The inside guide to Newcastle, the North East's cultural powerhouse

The powerhouse of the North East packs a wealth of culture and history onto the banks of the Tyne, with proud industrial heritage, elegant architecture and ancient restaurants tucked away down medieval lanes.

By Daniel Stables
Published 8 Apr 2022, 15:00 BST
The Gateshead Millennium Bridge, crossing the River Tyne, with the Sage Gateshead music centre (designed by ...

The Gateshead Millennium Bridge, crossing the River Tyne, with the Sage Gateshead music centre (designed by architect Norman Foster) on the left and the Tyne Bridge in the distance.

Photograph by Getty Images

History echoes around every corner in Newcastle upon Tyne. This is the beating heart of North East England, where a cultural and artistic pearl has formed around the industrial grit that still inspires the city’s salt-of-the-earth spirit and sense of humour. It was the Romans who first saw the value of building a bridge over the River Tyne — Pons Aelius, as they called it — to guard the eastern terminus of Hadrian’s Wall. That storied barricade, once the northwestern frontier of the Roman Empire, celebrates its 1,900th anniversary in 2022, and Tyneside will be at the heart of the festivities, with events throughout the year at Roman sites such as the remnants of the second-century fort of Segudunum.

But many of Newcastle’s treasures are less ancient in origin. Start off in the river valley of Ouseburn, which is modern Newcastle in microcosm: a former industrial heartland converted into a vibrant cultural district, where once run-down warehouses and factories now play host to music venues, voguish bars and modern art galleries. Chief among them is the Biscuit Factory, whose Victorian girders enclose Britain’s largest independent commercial art, craft and design gallery. If you’re travelling with children, make the short walk to Seven Stories, a museum devoted to the magic of children’s literature, and the Ouseburn Farm, a petting zoo beneath the railway arches that’s home to lambs, pigs, ponies and other animals. History buffs will relish the chance to explore nearby Victoria Tunnel, built to transport coal from the Tyne and later serving as a wartime air-raid shelter.

Heading west into the city, you’ll walk among the stately streets of Grainger Town, whose refined Georgian and Victorian architecture can rival anything in Edinburgh or Bath. In the shadow of Grey’s Monument — built to honour proud Northumbrian and former prime minister Earl Grey (he of the tea) — lies the often-ignored Central Arcade. This gorgeous Edwardian shopping arcade, with its mosaic floors and tiled walls, dates to 1906 and houses local institution JG Windows, a famous music shop that’s stood here for over a century. Just across the road is Grainger Market, where red iron arches shelter some truly delicious food stalls — the dumplings, noodles and Chinese teas at Nan Bei are well worth seeking out. The market also hides some historic curiosities, including the Penny Bazaar, which is the country’s smallest and oldest Marks & Spencer store.

Retail therapy complete, relax in the surrounds of the Literary & Philosophical Society, where the enlightened souls of Newcastle have been gathering for over 200 years. Newcastle’s ‘exquisite secret library’, as it describes itself, is a magical place to pass the time while leafing through obscure tomes of epic voyages, rare sheet music or illustrated poetry. You’re right in the heart of the city here, but you’d never know it as you stroll along the quiet cobbles of Monk Street and Friars Street, whose medieval buildings enclose a peaceful green courtyard. Here you’ll find the elegant Blackfriars Restaurant, which has served hungry monks, pilgrims and wayfarers since 1239, making it the oldest dining room in the UK.

Make your way towards the River Tyne and you’ll pass the Jacobean architecture of the Bessie Surtees House, once the scene of a famous 18th-century elopement, and still standing (or rather, leaning) 250 years on. Cross the river using the engineering marvel that is the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, known as the ‘blinking eye’ for the elegant mechanism by which it closes to allow boats to pass. Gateshead, like Ouseburn, is a symbol of the North East’s cultural renaissance, which reaches its apex at the glorious Sage Gateshead, a rippling monument of steel and glass that stages performers from across the world of music, from classical to jazz. On the southern fringes of Gateshead is the imperious Angel of the North, which stands sentinel over the A1.  

Far more historic riches lie nearby in the form of Washington Old Hall, the ancestral home of former US president George Washington. It’s every inch the English country manor, with its pebble-smooth flagstones, creaking wooden floors and ceiling beams. Nearby is the Washington Wetland Centre, where, every spring, bluebells erupt in ancient woodlands and Chilean flamingos emerge from their winter shelters to preen their feathers. 

Grey’s Monument, Grainger Street.

Photograph by Alamy

Like a local: L Devine’s top five music venues

Born in Whitley Bay, singer and songwriter L Devine has released four EPs and co-written songs for the likes of Rudimental and Icona Pop.

1. City Hall

This is right in the centre of town and it’s probably my favourite venue in Newcastle. My dad went to his first ever concert there — T-Rex in the 1970s — and I played there when I was about 17, so it’s really close to my heart.

2. Three Tanners Bank

Before it was open to the public, I used this as a rehearsal space. It’s been an art studio, a gallery — there’s still a dark room for developing photos — and it recently opened as a bar and music venue. It does free showcases every Sunday with local musicians.

3. Tyne Bar

The Tyne Bar reminds me of summer. There’s an outdoor stage and it’s just class – I’ve got memories of people climbing up on the scaffolding by the side of the stage and jumping off into the crowd. It’s one of the maddest places ever, and the views of the Quayside are unbeatable.

4. The Cluny

I played at The Cluny a few times back in the day. So did Sam Fender and I saw Jake Bugg there... I’ve seen so many people there I wouldn’t be able to name them all. It’s a wicked venue. It’s got two stages, so there’s always loads going on.

5. Riverside

Riverside’s a nightclub as well, and it’s done out with a collage-type wall with newspaper cuttings and band posters. It’s right by the river, so you walk out and you’re by the Tyne Bridge.

Top tip // If you only eat one thing during your time in Newcastle, make it a Craster kipper. This smoked herring is the jewel in the crown of Northumbrian cuisine, hauled in from the North Sea and cured in the town of Craster on the Northumberland coast. It makes for a world-class way to take breakfast.

Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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