Sometimes I have to disabuse Southern friends and acquaintances of their very dated belief that Leeds is grimy and somehow a little unsophisticated, because nothing could be further from the truth. The city is vibrant and cosmopolitan, very modern but somehow substantially Victorian at the same time.

Chimneys and spires in Leeds © Tim Green | Wikicommons
Chimneys and spires in Leeds
© Tim Green | Wikicommons

Leeds is a city in which there is plenty to do. Within walking distance of City Square, which is next to the main railway station (two and a quarter hours from London Kings Cross) you'll find the Grand Theatre, the College of Music and Leeds Town Hall for operas and concerts, an extensive art gallery with the Henry Moore Institute as an extension, the West Yorkshire Playhouse with two theatres inside, the Royal Armouries where you can watch real knights in armour jousting, the Northern Ballet, and City Museum, which has its own Egyptian mummy in a sarcophagus.

Whitelocks pub © Whitelocks
Whitelocks pub
© Whitelocks
Undoubtedly, you will also discover plenty of superb places to eat and drink: my recommendation is for Whitelocks, which dates back to 1715 and which has a reputation as a meeting place for poets. T.S. Eliot, for example, is thought to have drunk a pint there.

And Leeds is a city for music lovers too. The display for the musical history of Leeds in the City Museum does not do the subject justice. It covers all types of music, includes many references to the present day and seems incomplete and cramped, probably inevitably, because so much of significance has taken place. Even when Leeds was a many-chimneyed town of two hundred thousand, which appalled Charles Dickens for its soot and filth when he visited on a lecture tour, Leeds was becoming nationally and internationally renowned as a centre for musical excellence in the North, its reputation rivalling that of Manchester. It was firmly rooted in a West Riding musical culture which thrived in all the fast-expanding towns of the Industrial Revolution. The Leeds Triennial Musical Festival was the most important, continuing for one-hundred-and-twenty years until the final edition in 1985.

The organ in the Victoria Hall in Leeds © Craigthornber | Wikicommons
The organ in the Victoria Hall in Leeds
© Craigthornber | Wikicommons
The classical flag has now been passed to the Leeds International Concert Season, the largest local authority music programme in the UK. This is based in the Town Hall, an imposing Victorian building of Yorkshire gritstone, fronted by stone lions and designed by a twenty-nine year-old lion of an architect named Cuthbert Brodrick, who had La Madeleine in Paris in mind when he designed the building. It is worth a visit just to view the enormous concert organ in its extravagantly decorated Victoria Hall. Lunchtime visitors will be able to hear a recital on it while reading the Latin mottos on the walls.

The first Musical Festival was connected with the opening of the Town Hall in 1858 by Queen Victoria. Leeds Festival Chorus was first formed for the occasion, for Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Handel’s Messiah, and we (I sing with it) like to think that we are part of a great choral tradition, along with the other terrific choirs in Leeds of course.

Leeds Festival Chorus © Richard Wilcocks
Leeds Festival Chorus
© Richard Wilcocks
The prestige of the Opera North has been escalating steeply, and enjoyed great success with its performances of Wagner’s Ring, which went on to tour as a complete cycle in 2016, unusually opting for the Town Hall as its Leeds base because the Grand Theatre was too small. Music director Richard Farnes developed an affordable model for the cycle, advertising it as a series of concerts at first, but this was before video designer Peter Mumford arrived. He transformed the performance area with video screens, and the show went ahead with no props, practically no staging and very basic costumes. Wagner, Farnes has suggested, would have been quick to use the PowerMac to produce his Gesamtkunstwerk, the synthesis of all the arts.

Opera North perform Götterdämmerung from The Ring in Leeds Town Hall © Clive Barda | Opera North
Opera North perform Götterdämmerung from The Ring in Leeds Town Hall
© Clive Barda | Opera North
Next to the Grand Theatre, the Howard Assembly Room is a gem of a performance space where you can sample all kinds of music, with recent events including opera, jazz and music from a Moroccan village band. But the best acoustics in Leeds can arguably be found at the city’s conservatoire, in both of the performance spaces in the recently built College of Music. The Venue and The Recital Room are relatively small (350 and 120 seats) but intimate environments for soloists and smaller ensembles. There are frequent performances for the public with many significant artists. I had the recent pleasure of hearing Roderick Williams and Mark Padmore sing in the Venue as part of the Leeds Lieder Festival, of which Williams is artistic director. It was thrilling, and the last festival was so successful that it has become an annual event.

The College is next door to both the Northern Ballet and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and also to a couple of pleasant restaurants and the local BBC studios. The Playhouse is the city's leading theatre, and has built a powerful reputation in the years since its foundation stone was put in place by Judi Dench in 1989. At the time of writing, it is staging a series of plays and events connected with the Brontës, who, incidentally, lived in Haworth, just a few miles away.

I must have left something out, because so much goes on. You will be spoilt for choice.