For most of the 19th century Whitley Bay was a mining and fishing settlement on a rugged stretch of the North Sea Coast.
But things changed quickly as the town was reborn as a holiday resort, with tourists arriving from nearby Newcastle on the newly built railway.
On Whitley Bay’s majestic coastline is a two-mile Blue Flag beach bordered by the quaint old fishing harbour at Cullercoats and St Mary’s Lighthouse, which is now a visitor attraction.
The beach is traced by the Links, a vast tract of greenery, and there’s a taste of Edwardian seaside glamour at the Spanish City (1910), a magnificent entertainment venue that has been relaunched as a dining destination.
Whitley Bay is on the Tyne and Wear Metro, putting all the attractions at nearby Tynemouth at your fingertips.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Whitley Bay:
1. Whitley Bay Beach
Two miles long, Whitley Bay beach is all golden sand speckled with little rocky crops.
There’s a raised promenade behind, which itself is backed by the open greenery of the Links on the foreshore.
Come for a walk here in any season, when you’ll have clear views over the bay to St Mary’s Lighthouse.
But when things warm up in summer there’s a great deal happening on the Blue Flag beach, like an annual sand castle competition at the end of July.
After unwinding on the beach, you may be up for a bite at the Rendezvous Cafe, or a round of mini golf or even “footgolf” on the Links.
2. St Mary’s Lighthouse
When the tide is out you can cross the causeway to St Mary’s Island for the Victorian lighthouse, which was deactivated in 1984. This emblem for Whitley Bay dates back to 1898 and is built with 750,000 bricks and 645 stone blocks.
The best, and most taxing, part of your visit will be heading up the 137 steps for the phenomenal vistas over Whitley Bay and Tyneside.
At the foot of the lighthouse is a small complex with a visitor centre where you can read up on the history of the lighthouse, see the original Fresnel lens and learn about the species that reside in the nature reserve that now makes up most of St Mary’s Island.
There’s also a live feed from the top of the lighthouse for anyone who can’t make the climb.
3. Seaton Delaval Hall
In Whitley Bay’s hinterland is a magnificent English Baroque country house designed by Jon Vanbrugh for Admiral George Delaval.
Now owned by the National Trust, Seaton Delaval Hall was a ten-year project, finally completed in 1729, by which time both Vanbrugh and Delaval had died.
Over the next hundred years the house was only occupied for short spells, and catastrophe struck in 1822 when the central block was gutted by fire.
Although there were restorations in the 1860s the fire damage is still obvious today, especially in the Central Hall which has charred walls and muse statues.
On a self-guided visit you can poke around this space, as well as the stables and the dimly lit basement where the staff lived and worked.
Outside, Vanbrugh’s landscape survives in all its glory, and its woodland is special in spring when the daffodils are in flower.
4. Spanish City
As essential to Whitley Bay as the lighthouse, this whitewashed Renaissance-style hall was built on the seafront in 1910. Hard to miss for its white dome and the Bacchanalian statues cresting its towers, Spanish City was Whitley Bay’s answer to Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach.
Initially there was a concert hall, restaurant, tearooms and roof garden inside, and this was later joined by a ballroom and funfair.
By the 1990s this icon was run down and had to be closed at the start of the 2000s.
But, following a seven-year restoration, Spanish City reopened in 2018 as an events and dining centre.
Inside there’s a fish and chip restaurant, a traditional tearoom, the upmarket eatery 1910, a waffle and pancake house and a champagne bar.
5. Longsands Beach
One stop on the Tyne and Wear Metro and you’ll be at the north end of another Blue Flag beach.
Tynemouth’s Longsands Beach is a tempting sandy bay, a mile long and commanded from the north by the dark spire of St George’s Church.
The biggest difference between Longsands and Whitley Bay is the surf, which is a bit more boisterous.
The fun, reliable beachbreak is one of the best in the North East, and surf lessons are available for newbies.
Some of the UK’s top professional surfers train at Longsands and the British National Surfing Championships have taken place here.
There’s lots of room for families to make the most of the beach on summer days, playing on the sand and paddling in the pools and shallows when the tide goes out.
6. Tynemouth Priory and Castle
Two stops on the Metro will get you to a Medieval site that was once one of the England’s largest fortified complexes.
Posted on a rugged headland and defended by a moat are the towers, keep and gatehouse of a castle, all beside a ruined Benedictine priory where the early-Medieval Kings of Northumbria were buried.
You have to come to gauge the amazing dimensions of this site, look over the ruins and survey the Tyne and North Sea from this elevated position.
After the priory was dissolved during the Reformation the church became a parish church for a time, and the main survivor is the 13th-century chapel below, which has a beautiful painted ceiling, rose window and an abundance of stained glass.
In the Second World War a gun battery was built into the cliff below the site, and these restored emplacements have been opened to the public.
7. Tynemouth Park
Above the beach at Tynemouth there’s a leisure park with loads for kids to get up to in summer.
Just for under-14s, Jungle Wipeout is a world of inflatable slides and exhausting but fun obstacles and challenges.
The Lost World adventure golf course is in a tropical landscape inhabited by dinosaurs, with a prize on offer for anyone who can complete the final hole.
There’s also an adventure playground, scavenger hunt and maze at Pirate Quest, while the park’s Boating Lake,designed in Victorian times, offers rowing and pedal-boating in the company of ducks and other wildfowl.
Lastly, the Greenhouse is a friendly family restaurant by day, transforming into a night out for grown-ups with beer on tap and live music.
This 630-seater theatre was given a complete overhaul in the early 2010s as part of a £64million regeneration of Whitley Bay.
The venue had been around since the 1930s, and the crumbling building was turned into a state-of-the-art performing arts venue.
The theatre has a lively community programme if you’re interested in sampling local talent.
But there’s also a busy schedule of touring theatre companies, musicals, tribute acts, comedians, special events for children and talks by politicians and cultural figures.
Look out for the Whitley Bay Film Festival in August, which has a carefully curated lineup of classic movies.
9. Cullercoats Beach
Tucked between Whitley Bay and Longsands Beach is the horseshoe Cullercoats Bay, which is hemmed by cliffs and rocks and protected from the north and south by hardy stone piers.
On calm days, the sea at Cullercoats Beach is almost pool-like, and when the tide comes in there are two distinct beaches to the north and south.
The bay has been used by fishermen for hundreds of years, and you can still watch them launching their boats on the south side.
Atop the cliff to the north is the Cullercoats Watch House, dating 1879 and built for the Volunteer Life Brigade to look over the coastline.
In the 1880s the American landscape painter Winslow Homer stayed at Cullercoats, and was one of many visiting painters in what was known as the Cullercoats Colony at the turn of the 20th century.
10. Water Activities
As well as surfing there are many more options around Whitley Bay if you want to exert yourself a little.
Cullercoats Bike & Kayak hires out paddleboards and kayaks so you can experience Whitley Bay and Cullercoats’ craggy scenery from the water.
If you need some tuition or would prefer some guidance, the company also organises paddleboard and kayak tours.
On top of that you can test yourself on a coasteering adventure in Cullercoats Bay, putting on a neoprene suit, life vest and helmet to explore caves, haul yourself over reefs and see the full power of the North Sea up close.
On the other hand you might prefer dry land, and renting a bike to ride a stretch of the National Cycle Network’s Route 1.
11. Stephenson Railway Museum
The world-changing father and son engineers, George and Robert Stephenson spent 20 years in North Shields, developing their steam engines for industry.
Ten minutes inland from Whitley Bay, the Stephenson Railway Museum honours their achievements with all sorts of railway technology, including a spectacular display of locomotives.
The must-see is George Stephenson’s “Billy”, dating from 1816 and used to haul coal.
The remainder of the museum’s steam and diesel engines date from the 1880s, while there’s also an array of mid-century rolling stock and a Siemens electric locomotive, built in 1909 for a colliery line.
Sundays are the best day to come as you can take a ride on a train hauled by the “Jackie Milburn”, a Peckett 0-6-OST Ashington No. 5 steam locomotive from 1938.
12. Rising Sun Country Park
Somewhere to recharge your batteries after the Stephenson Museum, the Rising Sun Country Park is 400 acres of rural scenery in the middle of North Tyneside.
This Green Flag landscape is made up of ponds, grassland, woodland, wetland and a farm, and there’s a whole system of footpaths and cycleways to help you see it all.
The park’s lake area is a designated nature reserve with a bird hide overlooking the largest body of water, Swallow Pond.
To the north, the Countryside Centre is at the highest point of the park and has restorative views of Swallows Pond.
There’s a cafe in the centre preparing healthy meals made from scratch, and a few picnic tables out front.
13. Tynemouth Market
Another great reason to make the short trip south to Tynemouth is for the market trading on Saturday and Sunday under the Victorian iron and glass canopies of Tynemouth station.
This Grade II* building was built in 1882 for the North Eastern Railway, but since the 1980s has become a stop on the Tyne and Wear Metro.
The station’s wonderful canopy was renovated in 2012 and is a nostalgic setting for a market.
You’ll find more than 150 stalls, mostly selling collectibles, arts and crafts and antiques, but you can also pick up some satisfying hot food like Geordie bangers in a bun.
For regional fresh produce visit the farmers’ market on the third Saturday of the month, while there are regular book fairs and a Christmas Market sets up in the Advent period.
14. Blue Reef Aquarium
This tropical aquarium is on the beachfront Grand Parade in Tynemouth and has more than 40 living displays.
You’ll see lionfish, clown fish, stonefish, cownose rays and many more tropical fish species, along with a host of mammals like Asian short-clawed otters, cotton top tamarins and harbour seals.
The seals reside in a 500,000-litre pool with underwater caves and rocky haul-out areas resembling their natural habitat.
All day long there’s a schedule of talks and feeding times, when you can get up close to the reptiles, watch the seals in action and gain some fresh insights about the monkeys, seahorses, otters and rockpool species.
Whitley Bay and the neighbouring towns of Blyth and Tynemouth all have golf courses, all well-reviewed.
So you if you have a mind, you could turn your trip into one long golfing holiday.
Whitley Bay’s course has been in the same spot, just behind the resort, since 1906 and has expansive fairways fringed by tricky gorse and woodland.
Green Fees are £40 in summer, but you can get a £10 discount if you play on a weekday afternoon and book in advance.
The course at Blyth is a bit cheaper and is famed for its pristine greens, while Tynemouth Golf Club has a sumptuous par 70 parkland course designed by the revered architect Willie Park in 1913. Green fees start at £30 on weekdays, and the gentle terrain will suit older golfers.