A short stay in... Newcastle

A thriving arts and social scene and Michelin-starred restaurants are changing the brown-ale image of the capital of the north-east, finds Dominic Hamilton

WHY GO THERE?

Newcastle? Well, it might not be everyone's idea of a glamour city, on a par with Milan or Barcelona, say, but with its football team in the Premier Division, Geordies would have us believe that their city can compete off the pitch too, certainly where shopping and partying are concerned. With a host of cultural attractions, five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants, Newcastle isn't all black and white.

WHEN TO GO

The locals seem impervious to the cold and walk around in T-shirts come hell or high icebergs. Lesser mortals would do well to visit the city during more clement months, autumn being the best time for the arts scene. September hails the new cultural season with concerts from the Northern Sinfonia and new productions from the Royal Shakespeare Company. The city hosts the Radio 1 Sound City extravaganza for the second time in the last week of October - sure to get the party going (tel: 0191-211 4820), while the Newcastle Comedy Festival starts on 5 November (tel: 0191-232 2660).

GETTING THERE

n By Rail GNER and Virgin run trains to Newcastle. Fares from London start at pounds 41.50, from Manchester pounds 34.90, seven days in advance. Call GNER (tel: 0345 225225), or National Rail Enquiries (tel: 0345 484950).

n By Road Most journeys from the south go via Leeds on the M1, then M18 and A1. It takes approximately five hours from London. From Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford and Leeds, the M62 connects the M6 with the A1. From the west coast, the A69 Carlisle-Newcastle road takes you through the Tyne Valley.

n By Air Newcastle's airport is only a 20-minute drive from the city centre, and is easily accessible on the Metro. British Airways flies from London Heathrow and Gatwick, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff, while Gill Airways flies from Aberdeen and Manchester. London to Newcastle takes one hour and 10 minutes and costs from pounds 59 return. Newcastle Airport information (tel: 0191-214 3334).

n By Coach National Express (tel: 0990 808080) operates 12 coaches a day from London Victoria to Newcastle Gallowgate. Returns start at pounds 27 and the journey takes about six hours.

WHERE TO STAY

n Copthorne Hotel, The Close, Quayside (tel: 0191-222 0333). Luxurious five-star hotel in the rejuvenated Quayside area with many facilities and extras. Weekend deals for two with breakfast pounds 198, pounds 228 with breakfast and dinner. Double rooms from pounds 135 midweek.

n Malmaison Hotel, Quayside (tel: 0191-245 5000). The Malmaison is the hippest new hotel on the Quayside, with lavish - if sometimes over the top - decor. Weekend doubles from pounds 75 for one night to pounds 195 for three.

n Brandling Guest House, 4 Brandling Park, Jesmond (tel: 0191-281 3175). A good-value nine-bedroom guest house with two RAC crowns, and only a two-minute drive from the city centre. Doubles from pounds 35.

n Newcastle Youth Hostel, 103 Jesmond Road, Jesmond (tel: 0191-281 2570). Open February to November, a 15-minute walk from the city centre, with 60 beds. pounds 7.45 a night, breakfast pounds 2.80. Very busy, so phone in advance.

GETTING AROUND

Everything you will want to see in Newcastle is contained within the medieval city walls. Crossing the town takes less than half an hour at a healthy pace. Buses are plentiful and venturing further afield is easy on the Metro system which links the city centre with Gateshead, the airport, the coast and ferries. One-day Metro Traveller passes cost pounds 2.50. Tyne and Wear Metro (tel: 0191-232 5325), disabled information (tel: 0191-203 3333).

WHAT TO SEE

n Quayside The Quayside area is a model for the regeneration of ex- industrial city centres. With the imposing arc of the Tyne Bridge dominating the landscape, various warehouses, depots and old markets have been taken over by businesses, hotels and eateries.

n Castle Keep St Nicholas's Street (tel: 0191-232 7938). Thought to be the original starting point of Hadrian's Wall, the surviving castle dates back to the 12th century and provides an interesting introduction to Newcastle's history. Climb to the top for great views.

n Grey Street Described as one of the architectural jewels of the Victorian era, the gently inclined curve of Grey Street, linking the Quayside with the monument to Earl Grey - Newcastle's answer to Nelson's column - is a joy to explore.

n St James's Park For followers of the beautiful game, no trip to Newcastle would be complete without a tour of the city's pride and joy, St James's. Disappointingly, the tour is not conducted by a gregarious Geordie but by an "Acoustiguide", which feels like you are walking around with your television's remote control. Tours cost pounds 5 for adults and pounds 3 for concessions and take about an hour. St James's Park Ground Tours (tel: 0191-201 8549).

n Museums In five years' time, Geordies will be the proud owners of an impressive pounds 100m International Centre for Contemporary Art on the Gateshead bank of the Tyne, as well as a host of other cultural projects. There is a fine permanent collection in the recently revamped Laing Art Gallery, Higham Place (tel: 0191-232 7734) which includes a Children's Gallery. The Discovery Museum, Blandford Square (tel: 0191-232 6789) explores the region's contribution to science and engineering. The Zone Gallery specialises in photography and multimedia, while those heading to Hadrian's Wall would do well to visit the Museum of Antiquities. The Quadrangle (tel: 0191-222 7849) at the university houses a model of the Wall. The Side Gallery, 5 Side (tel: 0191-232 2208) is interesting for local history.

FOOD AND DRINK

Although famed more for its liquid than its culinary establishments, Newcastle can still offer meals to suit all wallets.

n 21 Queen Street, 21 Queen Street (tel: 0191-222 0755). Tucked under the shadow of the Tyne Bridge, Terence Laybourne's French restaurant enjoys an excellent reputation to match its Michelin star. Two courses for lunch are pounds 14.50, three pounds 17.50, while dinner is pounds 33 a head for three courses without wine. Extensive wine list.

n The Magpie Room, St James's Park Stadium (tel: 0191- 201 8439). Still the only place to eat within the expanded stadium, the Magpie Room has two AA rosettes and extensive views of the pitch. Their two-course lunchtime menu starts at pounds 15, dinner at pounds 20. The Sunday lunch special, at pounds 15.95, includes a tour of the stadium.

n Metropolitan, 35 Grey Street (tel: 0191-230 2306). Polished steel meets Miami South Beach in this modern English brasserie-restaurant. A light menu is served all day until 7pm; a la carte and prix fixe menus start from pounds 8.95 for two courses.

n Cut, 10-15 Sandhill, Quayside (tel: 0191-245 0000). Cut's decor is Conran on LSD - purple walls contrast with Captain Nemo green lighting, striated marquetry tables and zinc bars. The modern Italian dishes start at around pounds 12 a head.

n Cafe Churchill, corner of Mosley and Dean Street (tel: 0191-233 2349). Extravagantly tiled from top to bottom, this friendly eatery, housed in an old bank, offers an Italianate menu ranging from hot ciabatta sandwiches to daily specials from pounds 8.

NIGHT LIFE

The surreal scale of Newcastle nightlife includes more than 120 pubs, 80 venues and 16 night clubs in the city centre alone. The area around the Bigg Market and the up-and-coming Quayside are very busy at weekends.

After the pubs in the Bigg Market, places to check off your list on the Quayside are Chase, Jimmyz and the Pitcher and Piano, refuelling with tapas at La Tasca. Also worthy of a designer bottle or two is the new three-floored Cafe Pacific off Northumberland Street. For the late night beat, various nights at Rock Shots and Shindig on Saturdays at the Riverside are local favourites, while you could always live the ultimate eighties disco experience on the revolving dance floor of Tuxedo Royale, the ship berthed beneath the Tyne Bridge. For those of mellower temperaments, try the Jazz Cafe, Pink Lane (tel: 0191-232 6505). For Sunday chilled jazz and funk, Blu Honey at the Pit Bar under the Tyne Theatre is the place to be.

Newcastle's night life, however, isn't just about short skirts and designer shirts. There are now two comedy clubs, Hyena Cafe, Leazes Lane (tel: 0191-232 6030) and The Comedy Club, Westgate Road (tel: 0191-232 0899). Concert venues include the Riverside, Melbourne Street (tel: 0191-261 4386) and the Newcastle Arena (tel: 0191-401 8000). The Toon is also home to the English Shakespeare Company at the Tyne Theatre and Opera House, Westgate Road (tel: 0191-232 0899), and the second home of the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Theatre Royal, Grey Street (tel: 0191-232 2061) which begins its new season towards the end of September. The acclaimed Northern Stage Ensemble's new production of A Clockwork Orange at the Newcastle Playhouse, Barras Bridge (tel: 0191-230 5151), opens on 3 September. The Northern Sinfonia starts its autumn season on 23 September at Newcastle City Hall, Northumberland Road (tel: 0191-261 2606).

OUT OF TOWN

n Hadrian's Wall The World Heritage listed monument draws thousands of visitors every year, stretching across the neck of England through the Tyne Valley all the way to Carlisle and beyond. From Newcastle, the best place to start exploring the Wall's many sites is Hexham. From there, both Chesters Roman Fort and Corbridge Roman Site museums are easily accessible. English Heritage (tel: 01434 605088) or Hexham Tourist Information Centre (tel: 01434 605225). The Hadrian's Wall Bus - which takes passengers to various sites, with a guide, on the route to Carlisle - starts here in the summer. Contact Northumberland Public Transport Helpline (tel: 01670 533128). The Tyne Valley Line also provides an agreeable means of visiting sites by rail. National Rail Enquiries (tel: 0345 484950).

n Northumberland National Park Includes part of the Wall on its southern border. The National Trust organises a year-round guided walks programme throughout the park (tel: 01434 605555).

n Castles and Strongholds Northumberland boasts more than any other English region, including Bamburgh and Alnwick to the north and Raby to the south. Contact English Heritage (tel: 0191-261 1585).

n Durham Cathedral and Castle Durham's historic city centre is only a short drive away. Durham Tourist Information Centre (tel: 0191-384 3720).

n Angel of the North Antony Gormley's 65-foot-high structure has already attracted more than 100,000 visitors this year. The turn off to get close up is 15 minutes south of Newcastle on the A1, marked A167 Gateshead South (tel: 0191-460 6345).

INFORMATION

Newcastle has three information centres: Central Station (tel: 0191-230 0030) open Mon-Sun in the summer, City Library, Princes Square (tel: 0191- 261 0610), open Mon-Sat, and at the Airport (tel: 0191-286 0966), open Mon-Sun. For what's on in entertainment, pick up a copy of The Crack from the Tourist Information Centres or The Northern Review - both are free. The Evening Chronicle also has good listings of events as well as reviews. On the net, try http://www.newcastle.gov.uk/ or http://www.cus.umist.ac.uk/%7Emosh/newcastle.html.

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