Hidden tourist capitals

 

  • We discovered the UK’s most unsung tourist destinations by calculating which places have the widest and best-rated selection of attractions for their size.

  • Newcastle upon Tyne is the ‘hidden tourist capital of the UK’, earning the best score for nightlife plus strong selections of entertainment, culture and shopping attractions.

  • The culture capital of the UK is York, which has six times more top-rated museums for its size than the average place.

  • With miles of coastline and endless indoor activities, Bournemouth is the entertainment capital of the UK.

  • Portsmouth’s stellar selection of markets, independent shops and shopping centres makes it the shopping capital of the UK.

  • Our findings suggest that Northern cities specialise in nightlife, whereas Southern cities are cultural connoisseurs.
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London is the world’s most popular tourist destination, attracting around 19 million staying visitors every year*. But it isn’t until you look beyond the bright lights of the capital that you realise how many hidden gems are competing – and winning – when it comes to culture, nightlife, entertainment and shopping. They may not share the same reputation or size as the capital, but these towns and cities are quietly laying a claim to the best tourist destinations in the nation. They are the UK’s hidden tourist capitals.

We analysed over 30,000 attractions in 95 of the largest towns and cities in the UK to discover which places excel in 20 subcategories. Taking into account the population size of each location, we used the data to crown the UK’s overall ‘hidden tourist capital’ as well as name the top five hidden hot spots for culture, nightlife, entertainment and shopping.

 

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Newcastle has the best selection of visitor attractions

The experience of visiting a new city is largely shaped by the attractions it has to offer. To discover which cities and towns are punching above their weight, we analysed how many cultural, entertainment, nightlife and shopping attractions each one has relative to the average and how highly rated they are by visitors. Read more on this in the methodology at the bottom of the page.

Here are the types of attractions we considered in each main category:

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Based on its number, variety and quality of attractions across culture, entertainment, nightlife and shopping, Newcastle upon Tyne is the UK’s ‘hidden tourist capital’, with a combined score of 93.6 out of 100.


It’s easy to see why, with highly rated attractions like the Quayside, the Metro Shopping Centre, St James’ Park stadium and much more on its doorstep.

With so much to offer, you’d expect it to be one of the most visited cities in the UK. However, in 2018, Newcastle was only the 19th most-visited city with around 214,000 ‘staying visitors’1. That’s around 1% of the number who visited and stayed in London.

In a close second place is Brighton (91.2)
, thanks to its wide range of popular nightlife and shopping destinations, many of which you can find on The Lanes. Third place goes to Oxford (76.1), which scored particularly well for cultural attractions, such as the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Rounding off the overall top five are Cambridge (74.2) and Bristol (74.1).

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The UK’s hidden nightlife, culture, entertainment and shopping capitals

Nightlife capital: Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Newcastle’s title as the ‘hidden capital’ of the UK owes a lot to its vibrant nightlife. The quality and quantity of the city’s bars, pubs, casinos and nightclubs ranked above every other location, meaning Newcastle statistically has the best nightlife in the UK. It scored 6.3 times better for casinos than the average location and 4.3 times better for nightclubs. We recommend a pint in the Free Trade Inn or a sneaky cocktail in the 1920s-themed Prohibition Cabaret Bar, the highest-rated destinations for their subcategories. 


Brighton is the exception in what is predominantly a North-centric list, with BlackpoolLiverpool and Dundee rounding off the top five nightlife hotspots in the UK.

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Cultural capital: York

The cultural capital of the UK is York. If museums are your thing, it’s 6.1 times better a place to visit than the average town or city, with the likes of the National Railway Museum and York Dungeon to choose from. There are also more top-rated galleries and exhibitions than you can expect to find elsewhere. The walled city is rich in ancient Roman history, has one of the largest and most beautiful cathedrals in Europe and has nearly three times more well-rated theatres for its size than other places.

Famed university cities Oxford and Cambridge occupy second and third place, with Edinburgh and Bristol completing the list of the top five cultural destinations in the UK.

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Entertainment capital: Bournemouth

When it comes to entertainment options, you might expect that major cities like London, Edinburgh and Manchester take centre stage. But when you scale each place’s provision of visitor attractions by its population size, Bournemouth rises to the top as the hidden entertainment capital of the UK. It attracts around 6.9 million visitors every year, with a quarter of a million ice creams sold on the seafront annually**. Even when the sun isn’t shining, there are family fun centres like Oasis Fun and Oceanarium, spa and beauty spots like Baan Thai Massage and Spa and HI Therapies and Premier League football at the Vitality Stadium, meaning there’s plenty to see and do in the South Coast town whatever the weather.

Norwich, Warrington, Cardiff and Stoke-on-Trent are the four other locations that punch above their weight and make up our top five underrated entertainment destinations in the UK, with a lot of activities for the whole family.

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Shopping capital: Portsmouth

Shoppers can often be seen parading London’s Oxford Street or navigating busy shopping centres like the Trafford Centre in Manchester and Bluewater in Kent. But are they missing a trick? According to our data, Portsmouth is the hidden shopping capital of the UK. The city has three times as many highly rated street markets than the average location and nearly twice as good a selection of fashion and shoe shops. Local institutions like Christopher Shoes and Strong Island Clothing Co are rated as the best independent shops in the area, and the modern waterfront shopping complex Gunwharf Quays is the place to go for branded outlet shops like Ralph Lauren and Ted Baker.

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Northern cities are nightlife specialists

The rivalry between North and South is etched into the very fabric of our nation. It’s usually lighthearted, but is there some truth in the arguments that the North is better for some things than the South, and vice versa?

The pink map shows that a large proportion of the attractions available in the South are culture-focused, whereas the green map suggests that the North is full of nightlife hotspots.

That doesn’t mean that the North lacks culture or that the South doesn’t know how to enjoy a good night out. These regions are specialists in their respective attractions because a large proportion of the attractions available in those towns are of that type, compared to other places. So while it may or may not be true that the North has better nightlife, and the South has more culture, it’s certainly true that a bigger emphasis is put on these areas of expertise.

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Summary

None of the top five ‘hidden capitals’ of the UK is in the top five most-visited towns and cities in the UK1. We found that Newcastle upon Tyne had the best nightlife and was the overall highest scorer across all categories, with York leading the way in culture, Bournemouth providing the best entertainment and Portsmouth offering the best shopping options. So should more tourists be looking beyond London and visiting corners of the UK with a smaller voice but plenty to shout about? Judging by our analysis, it seems so.

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Fair use statement

We’d love for you to spread the word about the UK’s Hidden Tourist Capitals. If you’d like to share our findings and images for noncommercial purposes, please link to this page so that our research team gets credit.

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Methodology

Click here for summaries of the quantity and quality of every attraction subcategory in 95 of the largest UK towns and cities.

We collected details of 30,540 visitor attractions from the UK’s 95 largest towns and cities found on Google in August of 2019. We searched for 20 subcategories of attractions: amusement parks, aquariums and zoos, art galleries, bars, beauty salons, bowling alleys, casinos, clothes shops, department stores, cinemas, museums, nightclubs, parks, pubs, shoe shops, shopping centres, spas and wellness centres, stadiums, street markets and theatres. The list of attraction subcategories was defined by selecting which of Google’s attraction types that can be queried are interesting for domestic or overseas visitors. We searched for attractions of each subcategory in every location by querying Google’s Places services using the search pattern ‘{attraction} in {town, county}’, e.g. ‘Bars in Basildon, Essex’. For every attraction, we collected its name, location coordinates, average review rating and the number of reviews it had received. We filtered out attractions from our analysis if they had received fewer than 10 reviews and if they were located beyond the town or city boundaries. We defined town boundaries where required using a search radius based on land area estimates from townslist.co.uk and governmental urban area districts.

We scored the availability of all 20 attraction subcategories in each location by summing the attractions’ Google ratings and dividing by town population sizes. This initial metric, therefore, considers the number of attractions available, the quality ratings of those attractions and accounts for the size of the location. We built a score for each attraction category (culture, nightlife, shopping or entertainment) by combining the availability scores for all its subcategories. When combining the subcategory scores, we gave more weight to subcategories that are nationally rare – for example, stadiums are rarer than cinemas, so scoring highly for stadiums makes a location more distinct than cinemas would. Attraction category scores were boosted if a high percentage of attractions were rated 4 or higher out of 5. A location’s category score was penalised if it didn’t have at least one attraction for every subcategory, which means locations with a diverse variety of attractions also got a boost to their scores.

Our data set is only as complete as Google’s directory for places of interest. There may be a small number of visitor attractions that are not listed in relevant searches on Google Maps (and Places API). Our results represent the state of the UK’s hidden tourist capitals in August of 2019, and as businesses open and close, results could vary over time.

Sources

*  https://www.visitbritain.org/town-data

**  https://www.bournemouth.co.uk/ideas-and-inspiration/news/2017/7/25/bournemouth-latest-facts-a2472

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