Leeds is out there waiting for you to conquer it. Here’s our essential must-do list for all freshers. Have at it!
What’s the first thing you should do as a fresher in Leeds? Everything, that’s what! Leeds is packed with exciting stuff that you need to do, see, taste and smell all year round. No matter the season, it’s a helluva city. From can’t-miss pub crawls to bafflingly bonkers bingo, gorgeous countryside to one-of-a-kind nights out, you’ll get to know Leeds so well you’ll never want to leave.
1. Take on the legendary Otley Run
The Otley Run is perhaps the ultimate Leeds challenge for freshers. The good news? There won’t be any running. It’s a pub crawl starting at Woodies Ale House in Headingley, ending at The Dry Dock on the edge of the city centre. You’ll cover 15 watering holes in total, so it’s the perfect way to get a good sense of the area’s boozers, from proper pubs through to modern bars.
There are rules to all this, of course. If you ignore any of them, you can’t really say you’ve ‘done’ it. First up, you have to drink at each and every stop – maybe skip those double-hopped 8% IPAs. Secondly, fancy dress is pretty much compulsory. Freestyle it or coordinate with your friends – this is the time to go nuts at one of the city’s fancy dress shops. Maybe shop for something for your hangover while you’re at it.
2. Get to a gig at Brudenell Social Club
Leeds has a fabulous live music scene and Brudenell Social Club is at the very heart of it. This brilliant, buzzing venue is the spot to go to for acts that span all genres, with a heady mix of touring legends and up-and-coming artists. It’s the place to be if you want to say, years from now, that you saw them before they were famous. It’s big enough to rock out in, but intimate enough for all kinds of music.
The venue itself is the stuff of legend, a former working men’s club transformed into a place with great acoustics – the sound system here really doesn’t mess about. At the Brudenell, they sure know how to cater to students, with well-priced cask and craft ales, a brilliant range of crisps and the crust-kissed goodness of Pieminister pies. Good times, good vibes.
3. Sip some suds at Leeds landmark Whitelock’s
There’s no shortage of great pubs in Leeds, but Whitelock’s may just be the daddy of them all. Pints have been pulled here for over 300 years, in fact, it first opened its doors way back in 1715. While it may have changed in that time, it hasn’t changed much. Head into the yard where it sits and admire the exterior before nipping inside to what many locals consider the perfect pub.
There’s a handsome bar, original features galore and lovely etched, stained-glass windows. If you’re here for a drink, you can sit on the benches outside – there’s always a buzz of people coming and going – or stay inside to really soak up the old-world atmosphere. Beer is the name of the game here, with a huge selection of cask and keg beers for all budgets. This is the place to go for a round of ales with a side of history.
4. Discover history and beauty at Kirkstall Abbey
Make your way out to Kirkstall Abbey not just for the centuries of history (although that is definitely fascinating) but also for the ruined grandeur of the building itself, set inside one of loveliest green spaces in Leeds. The abbey was founded in 1152 and was home to monks until the mid 16th century, when Henry VIII disestablished the monasteries.
The spectral shell is a stunning part of the landscape that every fresher in Leeds should see. The monks are long gone, but Kirkstall Abbey still teems with life. Some come for the heritage, others for the nature. The abbey itself is free to visit, but you can also pay a small fee to visit the former gatehouse that has been transformed into a museum, so you can travel back to Victorian times in a Grade II-listed building.
5. Join the party on the city’s wildest streets
If you’re up for a night out in Leeds, there are three places that need to be on your radar. For the perfect fresher night out, Call Lane, Merrion Street and Greek Street prove that three is the magic number. Call Lane is craft beer and cocktail central, with colourful bars so close to each other that you can do an entire pub crawl and only cover 50 metres. Look out for Leeds classics like Oporto and Jake’s Bar along with Caribbean cracker Jamrock.
Both Greek and Merrion Streets are pedestrianised – ideal for when you’re rolling out of a bar somewhat the worse for wear. On Greek Street, make sure you check out The Lost & Found, The Liquorist and the buzzing Neighbourhood. Merrion Street offers beers, cocktails and rock music at Mojo and Verve, games galore at Roxy Ball Room and wild nights at The Key Club.
6. Experience shopping nirvana at Kirkgate Market
Kirkgate Market is one of the finest gems in Leeds, and it’s definitely a fresher’s friend. It opened all the way back in 1857 and, while it has experienced numerous changes, it still retains what has always made it special. That means the very best Yorkshire produce from farm, field and sea, as well as a gorgeous Victorian interior.
They’ve got everything you need to stock up on, from everyday ingredients to hard-to-source spices and sensational seafood. It’s also chock-full of places to eat, think cheap and cheerful greasy spoons alongside the lavish international flavours of the food hall. Yorkshire pudding wraps, vintage clothes, freshly-baked sourdough bread or refills from a zero waste food store – who knows what you’ll be carrying home?
7. Unearth vintage gems at Headingley’s thrift shops
Being a student is all about living within a budget, and one of the best ways to do that is to grab a bargain from one of the many thrift and charity shops in Headingley. Whether you want to call it vintage, second-hand or pre-loved, it’s a great way to update your wardrobe and decorate your room with some timeless style, and all without taxing your bank account too much.
Wander the streets of Headingley and you’ll find treasures galore, whether it’s affordable furniture at Martin House Hospice Shop or classic fashion from the 1920s to 1990s at Sue Ryder Vintage & Retro. Vintage Boutique in Hyde Park is a lovingly curated shop that runs the gamut from clothes to books, art to accessories. Elsewhere, you’ll find not just a huge Oxfam, but a dedicated Oxfam bookshop too.
8. Munch on Sunday lunch from Man V Roast
Let’s be realistic – cooking a full roast dinner like the ones you have at home might not be all that easy in a student house or halls. Plus, you have to officially do the washing up now. Cut out the hassle by ordering up a no-fuss Sunday lunch with all the trimmings from Man V Roast. You can go and eat there, but it’s tiny – and why go to the roast when you can have the roast come to you?
The Carvery Box is the best friend you never knew you had – your choice of meat in good company with veg, stuffing, potatoes and that absolute Leeds essential, a Yorkshire pudding, For something a bit different, go for the pulled meat box, or nurse the hangover from hell by having a breakfast box delivered right to your door – this is a magic full English with veggie options too. Can’t cook? Don’t need to cook!
9. Relax and play in Roundhay Park
This is about to become your favourite park. A 700-acre playground north-east of the city, Roundhay Park is a beloved part of Leeds life. Its size means it has something for absolutely everyone – it’s the beating green heart of the city, slowly changing in the autumn to shades of russet and orange. Whatever the time of year, it’s gorgeous.
You can head here with friends for a picnic among the splendour or seek out a never-ending selection of running and walking routes. If you’re looking to get active, there are football and cricket pitches, tennis courts, a golf course and even a skate park. Soak up the serenity of the lakes, then head into Tropical World to meet the meerkats. Roundhay Park – it’s a reet good day out.
10. See if your number’s up at Bongo’s Bingo
Bongo’s Bingo is fun to the power of laughs. This isn’t the kind of bingo where your gran clutches a dabber and shouts ‘line’ to win a bag of meat from the local butcher. Instead, expect pumping music, a bonkers stage show, daft prizes and dance-offs galore. It’s bingo injected with true rave energy, and glow-sticks are pretty much obligatory. Dress-up or dress down, it doesn’t matter – you’ll be swept up in the hilarity.
Beyond all the high-octane craziness, there are actual prizes up for grabs. While cash may well be very useful to a fresher in Leeds, is it really better than a bottle of gin or Jäger, an inflatable toy or a cardboard cutout of Phillip Schofield? Don’t answer that. Where else can you play bingo, carry away baffling prizes and be showered in Coco Pops while dancing to rave classics? Again, don’t answer.
11. Feed your greed at Belgrave Feast
It’s not just the restaurants and cafes you need to work your way through in Leeds – this is a city full of food festivals and pop-ups. Belgrave Music Hall is a favourite of many students, with its ace bar, live gigs and rooftop terrace, but it does a great job of feeding you too. The burgers and sensational Session Fries at Patty Smith’s are a dirty revelation, the pizza at Dough Boys a chin-dripping delight.
It gets better. Every month, Belgrave Feast invites a shifting line-up of street food vendors to move in and take over the ground floor. There might be fab falafel, oozing poutine or bao buns so springy it’s like they’re made of edible memory foam. Add live music and an art market for the perfect day out. Arrive hungry – you’ll probably want to try more than one dish.
12. Bounce into action at Gravity
Sometimes, a person just needs to bounce. If you and your new housemates are looking for a fun day out, with added bouncing, look no further than Gravity. It’s a huge park with over 100 trampolines, all connected to make one giant, springy playground. This isn’t just a great way to burn off energy – you can also head there to keep fit. The workout sessions are an unusual way to get your cardio and core exercise in.
If you’re just going for the buzz, there’s lots to keep you entertained. You can have a laugh competing against your mates across the dodgeball sessions and obstacle courses, pile in to air bags and let yourself fall safely into the slam dunk zones. They even have after-dark events on Fridays, with a light show, soundtrack and no kids. It’s like the biggest pillow party on earth – and you’re all invited.
13. Eat the breakfast of champions at Popina’s
Popina’s is a rite of passage for any fresher new to Leeds. Once you discover this legendary greasy spoon, you’ll form a habit that’s hard to break. Whether you’re fuelling up for a lengthy day of studying, pre-loading for a tilt at the Otley Run or nursing a hangover, the mighty breakfasts at this Hyde Park humdinger are most definitely your friend. The menu might contain burgers and brownies, but the Mega Breakfast is what it’s all about.
Don’t worry about the calorie count, this doozy of a brekkie contains all the major food groups – bacon, eggs, sausages, black pudding, hash browns, mushrooms, beans, tomatoes and a fried slice. Finish this and it’s probably the only thing you’ll eat in 24 hours. Of course, if that’s not enough, there’s always the Mega Monster – a food challenge so gargantuan you’ll get your money back if you finish it.
14. Meander through nature on the Meanwood Valley Trail
Another gorgeous slice of Leeds greenery, the Meanwood Valley Trail is a verdant vein of glorious Yorkshire landscape. Nature fans will soon fall in love with this seven-mile stretch of God’s Own Country. As the name suggests, the trail heads through Meanwood, before taking you up to Adel and Alwoodley. It’s a joy in autumn as the leaves turn shades of ochre but beautiful all year round.
Start your trek at the statue of Henry Marsden on Woodhouse Moor – it’s close to the University of Leeds, so ideal for freshers. You’ll pass through parts of Headingley, wander by the side of Meanwood Beck, tip-toe over weirs and through gardens on your way to Golden Acre Park. Look out for the Slabbering Baby and pack a picnic – there are plenty of places perfect to stop and enjoy your surroundings.
15. Sip on secret cocktails at The Maven
There are a few secret speakeasy-style bars in the city, such as The Domino Club and Blind Tyger, that you’ll want to hunt out. Make The Maven your first port of call – it doesn’t just serve up potent drinks, it also packs a mean party. Sipping cocktails is fine, sloshing them around as you dance is much more fun.
Being hidden doesn’t mean this bar is shy – it might be all dark wood inside, but it’s a welcoming place with cosy booths and it really comes alive as it fills up. The expert mixologists know the lavishly stocked bar inside out, and will serve you up alcoholic treats such as the Hibiscus Swizzle, Blind Date or Gin Garden. There’s beer and wine too, plus a great list of Italian aperitivos if you fancy trying something new.
16. Make a furry friend at Kitty Cafe
You might not have realised that the thing missing from your life was a cafe where you get to pet cats but, hey, different strokes for different folks. Kitty Cafe is the place to go to make feline friends while you grab lunch or a coffee. It’s not just about the food and meeting furry friends though – the Kitty Cafe doubles up as a re-homing centre for cats and kittens. The money you spend helps the cafe care for them before they find their forever home.
So, while the cats may have changed by the time you go, you’re quite likely to meet Cookie, Saffy, Crinkle, Sid and Nancy. Some of them are shy, others will be all over you as you munch on pizza, panini, quesadillas or an afternoon tea with cakes and scones. Grab a toy if you want to play with them, or just enjoy the charming, soothing sight of them jumping from their walkways to snuggle down to sleep.
17. Pound your peers at Roxy’s pub games
Fun? Games? Drinks? Check! Check! Check! There are two Roxy Ball Rooms in Leeds – one on Boar Lane, another on Merrion Street – as well as Roxy Lanes on Bond Street. Here, you can work your way through a huge variety of games in a party atmosphere where the drinks never stop flowing. If you have to pick one, head for Merrion Street – after all, it’s open until 4am on Friday and Saturday.
Kick things off with Beer Pong – one of the fastest, funnest ways to get the party started. Of course, it’s always better if you lose. After that, you can move on to shuffleboard, table tennis, duck pin bowling, karaoke rooms or even crazy pool (a quirky hybrid of pool and crazy golf). There’s no point trying to keep score, because the cocktails, beers and shots will make it all a bit of a blur. You all won.
18. Get in the swing of things at Go Ape
After a hard week of study, what better way to let off some steam with your fellow Leeds freshers than by sharing an adventure? Head to Temple Newsam where Go Ape awaits – you’ll climb, you’ll dangle, you might even plummet, but you’ll do it safely and in some of the city’s loveliest parkland. This is a treetop adventure course set in a 1,500-acre park, promising vertiginous thrills and the rush of adrenaline.
You can do your best Tarzan impression as you go tree-to-tree on ziplines, and push yourself on the Treetop Challenge course, which will test your skill and bravery on 17-metre-high platforms. The 13-metre Plummet may not sound like much, but in the flesh it’s somewhat more daunting – there’s a reason why some people use it to warm up for bungee jumps. It’s open whatever the weather – the mud just makes it even more fun.
19. Enter the drag den at Viaduct Show Bar
The Viaduct Showbar is a landmark of LGBTQ+ culture and nightlife in Leeds – head here and you’re in for a wild night. You can go in the afternoon for cheap pints and bingo, but come the evening and the place really comes alive. It goes until after midnight every single day of the week, with parties rocking on until 3am on Thursday night, 4am on Friday and Saturday. It’s unrepentantly in-your-face, but that’s why you’re there.
Tuesday is the night for student specials, with cheap pints, shots and bombs to a soundtrack of cheesy pop. There are games to join in with on Waka Waka Wednesday and the rest of the week marries camp classics with charismatic drag queens and the Viaduct’s own showgirls. It’s the perfect weekend showstopper before you head back to lectures on Monday.
20. Brighten up your life at Leeds Light Night
Light Night has been illuminating Leeds since 2005, and if you’re a fresher you should really make the most of it. It’s a chance to see the playful side of the city after dark, with two nights of light projections, performances and art installations. There are loads of things going on in what is a highlight of the cultural calendar. With a changing focus each year, heading to Light Night is definitely a bright idea.
You might see poetry writ large in neon on Briggate and vivid watering cans pouring fibre optic ‘water’ into the River Aire. You might spot a giant, colourful octopus trying to escape from the Victoria Quarter or catch an immersive dance performance by Northern Ballet. If you’ve already familiarised yourself with Leeds in your first few weeks in the city, this is a chance to see it in a totally different light.