With a new spotlight shining on the city in light of it being announced as the UK’s City of Culture for 2025, Bethan Andrews delves into its history and why it deserves such recognition
With Bradford having been named as the UK’s City of Culture for 2025, it’s high time people shouted about the many wonderful elements that make up the character of the city today. From world-class museums and Charlotte Brontë heritage, to being home to a trend-setting literary festival, there are a million reasons why the Yorkshire city deserves the culture crown.
It’s the second Yorkshire city to take the title, and just as when Hull won in 2017, Bradford has a lot to gain from proving people wrong. For years, the city has been overshadowed by other cities such as York or Leeds. And, it’s often been somewhat misunderstood. But it’s a city that surprises in many ways, from the picturesque rolling hills that surround the urbanity to the deep valleys, there’s plenty of beauty to be found within the man-made, built-up architecture. Once you get under the skin of Bradford, there’s no wanting to leave it behind – there’s grit, determination, history, talent, and culture in droves.
Formerly known as the wool capital of the world, Bradford does well at paving the way and creating firsts and, more recently, the city became the first ever UNESCO City of Film. It’s also retained Curry Capital of the UK for six years running. The Bradford you see today eloquently combines its heritage with a bustling food and drink scene, creativity is embedded within the soul of the city, and there’s a real atmosphere of there being more to come from this determined place.
Past to present
Historically, the first settlements arrived in Saxon times. By the time the 19th century came around, Bradford was a small rural market town of 16,000 people, where wool spinning and cloth weaving was starting to become big business. By 1841, there were 38 worsted mills in Bradford town and 70 in the borough, and it was estimated that two-thirds of the country’s wool production was processed in Bradford.
Less than ten years after that, Bradford had become the wool capital of the world. With big business and world notoriety came money, expansion and beautiful Victorian architecture. Bradford became a Yorkshire city in 1897, and today, although the textiles industry has declined slightly, is still a leading destination for textiles, as well as media and technology.
One of the many benefits for tourists visiting Bradford is that the city is relatively small, with many of its main cultural sights within walking distance of each other. Little Germany allows you to see the Victorian history and rich architecture of the city well, and the marked Heritage Trail will walk you from the City Hall along to Bradford Cathedral. The Trail ends at The Wool Exchange, having travelled through industrial Bradford, past the Impressions Gallery, City Park, and The Peace Museum on the way.
The cultural heritage of the city is rich, so it’s not surprising that it won the recent accolade. Bradford’s literary history is long, with JB Priestly, author of the ever-famous An Inspector Calls hailing from here, along with playwright Andrea Dunbar and home of the Brontë sisters being nearby Haworth. That’s not to mention that David Hockney put Bradford on the map through his artistic fame, too, and that the city has birthed musical talent such as One Direction’s Zayn Malik, Girls Aloud’s Kimberley Walsh and Franz Ferdinand’s Bob Hardy.
The opportunities that present themselves by being a Capital of Culture could change the face of the future. As The Guardian stated on the announcement: “Under-18s account for 26.3% of the population, making it the UK’s youngest city. Ethnic minorities make up 36% of the population. The year as capital of culture is a chance for the energy of this young, diverse population to be harnessed.”
And harnessing such talent is already happening. Mind the Gap is England’s leading learning disability performance and live arts company, and they’ve been producing cutting-edge theatre in Bradford since 1988. The Bradford Literature Festival, too, is a world-renowned spoken and written word event, held for ten days over June and July.
As for visiting the city, there really is something for everyone. As you’d expect from the city of film, Bradford is home to the National Science and Media Museum with amazing exhibitions, interactive galleries, historical collections and Yorkshire’s first IMAX cinema. The Alhambra Theatre attracts top shows from London’s West End, as well as Yorkshire’s biggest panto, and St George’s Hall has been recently refurbished. The Cathedral is beautiful to take in, too, or head to the amazing Waterstones, which is often hailed as the most beautiful bookshop in the world.
You can’t talk about Bradford and not discuss the impact David Hockney has had. Born in Bradford in 1937, he studied at Bradford School of Art in the 1950s before going on to become one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His ties to Bradford are still strong with large collections of his work on display at Salts Mill 1853 Gallery and The David Hockney Gallery at Cartwright Hall.
For those who want a taste of Bradford’s art-heavy history, Saltaire and its cobbled streets showcases it in the best way possible. Saltaire is in the characterful and historic BD18 postcode of the city, which was previously a Victorian industrial city, built by mill owner Sir Titus Salt for his workers. Today, it attracts millions of visitors for its beautiful architecture and quaint streets, and Salts Mill, which forms the heart of the village. It houses the inspiring Hockney gallery, a selection of shops, restaurants and cafes. The grand Victoria Hall is also worth a visit, as is Salt Beer Factory, the brilliant microbrewery, blending history and contemporary craft beer.
Speaking of beer and indulgence, food is at the heart of Bradford. With over 200 Asian restaurants, it’s not surprising the city has been crowned curry capital of the UK, and streets such as Leeds Road have really put it on the map as having the finest curry in the country. But, in recent years, Bradford has become so much more than its curry houses, and it has built up a strong name for itself for having an outstanding food and drink offering. South Square Vegetarian Cafe is part of the South Square arts and culture centre in Bradford that creates unique dishes on a daily basis from locally-sourced ingredients.
Award-winning Terrace in Saltaire is worth a visit and authentic Italian Valentino’s is known across the county. Bringing a taste of the refined coffee culture that has swept across London to Bradford, Emily’s at De Luca Boutique is exquisite and was previously the birthplace of the Bronte sisters. For fine dining, Forster’s Bistro & Deli sits within City Park or just outside of the city, but still within the Bradford district, The Box Tree in Ilkley is renowned.
Back to beer, Bradford is particularly proud of its real ale offering and is home to many breweries, from Timothy Taylors and Wishbone Brewery in Keighley, to the unique Saltaire Brewery and Bingley Brewery. There are many great real ale pubs, some of which are situated in the district’s beautiful countryside. The Flying Duck in Ilkley, The Dog and Gun in Oxenhope and Haworth Old Hall just to name a few.
Fields of gold
With all this going for it in such an urban environment, it can be hard to imagine that Bradford has an abundance of greenery on the doorstep. But the steep hills and valleys that surround the city are famed for being incredibly special, and offer up plenty of opportunity to combine city life and town exploring with tranquil escapes.
Lister Park is only a mile outside of the city, home to Cartwright Hall Art Gallery and Mughal Water Gardens, and is 55-acres of manicured, green bliss, perfect for strolling, family fun, and all sorts of other garden adventures – there’s a reason it was once voted best park in the country. Take a walk up Clayton Heights for an opportunity to view the city from above, or head up to Undercliffe Cemetery for another breathtaking view of the Bradford area. What better way to celebrate and enjoy such a wonderful place?
What’s On in August
Bingley Weekender 5-7 August
See huge headliner acts such as Rag n Bone Man, The Libertines and The White Lies at the three-day music festival held at Bradford and Bingley Rugby Club.
Ilkley Literature Festival Summer Fringe Throughout August
Although the actual event of the longest-running northern literature festival doesn’t take place until October, you’ll find the Summer Fringe events taking place throughout August, just down the road in Ilkley.
The Yorkshire Wartime Experience 12-14 August
The Yorkshire Wartime Experience, now in its 11th year, is regarded as the North’s premier and largest military vehicle and re-enactment show.
As You Like It 17 August
Just outside of Bradford at East Riddlesden Hall, watch As You Like It under the stars. Take a chair and a picnic and enjoy the sparkling famous comedy, performed outdoors against the dramatic backdrop of the beautiful historic hall.