by Chris Leadbeater, The Telegraph, December 13, 2017
It was always an announcement that was likely to provoke a raised eyebrow or seven, and the team at Rough Guides must be delighted at the response - a relatively even mixture of surprise and bafflement, seasoned with the odd bout of "what-are-they-thinking?" behind-the-hand sniggering - that their look towards the north has sparked.
Earlier this month, the travel-guide specialist released its list of must-visit destinations for 2018. Nothing unusual here - most publications do this when a fresh 12 months is starting to hove into view. But the awarding of the coveted top spot to Newcastle - yes, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as opposed to Newcastle in the sunny south-east of Queensland, or any other Newcastle you might care to mention - has been a conversation-starter.
Cue the usual responses about how the great city of the English north-east is better known for under-dressed men and women standing outside bars in freezing conditions, and how beer runs like water through the streets on a Saturday night. Add in a picture or two of a few carefully selected exercise-reluctant Newcastle United fans in bulging black-and-white football shirts, and a clutch of images of the cast of Geordie Shore knocking back tequila shots, and the job is done. Sterotypes reinforced - next please.
You can have your own discussion as to whether Newcastle is the essential destination for next year - Rough Guides has ranked the city higher than places as varied as the Deep South of the USA, the Maltese capital Valletta (which will be one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2018), the West African mystery of Sierra Leone, ever exotic Chile and the endlessly topical Far Eastern entity that is South Korea - but there is little doubt that Tyneside metropolis deserves better appreciation in its own country.
It has museums, it has culture, it has restaurants of stellar quality and - on those nights when the Tyne Bridge is silhouetted against a rosy sunset - an urban panorama to give Tower Bridge in London, and Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, some serious competition.
True, it also has a nightlife scene which likes to keep its fires burning well into the small hours, and if you head to the Quayside on a Saturday night seeking drinks and merriment, you will not struggle to find either. But then, Barcelona and Madrid both have an appetite for evenings which become mornings (albeit amid better weather) - and you rarely see think-pieces decrying their value as contexts for weekends away. The point is that, while Newcastle loves to party, it has more to its menu than three-for-one offers on jaegerbombs, and Rough Guide's praise is belated reflection of this.
"We wanted to look at the north of England, because there's so much happening in the major cities," Coralie Modschiedler, senior web editor at Rough Guides, commented.
"Liverpool is celebrating being the capital of culture a decade ago, Manchester has so much going for it, we just felt it was Newcastle's turn, and this exhibition promises to be quite an event."
There are two valid points here. The exhibition in question is the Great Exhibition of the North, an extravaganza of art, photography and general good stuff which the city will co-host with neighbouring Gateshead (directly across the River Tyne) next summer (June 22-September 9; getnorth2018.com). The second is that Liverpool, so frequently dismissed in the past, but now seen as a worthy setting for time away, has enjoyed a resurgence in part thanks to the year it had centre-stage as European Capital of Culture in 2008. The various ramifications of Brexit have ensured that the UK is losing its next turn to hold this particular torch (this was to be in 2023. Nottingham, Leeds and Dundee were potential candidates), but the spotlight Rough Guides (among others) is currently directing at Newcastle will cause this northern star no harm at all.
Five Newcastle essentials
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art
An important caveat here - Baltic is, of course, in Gateshead, across the river. But this modern-art hub, which occupies a Thirties flour mill in much the same way that London's Tate Modern nestles within a former power station, is such a crucial dot on the Tyneside map that it would be perverse not to visit it during a weekend in Newcastle. Besides - it is very much within walking distance of the city, visible there on the opposite bank of the Tyne, and accessible via the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. baltic.art
The Biscuit Factory
Actually, the word "gallery" does not do justice this vast Victorian warehouse, which is now stuffed with artists' studios and a discernible air of creativity. You can buy works by local artists here - while eateries such as The Factory Kitchen are also excellent. thebiscuitfactory.com
Set on the University of Newcastle campus, this little kernel of the dramatic arts is known for its independent productions. It has a Royal Shakespeare Company version of Hamlet slated for February, but also hosts smaller shows and child-friendly fare. northernstage.co.uk
House of Tides
The dining landscape in Newcastle has evolved far beyond the midnight kebab shop. Helmed by chef Kenny Atkinson, House of Tides only opened on the Quayside at the start of 2014, but has just retained its Michelin star. It focuses on ingredients from the north-east, and offers lunch and dinner tasting menus from £65 and £75 respectively. houseoftides.co.uk
Grey Street Hotel
A centrally located hideaway with a boutique feel, this gem of a property offers 49 rooms in a refurbished Georgian property. Telegraph Travel reviewer Helen Pickles found particular delight in its decor. "Huge black-and-white photographs of Grey Street’s architecture make bold feature walls, while pops of colour – purple, mustard, green – in armchairs and cushions add warmth," she wrote. Double rooms from £55. greystreethotel.co.uk