Glasgow, once best avoided, has been reborn as a city of art, culture and fun with a plethora of whisky, rum and gin distilleries and breweries. Travel editor Winsor Dobbin goes exploring.
Glasgow is a city on the move; home to friendly folk with fire in their bellies. With a buzzy vibe and hundreds of historic buildings, Scotland’s biggest city also has plenty of surprises for visitors with a huge range of street art to be savoured and plenty of talented buskers. What was once a bleak industrial wasteland following the closure of shipyards and heavy industry is today a vibrant city with its own style of sass.
Glasgow is lively, cheeky and irreverent and was recently the United Kingdom’s leading cultural and creative city by the European Commission. The report also ranked Glasgow as Europe’s leader for “openness, tolerance and trust”. In contrast to days gone by, Glasgow today feels totally safe, even for late night strollers.
Glasgow was named ahead of London, Bristol, Brighton and Manchester which make up the rest of the top five cities for culture vultures in the UK. Edinburgh, its closest Scottish rival, was ranked sixth in the list. The Cultural and Creative Cities Monitor 2019 report looked at 190 cities from across 30 European countries and ranked 29 different aspects of a city’s cultural health, including its cultural vibrancy, creative economy and ability to attract creative talent and stimulate cultural engagement.
The report said: “Glasgow was one of the first European Capitals of Culture, in 1990. Known as an industrial city, it has now gained recognition as a creative and cultural centre of European importance.”
Dr Bridget McConnell CBE, the chair of Glasgow Life, said: “We always knew Glasgow was a global cultural leader and we’re delighted that the European Commission has confirmed our position of the UK’s leading cultural and creative city. “Glasgow is a city bursting with energy, passion and creativity and filled with artists, designers, creators and innovators. We have world-class museums and galleries, incredible architecture and history and as a UNESCO City of Music, there’s nowhere better to enjoy a gig.
“A focus for the performing arts and a hub for the creative industries, it’s no wonder that we’ve come out top of the ranking. What’s more, our openness, tolerance and trust has been rated as the best in Europe, confirming what we already know, that our people make Glasgow the best city in the world.”
Glasgow is home to more than 100 cultural organisations and five of Scotland’s six internationally renowned national performing arts companies. It is also home to music venues including the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, City Halls and the Old Fruit market.
More people visit Glasgow’s museums each year than in any other UK city outside of London, with both Kelvingrove Art Gallery and the Riverside Museum attracting more than 1.3 million visits each in the last year. Glasgow’s nine city museums are home to Europe’s largest civic arts collection, with masterpieces by Dali, Van Gogh, Degas, Renoir, Whistler and Monet all on show for free in the city’s museums.
The city is also the place to come to admire the genius of architect and designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, or a gig at the futuristic-looking SSE Hydro, which in 2018 was named the world’s best performing music venue by size.
The city is also home to the Glasgow Jazz Festival, Glasgow International Comedy Festival and the Glasgow Film Festival.
I’d advise any first-time visitor to take a hop-on, hop off bus tour of the city to gain an idea of its size. The bus stops at highlights including Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow University (for some amazing views of the city), Glasgow Cathedral, Riverside Museum, the People’s Palace and Botanic Gardens.
Glasgow is also an easy city to find your way around. Built on a grid system. It is compact to navigate, either on foot or public transport. If you get lost, the friendly, sassy locals will probably engage you in chat before giving directions. Sports lovers, meanwhile, will want to take in the atmosphere of a home game at either Celtic or Rangers, two of the most famous football clubs on the planet – and fierce rivals.
Some highlights of my visit:
Glasgow’s cuisine is a million miles away from the Irn-Bru and deep-fried Mars bar image of a couple of decades ago. Today, Glaswegians dine out at modern eateries like The Gannet, in the city’s buzzing West End. This multi-award-winning restaurant celebrates the best of Scottish produce, dictated by the rhythms of the seasons. The service here is spot on, there is a terrific wine list and diners can choose from the likes of halibut caught off the isle of Gigha served with celeriac and grains; and Cairngorm red deer game sausage with beetroots and wild mushrooms.
The food tastes as good as it sounds and the chefs have close links with Scottish scallop divers, oyster growers, fishermen, smokers, farmers and game producers.
For a more traditional experience, enjoy afternoon tea in the 200-seat Mackintosh at the Willow tea rooms on Sauchiehall Street. The famous Art Nouveau tea rooms first opened in 1903 and are of huge importance to Glasgow’s architectural and cultural heritage and are the only surviving tea rooms designed by famous local architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh for local entrepreneur Miss Kate Cranston.
Think elegant finger sandwiches, including Scottish smoked salmon and cream cheese, bite-sized plain and fruit scones served with homemade jam and clotted cream; a selection of traditional cakes and a choice of leaf teas and freshly brewed coffee.
Another standout, for the atmosphere as much as the food, is the old-school Hutchesons City Grill, in an ornate city dining room furnished along the lines of a hunting lodge or a gentleman’s club. Marquee dishes here include roast monkfish on the bone and Cote De Boeuf, made from Scottish Highland beef.
Other top dining options include Brian Maule at Chardon d’Or, Ox and Finch, Number 16 and Cail Bruich.
Serious coffee lovers will want to check out one of the Single End outlets, or Spitfire Espresso, while the SWG3 arts complex is the latest hub of creativity, live entertainment and partying.
The Clydeside Distillery, in an old pump house on the banks of the River Clyde, is one of Glasgow’s newest attractions; offering distillery tours, comparative tastings and lunches. The facility is Glasgow’s first single-malt distillery in over 100 years.
Also check out the Wester Distillery in the West End suburb of Partick for a tour, tasting and cocktail class and make an appointment to sample the gins and vodkas at the Glasgow Distillery in the outer suburb of Hillingdon. Try the Makar Glasgow Gin, the city’s first.
The Tennent’s Heritage Centre offers a journey through the colourful history of Scotland’s favourite beer, tracing the history of Tennent’s Lager from 1556 to the present day. A fascinating insight into both Scottish history and culture.
Craft beers are also popular; check out Brew Dog, West and the Drygate Brewing Company.
At night, pop into the Ben Nevis bar for a whisky tasting and some live music.
The writer was a guest of Glasgow Life www.glasgowlife.org.uk and the Moxy Hotel Merchant City.
Where to stay
The Moxy Hotel Merchant City is just a short stroll from the city centre and is a lively area known for its many eateries, student bars, art galleries and coffee shops.
The funky Moxy (pictured top) is part of the Marriott group and is just a short walk from both Glasgow Cathedral and the landmark George Square.
There is a casual vibe with friendly staff and the rooms feature complimentary wifi, flat-screen TVs and tea- and coffee-making facilities.
Amenities include an industrial-chic 24-hour cafe/bar with a lively vibe, a lounge and a fitness centre. Prices start from around $80 per night but rise steeply in peak periods, so it pays to book in advance.
210 High Street Glasgow G4 OQW
Tel: +44 141 846 0256.