At first glance NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE may appear to be just another northern industrial conurbation, but the city has a longer history and a greater breadth of attractions than many of its rivals. An extraordinary revival has seen Newcastle emerge as a vibrant European arts and nightlife destination. Its city centre has been transformed, particularly along the banks of the River Tyne, where the famous bridges link the Newcastle and Gateshead districts. On Gateshead Quays are the BALTIC contemporary arts centre and Norman Foster's Sage music centre, while Newcastle's Quayside is scene of much of the city's contemporary nightlife.
In October, Europe's biggest half-marathon, the Great North Run, sees 50,000 competitors running across the Tyne Bridge. Undoubted highlight is the New Year's Eve celebration on the Quayside, an exuberantly good-natured rival to the traditional gathering in London.
Tyneside and Newcastle's native inhabitants are known as Geordies, the word probably derived from a diminutive of the name "George". Geordies speak a largely impenetrable dialect and accent, heavily derived from Old English, and locals can derive hours of innocent amusement by asking tourists for a "tab" (cigarette), requesting directions to the nearest "nettie" (toilet) or confusing a female visitor with a non-gender-specific greeting ("haway man!"). Top drinking brew is, of course, Newcastle Brown – an ale known locally as "Dog" – produced in this city since 1927. Geordies evince a partisan pride in their city and an endearing, if self-delusional, optimism, most obviously manifested in their fanatical support for the perennially underachieving Newcastle United football team.
Newcastle is the unofficial capital of north-east England. A city of both tradition and innovation, where old and new comfortably co-exist, it inspires a fierce loyalty among its “Geordie” population. But it is a cosmopolitan place (famed for its hospitality), which has accepted many immigrant groups, and welcomed generations of students to its universities. Here is a look at some of central Newcastle's most notable areas.
Bigg Market - The area known as “the Bigg Market” actually comprises Bigg Market, Groat Market, and Cloth Market. The offices of the Newcastle's local newspapers are situated here. A small fruit and vegetable market operates three days a week in the recently prettified square, where wooden seating provides a welcome rest for shoppers. But it is after dark that the place really comes alive, offering the loudest, brashest, nightlife in the city. With 15 pubs you can have a pub crawl without walking more than a hundred yards. Takeaways selling pizzas, kebabs, Chinese food, and baked potatoes give ample opportunity for soaking up excess beverage. If you prefer to eat sitting down, choose Kentucky Fried Chicken or Pizza Hut. For something more formal there are Greek and Indian restaurants.
Grey Street - From its towering column, the statue of Earl Grey (who instituted major electoral reforms in the nineteenth century, but is probably best remembered for the tea that bears his name) gazes along what former Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman once called the finest curved street in England. Although generally quieter than the bustling streets around it, it does have pubs, restaurants, cafes, and a few shops. It also boasts the Victorian splendour of the Theatre Royal , which is regularly visited by prestigious touring companies, most notably the Royal Shakespeare Company .
Haymarket - Adjacent to the main campuses of both universities, Haymarket understandably caters for students, with an academic bookshop (necessary evil), banks (for acquiring those overdrafts), takeaways (because students never cook), and an Oxfam shop (student heaven). Marks and Spencer is here, and also entrances to the Eldon Square and Eldon Garden shopping centres. There are several pubs here, most of them popular with students. Also in this area are the Newcastle Playhouse & Gulbenkian Studio Theatre , the Museum of Antiquities , and Haymarket Bus Station. The Hancock Museum is just around the corner.
Quayside - This is the oldest part of Newcastle, and was for many years in a state of decay. Recently, however, the decline has been reversed. Some of the old warehouses and residences (many dating back to the sixteenth century) have been converted into pubs, restaurants, and apartments without compromising the original architecture. Complementing the renovation there has been recent construction of hotels, offices, pubs, housing, and the Crown Court. Development continues, and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge now links the Quayside with the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art across the Tyne in Gateshead.
Every Sunday there is a street market , with stalls selling clothes, books, records, and much else. Perhaps less vibrant and varied than in former years, it is still worth a visit. Other attractions include the Live Theatre in Broad Chare which specialises in innovative productions, and Bessie Surtees House in Sandhill, a rare example of timber-framed Jacobean domestic architecture. But one of the nicest things to do at the Quayside is simply to stroll. There are broad paved areas fronting the river, with seating, and a number of intriguing sculptures to look at.
The area has very few shops, but with a couple of dozen pubs, varying from the trendy to the traditional, four night clubs, a handful of hotels, and more than twenty restaurants offering various cuisines and spanning the spectrum from the affordable to the exclusive, the Quayside is the place for anything from a quiet business lunch to a noisy Saturday night out.
Stowell Street - Newcastle's Chinatown, where even the litter bins and telephone kiosks resemble pagodas. With more than fifteen varied restaurants and an express takeaway, there should be something here to suit all palates and all pockets. There is also a Chinese supermarket, a craft shop that offers advice on Feng Shui, a couple of oriental herbalists, and the offices of the North East Chinese Association. Chinese New Year is marked with colourful parades featuring dragon dances.
From burger and fries with the kids, to a cordon bleu meal in a top restaurant—from a quiet drink in a traditional pub, to a loud as your eardrums can stand experience in a heaving fun pub—if you want an evening out eating or drinking, then Newcastle city centre has the lot.
If you are looking for a meal that is quick and simple, then the usual burger, chicken, and pizza franchises are represented, as well as traditional fish & chip restaurants, and fast food takeaways. But if you want something more formal, then many types and nationalities of cuisine are on offer in the city.
Chinese restaurants are mainly concentrated in Stowell Street, Newcastle's China Town, and with fifteen outlets varying in style and price there is bound to be something to suit everyone. However, there are a number of other Chinese restaurants around the city which are also worth a visit, such as the highly regarded Waterside Palace in Forth Banks.
Many of the city's Italian restaurants are to be found in the Quayside and Dean Street areas, although once again there are others elsewhere. The whole spectrum is covered, from inexpensive pizzerias like Don Vito's , to more upmarket cuisine in restaurants like the Ristorante Roma .
There are many Indian restaurants covering all the varying traditions of sub-continental cuisine. Among the most highly rated are Sachin's in Forth Banks (a little difficult to find, but worth the effort), and Asha Raval , and Vujon in Queen Street just behind the Quayside.
Many other tastes are catered for with restaurants serving food from Mongolia, Japan, Mexico, America, Spain, Greece, Thailand, France, and of course Britain, and others specialising in such things as seafood and vegetarian food.
There are a number of bistros, brasseries, diners, and cafes, offering everything from a cup of cappuccino to a three-course dinner. Most of the city's pubs also serve food, some just at lunchtime, and some all day, many having fairly extensive menus which offer much more than simple snacks.
For a night out drinking there are three main party areas to head for: the Quayside, Bigg Market, and Haymarket.
The Quayside, and the area around it, contains dozens of pubs and restaurants. The variety of drinking experiences is huge; from a genuine old-fashioned pub like the Crown Posada , to modern, so-called lifestyle bars like Chase , and Pitcher & Piano . The area is popular with locals, students, and tourists alike. Drinks prices are on average greater than in other parts of the city. Be prepared to queue to get into certain bars at busy times.
If you like your pubs loud, brash, and in your face, then the Bigg Market is the place to head for. With fifteen pubs and several restaurants and fast food outlets in a small area you do not need to walk far to have a good night. Most of the pubs have very loud music, and some feature live DJs. Liquid is probably the loudest, Yel the liveliest, and places like Bewicks and the Old George offer a slightly more sedate experience. As with the Quayside, be prepared to queue at busy times.
Haymarket is especially popular with students, being close to both of the city's universities. There are fewer pubs than in the Bigg Market and the Quayside, and they are more spread out. There are theme bars, such as Bar Oz , and the Cajun and Creole bar and restaurant Old Orleans .
If you are looking for cheaper beer, then the area around the central station is worth a visit. The JD Wetherspoon pub at the Union Rooms is the cheapest place in the city centre overall, and Yates Wine Lodge just around the corner has selected cheap beers at all times. Places like the Forth Hotel , the Head of Steam , and the Bridge Hotel all have unique characters and attract loyal regulars.
Many areas outside the city centre have lively drinking and dining scenes. Gosforth High Street, and Whitley Bay are two of the most notable.
A couple of years ago Newcastle was declared to be the eighth best party city in the world. Try it. Find out why.
Okay, it's 9:30a and here you are—The Newcastle Quayside. Beneath the famous Tyne Bridge and a good way downhill from the majestic Castle Garth . Only a few hours ago this place was pulsating with light and colour, and packed with people enjoying themselves. Now daylight's here it's a different world. And as the museum's and attractions open up for another day's business, it's time for an investigation of the history behind the eighth best party city on the planet. What of the centuries of progress that made all this fun possible?
Well, for starters there was the coal-exporting industry that Newcastle is still very much associated with. The city thrived on this business between the 13th and 17th centuries, and Quayside was the hub, the heart of the both the city and the region. Not the absolute beginning of Newcastle's entries into history, but an awe-inspiring fact nevertheless. Imagine how many ships must have sailed from this port over those 150,000 days. But more on that shortly.
From here, the best place to go would be Castle Garth , the (ironically very old) 'new castle' that gave the city its name. Since there's an interesting distraction on the way, a good route to take would be via Sandhill. This area is to be found just off the Quayside, in the stretch between the Tyne Bridge and the smaller red-and-white Swing Bridge. Here are some of the oldest remaining houses in the city; former homes of wealthy merchants, built between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries.
Bessie Surtees House is the most interesting because it's the site of a romantic elopement. Here, in 1772, banker's daughter Bessie escaped from a first floor window to marry John Scott, a young suitor of lesser social standing from whom her family had tried to steer her away. Bessie Surtees House now consists of two 16th and 17th-century houses joined together. Admission is free, but while the inside of the building holds architectural interest, the window itself is in any case visible from the street, and distinguished by a blue pane of glass.
Keep going uphill from here and you'll find yourself making your way up a street called Side, which leads you to St Nicholas' Street, conveniently marked by St Nicholas Cathedral . Turn left and you should find the castle easily enough.
Castle Garth is Newcastle's oldest landmark, founded as a fortified enclosure in 1080 by Robert Curthose, son of William the Conqueror. The structure itself was not rebuilt in stone until the late 12th / early 13th century. Added to the site were the Castle Keep (with storeroom, chapel, and accommodation suites), a gatehouse, and an enclosing wall. The site has undergone many alterations and restorations over the centuries - it was considered derelict at the end of the 19th century—and it's well worth the admission price of 1.50 pounds (or 50p for children, OAPs, students and people out of work) to see one of the city's most important spots. Not only that, but you can go up on the roof and see the city, river and bridges from a once-privileged perspective.
But it's getting on for, say, 11a, and you can't hang around here all day. Time to make your way back down to Quayside to check out the Trinity Maritime Centre . Couldn't I have gone there first? I hear you ask. The answer is no. The centre doesn't open until 11a.
To find the place, walk to the east side of the Tyne Bridge (i.e. - if you face the river, the bridge should be on your right), and then look for a street called Broad Chare. Like Sandhill, this is just off Quayside. Again, admission is 1.50 pounds, or 80p concessionary. But again it's worth it, because here you'll find out all about the area's maritime history. The museum boasts an array of minutely detailed model ships, as well as a scale model of the Quayside itself, as it was in 1772; which, perhaps, will help you visualise the night of Bessie's elopement that bit better!
Back uphill, I'm afraid. Return to the castle, and then make your way up Neville Street to the entrance of the Central Station. It's probably a little bit after noon by now, and time for some refreshment. Across the road from the station is the entrance to Grainger Street, a long road full of shops. On Grainger Street you will find the People's Museum of Memorabilia. Admission here is free, and the museum takes the form of a re-created selection of olde-fashioned thatched cottages, shops and alleyways, as well as housing displays and exhibitions of objects of interest from the region, and no less than sixteen antique shops. Also to be found on this site is 'Wor Kate's Pantry', a tearoom based on the characters of the late, prolific local author Catherine Cookson. An evocative homemade meal can be enjoyed here. Alternatively, there are several other fast food restaurants on the street.
If you're in the mood for another free museum after your meal, head back to the Central Station and then walk (or take a cab) up Neville Street, past Saint Mary's Cathedral, to Westmorland Road. Head past the intersecting Blenheim Street and you'll find Blandford Square, and the Discovery Museum . This is a good place to visit if you have kids, as there's a 'Science Factory' section with plasma balls, voice distortion activities, and computer interactives, as well as an exhibit about the history of fashion. Of local historical interest, this museum has its own Maritime Gallery, and displays the restored Turbinia ship; the first to be powered by steam turbine, built on the Tyne in 1894. In addition there's the People's Gallery, which exhibits many works created by local community groups over the years.
It's probably around 2.30p by now. Time to return to the city centre to see the fruits of another of the city's most important periods.
Via Grainger Street, you can reach Grey's Monument . This column-and-statue serves not only as a commemoration of the Prime Minister who championed the Great Reform Bill of 1832 (and gave his name to a well-known brand of posh tea), but also of the massive development of Newcastle that began at around that time. The architects John Dobson and Richard Grainger designed streets and streets of classical buildings, all of which are still standing today, and the Monument remains one of the best vantage points from which to appreciate it all.
Amazingly, most of the city centre—Grainger Street, Grey Street, Hood Street, Clayton Street, Shakespeare Street, Nun Street and more—was built within ten years. Since most of these buildings now have shop fronts on their ground floor, you can appreciate the sense of history while purchasing any groceries you might need. While in the city centre, you should visit the Grainger Market , opened in 1835. A highlight here is the Victorian 'Marks & Spencer Original Penny Bazaar', the only surviving example of a store of its type. When originally opened, all goods in the shops cost a penny each. Nowadays they cost a little bit more, and the shop is run as a department of Newcastle's much larger Marks and Spencer branch. It's worth seeing if quaint retail is your bag.
But enough of this consumerism! What of culture?
Just nearby is the Laing Art Gallery . Admission is free—though certain exhibits inside are occasionally charged—and the gallery houses a varied collection of exhibits, including craftwork, sculpture, and costumes, as well as the large range of paintings that you'd expect of the city's main art gallery. As with most galleries, exhibits change periodically. However, there is a permanent display entitled 'Art on Tyneside', which takes you through the regions past. The Laing also offers a children's gallery designed specifically for tots under 5. Art lovers may be particularly interested to know that the gallery also has a Gaugin permanently on display.
It's probably getting fairly late in the afternoon by now, but hopefully—if it's not yet 5.30p—there'll still be time to stop off at Blackfriars for a half-hour of tranquility. Blackfriar's is a medieval friary, built in the thirteenth century and restored towards the end of the twentieth. It is fairly close to the city centre, but how you get there depends on where you're starting. If you're heading there straight from the Laing, best to make your way back to Grey's Monument and then down Grainger Street again. Head right at the intersection with Newgate Street, then wait until you come across Low Friar St. The friary is easy to find from here.
Blackfriar's, of course, was built as a monastery, but after the intervention of Henry VIII in 1539, the buildings were converted to meeting rooms and almshouses for the poor. Currently, Blackfriar's houses craft workshops and galleries, as well as a 'Story of Newcastle' exhibition, which displays a range of scale models of Newcastle buildings. There's also Eclectic, a contemporary restaurant and the relaxing courtyard.
To cap off the day with a drink and perhaps a meal, head to the nearby Newgate Street and the impressive-looking Union Rooms . Here are three attractively decorated bars, including a 'food only' one after 6p. No kids, mind you.
Sit down, relax, and listen to the distant sounds of the surrounding 21st-century city as evening—party time!—approaches again.