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By Alex G
he good people of Rough Guides declared Newcastle the best place in the world to visit in 2018 and, I can assure you, not much has changed since then. It is a city you can walk all the way across in 15 minutes, but within whose confines you will find more to see and do than you would in far larger places: an exciting, enchanting mix of high culture, beautiful ancient buildings, brilliant shops and plenty of places to party.
Just a five-minute stroll from the station, there is nowhere better to begin your time in Newcastle than Grainger Town. The historic heart of the city is home to the Theatre Royal, Grey Street and, most importantly, Grainger Market. Opened in 1835, this Grade I-listed landmark was voted Britain's favourite market in the Great British Market Awards last year. Here, as well as the world’s smallest Marks & Spencer, you will find a foodie’s paradise, highlights of which include Pizza Slice and Pumphreys Coffee Centre & Brewing Emporium, which was founded in 1750.
Once you’re suitably refreshed and adequately fuelled for the day, you should head over the road to the Grade II*-listed Central Arcade: an Edwardian shopping centre built in 1837 and home to JG Windows, where music obsessives like myself will find myriad instruments and an incredible selection of sheet music, records and CDs. When you step back outside the Arcade, you’ll find yourself in the centre of town, in the shadow of Grey’s Monument (erected in tribute to Earl Grey, of prime ministerial – and of course tea – fame). The monument stands above a Metro station and at the top of the aforementioned Grey Street: a jewel in Newcastle’s crown that regularly receives accolades such as “Britain’s best street”
At the end of Grey Street, you will come to High Bridge: my favourite street in Newcastle, and where I spent the majority of my teenage years. Its cobbles are home to the city’s best record stores and vintage clothing outlets. Chief among the former is RPM Music (supplying CDs and records to the city for over 30 years), while in terms of the latter, Baltic 39 (an outpost of the Baltic Mill – more on which shortly), Union Clothing (an independent menswear store specialising in denim and workwear) and Retro Clothing are just a few of the spots that are worth a visit.
Fancy a bit of culture? High Bridge is also home to The Stand Comedy Club, which always has something interesting on (during the summer last year, they even managed to put on some Covid-secure shows in the courtyard, with the likes of Kevin Bridges, Daniel Sloss and Omid Djalili all turning up). Five minutes away is the Laing Art Gallery, where you’ll discover an impressive permanent collection featuring works by Henry Moore, Paul Gauguin and Edward Burne-Jones. It also hosts many excellent touring exhibitions.
Early evening is the perfect time to hop in a taxi for ten minutes and head east out of the city centre to the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle’s creative and cultural quarter, which is home to dozens of artists’ studios, galleries, music venues, cosy restaurants and countless pubs. One such restaurant is Cook House, where you can enjoy a regularly changing, seasonal bistro menu and cosy atmosphere.
Just round the corner from the Cook House is The Cluny: perhaps Newcastle’s finest and most impressively located music venue. The former flax mill is a must-visit if live music is your thing – Arctic Monkeys and local boys The Futureheads are just two of the bands to have graced its stage – so be sure to keep an eye out for any gigs on here during your visit. Then, if you fancy a late-night stroll, you can take the 30-minute walk upstream along the Ouseburn. Here sits Jesmond Dene – a tranquil haven and slice of the countryside just outside of the city centre. Occupying a narrow, wooded valley, the peaceful park is full of interesting features, including waterfalls and natural pools.
Day two of your visit should begin bright and early, with a walk down to the Quayside for the Sunday market, where you’ll find independent retailers selling everything from jewellery and accessories to artwork, ceramics, clothing, toys and handmade crafts. Alternatively, if pancakes and eggs are more your thing, then be sure to check out Quay Ingredient, a friendly little coffee house that’s tucked under the Tyne Bridge.
Next, cross the Millennium Bridge (aka the Winking Eye) and breathe in that fresh Tyne air. You’ve technically just left Newcastle and entered Gateshead, and will soon find yourself at the bottom of a looming former flour mill, now the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. There’s always an interesting exhibition on, but if that isn’t your cup of tea then head to the observation deck for the best view of the Toon for miles, including all seven – yes, seven – bridges. Oh, and make sure you exit through the gift shop for some northern-themed treats.
While you’re over the bridge, stop by the incredible looking Sage – a stunning centre for culture and music that’s home to the Royal Northern Sinfonia chamber orchestra, and over the years has played host to both bona fide legends such as James Brown and Nancy Sinatra. Even if there isn’t a concert on, it’s worth it for the architecture alone. Back over the bridge and on a similar tip is the Side Gallery and Cinema, a brilliant photography gallery that opened in 1977.
By now, you must have worked up an appetite. So visit the Bridge Tavern, a little-known gem straddled by the Tyne Bridge that serves up local, seasonal cuisine and a selection of local brews (I’d recommend Hickey the Rake or Jakehead IPA from Wylam Brewery). And if you want more drinks after dinner – which, of course, you do – then stop by Dean Street on your way back into town and find a seat at the Crown Posada – one of Newcastle’s oldest and liveliest pubs, which has been pulling pints for 230 years. I’m pretty sure you’ll want to stay here for a while, but if you do end up with a few minutes to kill before your train takes you home, then Pink Lane Coffee is tucked away on a quiet little street opposite Central Station.
You could call Newcastle the smallest big city in the UK, and it’s as good a destination for culture enthusiasts and history buffs as it is for party people.
By Alex G