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Best Free Things To Do With Kids In Leeds

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One of the north of England’s major cities, the city of Leeds has a population of over 510,000 (more than 810,000 if you take the larger metropolitan borough into account). Wool wealth has always been important to the city, and it’s apparent in the buildings and stunning shopping arcades you’ll see around the place. In the 1500s, it was a market town in the River Aire valley, but in the next two centuries other industries became important, including iron, printing, engineering and flax. It soon became a more important centre than nearby York, and in 1893 was granted City status. It has excellent transport links and is still one of the most influential urban locations in the North of England. 

Table of Contents

Royal Armouries Museum

Royal Armouries Museum

What it is: Home to the national collection of UK arms and armour, the Royal Armouries Museum covers five floors, with more than 4,500 objects out on display. These include the foot combat armour made for Henry VIII for the 1520 Field of the Cloth of Gold, often regarded as a turning point in Henry’s life – he survived major injuries. Other items include elephant armour and tusk swords, and the ‘pulse rifle’ that is a prop from the Aliens movie in 1986. As well as personal protective gear, visitors can also explore recent advances in technology.

Why we liked it: The items in the collections, the displays and the demonstrations all bring history to life in a way that makes it almost tangible. One of the best bits has to be the Live Interpretation Team. We also loved the ‘Horned Helmet’ for its sheer strangeness – this was another of Henry VIII’s possessions, given to him in 1514 by the Holy Roman Emperor.

More information about the Royal Armouries Museum

Address: Armouries Drive, Leeds, LS10 1LT 

Opening Hours: 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday (outside school holidays); hours often extended to every day during school holidays. Pre-booking tickets is recommended (tickets are free), although walk-ups are also available. The museum is usually a little quieter after 2pm.

Leeds City Museum

Leeds City Museum

What it is: If you’d like to take a trip back in time to see the history of Leeds up close right in the middle of the city, this series of events includes workshops, quizzes, loom demos, folk music and plenty more to keep everyone entertained. Galleries include the Voices of Asia, Life on Earth and the Leeds Story. There are the usual museum suspects too, including a mummy – the one you can see in Leeds is 3,000 years old.

Why we liked it: We had the most fun in the Life on Earth section – tigers, creatures from prehistory and fossils, birds with rainbow feathers, and fascinating insects, but it was also great to find out just how many different things had been invented in Leeds. And no, it wasn’t all about the textiles! The Museum also has a series of special events that it calls Leeds City Museum Lates.

More information about Leeds City Museum 

Address: Leeds City Museum, Millennium Square, Leeds, LS2 8BH

Opening Hours: 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Friday; 11am to 5pm Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays. 

Hope Pastures

Hope Pastures

What it is: If you love ponies, horses and donkeys, you’ll love this rehabilitation centre for our four-footed friends. Depending on their needs, the animals are nursed back to health. Some are more challenging than others, and we always do our best to make sure they get the dental and veterinary care they need. Some stay at the rehabilitation stage for a longer time, others for a shorter time.

Why we liked it: As well as the hooved residents, there are often special events at this location, including the annual Fun Dog Show. The yard and the visitor centre have disabled facilities, and are wheelchair-friendly, and well-behaved dogs on leads are very welcome. You might also see volunteers from local companies working on site. 

More information about Hope Pastures 

Address: Hope Pastures, Weetwood Lane, Leeds LS16 5PH

Opening Hours: 10am to 3pm daily. 

Roundhay Park

Roundhay Park

What it is: Originally part of a hunting park for the DeLacy family in the 1200s, the park is a favourite destination for residents of and visitors to Leeds alike. It was bought by the City of Leeds in the early 1870s, and although it came close to disrepair, the late 1990s improvements have really paid off. It’s even won awards from the Royal Horticultural Society for the “Best Public Park” and is very accessible. Check with the park about the possibility of borrowing a free powered motability scooter. 

Why we liked it:  It’s one of the biggest urban parks you’ll find anywhere in the world, covering over 700 acres. There are also plenty of events in the park throughout the year, including food festivals, sports, brass bands, and annual firework displays. We also loved exploring the different gardens – the scented garden for the blind, the Rainbow Garden, Canal Gardens and the Friends Garden. Also, there are decent free parking options round the park, which incorporates children’s playgrounds and a skating area. You can also pick up a couple of Little Friends trails for younger family members at The Mansion conservatory, The Lakeside Café or Tropical World.

More information about Roundhay Park

Address: Roundhay Park, Leeds, LS8 2ER

Opening Hours: 24/7 daily all year round; 9am to 3.30pm daily (specialist gardens). 

Kirkstall Abbey

Kirkstall Abbey

What it is: Founded over 800 years ago, this is one of the best preserved of the Cistercian monasteries left in England, set by the beautiful woods near the River Aire. This Grade I listed site is one of the most complete monasteries of its time, in a dramatic setting, with magnificent architecture and glorious ruins. There are monthly markets from March to November and plenty of family-orientated events and activities in the school holidays.

Why we liked it: The site makes use of 10 QR codes that you can scan to bring the place to life, and the Visitor Centre has various events and displays that run all through the year. The centre also has plenty of interactive features, and lets you learn all about how it was to be a monk. The park is also a great place for a picnic or to let off a bit of steam, and the playground is large and well equipped.

More information about Kirkstall Abbey

Address: Abbey Road, Kirkstall, Leeds, LS5 3EH

Opening Hours: 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays; last admission 3.30pm

Leeds Owl Trail

Leeds Owl Trail

What it is: Certain cities have different animals as their symbol, and while Manchester might be associated with bees, Leeds is associated with owls. There are over two dozen of these symbols of wisdom to find, all over the city. You download the map on the website, choose where you’re going to start, and away you go.

Why we liked it: It was a great way to get to know the city and its history, and to encourage us all to look up, down, or all around, not just straight ahead! They’re all over the place – on the city’s coat-of-arms, the civil hall, on the Millennium Square, St Anne’s Cathedral, the War memorial… we started with the Top 10 Civic Owl Trail, and then just kept going for the full Grand Owl trail.

More information about the Leeds Owl Trail

Address: Millennium Square, Leeds, LS2 3AD (you can of course start at any of the owls)
Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round

Golden Acre Park

Golden Acre Park

What it is: This pretty Leeds park, six miles to the north of the city centre, has plenty of plant collections and gardens to explore, along with woodland, ponds, streams, and the lake. Events often take place in the park through the summer, including musical performances. It covers more than 130 acres in total. Depending on the time of year, you might see spring bluebells, and there’s usually plenty of space for picnics and ball games, even at the height of summer.

Why we liked it: Like so many others, we really enjoyed the circular walk around the lakeside in this very pretty park. Also, we were lucky enough to get free parking around Arthington Road (there’s more free parking off Otley Road). The park is also nice and flat, and you can hire motorised scooters from the café free of charge (you need to book in advance though). 

More information about Golden Acre Park 

Address: Otley Road, Bramhope, Leeds LS16 8BQ

Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round

Leeds Street Art Trail

Leeds Street Art Trail

What it is: Leeds is one of those cities that is enlivened by the street art all around, which complements its excellent art galleries, museums, and other centres. Some of the murals appeared long before street art was as popular or as widespread as it is now, including the Mabgate Mural and Cornucopia. Look around the station, the wharves and the bridges.

Why we liked it: We liked the random nature of the trail – you could pretty much start everywhere, and we loved the fact that lots of the images were tucked away in the most unexpected of places. We soon got in the habit of peeking into ginnels (that’s alleys to those of you from outside Leeds). We found Winifred by Qubeck one of the most fun paintings we came across, with mills, and the elephant armour we’d already seen at the Royal Armouries, and the famous white Yorkshire rose. Our second favourite was at Centenary Bridge, where the Grey Heron mural was designed to be hidden and then revealed depending on how high the river was flowing.

More information about Leeds Street Art Trail

Address: 16 Call Lane, Leeds LS1 6DN (Cornucopia)

Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round

Henry Moore Institute

Henry Moore Institute

What it is: The centre of Leeds is known for being a brilliantly vibrant cultural hub, and the Henry Moore Institute offers a contemporary space for art right in the middle. It’s a combination of galleries, archive and research library, with more than 30,000 resources in the form of books, journals and audio-visual items. 

Why we liked it: There’s nothing quite like the Henry Moore Institute. Exhibitions change regularly, and we especially enjoyed the Explorer Bag. These are designed for younger family members to get the best out of the exhibitions as you move around. There’s plenty of space, and the Institute also runs plenty of workshops and drop in sessions.

More information about the Henry Moore Institute

Website URL: https://henry-moore.org/henry-moore-institute/ 

Address: 74 The Headrow, Leeds, LS1 3AH

Opening Hours: 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday (Galleries); 10am to 5pm Monday to Friday (Research Library); Tuesday to Friday by arrangement, Archive of Sculptor’s Papers. 

Middleton Park – Events run by Friends of Middleton Park

Middleton Park

What it is: The park is around four miles out of the city centre, and a glorious combination of woodland, grassland, children’s play area and places to enjoy a picnic. It covers 650 acres in total, and although it’s owned by a charity, it’s leased to the City Council for 999 years. Depending on the season, activities include walks, music, crafts, seed walks, den building, sports and apple days. The events are free, but they are first come, first served, and some might have limited numbers of spaces.

Why we liked it: Quite apart from the prettiness of the park, the free activities on offer from the Friends are varied, seasonal, and really help you discover the locality. The history is really interesting and there’s plenty to see – ancient coal mining pits and the Middleton Railway, which is likely to be a big hit with steam train spotters and offers free entry to the museum area.

More information about Middleton Park

Address: Town Street, Middleton, LS10 3SH

Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round (park); check website for details of times of activities

Honourable Mentions

Leeds Discovery Centre

If you’re looking for play areas, Merrion Gardens was upgraded in summer 2022 to improve the playground, and if you’re ever in the vicinity of the Leeds Plant Nursery (the Arium), they also have a playground to keep kids entertained. If art and crafts are more your thing, then head for the Leeds Art Gallery. You might also enjoy the Tetley Arts Centre, or Leeds Discovery Centre can offer the chance to see behind the scenes of all those great museum artefacts – you do usually need to arrange this in advance. If you’d like to learn about the many famous people who’ve been commemorated with a Blue Plaque in the city, you can also follow the plaques around town. And like many of the larger cities, Leeds still has a large central library with plenty going on and heaps of information about what’s happening in and around town. Younger book lovers aged from two to five might also like to check out the free storytime sessions at the Little Bookshop on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 11am, lasting for 25 minutes.  

If you’d rather spend time outdoors, you’re spoiled for choice; as well as several extremely attractive parks and squares, there’s the Liverpool and Leeds canal if you feel like a slightly different view of the city. Or you can just wander around the Corn Exchange and the other gorgeous market arcades, never knowing quite what you’ll see next. 

Written by
David Prior

David Prior is an NCTJ-qualified journalist and the editor of Big Family Breaks. He is also a father of five and an experienced traveller, especially with kids.

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