The mural wrapped around the outside of The Clutha Bar depicts a series of local legends, including Billy Connolly — originally a folk singer, whose career as a comedian emerged from increasingly lengthy between-song patter — and Stan Laurel, who made his debut at the recently resurrected Britannia Panopticon music hall, just around the corner.
Outside, Fiona Shepherd, a rock and pop critic who runs music-themed walking tours around her home city, points to the former site of Paddy’s Market. Edwyn Collins, lead singer of Orange Juice, used to buy his clothes there, she tells me; his stated aim being to dress like “a member of the aristocracy down on their luck”. Fiona adds that this was a typically obtuse Glaswegian response to punk, which found expression here in a more foppish way with floppy fringes in place of spiky hair, checked shirts instead of safety pins, and jangling guitars rather than thrashing chords.
It’s at this point that something about the city clicks. Glasgow has a reputation as a raw, hard-nosed place, but that’s something that doesn’t ring true over the course of multiple visits. There’s an edge, but it’s often inventively finessed; this shines through in its architecture. Even when big and bold, Glasgow’s buildings are rarely lumpen. And those that are the handiwork of the near-ubiquitous Charles Rennie Mackintosh have a stylised, feminine grace to them; they’re all about the curves rather than the edges.
I meet an old university friend at Lebowskis. Loosely themed around the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, the bar is in Finnieston, a formerly bleak area between the city centre and the slightly snootier, moneyed West End. It’s now full of small bars and restaurants, all doing their own thing, whether serving up mushrooms foraged in the Trossachs or putting together enormous rum lists. All of which goes to show that this is a city that comes into its own when it blurs the boundaries.
Like a local
The Stand comedy club: Few cities have as rich a comedy pedigree as Glasgow, and the Stand is the venue that comedians both local and visiting like to perform at. Expect at least one gig a day and an intimate, cabaret-style atmosphere.
Pollok Country Park: A slimmed-down former country estate in Glasgow’s south
side with deer and highland cows that feels like a vast rural oasis. Pollok House, at its heart, does the statelay home thing, albeit with a live escape game in the basement.
Kelvingrove Lawn Bowls Centre: The velodrome isn’t the only 2014 Commonwealth Games venue open to the public. For a more genteel sporting endeavour, head here for free lawn bowls next to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
The Style Mile: Clustered around Argyle and Buchanan Streets is virtually every high street name you could wish for.
Princes Square: Branching off Buchanan Street, this mini mall with gorgeous wooden staircases aims more upmarket, with French woollens, Vivienne Westwood and posh pens in its roster.
The Lighthouse: For Mackintoshabilia, this design centre’s shop milks the city’s favourite son in mug, drinks coaster and jewellery form.
Trongate 103: Several arts organisations in one building include the Glasgow Print Studio — selling screen-printed art — and Street Level Photoworks offering prints of the photos it exhibits.
See & do
Riverside Museum: The Zaha Hadid design is striking — it looks like the jagged line on a heart rate monitor from the outside — and the collection is largely transport-based. That means fabulous old steam locomotives, vintage cop cars and yesteryear trams — although stories are told too.
The Hunterian: Scotland’s oldest museum — set in a bona fide stunning university building — hosts the weird and wonderful collections of 18th-century polymath doctor William Hunter, from an Egyptian sarcophagus to New Caledonian clubs snaffled by Captain Cook, and numerous body parts in jars.
Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre: A deeply weird and instantly mesmerising labour of love, Sharmanka sees dozens of peculiar metalwork contraptions and characters crank into action as haunting music plays and a light show fires up around them. It’s the most heart-warming use of scrap metal you’re ever likely to see.
Glasgow Music City Tours: These walking tours do a splendid job of charting the venues that have made Glasgow such a formidable musical force, responsible for the likes of Orange Juice, Simple Minds, Franz Ferdinand and Mogwai. But they also go beyond pop and rock, nipping into hidden music halls and explaining the links with the visual art scene.
Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome: Part of the Emirates Arena complex built for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the velodrome offers budding Hoys and Pendletons the chance to try track cycling. Be warned, the banked sides are much, much steeper than you may be expecting, and taking them on requires both momentum and nerve.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum: The city’s top museum flits from Scottish wildlife to Glasgow’s unexpected penchant for country music, via much-loved stuffed elephants, dangling multi-expressioned heads and some rather exquisite Charles Rennie Mackintosh interior design work. Most importantly, it’s always engagingly presented and ripe for revisiting.
House For An Art Lover: There’s no shortage of Mackintosh buildings in Glasgow, but perhaps the most spellbinding is the one he didn’t see himself. The House For An Art Lover, in Bellahouston Park, was created from a design Mackintosh entered into a competition (which he didn’t win) and finally realised decades after his death.
Loch Lomond: One of Glasgow’s most underrated facets is how close it is to postcard Scotland. The shores of Loch Lomond — Scotland’s largest lake — are a 40-minute drive away from the city centre, and the loch is set in the mountain-studded Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park.
Hanoi Bike Shop: Down a little West End lane, with walls covered in bike tyres and pho-guzzling patrons perched on dinky, almost childlike stools, the Hanoi Bike Shop does pitch-perfect Vietnamese. And it does it with quality ingredients too, as the spicy beef flank and pork belly noodle soup testifies.
The Drugstore Social: This converted pharmacy has cocktail lists that look like prescription slips — detailing the health benefits of key ingredients — and a tendency to use foraged herbs and mushrooms. The flatbreads are mighty fine, as is the shredded pheasant pie.
The Gannet: Boasting a Michelin Bib Gourmand, and with a strong emphasis on Scottish produce such as Inverness red deer and St Bride’s guinea fowl, The Gannet is one of several small, highly appealing joints along Argyle Street in Finnieston. It offers both traditional three-course and small-plate dining.
Barrowland ballroom: Allegedly one of Oasis and Metallica’s favourite venues, the converted music hall is famed for hosting raucous, pulsating gigs.
Drygate Brewery: Next door to the huge Tennent’s Wellpark Brewery, but doing something very different, the microbrews created here have bottle labels designed by Glasgow School of Art students. The Seven Peaks Mosaic IPA is a cracker, and the open, beerhall-ish vibe pleasingly convivial.
The Pot Still: Three-deep at the bar at 5pm on a Friday, the Pot Still is hardly a secret hidey-hole. But it still has a traditional feel, plus — more importantly — a staggeringly large whisky selection. 154 Hope Street. T: 0141 333 0980.
citizenM Glasgow hotel: Knowingly hip, but brilliantly pulled off, with small but space-maximising rooms and plenty of smile-raising quirks, like the ‘do not disturb’ signs reading: ‘Don’t come in, there’s someone naked in here’.
Grand Central hotel: Within Glasgow Central Station, the Grand Central plays the role of great railway hotel well. Rooms have a masculine vibe, with dark padded-leather headboards, high ceilings and heavy draped curtains.
Hotel du Vin & Bistro Glasgow: Sprawling over several wood-panelled West End townhouses, the Hotel du Vin features stained glass windows on staircases, library-like retreats and black-and-white city photos.
Getting there & around
British Airways flies to Glasgow from Gatwick and Heathrow; EasyJet from Gatwick, Luton and Stansted; Flybe from Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Exeter, East Midlands and Southampton.
From much of the UK trains are the best option, with key routes via Lancashire and the east coast.
Taxis are surprisingly cheap, with Glasgow Taxis a good option, while the subway system runs on a loop covering much of the city centre and West End. Bus timetables and route information can be found at spt.co.uk.
How to do it
Virgin Trains offers ‘Escapes’ packages that include return tickets, one-night accommodation in Best Western Glasgow City Hotel and a hop-on, hop-off bus sightseeing ticket. These cost from £66.90 travelling from London or £87.90 from Birmingham.
Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)