of city-wide refurbishment and clean-up that makes it a truly attractive city to stroll.
The city centre is now largely pedestrianised, making shopping a joy, with branches of virtually every major retail name, from high street favourites M&S, House of Fraser, French Connection, Dune, Top Shop, River Island, Zara, Principles, and H&M, to the more rarified Jo Malone, LK Bennett, Swarovski, Lacoste, Molton Brown, Space NK, The White Company et al, all the way to a bijoux Harvey Nichols and shiny Louis Vuitton, both on Briggate.
The shopping streets are crisscrossed by a series of lovingly restored Victorian arcades, such as the Thornton’s Arcade, where you will find, amid some famous brands, great local boutiques such as Charles Clinkard for men’s shoes; No 15 for covetable, womenswear cute kidswear, beautiful gifts and vintage handbags; Bon Bons for hand-made Belgian chocolates and Chimp, for groovy menswear.
For those in search of more cutting edge and original items, don’t miss the city’s old Corn Exchange. The circular building, constructed in the 19th century, is in the final stages of transformation into a Spitalfields-style retail emporium, crammed with individual shops on its ground and upper levels. A more modern take on a mall is the The Light, all soaring steel and glass, with a cinema, shops and eatieries including Bagel Nash, Caffé Nero and a vast Brown’s where shoppers can stop for lunch or the best value traditional afternoon tea in the UK (non-offensive sandwiches; cake and scone for £6.75 or £13 with a glass of Laurent Perrier).
When you are all shopped out, stroll to Victoria Gardens, taking in the impressively ornate Gothic library, before heading to the gorgeous Millennium Square, carved, at a cost of £12 million, from the area between the Civic Hall, Town Hall and Leeds General Infirmary. After manicuring the civic structures, the space between was transformed into a pedestrianised area featuring the Nelson Mandela Gardens and a buzzy recreational space for outdoor rock concerts and the like.
The refurbishment continues down by the River Aire, where the wharves and warehouses have been transformed, Docklands style, into a series of gorgeous apartments, office buildings, pubs and bars.
Nearby is Granary Wharf, the superb new development with state-of-the-art office and residential buildings, shops and cafes, and running from there to the Tetley Brewery, with its interactive museum, is a shiny new promenade.
As if to demonstrate the city’s cool, the promenade now has a branch of Brasserie Blanc, the Raymond Blanc chain of eateries, with outdoor tables for summer dining. Close by is one of the city’s other main claims to cool, the stylish Malmaison, part of the chain which has perfected the hip hotel formula, getting not only the interior décor right, but also offering high-quality service and stellar food.
Converted six years ago from a bus company head office, the hotel offers sumptuous rooms done out in Farrow & Ball tones of navy and mushroom, with gorgeous bathrooms, generous toiletries and all the necessary hi-tech accoutrements (wi fi, flatscreen TV). No hip hotel is complete without a great bar, and this one ticks all the boxes.
After cocktails, guests can head to the hotel’s superb brasserie. Here, diners have plenty of permitted fish and veggie dishes, many using organic and locally grown ingredients.
We started with a sublime white onion and thyme soup, made creamy with goat cheese; followed by plaice and seabream, and shared one of the stunning puddings. There is also a and a good wine list. Healthy (non-meateating) visitors are well catered for at breakfast, too, with Bi r c her muesli, fresh juices, fresh fruit and yogurts alongside breakfast staples which include eggs, kippers and every variety of coffee and infusion.
If all that isn’t enough to tempt you, there is also the Royal Artilleries Museum, opened in 1999, housing the national arms and armour collection relocated from the Tower of London and the Leeds Art Gallery, which has just had a £1.5-million refurbishment, and next door, the Henry Moore Institute.
The shiny new riverside in the centre of Leeds, where a Brasserie Blanc nestles near the Malmaison Hotel
Leeds Town Hall beside Millennium Square