Indeed Scotland’s scenic highlands are spectacular, and there are countless bonny banks, monster-filled lochs, ancient castles and, yes, sheep. However, I quickly learned it offers much more than green hills, single-malt Scotch whisky and rich history. I also discovered Scotland’s best-kept secret: Glasgow.
Home to more than a half-million citizens, Glasgow is a modern, forward-moving city filled with arresting architecture, pristine parks, shopping streets and bustling public squares. Respectful of its past, with its face set toward the future, Glasgow is on the rise. Emerging in the new millennium as a hip cultural Mecca of museums, music, shopping and culinary delights, Glasgow is a thriving community committed to the arts and a hub for new digital media businesses and more.
One of the UK’s most vibrant stylish cities, Glasgow is also consistently voted as the top place to shop in the UK outside London’s West End. With over 1,500 shops, ranging from unique vintage stores, independent record shops to brand- named chains and boutiques of exclusive designers, Glasgow is often considered as fashionable but more affordable than London.
To borrow a Scottish colloquialism, Glasgow is “pure dead-brilliant.”
“Each time I return, I am surprised by the changes I see,” says world-renowned photojournalist and Glasgow native Harry Benson, who holds the royal title Commander of the Order of the British Empire. “Today Glasgow is an exciting, modern city: 25-30 years ago you would never have seen an outdoor cafe, but now they are all over the place. The art galleries and the museums are also some of the best in the world, but of course that has always been true,” says Benson, who once attended the Glasgow School of Art. Today he resides on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “I am very proud to have come from Glasgow. It has a tremendous history in myriad fields, including commerce, medicine, architecture, ship building, education and art.”
What to see and where to stay in Glasgow?
First, settle into a centrally located hotel, like the Blythswood Square Hotel & Spa. Located close to the city center on Blythswood Square Park, this posh boutique hotel offers an utterly civilized retreat from the bustle of the city. An award-winning 5-star spa hotel with 100 guest rooms, including individual suites and a magnificent penthouse, this contemporary hotel is housed in a historic Georgian property that served as the clubhouse for the Royal Scottish Automobile Club from 1910-2002.
Less than a mile away, Buchanan Street offers a golden style-mile of boutiques, department stores, designer brand shops, cafes and restaurants. Nearby, there’s also a major train station and handy metro stop. The Gallery of Modern Art near George Square is close by, as well as outdoor cafes and park-like plazas, music clubs and the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.
Art is alive
Glasgow’s most beautiful building and finest treasure trove of art and antiquities, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is an enormous Spanish Baroque-style building featuring a large arms and armor collection, extensive natural history collections and works by the Old Masters, French Impressionists, Dutch Renaissance painters, Scottish colorists and artists from the Glasgow School of Art. A must-see at the museum is Salvador Dalí’s famous painting of Christ of Saint John of the Cross. The Kelvingrove offers free admission, as do all civic museums and galleries in Glasgow.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
If your idea of fine art is a souped-up muscle car or motorcycle, the Zaha Hadid-designed, multi-award-winning Riverside Museum is for you. Named the 2013 European Museum of the year award, it is housed on the banks of Glasgow Harbor and attracts a half-million visitors each year. It’s a thrilling place for visitors of all ages because it is home to over 3,000 objects that detail Glasgow’s rich maritime past, as well as trains, planes, automobiles, bicycles, streetcars, skateboards, boats and the Tall Ship Glenlee anchored in the harbor just outside the back door. Even the building is exciting – its roofline is shaped like an EKG readout of a healthy heartbeat.
The creative heart of Glasgow is the Glasgow School of Art. Founded in January 1845, in 1896 a then-unknown junior draftsman, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, won a competition earning the chance to design a new building for the school. Today Mackintosh is considered one of the finest architects of his time and his Art Nouveau masterpiece building remains an active working art school and an important architectural monument in its own right. Enjoy a Mackintosh Building Tour to see where Glasgow’s most talented and famous artists get their start.
Music for art’s sake
Music always takes center stage in Glasgow. For a good overview of the local music scene, duck into Stereo, a hip vegan-friendly restaurant /coffee shop with a basement music club located near the popular Buchanan shopping street. While there, upload GuidiGo app to your phone and enjoy a “Walking Heads” music-themed audio walking tour with the inside track on great Glasgow music venues.
Two of the city’s best most famous music clubs are the famous King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut, where international and Scottish bands have played since 1990, and the Barrowland Ballroom, a popular venue dating back to the 1930s. With a rich history as a ballroom dancing site standing adjacent to the Barras Market, Barrowlands has welcomed world’s most famous musicians, including Bob Dylan and Bono. Also check out The Arches, a non-profit arts venue, nightclub, bar, theater and live-music club situated in the City Centre under the Glasgow Central station. In Glasgow’s West End, visit Òran Mór, a live-music club, restaurant and pub set in a converted church, known for its “A Play, a Pie and a Pint” lunchtime theatre programs. While in the West End, be sure to dine at Cail Bruich, named Glasgow’s “Best Restaurant” in the 2013 Scottish Entertainment Awards. For another fun dining experience, waiters at Mister Singh’s India wear kilts while serving authentic Indian cuisine.
On my last night in Glasgow, I attended a Celtic Connections winter music festival concert by Mogwai, an internationally famous Glaswegian band. Their music, like their hometown, is unique and difficult to categorize: Both are an amalgamation of vibrant colors, experimental artistic threads, serene spots, loud eruptions, bright lights and beauty. Both draw from their roots yet offer something new and inspiring.
Like every great city, Glasgow is mercurial. It defies stereotypes and exceeds expectations. It has many faces: some as old and smooth as Scotch whisky, some young, rough, ready and hopeful. Yes, Glasgow is many things, but most of all it’s the modern Scotland I’d hoped to find
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