An unlikely renaissance is about to begin. By James Rampton
The same people who tell you to "see Naples and die" might also advise you to "die and see Croydon". Ever since Captain Sensible enjoyed a minor hit with a song called "Croydon" in the early Eighties, this commuter town south of London has been a byword for all that is soulless - neither close enough to the capital to be hip and metropolitan, nor far enough out to have rural charm.

That image, so the town hopes, is changing. Croydon is undergoing the greatest make-over this side of the Richard and Judy programme. Why, Croydon Council has nabbed a new publicity boss, Ronan Carroll, from Gatwick Airport's press office down the A23, and has even seconded Jan Grasty, a marketing adviser from Nestle - which has its headquarters in the town. "I looked on Croydon as a brand," she explains, "the same way as Nescafe is a brand ... It's a classic marketing exercise."

One of her main tasks is to build up Croydon as a tourist attraction. Every town and region in the country is waking up to the money-making potential of tourism. Last year saw a record number of foreign tourists - 24 million - visit Britain. Croydon, wants a piece of that action. It's not Mission: Impossible, but it's close. You've heard of Bronte Country, or Shakespeare Country - but Croydon Country?

Leaving East Croydon station - either a futuristic jewel, or a spaceship remaindered from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, depending on your point of view - things don't look promising. You are struck by the unambiguous concreteness of the surroundings. Indeed, the sounds of the Specials' song "Concrete Jungle" quite possibly ring in your ears. Standing on the central reservation of the town's main drag - a dual carriageway called Wellesley Road - dwarfed by skyscrapers, you could almost be in a mini- Manhattan.

But all is not lost. Two minutes' walk finds you in the oasis of the Clocktower, Croydon's vibrant new cultural centre, which opened last year, and this week won the IBM Multimedia prize in the Museum of the Year awards. Here is an eagerness to innovate and throw off the old stereotypes about the town. Sally MacDonald, the principal museum officer at the centre, keenly takes up the story. "We're aiming to give people variety and put Croydon on the map. We don't just want to do safe exhibitions and predictable stuff ... Croydon has had a reputation for being soulless, so one of the things we needed to do was demonstrate there was life here."

As she shows me round an innovative exhibition called Cyburban Fantasies, which puts Virtual Reality into a domestic context, I begin to grasp her point. "You can see things here you can't see anywhere else," she continues. "People don't want a museum full of fossils. We'll continue to take risks." The visitors' book (below) shows these are paying off.

In the Tourist Information Centre, Liz Hollowood, its manager, contends that "things have changed dramatically here". Underlining what tourists like to do best, she adds: "We are a good shopping base and the largest retail area in the South-east outside the West End. At Christmas, the hotels have coachloads of people up from the south coast."

However, she stresses that Croydon has gone all Europhiliac, too. "It's linked to the Channel Tunnel. We've had a lot more French and German people recently." That has been aided no end by the creation of a home page about the joys of Croydon on the Internet, which has apparently netted a particularly large number of Russians. The tourist boom is reflected in retail sales, up 14 per cent on last year.

Strolling around the town centre, you are pleasantly surprised by an array of good restaurants and the happy co-existence of religions ancient (16th-century almshouses, and a palace where six archbishops of Canterbury came to stay) and modern (the Whitgift Shopping Centre is, to some, a 20th-century cathedral.)

Ms Grasty admits that the town is never going to be another Florence, but: "I say to the sneerers, 'come and have another look...' We're extending the use of Croydon. People won't come here just to work or shop. They'll come to have a good time as well."

As we part, Ms Grasty lists famous old Croydonians - Peggy Ashcroft (a theatre is named after her), David Lean (there is a cinema in his honour), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (his former residence is now an old people's home) and Kate Moss. Now there's something for the marketeers to work on - the Kate Moss Trail.

'Cyburban Fantasies' runs at the Croydon Clocktower (0181-253 1030) until 1 December