In 2000, Newcastle unveiled its Gateshead Millennium pedestrian bridge and put itself back on the map. The ultra-cool tilting-span bridge – a world first – swivels open at night like a giant Cyclops eye over a trendy waterfront of art galleries and bars.
The bridge was the first of numerous major projects with which Newcastle set out to scrub off its industrial-era grime and reinvent itself as a happening urban centre. Twenty years on, the city is one of Britain’s trendiest, with impressive museums, luxury boutique hotels and a hip dining scene – though still with the down-to-earth friendliness always associated with the locals, known as Geordies.
The Gateshead Millennium Bridge ushered in a new era of culture. Credit:Getty Images
Who’d have thought? The city had long been in decline, a symbol of England’s strike-ridden, depressed north. Now a sense of optimism is back. Newcastle has positioned itself as a centre of culture – fun, vibrant and progressive.
Get the buzz by wandering the shopping strips that radiate from elegant Grey Street, named after prime minister (and tea drinker) Earl Grey. Then check out the impressive Laing Art Gallery, with its Pre-Raphaelite paintings and Henry Moore sculptures, and plunder the Biscuit Factory, a huge commercial art space. Then there’s the excellent Discovery Museum, devoted to local history and science, with the steam-powered Turabinia, once the world’s fastest ship, as its centrepiece.
Flowing through the city is the River Tyne. Initially at the centre of Newcastle’s industrialisation, it was later lined by its most dismal neighbourhoods. Now the arch of Gateshead Millennium Bridge frames a redeveloped riverside. The Sage Gateshead concert hall dominates, combining acoustic excellence with sweeping river views. Further downstream, a former flour mill houses the Baltic Centre, one of the UK’s best contemporary art venues.
The Sage Gateshead is a centre for music education as well as a concert hall.Credit:Alamy
Impressive as they are, these cultural offerings aren’t the only assets to have transformed the city. Its dining scene has also been reinvented (or perhaps just invented) and sets out to prove there’s more to the region’s cuisine than meat pies and blood puddings. These days, the likes of quayside cafe Violets, Mediterranean bistro The Patricia and stylish brasserie 21 are listed in the Michelin guide. Meanwhile, Blackfriars Restaurant, housed in an old Dominican friary that glows with stained glass, gets rave reviews for its slow-cooked beef and pork belly with apple gravy. It focuses on local produce, with the origins of everything from its mackerel and duck to cheese and honey outlined on its place mats.
Newcastle’s nightlife, centred on Newgate Street, Quayside and Bigg Market, has always been lively, though once aimed largely at pub-goers and hen parties. Now there’s much more sophistication and variety, such as the huge nightclub Digital, with a sound system that has to be heard to be believed. Those after something less in-your-face should head to World Headquarters, which plays funk, jazz, reggae and R&B.
High-concept bars have opened all over the city. The Cluny is laid-back, with live music; The Botanist adds pizzazz to its drinks with fresh fruit and herbs. Art-draped Revolution is perhaps the most beautiful venue, and the place to sample one of 90 vodka varieties. Tokyo, scattered with candles and cushions, has a good range of cocktails and is just the place for a lavender-and-rose martini, about as far as you can get from a lukewarm beer.
Malmaison, a hotel housed in a former shipping warehouse.
Perhaps, though, suave riverside venue Pitcher & Piano best epitomises the new Newcastle. You can sit with an Almasty Pale Ale and spicy chicken flatbread and admire the light-twinkled views of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and River Tyne. It’s a chic, sleek outlook over a city reborn.
Brian Johnston travelled to Newcastle as a guest of One North East and Emirates Airlines
CURIOUS MINDS The Great North Museum is the culmination of Newcastle’s renewal projects. In eclectic Victorian-era style, it displays a little of everything, from Egyptian mummies to Inuit kayaks and fossil collections. Kids will especially enjoy the dinosaurs and planetarium. Save time for the interactive gallery devoted to Roman life in Britain. greatnorthmuseum.org.uk
The Tyne Bridge.Credit:Getty Images
ROMAN AROUND Beyond museum exhibits, the foundations of a Roman fort next to a suburban station are the closest you get to ancient history in Newcastle. Take a day, though, to explore nearby Hadrian’s Wall, once the Roman Empire’s northern limit. Top sights include fort ruins at Vindolanda and Housesteads, and the Roman Army Museum. A walking track provides superb scenery. visithadrianswall.co.uk
STAR TURN There was much excitement when a local chef and TV personality opened his House of Tides restaurant inside a 16th-century quayside mansion. The casual but sophisticated cuisine (such as Craster fish pie, malt loaf, beef in claret) rose to the occasion, and is now garnished with Newcastle’s only Michelin star. houseoftides.co.uk
CHIC STAY Malmaison Newcastle (pictured), once a shipping warehouse, sits in pole position on Newcastle’s elegant revamped riverfront near Gateshead Millennium Bridge. Large rooms feature mood lighting, bold colours and patterns, and power showers. Chandeliers and purple velvet in public areas further create a romantic, stylish mood. malmaison.com
ARCH RIVALS Seven bridges span the Tyne River in Newcastle, but Australians will be most struck by the 1928 Tyne Bridge (pictured). It was designed by Mott, Hay and Anderson, the civil engineering firm also responsible for Sydney Harbour Bridge. Although Sydney’s bridge was designed first, Newcastle’s was finished first, giving rise to the misconception that it was a scaled-down prototype for Sydney. In fact, both were inspired by Hell Gate Bridge in New York.
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