Bridging the Gap

By Brian Johnston

Originally published on Advocate.com July 05 2009 11:00 PM ET

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Newcastle is a city of bridges. The renowned Victorian railway engineer Robert Stephenson built High Level Bridge in 1849. Another, the Tyne Bridge of 1928, is a scaled-down version of the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge, with its distinctive humpbacked arch, and was once the symbol of this former industrial hub of the British Empire.

Then in 2000 a new pedestrian bridge was opened and became an instant icon. The curved span of Gateshead Millennium Bridge (Gateshead-Quays.com) elegantly pivots upward to form a soaring arch under which ships can pass. It's a very sexy piece of architectural design.

The bridges, old and new, are handy metaphors for the transformation in this onetime workhorse city now elbowing its way onto the world stage. The sight of the Millennium Bridge opening at night, like a giant cyclops eye over a trendy waterfront of art galleries and bars, is one of Europe's most heartening urban scenes. The Millennium Bridge was merely the overture in a decade of operatic-scale projects to regenerate a city that had seen the worst of post-industrial decline. These projects have just been completed with the May opening of the Great North Museum (TWMuseums.org.uk).

Move over, London; Newcastle aspires to be England's center of hip and happening, ready to debunk the notion that U.K. culture begins and ends with the capital. The city has scrubbed off the last of its coal dust and re-created itself as a chic urban center, oozing reinvented Victorian elegance, luxury boutique hotels, and impressive cultural attractions. Newcastle is vigorously making its way into the national limelight by developing smart shopping boutiques, a lively bar scene, some of northern England's best restaurants, and, most visibly, remarkable architecture.

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The Tyne River-forever central to a city officially known as Newcastle Upon Tyne-was the major locus of change and is now lined with chic apartment buildings and vibrant bars. An extraordinary building of glass, steel, and aluminum dominates: the Sage Gateshead concert hall (TheSageGateshead.org), where acoustic perfection combines with beautiful river views from its lobby. Just downriver, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (BalticMill.com), housed in a converted flour mill, has become a rival to London's Tate and features constantly changing exhibits by modern art's biggest names, from the work of English conceptual artist Sam Taylor-Wood to the large-scale sculptures of Chinese artist Wang Du.

Away from the river, Laing Art Gallery (TWMuseums.org.uk) is the region's premier art collection, including works by Joshua Reynolds, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, and Henry Moore. Blue Carpet, a public art installation, steals attention in the square outside the museum, with its tiles folded to resemble fabric turned up at the edges, and glass benches illuminated in different colors. And if you care to take some culture home, Newcastle now boasts the largest commercial art space in the U.K. at Biscuit Factory (TheBiscuitFactory.com), which offers the pick of drawings, sculpture, furniture, and glassware from all over the world.

For all its aspirations, Newcastle hasn't yet surrendered its cheerful manner. Perhaps it's the city's working-class roots that make its scene a fun alternative to London's and provide another good reason to visit. Geordies (the nickname for people from this area) are a friendly lot and renowned for their drinking prowess. An energetic nightlife sees late evenings get loud and a bit uninhibited-though safe.

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New and noteworthy dining experiences include the ambitious British cuisine of Blackfriars (BlackfriarsRestaurant.co.uk) and Café 21 (CafeTwentyOne.co.uk), where chef Terry Laybourne presents seasonal bistro food with considerable flair: Try the venison with wild mushrooms and tarte tatin.

The city also has one of the country's fastest-growing and most vibrant gay scenes in what is referred to as the "gay village" or "pink triangle," a relatively compact area just west of the city center. Actually mostly mixed gay and straight, it has a relaxed vibe, with a good dose of hedonism and humor thrown in; the lumberjack decor of the Eagle leather bar on Scotswood Road-the main gay strip-will amuse Monty Python fans. The lack of pretension in the gay scene is refreshing, epitomized by Camp David (CampDavidNewcastle.com), where an interior of bare brick and chrome furnishings is so unassuming, it's retro cool.

It must be just about the only place in town that looks back to the 1960s, when this northern English city was a blackened post-industrial center with no prospects. Now chic, sleek, and with considerable urban style, Newcastle has its cyclops eye fixed firmly on the future.