MICHELLE TOMPKINS finds culture galore in Newcastle, the party capital of the north

LOUNGING in a rooftop bar, looking down on the River Tyne snaking westwards in the late summer sunshine, my boyfriend came over all cultural on me.

“It’s a bit like Budapest, isn’t it?” he mused, as we waited for darkness to descend on those iconic bridges and the city of Newcastle beyond. “You’ve got Newcastle on one side and Gateshead on the other, with the river running between them. It reminds me of Buda and Pest.”

I was seriously impressed, not to mention slightly dumbfounded. This a man whose knowledge of a city is generally restricted to the football teams that play there (and the name and capacity of their ground, of course). This insight into the geographical history of the Hungarian capital was unprecedented. Perhaps the cocktails were going to his head?

“Ooh, tell me more,” I said, determined to capitalise on this newly-discovered knowledge. “I’ve never been there... I’d love to go.”

“That’s about all I remember really,” he replied. “I went there on a stag do once – we didn’t really do any sightseeing.”

Well, there were plenty of strutting stag parties doing the rounds of the Toon on our weekend break in the north-east (all rolled up sleeves over tattooed biceps), and an equal number of giggling hens (tottering on impossibly stacked heels, tugging at impossibly short skirts), but for our visit I was determined to experience the ‘cultural hub’ that NewcastleGateshead now prides itself as being, and that meant steering well clear of the bars and clubs frequented by the uber-orange Geordie Shore crowd.

Hence, we found ourselves on the sixth floor of the red-bricked former flour mill, The Baltic, on the Gateshead side of the Tyne, now a centre for contemporary arts and home to a stunning rooftop restaurant called Six (funnily enough).

We’d only been in town for a few hours, but such is the pride of the born and bred Geordie that we’d already been told three times (by our hotel receptionist, the barman and our taxi driver) that the views from the top of the Baltic were breathtaking. They certainly weren’t lying.

From the comfy sofas in the bar, you can make out most of the seven bridges which stitch together the two sides of the river, and just about every landmark for miles around. And when you’re tired of that view? Head for the ladies’ toilets – inevitable, after drinks in the bar – where the wall of glass in front of the cubicles offers an equally-stunning panorama looking eastwards.

In between pre-dinner drinks and that post-dinner comfort break, we enjoyed one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten. I had roasted halibut on creamed white beans and he chose a rib-eye steak, but frankly we could have eaten anything from the menu and enjoyed it in such an exciting setting.

Due to some acoustic quirk of the glass-walled room, the roar from your fellow diners is almost deafening as you are shown to your table, but fades into the background as soon as you’re seated, leaving a sense of occasion in the air but still allowing for private conversation. An exquisite dessert of salt-baked pineapple with mango custard for me and a dark chocolate delice for him rounded off an amazing evening – the perfect introduction to this vibrant city.

A 10-minute walk across the Gatehead Millennium Bridge and along the Quayside led us back to our hotel, the Hotel Du Vin in Newcastle. Originally home to the Tyne Tees Steam Ship Company, there’s a tip and a wink to the building’s maritime past around every corner, from the ships’ ropes in the courtyard to porthole windows in some of the showers. Our room had all the luxuries you could ever want and was so comfortable we only just managed to make it to breakfast the next day before they stopped serving.

If we’d been expecting fog on the Tyne – okay, we might even have rehearsed the song we’d sing when we saw it – we were to be disappointed, as the day dawned bright and remarkably warm for the time of year, certainly not what I’d banked on when I packed jumpers and jackets (isn’t it supposed to be colder ‘oop north’?).

Another stroll along the Quayside took us back into town, where we were on a mission to discover and explore the cultural side of the city.

More than £250m has been poured into the cultural infrastructure of Newcastle Gateshead in recent years, transforming the rundown, industrial parts of town into a series of glittering visitor attractions. It is said that a native Geordie returning to their home town for the first time in a decade would barely recognise the place now.

I say ‘we’ were on a mission to find culture, but it’s probably more accurate to say ‘I’, as my partner had already worked out The Magpies were playing at home and would far rather have been going to the match.

St James’ Park is slap bang in the centre of the city, which brings a buzz to the streets on match days, with the vocal but friendly Toon Army milling about in their black and white stripes.

Sadly, he had to be content with the briefest of looks at the stadium (“Isn’t it beautiful?”, he remarked, while I looked on nonplussed) as we made our way towards the Life Science Centre. The centre is a very modern, interactive museum not dissimilar to At-Bristol, where families can gain a greater understanding of science by taking part in hands-on activities.

With no children to entertain, we headed straight for the centre’s visiting Body Worlds Vital exhibition, a fascinating if slightly gruesome look at how the human body works. The exhibition brings together a collection of real human bodies and organs (yes, these are real people who have donated their bodies to science), stripped of their skin, dissected and displayed to show the complexity of our muscles, vessels and skeletons.

The publicity for the exhibition warns against taking children under eight to see it, but I’d apply to that warning to anyone who’s on the squeamish side. I had to look away or skirt past exhibits several times when I found them a little too graphic. Perhaps I’m just not as tough as these Geordie girls and boys.

From there it was on to the Laing Art Gallery, one of the city’s many dedicated art venues and home to works from all manner of artists, their only connection being they were born or based in the North East. The collection is so varied – with paintings leading to sculpture leading to ceramics and photography – that we found it too much to take in in one brief visit, but we gave it our best shot.

A quick stop at the art deco Tyneside Cinema, which shows free archive newsreel films every day, concluded our day of culture. A severe case of information overload was setting in, and it was time to embrace the lighter side of the city.

By 5pm, the bars and restaurants around the Quayside were already buzzing with girls dressed to the nines and lads out to impress. We decided an early dinner might be in order and chose a New York-style restaurant called Babucho, where we were shown to a booth perfect for a spot of people watching.

Newcastle is the third most popular nightlife destination in Europe (behind London and Berlin) and thoroughly deserves its reputation as a party town. As the evening wore on, the streets filled with groups out for a good time, good natured but definitely fuelling up for a long, alcohol-driven night. We southern softies made our excuses and left them to it, glad to get back to relative quiet of the Hotel Du Vin bar.

The next day, we faced the long drive home (the only drawback to visiting this fantastic city, in my view), but there was just time to stop off at one more cultural landmark on the way.

The Angel of the North is the 200-tonne sculpture created by Antony Gormley and has become an icon for the north-east, guarding against predators or welcoming visitors, whichever way you look at it. Around 33 million people a year get to see this magnificent monument as they pass by car or by train, but it really is worth the 15-minute drive out of town for a closer look. Standing beneath its magnificent wing-span, straining your neck to see to the top of its head 20 metres above, I defy anyone not be overawed by the sheer beauty of its simplicity.

Even my boyfriend had to admit it was pretty special.

“It looks a lot better from here than it does from the road,” he commented, with customary insight... “so, can we listen to the football on the way home?”


Michelle Tompkins stayed the Hotel Du Vin & Bistro, Allan House, City Road, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 2BE. Tel: 0844 736 4259 or go to www.hotelduvin.com/Newcastle. Rooms start from £89 bed and breakfast.

Six Baltic can contacted on 0191 440 4948 or by emailing eat@sixbaltic.com l Newcastle’s Centre for Life can be found at Bio Science Centre Times Square, Scotswood Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear NE1 4EP. The Body Worlds Vital exhibition runs until Sunday, November 30. Entry to the centre costs £12 for adults.

Follow @altweet_pet on Twitter for more information on upcoming events and ideas for things to see, do and visit or go to www.NewcastleGateshead.com – the official destination website