When I saw that Newcastle made it onto Rough Guide's list for top destinations to visit in 2018 at the tailend of last year, I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised. I'd heard plenty about great nights out on 'The Toon', but until that point I had never even considered Newcastle a tourist destination. That said, a few clicks later I found myself booked on a cheap flight for a long weekend away.
Arriving on a Friday evening, seeing scantily-dressed merrymakers -boys and girls- trawling the town centre, nor such a large quantity of Greggs bakeries -one even open 24 hours- was not totally unexpected. Two stereotypes checked off already.
And after just a short stroll through the little side streets off the beautifully Georgian Grey Street, the 'good night out' tag is already in evidence with bars and clubs almost on every corner.
It's still early, though; one popular spot to get your night started is The Stand comedy club. In this back-street basement, both up-and-coming stand-ups, as well as the occasional celebs wanting to test out material before embarking on national tours, share a stage.
With a strong student vibe -and student prices to match- this is a wonderful place for any outsider to get a feel for the city, experiencing the "Geordie geniality" as Rough Guides puts it, and gauging the strong sense of identity.
This is one thing that struck me listening to the local comics especially was the underlying local pride. In among the characteristic self-deprecation, it was always impossible to separate the performer from their hometown. The north-east may have got a bad rap in years gone by, but even visitors can quickly see that there are many reasons to be proud of this city.
Strolling down the river Tyne on a beautiful sunny day, it's hard to think of any 500-metre stretch in the world with more fabulous architecture. It's a photographer's dream; in your panorama shot, from left to right, you can capture the magnificent tilting Gateshead Millennium Bridge; the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art housed in a landmark converted mill; the award-winning Sage Gateshead concert venue and cultural centre, distinguished by its state-of-the art curving steel roof; and of course the Tyne bridge.
Opened by King George V on 10 October 1928, this through-arch bridge became the stand-alone symbol of Tyneside until a mass regeneration programme took hold during the last 30 years and turned this industrial hub into the vibrant cosmopolitan city that exists today. Galleries, shops and restaurants have taken the place of heavy industry and Tyneside is now the cultural reference for the whole north east of England.
The Great Exhibition
To celebrate this, for the past month and until 9 September, Newcastle, alongside neighbouring Gateshead, is hosting the Great Exhibition of the North. The aforementioned BALTIC and Sage are joined by the Great North Museum in presenting events which tell the story of Northern England and celebrate how its artists and innovators have helped shape the world.
Step into a world shaped by the best of northern design by following the art, design or innovation trails or, for the more laid back, follow a select itinerary and mix it up by dropping in at one of the many tearooms, delis or eateries also participating by offering 'Inspired By' menus.
One such place, on Newcastle's Quayside, is the stylish Dobson & Parnell, offering a modern take on traditional north-east fare, using fresh local ingredients.
For the more traditional atmosphere, check in to Blackfriars, believed to be the oldest dining room in the UK, located in the restored 13th-century friary's former refectory.
Sit either in the main restaurant and enjoy traditional dishes such as braised beef Wellington and hanger steak or go for the full experience and book the recently and meticulously refurbished medieval Banquet Hall, where King Edward III used to receive Royal Scot, Edward Balliol, in 1334.
"From a chef's perspective, the produce that surrounds us is phenomenal," says Troy Terrington, chef-patron at Dobson & Parnell. "Food trends tend to develop a bit slower as you travel further north, but good trends seem to stick for a long time."
This is why pan haggerty, North Sea fishcakes, Northumbrian ham terrine and singin' hinnies are still an essential part across the menus in several of its 'sister' restaurants across Tyneside, all unique in their feel, but with the distinctive and charming local 'accent' in common.
"The people, atmosphere, natural landscape and breathtaking scenery all make Tyne & Wear an incredible destination," says Terrington. So, with the uncharacteristically warm weather and family-friendly activities taking place across the city and wider region, there is no better time to book your flights to Newcastle.