Testament to the transformative power of money spent wisely, the past decade has seen once-derelict riverside plots become home to two internationally recognised institutions – the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and the Sir Norman Foster-designed Sage Music Centre, a converted flour mill and a giant glittering armadillo, with the pioneering ‘blinking eye’ Millennium Bridge curving gracefully out from their midst. Like Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, these icons of modernity have been embraced by people taking new pride in the unique nature of their hometown.

While grand, photogenic projects like these are putting Newcastle and Gateshead on the map, small-scale ventures are thriving like never before. Combined with an enthusiastic volunteer culture and DIY mindset, funding and support for writers, artists and musicians are helping engender a real creative boom up north. Areas like Tyneside’s Ouseburn Valley teem with studios and, leaving rivalries to the sporting arena, the arts are linking forces across the rivers Tyne, Wear and Tees to include the music talent, contemporary arts and club culture of Sunderland and Middlesborough as part of one big scene. Never having had a superclub or an equivalent to Madchester or Merseybeat, Newcastle and its close northern neighbours are continuing to resist categorisation and go their own way. Pioneering back in the mid-’90s what’s now becoming a global trend, the Newcastle Green Festival is now the UK’s biggest free community environmental festival and, undeterred by losing out to Liverpool for next year’s European Capital of Culture, Newcastle’s latest bid is to become the world’s first carbon-neutral city.

So while you’re still welcome to come and try to keep pace with the locals on a night out, remember there’s more to life here than that these days. This northern hub has its eye on the future: here’s where to be part of it.

With restoration underway at the original site of what is the last newsreel cinema in Britain, the beloved Tyneside (www.tynecine.org) is currently on holiday across the river at the rather lovely Victorian Old Town Hall in Gateshead. Taking things even further from the mainstream, the Side Cinema has formed part of local film and photography collective Amber (www.amber-online.com) since the 1970s and last year saw the opening of the volunteer-run Star and Shadow (www.starandshadow.org.uk), offering a truly independent programme of films, festivals and arts events and a base for the Mobile Cinema (www.themobilecinema.org.uk), an ‘independent nomadic venue’ housed in a 1970s Sprite caravan.

Kicking off the festival season, Evolution (www.evolutionfestival.co.uk) is a week-long showcase of local and international talent spread over six venues and culminating in a free, all-day outdoor gig which this year hosted 15 acts over two stages on the Newcastle and Gateshead quaysides. But unless you’re planning ahead for next year, time your visit instead to take in a gig at the Sage Centre (www.thesagegateshead.org), an awe-inspiring building whose three performance spaces boast such attention to acoustics you’ll think you’ve been given new ears.

Fine beers and finer music make it well worth heading out of the centre to venues like The Cluny and the Cumberland Arms. Corporate as all hell it may be, but the Academy plugs the medium-sized-venue gap nicely, with decent options nearby on Pink Lane and around Central Station for pre/post-gig beers.

Museums and galleries
It’s big, it’s free and it’s excellent, so there’s no excuse not to have the Baltic on your agenda. The Laing is the north-east’s principal fine art gallery, while at the other end of the spectrum you’ll find art films and animation from the Waygood Gallery at their ‘peephole’ Little Jewel Cinema, and if you’ve got a bit of cash to splash, the Biscuit Factory is Britain’s biggest original art store (and also home to the damn fine Black Door Brasserie).