Newcastle upon Tyne, snuggled away in the Northeast of England, is perhaps Europe’s most misunderstood city. But as the Great Exhibition of the North sweeps into town this summer in a storm of immersive art experiences and street performance, it can finally prove it’s not all stag dos and wild weekends.
It’s time to sample the pathological Geordie friendliness for yourself. Here, local writer Tamsin Crimmens guides you through her hometown's cultural venues, independent food scene and historic architecture.
First, what is the Great Exhibition of the North?
If you’re looking for a cheap way to experience culture this summer then Newcastle’s free summer festival is something to consider: an 80-day, citywide celebration of all that’s great about the North of England (basically everywhere above Sheffield and below Scotland). From museums to live gigs, there is enough to keep you rushing from venue to venue.
The major part of the exhibition consists of three walking routes highlighting the major cultural aspects of the city. The ‘Innovation’, ‘Art’ and ‘Design’ trails are each dotted with exhibits, performances, artworks and family-friendly activities. They also all intersect with the Great North Museum which is acting as a hub for the festival.
Newcastle railway station and cityscape © Mandy Charlton / Shutterstock
Tell me more. Which sights shouldn’t I miss?
On the Art Trail...
The Art Trail begins by taking you down to street (or river) level to the iconic BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, a converted flour mill sitting proudly on the Quayside and overflowing with Northern visual arts. Your next stop is Sage Gateshead, BALTIC’s shell-shaped neighbour that clings to the river bank, for great views of Newcastle, as well as a listen of the Great Northern Soundtrack curated by Lauren Laverne.
Follow the route across the iconic Gateshead Millennium Bridge, a winking structure which dapples the water with a multi-coloured light show each evening.
Newcastle's Millennium Bridge and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art at sunset © Dave Head / Shutterstock
At first glance, Newcastle may seem full of bland drinking holes but you don’t have to go far to find a traditional boozer. Check out locals' favourite Crown Posada, with its Victorian exterior, original stained glass windows and house gramophone.
On the food front, look past the chain restaurants and seek out the city's independent venues, including Panis Cafe for tasty Sardinian fare, Violets for Instagrammable brunches, and Cal’s Own for award-winning pizzas. For something extra special, book a table at Michelin-starred restaurant House of Tides, set in a Grade I-listed, 16th-century former merchant’s town house right on the banks of the Tyne.
Grainger Town, Newcastle © John J Brown / Shutterstock
Heading into the historical heart of Newcastle, Grainger Town features traditional architecture from the 1800s. In this part of town you’ll find Grey’s Monument, Theatre Royal, Grey Street and Grainger Market. Prepare to be charmed by the market characters selling everything from crepes to yarn and vinyl records. Pop into the Laing Art Gallery for a taste of art deco design. The Tyneside Cinema is the spot for independent film.
End your walk by venturing a little out of the city to Exhibition Park and Wylam Brewery. This microbrewery is the last remaining building from the 1929 North East Exhibition. Sip your Heritage Cask Beer by the light-festooned lake with views over the Town Moor.
On the Innovation Trail...
Multiverse Arcade at Newcastle's Mining Institute © GEOTN
In Newcastle you never need to go far to find green space, including Leazes Park where the lopsided steel frame of St James’ Park football stadium looms over the treetops.
You’ll recognise Chinatown from the brightly coloured archway guiding you to Stowell Street, an ideal spot to stop for lunch. Or visit Blackfriars, the oldest dining room in the UK, which serves up traditional British food with seasonal produce straight from nearby Northumberland farms and markets.
The Innovation Trail passes through the historic Mining Institute as well as Stephenson’s Quarter, where the local inventor’s steam locomotive was designed and built.
Lightbulbs at the Lit & Phil © GEOTN
There aren’t many libraries in the world where you will be offered a cup of tea and a biscuit but at the Lit & Phil you can expect just that. Curl up in a leather armchair in the reading room, skylit with three enormous dome lanterns set into the roof, and relax into the gloriously slow pace of life up North.
On the Design Trail...
Newcastle is a city founded on innovation and engineering, making the Great North Museum the ideal starting place to discover its history. This walking route will take you through one of the city’s two universities, to the offbeat Ouseburn Valley. Once a cradle of the industrial revolution, today the abundance of students, art studios and independent pubs make for a chilled-out and creative atmosphere.
Immerse yourself in the world of children’s literature at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books.
Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North © varunya / Shutterstock
Or opt to laze away an afternoon pub-hopping. Try the vegan Ship Inn or Kiln's Mediterranean kitchen, where pottery-makers fire their creations while you chow down on what could be the city’s best hummus.
For pints, The Cumberland Arms has pickled onions, pork pies and folk sessions with musicians who are more than happy to regale you with the stories over a real ale. For true Northern romance, The Free Trade Inn is where to watch the sun setting behind the Tyne Bridge.
Then there is perhaps the pinnacle of Northern design: Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North is 20 years old this year and a symbol of our region’s open arms outstretched, ready to welcome you to the city.
The Great Exhibition of the North runs from 22 June to 9 September. Visit GetNorth.com for the latest information, download the app and follow #GetNorth2018 for updates. Top image via Eyelevel / GEOTN.