The big idea

So, you’re expecting the industrial north, coals to Newcastle, etc? Well, you’d be wrong; this place is modern, beautiful and bursting with creativity. It’s a city willing to take architectural risks (and pulling them off); witness The Sage Gateshead (an architecturally stunning venue), the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, the High Level Bridge, Dunston Staithes.

And it’s a city that revels in its architectural past – there are some stunningly beautiful Georgian buildings here. But it’s also unrivalled for providing artists with a platform to express themselves on, with a huge number of public art installations, and has famously produced a plethora of TV, pop and sports stars. Must be something in the air…

Art for art’s sake

If you approach the city from the A1 (northbound) you can’t fail to be impressed by the iconic Angel of the North, an imposing sculpture and landmark of the area that helps set the tone for what you can expect from the city, because they really do appreciate their art in Newcastle.

There are galleries, installations and sculptures everywhere, from the Art on the Transport on the Metro light rail system, the Opening Line, the largest public artworks ever created in Britain, and numerous installations along the Quayside, to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art – one of the biggest temporary art spaces in Europe – and the Globe Gallery, one of the coolest art galleries around.

Throw in the Lit & Phil – the largest independent library outside London – and more theatres per head of population than any other city, and it’s clear this is a city for the culturally rich.

Architectural wonders

So let’s look a little deeper at the glory of architecture in Newcastle and start with the Georgian marvel that is Grainger Town. Built in the 1800s by Richard Grainger, the area fell into decline as the commercial heart of the city moved elsewhere; however, following serious investment over the past few years it’s been restored to its former glory and is a fine example of Georgian architecture at its best: check out the Theatre Royal and Grey Street, 2010 winner of the Academy of Urbanism’s Great Street Award.

But the architecture here is not just about beauty, but ingenuity: take the Dunston Staithes, out near the Metro Centre, reputedly one of the largest wooden structures in Europe and designed as quays to take coal to the waiting ships; or the High Level Bridge, built to accommodate trains from the south, and one of the greatest feats of European engineering. In fact just admire the volume of bridges crossing the River Tyne, including the iconic Tyne Bridge - a dramatic advert for this attractive city.

And then there are the modern-day marvels: the sleek curves of The Sage Gateshead (designed by Lord Norman Foster and now home to the Northern Sinfonia); the award-winning Gateshead Millennium Bridge – winner of Britain’s premier architecture award; the regeneration of the BALTIC and the Quayside – truly inspirational.

The essence

Boundless creativity 

Who’s it ideal for/ how it can make you feel:

This place is simply delightful, and that’s how it’ll make you feel: it’s a really attractive city with a zest for life, having a good time and appreciating art and culture: come alone, as a couple or as a family – you’re bound to have a good time.

The interesting bits in the history

The Romans settled this area, building a fort called Pons Aelius, but it wasn’t until Norman times that Newcastle acquired its name: the story goes that William the Conqueror’s eldest son ordered a castle to be built after returning to the area from battle with the Scots, which he referred to as his ‘new castle’, and the name stuck. Over the next couple of hundred years, the town that built up around the castle thrived; it became England’s northern fortress in the numerous battles with the Scots and was soon appointed a mayor and given county status.

And although the city had other trades, such as shipbuilding and glass making, Newcastle’s big success was down to coal (we’ve all heard the expression ‘taking coals to Newcastle’ for something that’s a pointless exercise), which it mined and exported; in the 16th century it was the number one export, and by the mid-17th century it had helped Newcastle become a wealthy town. One commentator described it as ‘resembling London more than any other town in England’.

In the 17th century the city was the fourth largest print centre in the country, behind London, Oxford and Cambridge, and the legendary Literary and Philosophical Society actually pre-dates its London counterpart by a good half a century.

The 19th century saw significant changes in the city as the centre was rebuilt by local man Richard Grainger – with the designs by two of the North’s most gifted architects of the time, John Dobson and Thomas Oliver – plus the city boundaries were further extended to include such beautiful suburbs as Jesmond, and a number of those iconic bridges were built across the Tyne. The city was also playing a major part in the Industrial Revolution, building Stephenson’s Rocket, the first electric light bulb (the first public building to be lit by light bulb was the Lit & Phil lecture theatre) and the steam turbine, amongst other breakthrough innovations. Furthermore, by end of the 19th century the Tyne boasted the biggest warship builders and armaments manufacturers in Europe.

In the 20th century the manufacturing base that had powered so much of the wealth in Newcastle declined: shipbuilding fell away and the last coal mine closed in the 1950s – but retail, the public sector and education expanded to highlight the strong powers of regeneration in the city. And since the turn of the millennium a new burst of modern architecture has again put Newcastle right at the front of the more dynamic cities in the country.

How to experience what’s different/get under the skin of:

Let’s start over the River Tyne at Gateshead. Locate West Street and you’ll see the first of many pieces of public art, the Opening Line, a glass and steel structure which flows through the centre of Gateshead Interchange; also check out the Sports Day sculpture, which alludes to Gateshead’s renowned globally as an athletics venue.

Head down towards the Old Town Hall, look to the left for Accelerator, another piece of artwork, before heading down Bottle Bank and into the Gateshead Quays.

Once here marvel at the scale and curves of the Sage Gateshead building, the eye-catching performance centre; then follow the Glass Balustrade down to the BALTIC centre. Housed in an historic old flour mill, and in 2011 the venue for the Turner Prize – the first time it’s been outside the London or Liverpool Tate in its 25 years – this building houses no permanent collections, instead an ever-changing programme of contemporary art from the likes of Damien Hirst and Yoko Ono takes place here.

Next cross the Tyne on the now-famous Millennium Bridge, known as the ‘blinking eye’ because of the tilting action and shape, and head left along the Quayside (check out also the ‘River God’ statue, one of a number of sculptures on this side of the river).

Make sure though that you take the time to step back and admire the numerous bridges over the river. There’s a great selection of bars, restaurants and a generally buzzy atmosphere down here (there’s also the attractive Guildhall, where you’ll find the Tourist Information Centre).

From the Quayside head up Dean Street, and onto the impressive Grey Street; look at the size and splendour of this beauty, Newcastle’s most famous street. As you walk up, check out the huge Theatre Royal on the right, one of the country’s most famous theatres.

At the top of the street you’ll come to a famous local landmark, the Monument, the grade I-listed monument to Earl Grey (famous for helping more people get the vote, fighting slavery and, er, tea). Right behind you’ve also got Monument Mall, three floors of shopping next door to Fenwick’s department store.

From the Monument, head east along Blackett Street and you’ll find the Laing Art Gallery, and in front of it the famous Blue Carpet made of tiles and glass. More visual treats await if you head up John Dobson Street towards the modern, and dramatic, Civic Centre. The Swans in Flight sculpture is meant to represent the strong link between the city and its Scandinavian neighbours, while the River Tyne God statue is unique in the way water pours from the hand and drenches the body.

Head around the back of the Civic Centre to the left and you’ll find a real treasure trove of museums and galleries. The Great North Museum houses collections from the Hancock Museum, the University’s Museum of Antiquities, the Shefton Museum and the Hancock Gallery; this new £26 million museum houses a large, interactive model of Hadrian’s Wall, a life-sized T-Rex dinosaur skeleton, a planetarium and spectacular treasures from ancient Greece and Egypt. There’s a lot to see.

Once back on the Barras Bridge road, head back towards the Monument, then stroll down Central Arcade and you’ll see the Grainger Market on your right, a traditional indoor market in a fabulous Grade I-listed building (including an M&S Original Penny Bazaar, the smallest M&S in the world); walk around the market and head up Newgate Street and you’ll pass The Gate on your left, a shiny new entertainment complex with bars and restaurants, cinema and a casino, and at the top the Eldon Square shopping centre (shopping is big news in Newcastle if you didn’t know by now); head along Gallowgate and there in front of you is the fabulous Chinese Arch, gracing the entrance to Newcastle’s China Town, and a rather well-known football ground, St James’ Park, the home of the Toon.

Now head down St James’ Boulevard and look for the Discovery Museum; this is the place to really find out about the history of the city and area, and includes Turbinia – invented locally, it was the first ship to be powered by a steam turbine, and at the time the fastest ship in the world. And if that’s put you in the mood for exploring, then a short stroll around the corner to Times Square is where you can find the Life Science Centre, an award-winning centre full of exhibitions which covers our origins, our world today and our future, including the brilliant, and breathtaking, planetarium – the largest in the north.

From here head towards the Central Station, on the way you’ll notice another collection of pieces of public art; the Cardinal Hume Monument – In honour of the man born in Newcastle; the Grainger Town Map; the Man with Potential Selves – a bronze sculpture opposite the station; and the monument dedicated to one of the city’s most famous sons, George Stephenson, inventor of the steam locomotive.

Carrying on, head down Westgate Road, past the Lit & Phil building on the right until you come to The Castle Keep. This fortified stone tower, one of the best examples of a keep in the country, dates back to the early 12th century and was added to original castle that gave the city its name.

Heading back into the city, you’ll pass the Cathedral of St Nicholas on your right before you’ll find the Bigg Market in front of you, and then back up into Grainger Town.

So that’s the wonderful city of Newcastle on a whistle-stop tour. Architecture, culture, public art by the bucketful, and a vibrant entertainment and shopping scene, in this most creative of English cities. But if you’re still not done for spending why not visit the Metro Centre in Gateshead, Europe’s biggest indoor shopping and leisure centre with 330 shops and over 50 restaurants.

When to visit

City pics