City Guide: Newcastle

Planning a weekend break? Consider Newcastle-Gateshead – a major player in contemporary art, music, and food and drink. Here's our handy guide to some of the area's cultural highlights

Feature | 19 May 2015

No matter what Geordie Shore might have you believe, Newcastle is one of the most charming, entertaining and frequently surprising cities in the UK. We’re not going to say that it isn't possible to douse yourself in vodka from sunrise to sunset (and sunrise again), if that's what you want to do, but Newcastle-Gateshead's cultural scene – long underrated – has been blossoming since the years building up to its 2008 bid for European Capital of Culture. Though it lost out to Liverpool on that count, the momentum hasn’t slowed. While a first glance at a map might give you the impression that Newcastle could be isolated from the rest of the arts community, it’s a city that frequently pulls world-class line-ups to a variety of both new and heritage venues – and its food and drink scene has swollen in recent years to rival anywhere in the north of England.

Let’s start with the place that gave Newcastle its name. The Newcastle, err, Castle has a history spanning almost 2000 years, beginning with the Romans, who built the fort of Pons Aelius. There’s little of that surviving now (although great chunks of Hadrian’s Wall still stretch out from Newcastle across the countryside), but much of the Henry II-built stone Castle Keep and Black Gate remain, looking out over three of Newcastle’s main bridges, including the iconic curved arch structure of the Tyne Bridge. Open to the public to explore, both Castle Keep and Black Gate are a maze of passages and chambers, preserved in remarkable condition.

[Newcastle Castle]

Across the river lies the resplendent Sage Gateshead (once described by comedian Ross Noble, with tongue firmly in cheek, as “a giant silver slug”). Home to the Royal Northern Sinfonia, it has hosted pretty much everything within its three concert halls, stretching beyond the usual classical and jazz spectrum to the likes of The Fall, Mogwai and Bonobo. It's also an acoustic marvel; the walls of the main 1700-seater concert hall can actually be adjusted to suit the needs of the performers playing.

The Sage Gateshead opened in 2004 as part of the Gateshead Quays regeneration project – which also saw the opening of its neighbour, the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. A converted flour mill, the BALTIC retains its 1950s façades but inside exudes a sleek, modern yet homely feel. Eschewing the tradition of permanent collections, the gallery hosts a revolving programme of new and contemporary art from around the world; 2011 saw it host the Turner Prize, the first time the prestigious award had been organised away from the Tate. Never shying away from straddling scenes, the BALTIC has exhibited work from pop culture icons such as Brian Eno and Yoko Ono, as well as contemporary titans including Damien Hirst and Martin Parr.

[Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside]

For more traditional forms of art, meanwhile, the Laing Art Gallery is well worth a look. Located on New Bridge Street, the Baroque-styled 1904 building predominantly houses British oil paintings, watercolours, ceramics, silver and glassware, including pictures by William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones, Paul Gauguin and Victor Pasmore. Northeast figures are represented too, not least 19th century artist John Martin, whose furious 1852 piece The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is among a number of works that the Laing have used to transform the reputation of a painter who influenced the pre-Raphaelites.

No trip to Newcastle should be complete without a trip to the Ouseburn Valley. A true independent hub for the city’s arts and music communities, the tributary to the Tyne is surrounded by lush greens that, in the summer months, are adorned by drinkers from a number of excellent real ale and craft beer pubs. The Tyne Bar is an undoubted highlight, not least for its huge outdoor beer garden and soundsystem underneath the arches of the road to the coast, while the Cumberland Arms offers up more traditional drinking fare.

Both, however, are arguably topped by The Cluny, which manages the twin feat of being both one of the UK’s most respected bars and small venues. This former whisky bottling plant mixes up a world lager selection with local independent breweries, while its food menu is dominated by its delicious burgers. The bookings for its venue spaces – a 300-capacity large room and 180-capacity small room – have been instrumental in re-establishing Newcastle as a permanent fixture on the itinerary of national and international touring acts.

[Tyneside Cinema]

The Cluny isn’t alone in its dextrous capabilities as a venue, however. The independent Tyneside Cinema is arguably one of the region’s most-loved cultural institutions, as well as the last Newsreel theatre still in full-time operation as a cinema the UK. A restoration of its 1930s veneer has transformed the Pilgrim Street building into a state of the art three-screen complex; but while a 3D screen has allowed the programme to access more commercially successful films, it isn't abandoning its independent roots by any stretch, as forthcoming screenings for the Jason Schwartzman-starring Listen Up Philip and a special Věra Chytilová season indicate. The building also houses the Tyneside Bar Cafe, a slick but not overly polished setting that offers refined (and incredibly tasty) versions of curries, burgers and risotto, as well as a broad breakfast range and a plethora of small plates.

There’s a bit of a walk between the Tyneside Cinema, situated just off the famous Grey’s Monument, and the Centre for Life next door to the city’s main train station, but for gaming fans the latter is currently well worth it. Game On 2.0 traverses the history of computer games, with playable games from 1970s consoles to classics like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, as well as contemporary favourites like Halo 3. As much an exhibition as a chance to relive your youth, Game On 2.0 also looks at design, and assesses the influence of anime and manga on the look of games.

With Newcastle-Gateshead’s centre relatively contained, it makes for a bustling, varied experience. It's a place with a strong identity but also a fierce commitment to progression, the stereotypes of old now long gone in an area that still feels like one of the country’s unknown gems.

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