First stop London. Second stop Edinburgh. Is there even a third stop on a typical UK vacation?
Of course there is, even if London and Edinburgh tend to get the most attention. London alone attracts about 15 million more visitors than the second closest English city. But the next time you're there, we suggest getting out of the city and spending the weekend in Newcastle, northern England's capital. Much discovery awaits there, considering its struggle for visitor numbers to approach anything near the one-million mark -- somewhat surprising, considering that the readers of The Guardian consider it the UK’s best city. Here's how to join the cool kids club and experience this Geordie center for yourself.
Since it’s the major city of northern England, getting to Newcastle is a breeze. National express trains from London take about three and a half hours ($150 round-trip). You could also hop on a quick flight via budget airline Flybe ($100 round-trip), and Bla Bla Car remains a popular option if you're comfortable road-tripping with a stranger (around $40 round-trip).
Where to Stay
For starters, there’s a multitude of offerings from city center to neighboring Gateshead, which is literally across the Millennium Bridge. But we’ll stick to the smart-luxury approach here. Hotel Indigo, a stone's throw from Grainger Market, offers colorfully and quirkily decorated rooms starting at less than $140 per night. Overlooking the Millennium Bridge and with sterling views of the Tyne, Malmaison offers a premium location with some swank -- just venture into the cocktail bar to see what we mean -- and rooms that start from $125 per night. If you’re on a tighter budget but want to avoid stag parties in a hostel, the Premier Inn (a trusty chain in the UK) has centrally located rooms for a bit less than $100 per night.
Although Newcastle once donned a ruggedness comparable to the U.S.A.'s Rust Belt decades ago, it's all about the nicely preserved Georgian elegance these days. Eldon Square is the city center’s main attraction, with grassy knolls for picnics and high-end shopping (of the window variety, anyway). The other famed icon here is, obviously, the landmark after which the city is named. The “new" castle, Castle Keep, was built in 1080 and has been in use since Roman times. After a £1.67 million revamp, its now $10 to enter the castle as well as the Black Gate gatehouse.
Speaking of ancient times, the Roman walls just outside the city are among the most preserved in the world -- perfect for a splendid summer stroll. Within the city itself, we'd say that the walkability is one of the best features here. We love the walk across the Millennium Bridge to Gateshead, down Grey Street, and to the Quayside. If you really want to feel like a local, snag a Cornish pasty from each Greggs bakery you pass.
In case you missed the “stag” mentions above, Newcastle is a notoriously boozy city. You'll want to line your stomach with some smart pub food and a beer first. Try The Cluny -- also an art gallery and concert venue -- where entrees cost around $12, or go under the Tyne Bridge to The Bridge Tavern, whose beers are well-known and where lighter dishes start from $6. Want to keep it even more casual? Just snag a baked good from The French Oven in Grainger Market.
Once you've fueled up, head to Cumberland Arms for a more authentic look at Newcastle, with live sword dancing and folk music and local brews like Northern Alchemy ($6). The best quirky cocktail joint may just be Alvinos, which serves complex concoctions among an eclectic array of comics and pinball machines. And it’s three floors, so you’re bound to find a seat that suits you. Finally, if you're craving some relaxation and good views, grab a beer at the Free Trade Inn -- and take advantage of their selfie stick.