An alternative guide to Sheffield: a crucible for left-field culture and regeneration | Sheffield holidays

“There’s a lot of confidence in Sheffield these days,” says James O’Hara, one of the city’s leading cultural promoters. “It feels like we’re on the cusp of a new era.”

It’s a refrain you hear a lot in Sheffield today. Sprawled across five valleys in the foothills of the Peak District, this former steelmaking world capital, and birthplace of Arctic Monkeys, Pulp, Human League and Warp Records, has long been a cultural heavy hitter. Yet as key city centre developments such as the vast new Cambridge Street Collective food hall open their doors, a rejuvenated urban landscape is emerging. Green corridors and innovative parks wind their way round reclaimed brutalist buildings; fluid sculptures echo the city’s wiggly contoured topography and the flow of its rivers. There are areas of the city yet to be reached, but Sheffield’s vision for its post-industrial afterlife proudly leans into what makes the city distinctive.

The Park Hill housing estate, which features in Sheffield-made musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Photograph: Daniel Allen/Alamy

The once reviled, now renovated Park Hill housing estate stars in the Sheffield-made musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge, currently being staged in London’s West End. The neglected former industrial heartland of Kelham Island – which prompted George Orwell to describe Sheffield as “the ugliest town in the Old World”, and inspired the Arctic Monkeys’ When the Sun Goes Down – now makes “coolest neighbourhoods on the planet” lists.

Home to the UK’s largest documentary festival, the city has a jam-packed calendar of events and supports a vibrant grassroots arts and music scene, too. Though the cost of living crisis is bringing new challenges, the city’s gritty determination is as alive as ever. As Richard Henderson, owner of grassroots-minded music venue the Dorothy Pax, says: “We’ve faced many challenges as a community and a city, from the miners’ strike to the loss of steel industry jobs. We pull together and keep going.”

Nightlife

The grassroots-minded music venue Dorothy Pax. Photograph: Carey Davies

Sheffield’s industrial DNA is closely linked to its history of producing great offbeat electronic music, and the city’s echoing ex-industrial spaces continue to inspire. Hope Works is a former munitions factory that now hosts thumping raves and forward-thinking electronica sets, while nomadic underground nights such as Kabal – where Toddla T cut his teeth as a young DJ – stage clandestine parties in old cutlery works and other unusual spots. “I went to one in an abattoir once,” recalls O’Hara.

The No Bounds festival (11-13 October), the brainchild of Hope Works founder Liam O’Shea, commandeers a host of venues across the city for a festival of electronica, left-field dance and installation art; Sheffield’s answer to Sónar. If you fancy a taste of Sheffield’s rave scene but the “all-nighter in an abattoir” vibe isn’t for you, Groundwork, a monthly home-by-midnight party held in the upstairs of the excellent Shakespeares pub, offers a very Sheffield combination of real ale and rave.

The city’s passion for live music and performance is vividly evident within its strong network of independent venues. Big-name production and performance complex Yellow Arch in Kelham Island hosts an eclectic array of gigs from hardcore to hip-hop. The Dorothy Pax, nestled next to Victoria Quays, stages a similarly genre-hopping range of free gigs with an emphasis on local talent. DIY record label Delicious Clam has a base in Castlegate, but also stages wacky parties in venues across the city, such as the psychedelic cabaret night Clams in Their Eyes.

Tramlines (26-28 July) was started by O’Hara and his colleagues in 2009 as a free, alternative-leaning festival across a host of city centre venues. It has since burgeoned into a big £140 per ticket event in Hillsborough Park, but its “original” spirit endures in the Fringe at Tramlines, a constellation of free gigs held in Devonshire Green and a host of smaller venues across the city. Sheffield lacks a LGBTQ+ area like Manchester’s Canal Street or Leeds’s Lower Briggate, but the queer-led collective Gut Level, based in a community space on Chapel Walk, hosts a wide range of events, from club nights to board game evenings.

Culture

The Crucible and Lyceum theatres in the city centre. Photograph: Christopher Watson/Alamy

Sheffield DocFest (12-17 June), based in the Showroom Cinema, is Britain’s biggest documentary festival. This year’s lineup totals 109 films, including Tilda Swinton’s directorial debut, as well as talks by the likes of Idris Elba and Michael Sheen, parties and art installations. The public programme runs a huge geographical and thematic gamut: “We are a home for documentary in all of its forms,” says festival director Annabel Grundy. “For us it just needs to be a compelling story.”

Despite the sprinkle of Hollywood stardust, DocFest remains grounded in a collaborative, welcoming ethos that reflects the values of its home city: “We can have A-listers on the dancefloor at one of our parties with first-time film-makers,” says Grundy. The Open Up Sheffield festival, usually held in May, has a similarly democratic spirit, with artists across the city inviting the public into their studios and homes. Sheffield became the UK’s first City of Sanctuary in 2005, and the Migration Matters festival (14-22 June) explores cultural identity and forced displacement.

The Crucible, the Playhouse and the Lyceum together form the biggest theatre complex in Britain outside London. Standing at the Sky’s Edge was originally a Crucible creation, and while it is on a sojourn down south, upcoming original productions include adaptations of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Jonathan Dove’s community opera The Monster in the Maze.

Food

The Cambridge Street Collective – ‘a buzzing culinary melting pot’. Photograph: Riccardo Cenci

The flagship project of the current £470m overhaul of the city centre, Cambridge Street Collective pulls together traders from across Sheffield’s diverse patchwork of communities into a buzzy culinary melting pot. I tried a vegetarian platter from Ethiopian and Eritrean trader House of Habesha (spicy stews served on a spongy, slightly sour injera flatbread, made with teff flour which owner Samson Yitbarek imports from Ethiopia). Not far away, the decade-old Moor Market is a cornucopia of global produce, with its own great little food court during the day.

Spices and dips at the Cambridge Street Collective. Photograph: Riccardo Cenci

Sheffield’s foodie scene has undergone a transformation in the last decade or so, much of which has been driven from within the Kelham Island and Neepsend area, where hipness and history rub along in interesting ways. The excellent Kelham Island food tour, run by Sheffield local Sophie Barber, gives an insight into the industrial heritage of the area while sampling some of its best offerings, including superb Japanese restaurant Roku and artisan chocolate makers Bullion at the Cutlery Works food hall.

Sardinian restaurant Domo is not on the tour but is well worth a visit: Barber praises it for its pecorino-stuffed, honey-drizzled pastries and “beautiful decor”. Not far away, the Michelin-mentioned Jöro – housed within the Krynkl shipping container development, though set to move out to Oughtibridge in the autumn – serves loosely Asian and Nordic-inspired fusion food in very stylish yet homely surroundings.

In the city centre, the Neapolitan-run – and SSC Napoli-obsessed – Caffè Tucci serves chunky paninis made with imported ingredients such as nduja, burrata and mortadella; a great lunch spot. Still on the southern Italian theme, Grazie is a good bet for an evening meal. Out in the leafy suburb of Nether Edge, combined wine bistro/bar/bakery/bottle shop Bench is generating a lot of foodie buzz.

Drink

The ‘brutalist-pastel-minimalist’ Pearl bar, in the Park Hill flats complex. Photograph: Carey Davies

Sheffield has an embarrassment of great breweries and fine old pubs. As Barber explains: “Beer was the fuel of industry, and a lot of pubs and breweries from the steel-making days have survived.

The Kelham beer tour loops together several of these excellent old-school watering holes, such as the Camra-acclaimed Kelham Island Tavern, The Fat Cat, Shakespeares, and the restored Victorian pub the Millowners Arms, but also incorporates craft beer places such as the Heist brewery and taproom. There are many excellent pubs across the rest of the city. Great Irish pub Fagan’s is one of the city’s landmarks and the Rutland Arms near the Showroom is another personal favourite – an old-school boozer for proud pinkos, punks and creative types that also does excellent food.

Back in Kelham Island, the intriguing “drip infusion” cocktail bar Factory Floor is worth checking out (I recommend Drip 4, where Skyy vodka is dripped through lychee and red-veined sorrel leaves and garnished with hibiscus flowers). In the city centre, Public is housed in an old gents’ public toilet beneath the town hall and its epic menu offers innovative, eyebrow-raising combinations involving things such as toasted cornflakes (it actually works). Over in the regenerated Park Hill flats complex – a short and pleasantly green walk uphill from the train station with great views across the city – the brutalist-pastel-minimalist Pearl is a great place to have a drink on a sunny day and feel cool, while the nearby South Street Kitchen does speciality coffee and Lebanese-inspired food.

Stay

Houseboat Hotels at Victoria Quays. Photograph: Sam McQueen

Houseboat Hotels is one of the most characterful options in the city centre, offering well equipped and fully heated apartment-style accommodation on permanently moored, static houseboats in Victoria Quays. Each boat is individually designed and has its own outside seating area and sleeps up to four. From £130 a night for two (£190 for four).

House of Jöro near Kelham Island offers four snug boutique rooms cut from a similarly stylish cloth to the restaurant it accompanies. B&B is available from £100 a night, but packages include express or signature tasting menus at the restaurant along with a gourmet breakfast from £250.

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