Up to the 1980s coalmining was the backbone of this city in West Yorkshire.
The landscape had been mined since the 15th century, around the time Wakefield witnessed a decisive battle during the Wars of the Roses.
The open cast collieries that used to scar the countryside have been flooded and turned into nature reserves and parks, while the Caphouse Colliery is now England’s National Coal Mining Museum.
It just so happened that two of England’s greatest artists, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore were born around Wakefield within a few years of each other.
You can appreciate their Modernist sculptures at the fabulous Hepworth gallery and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Wakefield:
1. The Hepworth
Opened on the River Calder in 2011 this acclaimed art gallery was designed by David Chipperfield and won UK Museum of the Year in 2017. The Hepworth showcases Wakefield’s first-class art collection.
Central to that are masterpieces by Henry Moore and of course, Barbara Hepworth whose family donated 44 aluminium and plaster working models to the gallery.
Other luminaries of British art are also represented like Paul Nash, Walter Sickert, Anthony Caro and Ben Nicholson.
At any time there are up to seven temporary exhibitions at the Hepworth, and they’re almost always free.
In 2018 the must-sees were the surrealist photography of Lee Miller, and a show for the contemporary Dutch artist Viviane Sassen.
2. National Coal Mining Museum for England
After the Caphouse Colliery closed in 1985 it found a new lease of life as a museum about the history of mining in England.
This mine was sunk in the 1770s and was the last deep coalmine in the country when it shut down.
Building and machinery like the coal screening plant, boiler house, steam winding house and pit head baths are all in situ.
Guided by an ex-miner with fascinating anecdotes, you’ll put on a hardhat and go 140 metres underground, and get to ride on a paddy train and see the ponies that were bred to work in the mines.
Being a national museum, there are exhibitions about the industrial and social history of coalmining across England at the visitor centre.
3. Yorkshire Sculpture Park
In the grounds of Bretton Hall is a world-class and ever changing exhibition of modern and contemporary sculpture.
Billed as the UK’s leading outdoor gallery, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s collection is partly made up of works that featured at temporary exhibitions in London parks from the 40s to the 70s.
Among them are several pieces by Henry Moore, forming one of the largest collections of his bronzes in Europe.
There are also sculptures by the likes of Barbara Hepworth, Ai Weiwei, Jaume Plensa, Joan Miró and short-term exhibitions that tend to focus on individual 20th-century sculptors like Eduardo Paolozzi Lynn Chadwick and Phillip King.
Fine 18th-century monuments from the estate are scattered around the park and there are also indoor exhibitions at the modern Longside Gallery and the restored St Bartholomew’s Chapel from 1744.
4. Nostell Priory and Parkland
On the site of a dissolved Medieval priory, this lavish Palladian house was designed by James Paine and Robert Adam as a statement of wealth for the Winn family.
The house was begun in 1733 and enhanced by successive generations of the family, each keen to project a message about their power and social status.
This has left us with an amazing National Trust property, with jaw-dropping Rococo and Neoclassical plasterwork, Chippendale furniture and art by Pieter Breughel the Younger, Hans Holbein the Younger and Hugh Douglas Hamilton.
There’s also a precious longcase clock by the era-defining 18th-century inventor John Harrison.
Outsider are 300 acres of parkland, woven with lakeside and meadow trails, and dotted with monuments like the Obelisk Lodge and Druid’s Bridge.
In Robert Adam’s stable block are the estate’s visitor centre and Courtyard Cafe.
5. Wakefield Cathedral
At 75 metres Wakefield Cathedral’s spire is the highest in Yorkshire.
Constructed on top of a Saxon church, the cathedral has lots of original Medieval design, from Norman to Perpendicular Gothic.
Between 1858 and 1874 the Victorian master restorer George Gilbert Scott and his son John Oldrid Scott regenerated the building after more than a hundred years of disuse.
It’s not hard to find the oldest parts: the wall of the north aisle goes back to the mid 12th century, the same period as the piers in the nave, which support Gothic arches from the 13th century.
Overhead, cast your gaze up to the wooden coffered 15th-century ceiling, adorned with ornately carved bosses.
The choir stalls are also 15th-century and have 11 misericords with outlandish mythical beasts and a Green Man.
6. Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin
The oldest and finest example of just four surviving bridge chapels in England, this stunning monument dates to 1356. The chapel is built from sandstone on a small island on the Calder, along a nine-arched bridge completed in the same year.
The main facade is made up of five exuberantly carved panels, representing the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Ghost.
You can only get inside on special open days, but if you’re one of the lucky few you’ll get to admire the stained glass windows, restored in 1847, and take the spiral stairway down to the sacristy and crypt.
7. Wakefield Museum
In 2013 the town museum moved into the new development at Wakefield One, and was officially opened by Sir David Attenborough.
The exhibitions here deal with different strands of the city’s past, like the War of the Roses in the 15th century, the local Rugby League club Wakefield Trinity and the 420-year story of Wakefield Prison.
There’s also a display for the Victorian naturalist Charles Waterton, including his collection of taxidermied animals, like a caiman he supposedly rode ashore in South America.
Some other obligatory pieces are the oldest post box in the country, dating to 1805, a 15th-century posy ring from Sandal Castle and the boots of Don Fox, the star player for Wakefield Trinity during the club’s most successful period on the 1960s.
8. Theatre Royal
Opened in 1894, Theatre Royal is Wakefield’s prime performing arts centre.
The building was designed by Frank Matcham, who conceived dozens of theatres across the country in this period.
Theatre Royal has the smallest auditorium of Matcham’s theatres still standing, and incorporates of an earlier theatre building.
The venue is both a producing and receiving theatre, putting on its own pantomimes in the Advent season, and with a creative director, John Godber, who has several awards under his belt.
There’s an diverse line-up of visiting musicals, plays, comedians and live music acts, so it’s a good idea to check the calendar before you come to Wakefield.
9. Newmillerdam Country Park
A calm spot for lakeside walks, Newmillerdam Country Park is a little way south of Wakefield city centre.
For centuries Newmillerdam was a noble estate owned by the Pilkington Family.
Their residence was eventually demolished because of subsidence in the 1960s, but a few buildings around the park are still here.
There are two lodges constructed for gamekeepers in the 19th century to deter poachers, as well as a fanciful Gothic Revival boathouse on the lake.
Spring is a fabulous time to visit the lake, when if you’re quiet and lucky you may see great crested grebes performing their courtship dance.
10. Pontefract Castle
Some way east but still within Wakefield’s city limits, Pontefract Castle had a fearsome reputation in Medieval times.
The castle was laid low in the Civil War in 1649 as it had been a Royalist stronghold and withstood a series of sieges.
But large pieces of the curtain wall are still standing, as well as the lower portions of the multi-lobed keep and the basement of the tower where Richard II was imprisoned at the end of the 14th century after being captured by his successor Henry Bollingbroke.
Richard is believed to have died at this place in 1400, most likely through starvation.
11. Pugneys Country Park
In 1985 the 300-acre site of an open cast coalmine and quarry in the south of Wakefield was renewed as a country park.
There are two lakes here, the larger of which is a watersports centre, and somewhere to come for canoeing, windsurfing or sailing, with equipment for hire.
The smaller lake is a 24-acre nature reserve, loved for its enormous flock of swans, with as many as 100 to be found at any time.
You can hire bikes by the hour, and there are barbecue pits and picnic areas for the summer.
For youngsters, Pugneys also has a miniature railway running around the banks of the larger lake on weekends.
12. Sandal Castle
The decayed vestiges of this Medieval castle dominate the east flank of Pugney’s Country Park.
Sandal Castle was founded at the start of the 12th century as a Norman motte and bailey.
The surviving stonework is from the 15th century when the castle had its most eventful years, during the Wars of the Roses.
In 1460 the pretender to the English throne Richard Plantagenet was killed close by at the Battle of Wakefield.
Shakespeare’s play, Henry VI part 3 is set at Sandal Castle during this period.
Richard Plantagenet’ son Richard III chose Sandal Castle as his northern base not long before he was famously killed at Bosworth Field in 1485. After Richard III’s death the castle fell into decline and its stone was quarried.
The ruins are very picturesque and have all-encompassing panoramas of the West Yorkshire countryside.
13. Waterton Countryside Discovery Centre
Four miles southeast of Wakefield city centre is a Green Flag country park around an large lake.
Waterton is the former site of the country’s deepest open cast coalmine, descending 76 metres.
On the lake’s banks you can venture through woodland, meadows and a wetland zone.
The Discovery Centre offers bike hire, information about the area and tea, coffee and light meals at the cafe.
The trails are set up with bird hides to spot the goldeneyes and widgeons that visit the lake in autumn.
14. Wakefield Trinity
Rugby League, as opposed to Rugby Union, is the second most popular sport in the North of England.
Nearly all the teams playing in the Super League, Rugby League’s top competition, are based in this part of the country.
In terms of style, Rugby League has a couple of things in common with American Football, one being that after a certain amount of tackles without scoring (six in Rugby League), the ball has to be handed over to the opposition.
The local team, Wakefield Trinity are nicknamed the Dreadnoughts and play at the 9,333-capacity Belle Vue stadium.
Trinity were big in Don Fox’s day in the 60s when they won most their league and Challenge Cup titles.
But without spending big money, they have a reputation for over-achievement and finished 5th in the Super League in 2017.
15. Food, Drink & Rhubarb Festival
On the last weekend in February the city centre’s streets are packed with street food stands and colourful market stalls for speciality food and drink.
This is all in honour of the vegetable, forced rhubarb.
Wakefield is the capital of a tranche of West Yorkshire countryside known as the Rhubarb Triangle.
The farmers producing early forced rhubarb here even have European Union PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status.
Head to the marquee tent, which holds cooking demonstrations showing what can be done with rhubarb, while during the event local cafes put rhubarb pie, cake and pudding on their menus.