While often overlooked by tourists seeking Harry Potter thrills in neighbouring Edinburgh, Glasgow is undeniably Scotland’s cultural heart, with the finest homegrown music scene in the country. It’s Scotland’s largest city, with a population of 800,000 – but the neat, manageable grid of a centre is easily traversed on foot, and you’re never too far away from where you’re heading. Edinburgh may be where Scotland’s regal, romantic history is based, but Glasgow is where arty, bold and musical things are happening now.
The industrial revolution was kind to the city – a veritable treasure trove of grandiose Victorian architecture – and it’s currently seeing another socio-cultural and financial boom as more and more creatives move there for its affordable housing, good vibes and proximity to nature. It’s just a short drive to Loch Lomond, while Central Station is your gateway to the West Highlands.
What to do
Explore the dynamic art scene
There’s an array of edgy, contemporary art galleries in Glasgow, a good cluster of which are based in Merchant City, just off Trongate. Start with The Modern Institute, a long-established space that exhibits work by major names like Jeremy Deller and Simon Starling. Around the corner, South Block is a multi-purpose organisation with artists’ studios and a large gallery space that always brings the goods. Street Level Photoworks is also unmissable, showing the best of Scottish photography, as well as international talent. On the other side of the centre, the Centre for Contemporary Arts, or CCA to its friends, is a hub for art exhibitions, performances, gigs and arts retailers like Aye-Aye Books and Welcome Home.
Get lost in the crowd at a gig or club
Whatever your favourite sounds, there’s something for you in Glasgow, whose bludgeoning music scene is to be thanked for indie legends Primal Scream, Franz Ferdinand, Belle and Sebastian and Deacon Blue, as well as house and techno whizzkids Eclair Fifi, Nightwave and Optimo. Head to an iconic venue like The Barrowlands, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, or the O2 Academy for all things guitar-based; or if you’re hankering for a late one, check the listings for club nights at SWG3, Room 2 and Sub Club. These joints get busy, so book tickets in advance.
Stroll through the past
It’s very easy to imagine yourself in the 19th century simply by glancing upwards in this city, but its museums and tour guides can really breathe life into those fantastic facades. The best timewarp in town is The Tenement House: a perfectly preserved 1911 apartment in that historic staple of Glasgow’s housing stock, a tenement building. The equally enchanting Kelvingrove Museum is home to 22 galleries that display everything from Ancient Egyptian artefacts to Charles Rennie Mackintosh designs. But if you’re keen to dive deeper, book yourself on one of Walking Tours in Glasgow’s reasonably-priced sojourns, which include daily ambles themed around the city centre, street art, dark history, the West End or film locations.
Where to stay
If you’re looking for affordable and snazzy, Glasgow’s Motel One, an outpost of the great German chain, is conveniently located next to the Central Station. It has colourful interiors and sassy design across the bar, lobby and 80 guest rooms, making it a super appealing and well-placed option. Double and twin rooms here start at £69 per night. motel-one.com
For special occasions at reasonable tariffs, make a beeline for ABode Glasgow – a renovated, grand Edwardian building turned boutique hotel, the rooms of which practically ooze style and elegance. There’s a delightful swathe of period features like stained glass windows and original tiled fireplaces to enjoy, as well as a delectable contemporary restaurant and in-house bar. Doubles start from £114 per night. abodeglasgow.co.uk
If a smattering of luxury is in order, Dakota is your Glasgow dream; a decadent, plush, modern hotel located right in the city centre, full of eye-watering design and layers of textiles – the perfect place to unwind after a busy day. The tasting menu at the in-house Grill restaurant is also something to behold, presenting more like art than food. Doubles come in at £210 upwards. dakotahotels.co.uk/glasgow
Where to eat
Glasgow is wonderfully multicultural and its restaurants are as diverse in cuisine as those in any cosmopolitan global city. Stalwart chain Mother India first opened its doors in 1990 and has been serving real, authentic (read: non westernised) Indian food across its five branches, in a cosy, homely environment that delights punters, including the late great Anthony Bordain. Head to their Finneston branch on Westminster Terrace for the works. If it’s South Indian cuisine you’re after though, look no further than Madras Cafe, where the dosa, idli and malai kofta are inimitably tasty and the Keralan monkfish beyond delicious.
But it would be criminal to skimp on the Scottish fare while you’re in town: in the West End you’ll find the Art-Deco-themed fine dining spot Fanny Trollopes. This team specialises in seasonal fish, seafood, Scottish beef and lamb, fowl and game, but vegans, don’t despair – the poshest falafel you’ve ever seen is up for grabs, too.
Cross the town centre, past the galleries of Trongate, to find Mharsanta, a real gem in more ways than one. An impressive menu of Scottish favourites, including haggis and veggie haggis (yes, veggie haggis!) are lovingly prepared using locally sourced produce. To add to their sustainable ethos, the restaurant is also participating in Plate up for Glasgow – a campaign highlighting the issue of food waste and its impact on our environment and the local economy.
If you’re looking for lighter bites that are just as tasty and locally-focused, the multi-award-winning Scran is the cafe for you. Classic, comforting brunch favourites from eggs benedict to toasties and rolls dominate the menu, prepared with fine Scottish ingredients like Stornoway black pudding and Corrie Mains free-range eggs – all with their own loving twist.
Just over the river in the indisputably cool Southside neighbourhood, Bar Vini gets an honourable mention for serving the best Italian food you’ll find in the city; with a rotating seasonal menu (pray for homemade ravioli) and a range of cocktails so sweet you’ll want to try them all.
Where to drink
Caffeine fans, start your day at Laboratorio Espresso, an authentic artisan Milanese espresso bar that uses the best beans sourced from around the world. Or, if you enjoy baked treats with your cuppa, head to Riverhill Coffee Bar, whose shortbread is completely irresistible.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed come evening time, as there’s many watering holes vying for the title of ‘best bar in town’. However, The Laurieston is the ultimate Glasgow vibe. A true stalwart, with a history of 185 years (the current incarnation dates back to the 1950s), this delightfully retro spot is somewhere between a working man’s club and tavern, with memorabilia on the walls guaranteed to draw you in and friendly locals who’ll make you feel welcome.
Another frontrunner is The Allison Arms, fondly known by locals as the Ally. Like The Laurieston, you’ll find it in the cool Southside. While you’ll also be greeted with big Glasgow warmth here, it’s the mind-boggling range of German and craft beers on sale that will keep you coming back for more.
If you like your drinks served with live music or a writhing dance floor, you can’t miss a night out at Nice N Sleazy, a delightfully dingy bar, club and small gig venue that has hosted more bands than you’ve had hot dinners. Probably.
Where to shop
Glasgow is brilliant for interesting independent retailers, and you’ll find community-minded and eco-conscious little shops in every corner of the city. Local institution Monorail Music is just around the corner from the art spaces of Trongate, and the best place to go record shopping and, if you’re lucky, catch an in-store gig. From there, cross Saltmarket and walk a block to find the doors of Good Press, a bookshop that stocks independent and self-published print, as well as hosting events and a book-making studio.
Vintage magpies must head to the West End, where The Glasgow Vintage Co, West Vintage and Starry Starry Night are the standouts for clothes, and the tiny (but impressively overstocked) Relics is the ultimate for bric-a-brac and collectibles. Just around the corner, the decidedly more modern Hoos stocks Nordic and Scottish design and homeware. Don’t worry if you fall in love with more items than you can carry out – they do home delivery anywhere in the UK. Another great Scandi-style homewares shop is Aume in Southside, which tastefully curates the artisanal pieces on display.
If you’re self-catering, Locovore is a great social enterprise aiming to build a more sustainable local food system, where you’ll find quality local groceries, with branches in various locations across the city (Govanhill, Garnethill and Partick).
What remains of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art is yet to be seen, after the disastrous fire of 2018, so in the meantime gorge on his small but perfectly formed Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street – a slice of Art Nouveau bliss from 1902.
Glasgow nuts and bolts:
What currency do I need?
GBP (But keep your eyes peeled and enjoy the Scottish versions of pound notes)
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
10 per cent minimum
How should I get around?
By foot, bus or local trains.
What’s the best view?
The view across the city from the Glasgow Necropolis is wonderfully panoramic, but if graveyards aren’t your thing, take yourself to the top of Mackintosh’s Lighthouse tower.
Bring an umbrella. With an annual average of 170 days of rainfall, you’ve got roughly a 40 per cent chance of showers.
How should I get there?
The train from London, the connection point for many places in the UK, takes 5-6 hours and forges an incredibly scenic route through the Lake District. There are also strong connecting rail links from cities such as Edinburgh, Birmingham or Manchester.