Three times a week, Europe’s most powerful working steam engine, known as the River Don, chugs into action with a raucous clatter – a reminder of Sheffield’s glorious past.
It was built here in 1905, when the city led the world in iron and steel production – and ‘Made in Sheffield’ commanded the utmost respect.
Producing a massive 12,000 horsepower, the engine’s purpose for 73 years was to drive an armour plate rolling mill that supplied 40cm-thick steel to the shipbuilding industry – and, later, reactor shields and steel plate to North Sea oil rigs.
Nowadays, it’s the centrepiece of the Kelham Island Museum which charts the city’s rise from small village to industrial powerhouse. (Adult tickets from £6.82, U16s free).
Sheffield stills embraces its proud history, but is also a strikingly modern city with plenty to keep the kids happy on a break.
Premier League football fans nationwide are discovering it too, with Sheffield United – fittingly nicknamed the Blades – back in the top flight for the first time since 2007 and drawing full houses to Bramall Lane stadium.
We started our exploration of the city with a self-guided walking tour courtesy of Curious About Sheffield. For £7.49, you can download a map and instructions – or have one emailed to you – plus a fun quiz to keep you on your toes.
Our two-mile walk stretched from the cobbled Victoria Quays canal basin, packed with rows of narrowboats, past Sheffield’s grand cathedral and on to the iconic Grade I-listed Town Hall.
There we had fun spotting the ‘wall of fame’ pavement plaques bearing the names of Sheffield legends like Sean Bean, Michael Palin and Jarvis Cocker then watched the fountains tumble in the tranquil Peace Gardens alongside.
Handily, we were staying in a prime position at the Mercure Sheffield St Paul’s Hotel and Spa just next door with fantastic views of the hills beyond from our fifth-floor rooms.
It’s a beautiful area which also showcases Sheffield’s modern architecture, including the impressive and calming Winter Garden, Europe’s largest urban glasshouse and home to more than 2,500 plants
Back at the hotel, our large adjoining rooms gave us all a bit of space while giving husband Tim and I the security of knowing Max, 16, Rosie 14, and Freddie, 10, were close by.
The hotel spa’s indoor pool was also handy for our youngsters to let off steam.
When it comes to food and drink you’re spoiled for choice in Sheffield. We decided to try The Botanist, a lively restaurant in Leopold Square.
With its leafy green foliage and cascading ceiling lights it feels like a decadent Victorian conservatory. The menu is interesting and diverse, from wonderful hanging kebabs to tapas-style deli boards. And the kids’ menu was great value too at under £7.
The next day we couldn’t resist a drive out to see the only polar bears in England at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park in Doncaster, 45 minutes away (adult tickets from £16.50, child tickets from £14.40 when booked online).
Their four bears live in a vast 10-acre reserve without snow, designed to replicate their native tundra habitat in Canada.
They’re an amazing sight – you could watch them for hours as they amble around, occasionally taking a swim or cajoling each other to play.
Elsewhere we saw lions basking in sunshine, walked through a wallaby reserve, and climbed up elevated platforms to come face to face with giraffes.
We became transfixed by prowling tigers and playful primates and enjoyed rowdy shows about creepy crawlies. It’s a great day out for all ages. Back in Sheffield we were keen to explore further.
After buying a one-day Family Dayrider Gold ticket valid on both the bus and the city’s fabulous trams (just £12 for up to two adults and three children) we hopped on a tram to Paradise Island Adventure Golf in the Valley Centertainment leisure park.
There you can play both courses for £12.75 adult, £9.75 child. Show your tram ticket for 2-for-1 entry.
The courses, adorned with exotic carvings and palm trees, are great fun and have some tricky curved putting greens for an added test.
Later we caught a bus out to the Grade II-listed Botanical Gardens, home to acres of sweeping lawns, landscaped flower beds and stunning glass pavilions. Our favourite bit was the old brick bear pit.
For dinner we popped into the nearby Brocco Kitchen, a cool Nordic-themed restaurant in a boutique hotel called Brocco on the Park.
Diners choose from a smorgasbord of delicious small dishes then sit back and watch the chef prepare them in the open kitchen.
The plates all sounded so good it was hard to narrow them down – but we managed it.
Clearly much thought is put into creating an inventive menu and the food was exquisite – packed with flavour yet as tender as could be.
It was yet another reminder of the fun and fascinating time there is to be had on a city break in Sheffield. I’m sure we’ll find time to steal away back there one day.
Stay there: Rooms at the Mercure Sheffield St Paul’s Hotel and Spa cost from £104 a night on B&B. Families can book an interconnecting room for half price.
Tourist info: Find out more at Yorkshire.com.
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