Leicester was thrust into the spotlight in 2015 when it was discovered to be the final resting place of the former King of England, Richard III. His remains were unearthed on the grounds of an otherwise innocuous carpark, making him one of the few monarchs to be buried outside London or Windsor.
It was a historical quirk that took the city – and nation – by surprise. When it comes to UK destinations, Leicester is not typically at the forefront of people’s minds. Nonetheless, its unlikely royal legacy offered a glimpse into the city’s rich heritage that even extends to it being claimed as the birthplace of British tourism. In 1841, Thomas Cook, founder of the famous travel agency, chartered a train to carry people from Leicester to Loughborough. It was an epochal moment for a nascent industry.
Today, Leicester remains an understated city, albeit one that is lent a degree of youthful vigour by its university population. Those who visit tend to lap up its abundance of countryside – the county of Leicestershire being one of Britain’s most verdant. City attractions are plentiful, too, and below we pick out some of the best.
1. Leicester Space Centre
There’s few things that capture the imagination more than space travel. An alluring subject to young and old, it is the earthly environs of Leicester where our fascination is celebrated most expansively at the UK’s largest attraction dedicated to space – the National Space Centre. As you’d expect from its size, there’s enough here to keep you entertained for days, including a vast planetarium where visitors are immersed in a 360 degree fulldome show, six interactive galleries, a Rocket Tower, and a 3D simulated journey to the ice moon Europa. If your kids didn’t want to be astronauts before their visit, then you’d better get saving for that NASA scholarship sharpish.
2. Gorse Hill City Farm
A timeless favourite with families keen to introduce their children to the wonders of the animal kingdom in a fun, secure and educational environment, you can’t go far wrong with a trip to a working farm. Happily, Leicester is home to one of the area’s most popular, where over 100 different types of animals are kept. But more than just smallholding, Gorse Hill City Farm is also a fully functioning community project offering school visits, work experience placements and the opportunity to volunteer. The farm is also fully approved by the ‘Rare Breed Survival Trust, allowing it to house a variety of lesser known animal breeds. So if you want to look smart in front of your kids, you’d be wise to look up the difference between a Leicester Longwool and a Herdwick sheep ahead of your visit.
3. Let’s Dance International Frontiers
If you find yourself in Leicester this May – a city with burgeoning reputation for creativity and diversity – you might want to hot-foot it along to the Let’s Dance International Frontiers festival. Returning for its sixth year and taking place over 10 days, this event showcases the best in cutting-edge dance from the UK and beyond, featuring dancers of both the emerging and established variety. This year’s programme includes the ground-breaking performance ensemble Urban Bush Women, a conference titled ‘Black Women in Dance’, and the UK debut of award-winning dancer and choreographer Kyle Abraham. So if you are in town and think the rhythm is gonna get you, you’d better get some tickets.
4. Leicester Carnival
It may not have quite the same profile as its Rio or Notting Hill counterparts, but the Leicester Caribbean Carnival is treated with no less enthusiasm by the thousands of revellers who gather for the event each year. Held in Victoria Park and across the city centre, the theme for 2016 is “Carnival – Mas, Music & Myths” and will once again celebrate Leicester’s diverse cultures – but with a Caribbean twist. The highlight of the programme is invariably the Carnival Day Parade, which sees a colourful troupe of costumed bands make their way through the city streets. Participants are drawn from local sports clubs, dance groups and community associations, while bands from across the UK also take part.
5. Phoenix Cinema and Art Centre
In a world where everyone’s connected at all times and demand for multi-media experiences is ever growing, there’s increasing pressure on cultural institutions to keep with the pace. In Leicester, one particular venue has done even better and stayed ahead of the field. Its name is Phoenix, an ultra-modern film and digital media venue, offering a mix of mainstream film releases, live theatre broadcasts, arthouse and world cinema. Positioned at the very epicentre of Leicester’s cultural life, it is also both a platform and breeding ground for talent. It hosts a regularly changing art programme presenting work by local and international artists, several festivals throughout the year, and workshops helping people of all ages to learn about, and create, their own film and art. There’s also a café bar to kick back and unwind.
6. Colour Blast Dash
Cleanliness freaks need not apply, but if you’re seeking a fun and active experience in Leicester and don’t mind getting messy then this could be an attractive proposition. One of several such events that takes place across the Midlands each year, Colour Blast Dash comprises a 5k race (for ages 10 and above) and 2.5k race (for ages 4 and above) around a park, during which participants are blasted with a kaleidoscope of coloured powders, paint and foam as they run. Pop music and live dance performances help to keep runners motivated and spectators entertained. All proceeds from Colour Blast Dash are donated to The Laura Centre, which supports people dealing with loss and family bereavement.
7. Abbey Pumping Station
Memorials to Britain’s industrial golden age are dotted across the nation and one of the finest can be found in the heart of Leicester at the Museum of Science and Technology. Located in a grand Victorian building, it is here that the Abbey Pumping Station tells the story of the time when it pumped the city’s sewage to the treatment works at Beaumont Leys. The building closed as a pumping station in 1964, but visitors today are thrust back in time thanks to the fascinating exhibits and artifacts housed here. The museum itself also features exhibitions on light and optics, historic transport and public health.
8. Curve Theatre
Normally the performing arts pride themselves on appearing seamless, with months of rehearsals coming to fruition on show night. But at Curve theatre, they do things a little differently. Nestled in the heart of Leicester’s Cultural Quarter, Curve offers a unique visitor experience by shunning many of the standard features of theatre. There’s no backstage area, while audiences can gain access to the full theatre making process, including peaks behind the stage as actors prepare for their performance. There’s also a strong educational component to Curve, with their mission statement to enable “people of all ages and backgrounds to access, participate in and learn from the arts.” It also hosts the Inside Out Festival that provides a platform for local artists.
9. Leicester International Music Festival
Classical music is often considered an elitist pursuit, but each year Leicester plays its part in introducing it to the masses. The dulcet tones of the world’s finest musicians and composers are celebrated at the city’s annual International Music Festival, which takes place at the exquisite Victorian Art Gallery at Leicester’s New Walk Museum each September. Founded in 1989 by musician Graham Oppenheimer, who left in 2002, the event has grown exponentially and now attracts regional, national and international recognition for the high quality of its musical performances and for the world-class artists taking part. The 2016 Festival which runs from September 15th to 17th, is called “Landscapes” and features music by British composers, Elgar, Delius, Huw Watkins, York Bowen, Vaughan Williams, Lennox Berkeley, Leighton, Michael Berkeley, Mark Simpson, Rebecca Clark and James Macmillan, as well as overseas talent including Marina Chiche, Giovanni Guzzo, Philip Dukes, Guy Johnston, Chen Halevi, Nicholas Daniel, Charles Owen, Katya Apekisheva and the Carducci String Quartet.
10. National Gas Museum
Remember Grandma’s old gas fire? Cooking on that solid old oven? Or even gas lights in your caravan? You can see these and many other historic treasures from the world of gas at Britain’s National Gas Museum. Housed in the Victorian gateway of the original Aylestone Road gas works, the world’s largest and most significant gas history collection allows visitors to discover the story of gas, see vintage working gas lights, learn how gas was made from coal to light the nation’s streets, homes and factories during Victorian times, and discover weird and wonderful gas gadgets like the gas radio and the gas hair-dryer. To use an old British idiom, it’ll be…a gas!