Saturday: shop ’til you drop, then paint the town red. Sunday: see the sights and soak up the centuries. Try two cities for the price of one for the perfect weekend break, says Elise Rana.


URBAN: Newcastle-Gateshead
OK, so the new brand name for England’s northernmost city is a touch awkward, but the country’s most photographically stunning examples of urban regeneration includes both banks of the River Tyne after all: the gleaming curves of Norman Foster’s Sage Music Centre, the converted flour mill that houses the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and the series of beautiful bridges in which the Millennium’s ‘Blinking Eye’ is just the latest.

The quayside also makes for a twin-centre night out, with new style bars popping up on a regular basis – venture to the notorious Bigg Market if you’re after something more raucous. To sink a more relaxed pint with the locals, try the Head of Steam near Central Station, the Cluny under Byker bridge or the Forth on Pink Lane. But before you hit the Brown Ale, check out the sweeping Georgian grace of Grainger Town, with Grey Street voted England’s most attractive.

More about posh students than party-hardened Geordies (the university is the country’s oldest after Oxford and Cambridge), Durham was founded more than 1000 years ago by Viking-fleeing monks from Lindisfarne.

Highlights of this handsome little city on the River Wear are the 12th century cathedral and the Norman castle, home to the ruling Prince Bishops who made the county great in medieval times. More recent, but still history, a minor detour to the acclaimed Beamish Open Air Museum will give you an insight into life around the time of the Industrial Revolution.

URBAN: Leeds
UK club capital since the dance music boom of the early ’90s with legendary nights like Back to Basics still going strong, Leeds was also an early-adopter of late-license drinking and continues to attract dedicated hedonists from all over the country – there’s plenty to keep you up past your bedtime. A designer splurge in the Victorian Quarter will kit you out accordingly – the textile merchants are gone but finance and business are booming enough to keep the tills at the northern outpost of Harvey Nicks ringing. Cricket fans can get nostalgic over past England victories with a visit to Headingley, home of the Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

From the Romans to the Vikings to 18th century aristocrats, York has clocked up enough history to make it Britain’s most haunted city. Marvel at the gothic Minster, walk the city walls or amble the Shambles (the medieval cobbled streets in the centre). Just don’t expect to be the only visitor, especially come summer when the city swarms with ’em (deservedly, at least).

URBAN: Birmingham
England’s second city gets a bad rap. Arrive via the motoring nightmare of Spaghetti Junction and you might not question why. But did you know you can enter by narrowboat?

The more-canals-than-Venice factor isn’t the only surprise – the redevelopers’ hard work has paid off handsomely in Brindleyplace, Victoria Square, and the Bullring, a sparkling new £500 million development of shops and restaurants occupying more than 26 football pitches of ground in the city centre.

Depending on your obsession, there are three other good reasons to come here – cricket (Edgbaston), The Lord Of The Rings (the Tolkien trail) and curry (the Balti Triangle).

ANCIENT: Shrewsbury
Head out toward Wales and on a loop of the River Severn you’ll find the pretty Tudor town of Shrewsbury, first settled in the 5th century.

Wheeze up steep Wyle Cop to mosey among narrow lanes and crooked black-and-white houses, then admire the Norman-to-Victorian spread of architectural styles of the red sandstone Abbey, home to fictional crime-fighting monk Brother Cadfael, the cult literary creation of Ellis Peters.

URBAN: Sheffield
Merseybeat and Madchester were proof enough that rainy Northern cities were a breeding ground for great music, but with young upstarts the Arctic Monkeys taking the world by storm, Sheffield is the latest contender for cool music capital.
Long dogged by high unemployment following the decline of the steel industry (see The Full Monty), the ’90s kickstarted a change of mood with UK students voting it best city for good times (and they should know). Don your drinking trousers and head to Division and West streets to start finding out why.

ANCIENT: Lincoln
Driving east toward the Lincolnshire Wolds, it’s a longer Sunday morning hop this time, but this keeps the crowds down – though when you lay eyes on Lincoln, you’ll wonder why. Rising from the heart of the lovely old town, the splendid Gothic cathedral, commissioned by William the Conqueror, is one of Europe’s finest.

Also dating from Norman times is the nearby castle, built over the site of the original Roman town established here.
Keep your camera handy for black-and-white Tudor buildings and medieval ruins.

URBAN: Bristol
OK, so it isn’t just the industrial northern hubs that have the monopoly on spawning cool sounds. Multicultural Bristol was put on the musical map in the ’90s by drum ‘n’ bass king Roni Size and trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky – culturally, Bristol remains a cutting-edge city that takes its cues from the street.

Head to boho Clifton for an afternoon shopping or to the futuristic @Bristol complex on Millennium Square for museums and other attractions – then hit Baldwin Street for the bars, join the students on the famed Whiteladies Road pub-crawl or head up to Stokes Croft (watch yourself on those dark streets, mind) for Lakota, a Brizzle clubbing institution.

Just 20 minutes from Bristol’s urban hipness lies a whole different world – the streets” here are ones of Georgian grandeur, evoking the elegance of the city’s 18th century prime when anyone who was anyone came here to take the waters and do a bit of general hobnobbing.

You can stroll the Royal Crescent and Circus, pay homage to one-time resident Jane Austen and visit the medieval Abbey – though you can’t quite sample the healing waters for yourself just yet. The notoriously budget-busting Thermae Bath Spa complex continues to push its completion deadline, but you can visit the remains of the original Roman baths.”