Newcastle-upon-Tyne has a well deserved reputation as a hard drinking city. But you can also have a very enjoyable short break there while remaining stone cold sober
Newcastle is my local city and I love it. But I'm getting a bit old and sedate these days, and even when I wasn't, clubbing was never my idea of fun. I'm not much into retail therapy either. In this guide I give some suggestions on how to spend a couple of days there if your interests are more in culture than clubs or shopping.
I have visited many cities but no view has ever moved me more than the sight of the Tyne bridges as the train pulls into the Central Station. Even if you arrive by car, you should start your visit on the Quayside, looking at the bridges. The wonderful thing about them is that each bridge dates from a different historical period, so that looking down the river is like seeing the whole history of Tyneside in a single view. The most recent addition to the collection, the Millennium Bridge, is a piece of engineering art whose beauty and elegance as it swings up to allow ships to pass underneath is something you will not forget. A list of "tilting times" is displayed on the south bank.
If you start on the Newcastle bank you will walk across the Millennium Bridge to reach the Baltic art gallery and Sage music centre on the Gateshead bank. The exhibitions of modern art at the Baltic are hit -and-miss (have a look first at www.balticmill.com), and many of the locals will think that you are right not to bother with them, but a ride in the glass lift to the viewing gallery is a must. It gives an extraordinary view up river which was never available to the general public before the gallery opened. The views from the Sage are also sensational. Opinions vary about the exterior appearance of this new building, which is something like a giant silver slug squatting on the river bank, but the interior is an unqualified success and has been designed to maximise the panoramic views. You could, of course, even attend a concert there - the whole spectrum of musical taste is represented in the programme. Check out what's on at www.thesagegateshead.org.
Once back on the Newcastle bank, walk around the base of the Tyne Bridge (that's the famous one that looks like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, of which it was a prototype) and then up the hill called The Side. It's a really steep hill, so pause frequently on the pretext of admiring the tremendous architectural forms created by running the railway bridge right across the top of the buildings. At the top of the hill you will find St Nicholas Cathedral. This is worth a quick look, particularly for the monument just inside the door to Admiral Collingwood, who took over command of the English fleet at the battle of Trafalgar after Lord Nelson was killed. It's an impressively over-the-top piece. Crossing the road outside the cathedral will bring you to the notorious Bigg Market. Observe it with interest in daylight, just to say you've seen it, and then avoid it in the evening.
At the top of the Market turn right and walk towards the Monument. This is Newcastle's main landmark, the place where everyone arranges to meet their friends and where campaigners of every political and religious persuasion set out their stalls. Despite this, a poll on the local TV news found that hardly anyone knows who the bloke on the top of the monument is. So be better informed than the residents by knowing that it's Earl Grey - yes, like the tea, but commemorated here for his contribution to parliamentary reform (a subject with a lot of resonance at the present time). From the monument you get a fine view of the Georgian splendour of Grey Street. If you keep going into Blackett Street, turn right and walk along New Bridge Street, you come to the Laing Art Gallery, which has been around a lot longer than the Baltic and is held in much more affection by locals. As well as changing temporary exhibitions it has a large permanent collection of work by regional artists, often interesting for what they show of the history of the area, and a substantial amount of work by the celebrated engraver Thomas Bewick. It also has a nice café where you can gaze at two enormous Landseer paintings of animals while you eat. The website is www.twmuseums.org.uk/laing.
If you have children with you, they might enjoy the Hancock Museum, which is known for having lots of stuffed animals, and also the Centre for Life, which is the public face of a life sciences research centre and has lots about extinct animals. There's an animatronic T-Rex which turns up regularly at one or other of these museums. The Centre for Life (www.life.org.uk) is in Time Square, left and left again as you leave the Central Station. The Hancock is on the northern edge of the town centre at Barras Bridge - look for the statue of Lord Armstrong outside. It has recently been modernised and the website address is now www.twmuseums.org.uk/greatnorthmuseum.
On the other side of Barras Bridge is the Civic Centre, a dramatic piece of 1960s concrete architecture worth seeing even if you don't like it, especially after dark when it is floodlit in purple. Those seahorses on the top, floating in purple light, haunted my childhood dreams.
A medieval monastery is not what most visitors expect to find in Newcastle, but the Blackfriars buildings still exist and now house a series of craft shops where you can have a pleasant browse. You can also see surviving sections of the old town walls nearby. Blackfriars can be a bit tricky to find, having been rather marooned by modern street development: try walking around the back of The Gate entertainment complex in Percy St. (I don't recommend The Gate itself, by the way.)
In the evening (since you are, of course, not going to the pub) visit the Tyneside Cinema. This is located in a narrow lane running between the top of Grey St and Pilgrim St. It is an original 1930s newsreel cinema which has unusually managed to survive until the present. It has recently undergone major renovation, so you can now appreciate the mosaic floors and Art Deco fittings. Sit in the main auditorium and marvel at the knowledge that audiences have been enjoying films here for the last seventy years. The cinema has three screens and shows a very wide range of films, including re-issued classics that don't reach many places outside London. Find out what will be on during your visit at www.tynecine.org.
Where to eat
The Tyneside cinema has two bars, where we could perhaps stretch a point and allow you one civilised drink, and a café/restaurant called the Tyneside Coffee Rooms, which is hugely popular with locals but little known by visitors. It sells a wide range of first rate food and drink all day long until late at night. The prices are reasonable, the atmosphere very pleasant and the staff some of the friendliest you will meet anywhere.
The Blackfriars Restaurant advertises itself as "the oldest dining room in the UK". I can't vouch for the truth of this claim, but enjoying an evening meal in a 13th century building will certainly be something to tell your friends about. It is not always open during the day. Book on 0191 261 5945.
Immediately adjacent to Blackfriars is Stowell Street. You can find many Chinese restaurants in this street and those next to it. I often have lunch in the Ho Buffet at the top of Gallowgate. During the day it does an all-you-can-eat buffet for £6, and for this price the quality of the food is pretty good.
For an Indian meal I would recommend Thali at 44 Dean Street (phone 0191 406 2187). There are also several decent Italian restaurants in Dean Street, which curves steeply downward from the bottom of Grey Street to the Quayside, following the course of a now hidden river.
Where to stay
If you come into the "money is no object" category, try the Malmaison on the Quayside, which is currently regarded as the most desirable hotel in Newcastle. Then post a comment on this site to tell me what it's like, because I'll never be able to afford to stay there myself. I can promise you that at the very least it has a fabulous view. So does the Hilton on the Gateshead bank.
A distinctive medium price option is the Royal Station Hotel, conveniently located, as the name suggests, next to the Central Station. This is a Victorian hotel with a splendid staircase, chandeliers and original tilework and a general air of slightly decayed grandeur. It is also convenient for the nightlife, but that may not be an advantage on your "non-alcoholic" trip.
If you are on a tight budget you can save money and avoid noise by staying just outside the city centre in Jesmond, which is a pleasant, leafy neighbourhood. There are a number of medium to cheap hotels and b&bs there. Positive reports have been heard of the Dene Hotel at 38 Grosvenor Road, about 10 minutes walk from a metro station.
If you are seriously cash-strapped, the Youth Hostel at 107 Jesmond Road (phone 0191 281 2570) is quite nice as hostels go and reassuringly states that it does not accept bookings from stag or hen parties.