Glasgow Travel Guide

Set on the banks of the mighty River Clyde, Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, has not traditionally enjoyed the best of reputations. This former industrial giant changed its image irrevocably in 1990, however – when it energetically embraced its status as European City of Culture – and has continued to transform itself ever since, with the most recent feather in its cap being the hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2014. The cityscape has been spruced up, and many visitors are knocked out by the architecture, from long rows of sandstone terraces to the fantastical spires of the Kelvingrove Museum. Glasgow is without doubt, in its own idiosyncratic way, a cultured, vibrant and irrepressibly sociable place that’s well worth getting to know.

The city has some of the best-financed and most imaginative museums and galleries in Britain – among them the showcase Burrell Collection and the palatial Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum – nearly all of which are free. Glasgow’s architecture is some of the most striking in the UK, from the restored eighteenth-century warehouses of the Merchant City to the hulking Victorian prosperity of George Square. Most distinctive of all is the work of local luminary Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose elegantly Art Nouveau designs appear all over the city, reaching their apotheosis in the stunning School of Art. Development of the old shipyards of the Clyde, notably in the space-age shapes of the Glasgow Science Centre and the dynamic new Riverside Museum, hint at yet another string to the city’s bow: combining design with innovation. The metropolis boasts thriving live-music venues, distinctive places to eat and drink, busy theatres, concert halls and an opera house. Despite all the upbeat hype, however, Glasgow’s gentrification has passed by deprived inner-city areas such as the East End, home of the Barras market and some staunchly change-resistant pubs. Indeed, even in the more stylish quarters, there’s a gritty edge that reinforces the city’s peculiar mix of grime and glitz.

Glasgow makes an excellent base from which to explore the Clyde valley and coast, easily accessible by a reliable train service. Chief among the draws is the remarkable eighteenth-century New Lanark mills and workers’ village, a World Heritage Site, while other day-trips might take you towards the scenic Argyll sea lochs, past the old shipbuilding centres on the Clyde estuary.

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Brief history

Glasgow’s earliest history, like so much else in this surprisingly romantic city, is obscured in a swirl of myth. Its name is said to derive from the Celtic Glas-cu, which loosely translates as “the dear, green place”. It is generally agreed that the first settlers arrived in the sixth century to join Christian missionary Kentigern – later to become St Mungo – in his newly founded monastery on the banks of the tiny Molendinar Burn.

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The university and the port

William the Lionheart granted the town an official charter in 1175, after which it continued to grow in importance, peaking in the mid-fifteenth century when the university was founded on Kentigern’s site – the second in Scotland after St Andrews. This led to the establishment of an archbishopric, and hence city status, in 1492, and, due to its situation on a large, navigable river, Glasgow soon expanded into a major industrial port. The first cargo of tobacco from Virginia offloaded in Glasgow in 1674, and the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England – despite demonstrations against it in Glasgow – led to a boom in trade with the colonies. Following the Industrial Revolution and James Watt’s innovations in steam power, coal from the abundant seams of Lanarkshire fuelled the ironworks all around the Clyde, worked by the cheap hands of the Highlanders and, later, those fleeing the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.

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Shipbuilding and decline

The Victorian age transformed Glasgow beyond recognition. The population boomed from 77,000 in 1801 to nearly 800,000 at the end of the century, and new tenement blocks swept into the suburbs in an attempt to cope with the choking influxes of people. By the turn of the twentieth century, Glasgow’s industries had been honed into one massive shipbuilding culture. Everything from tugboats to transatlantic liners were fashioned out of sheet metal in the yards that straddled the Clyde. In the 1930s, however, unemployment spiralled, and Glasgow could do little to counter its popular image as a city dominated by inebriate violence and (having absorbed vast numbers of Irish emigrants) sectarian tensions. The Gorbals area in particular became notorious as one of the worst slums in Europe. The city’s image has never been helped by the depth of animosity between its two great rival football teams, Catholic Celtic and Protestant Rangers.

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The city reinvented

Shipbuilding, and many associated industries, died away almost completely in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving the city depressed and directionless. Then, in the 1980s, the self-promotion campaign began, snowballing towards the year-long party as European City of Culture in 1990. Glasgow then beat off competition from Edinburgh and Liverpool to become UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999, and won the right to host the Commonwealth Games of 2014. These various titles have helped Glasgow break the industrial shackles of the past and evolve into a city of stature, confidence and style.

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Glasgow's East End

East of Glasgow Cross, down Gallowgate beyond the train lines, lies the East End, the district that perhaps most closely corresponds to the old perception of Glasgow. Hemmed in by Glasgow Green to the south and the old university to the west, this densely packed industrial area essentially created the city’s wealth. Today, isolated pubs, tatty shops and cafés sit amid the dereliction, in sharp contrast to the gloss of the Merchant City just a few blocks west. You’re definitely off the tourist trail here, though it’s not as threatening as it may feel. Between London Road and the River Clyde are the wide and tree-lined spaces of Glasgow Green. Reputedly Britain’s oldest public park, the Green has been common land since at least 1178, and has been a popular spot for Sunday afternoon strolls for centuries.

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The Necropolis

Inspired by the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, the atmospheric Necropolis is a grassy mound covered in a fantastic assortment of crumbling and tumbling gravestones, ornate urns, gloomy catacombs and Neoclassical temples. Paths lead through the rows of eroding, neglected graves, and from the summit, next to the column topped with an indignant John Knox, there are superb views of the city and its trademark mix of grit and grace.

Glasgow drinking

Most drinking dens in the city centre, the Merchant City and the West End are places to experience real Glaswegian bonhomie, with a good selection of characterful pubs featuring folk music, as well as more upscale bar/clubs.

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Eating in Glasgow

Glasgow’s restaurant scene is reasonably dynamic, with new places replacing old (and sometimes not very old) every year. Most places to eat are concentrated in the commercial hub and Merchant City district of the city centre, as well as in the trendy West End. Modern Scottish cuisine, combining excellent fresh local ingredients with Mediterranean-style cooking techniques, is on the menus of the city’s best restaurants. And Glasgwegians have a particular fondness for Indian and Chinese food, too.

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Glasgow nightlife and entertainment

Glasgow is a great place for contemporary music, with loads of new bands emerging every year, many of them making the big time, and the city’s clubs are excellent, with a range of places for every dance taste as well as a small but thriving gay scene. Glasgow is no slouch when it comes to the performing arts, either: it’s home to Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Most of the larger theatres, multiplexes and concert halls are in the city centre; the West End is home to just one or two venues, while the Southside can boast two theatres noted for cutting-edge drama, the Citizens’ and Tramway. For detailed listings, check The List, or consult Glasgow’s Herald or Evening Times newspapers.

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Glasgow's Southside

The section of Glasgow south of the Clyde is generally described as the Southside, though within this area there are a number of recognizable districts, including the notoriously deprived Gorbals and Govan, which are sprinkled with new developments but still derelict and tatty in many parts. There’s little reason to venture here unless you’re making your way to the Clydeside museums and the famously innovative Citizens’ Theatre. Further south, inner-city decay fades into altogether gentler and more salubrious suburbs, including Queen’s Park, home to Scotland’s national football stadium, Hampden Park, Pollokshaws and the rural landscape of Pollok Park, which contains one of Glasgow’s major museums, the Burrell Collection.

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The Burrell Collection

The outstanding Burrell Collection, the lifetime collection of shipping magnate Sir William Burrell (1861–1958), is, for some, the principal reason for visiting Glasgow. Sir William’s only real criterion for buying a piece was whether he liked it or not, enabling him to buy many unfashionable works that cost comparatively little but subsequently proved their worth.

The simplicity and clean lines of the Burrell building are superb, with large picture windows giving sweeping views over woodland and serving as a tranquil backdrop to the objects inside. An airy covered courtyard includes the Warwick Vase, a huge bowl containing fragments of a second-century AD vase from Emperor Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. On three sides of the courtyard, a trio of dark and sombre panelled rooms have been re-erected in faithful detail from the Burrells’ Hutton Castle home, their tapestries, antique furniture and fireplaces displaying the same eclectic taste as the rest of the museum.

Elsewhere on the ground floor, Greek, Roman and earlier artefacts include an exquisite mosaic Roman cockerel from the first century BC and a 4000-year-old Mesopotamian lion’s head. Nearby, also illuminated by enormous windows, the excellent Oriental Art collection forms nearly a quarter of the whole display, ranging from Neolithic jades through bronze vessels and Tang funerary horses to cloisonné. Burrell considered his medieval and post-medieval European art, which encompasses silverware, glass, textiles and sculpture, to be the most valuable part of his collection: these are ranged across a maze of small galleries.

Upstairs, the cramped and comparatively gloomy mezzanine is probably the least satisfactory section of the gallery, not the best setting for its sparkling array of paintings by artists that include Degas, Manet, Cézanne and Boudin.

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The old firm

Football, or fitba’ as it’s pronounced locally, is one of Glasgow’s great passions – and one of its great blights. While the city can claim to be one of Europe’s premier footballing centres, it’s known above all for one of the most bitter rivalries in any sport, that between Celtic and Rangers. Two of the largest clubs in Britain, with weekly crowds regularly topping 60,000, the Old Firm, as they’re collectively known, have dominated Scottish football for a century; in the last twenty years they’ve lavished vast sums of money on foreign talent in an often frantic effort both to outdo each other and to stay in touch with the standards of the top English and European teams.

The roots of Celtic, who play at Celtic Park in the eastern district of Parkhead, lie in the city’s immigrant Irish and Catholic population, while Rangers, based at Ibrox Park in Govan on the Southside, have traditionally drawn support from local Protestants: as a result, sporting rivalries have been enmeshed in a sectarian divide, and although Catholics do play for Rangers, and Protestants for Celtic, sections of supporters of both clubs seem intent on perpetuating the feud. While large-scale violence on the terraces and streets has not been seen for some time – thanks in large measure to canny policing – Old Firm matches often seethe with bitter passions, and sectarian-related assaults do still occur in parts of the city.

However, there is a less intense side to the game, found not just in the fun-loving “Tartan Army” which follows the (often rollercoaster) fortunes of the Scottish national team, but also in Glasgow’s smaller clubs, who actively distance themselves from the distasteful aspects of the Old Firm and plod along with home-grown talent in the lower reaches of the Scottish league. All important reminders that it is, after all, only a game.

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Shopping in Glasgow

The main area for spending in the city centre is formed by the Z-shaped and mostly pedestrianized route of Argyle, Buchanan and Sauchiehall streets. Along the way you’ll find Princes Square, a stylish and imaginative shopping centre hollowed out of the innards of a soft sandstone building. The interior, all recherché Art Deco and ornate ironwork, holds lots of pricey, fashionable shops. Otherwise, make for the West End or the Merchant City, which have more eccentric and individual offerings. The latter is the place for secondhand and antiquarian bookshops as well as quirky vintage and one-off fashion stores on the lanes off Byres Road.

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Glasgow's West End

The urbane West End seems a world away from Glasgow’s industrial image and the bustle of the centre. In the 1800s, wealthy merchants established huge estates here away from the soot and grime of city life, and in 1870 the ancient university was moved from its cramped home near the cathedral to a spacious new site overlooking the River Kelvin. Elegant housing swiftly followed, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum was built to house the 1888 International Exhibition and, in 1896, the Glasgow District Subway – today’s underground – started its circuitous shuffle from here to the city centre.

The hub of life hereabouts is Byres Road, running between Great Western Road and Dumbarton Road past Hillhead underground station. Shops, restaurants, cafés, some enticing pubs and hordes of students give the area a sense of style and vitality, while glowing red sandstone tenements and graceful terraces provide a suitably upmarket backdrop.

The main sights straddle the banks of the cleaned-up River Kelvin, which meanders through the gracious acres of the Botanic Gardens and the slopes, trees and statues of Kelvingrove Park. Overlooked by the Gothic towers and turrets of Glasgow University, Kelvingrove Park is home to the pride of Glasgow’s civic collection of art and artefacts, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, off Argyle Street.

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The Glasgow Boys and the Colourists

In the 1870s a group of Glasgow-based painters formed a loose association that was to imbue Scottish art with a contemporary European flavour far ahead of the rest of Britain. Dominated by five men – Guthrie, Lavery, Henry, Hornel and Crawhall – “The Glasgow Boys” came from very different backgrounds, but all rejected the eighteenth-century conservatism which spawned little other than sentimental, anecdotal renditions of Scottish history peopled by “poor but happy” families.

Sir James Guthrie, taking inspiration from the plein air painting of the Impressionists, spent his summers in the countryside, observing and painting everyday life. Instead of happy peasants, his work shows individuals staring out of the canvas, detached and unrepentant, painted with rich tones but without undue attention to detail or the play of light. Typical of his finest work during the 1880s, A Highland Funeral (in the Kelvingrove collection;) was hugely influential for the rest of the group, who found inspiration in its restrained emotional content, colour and unaffected realism. Seeing it persuaded Sir John Lavery, then studying in France, to return to Glasgow. Lavery was eventually to become an internationally popular society portraitist, his subtle use of paint revealing his debt to Whistler, but his earlier work, depicting the middle class at play, is filled with light and motion.

An interest in colour and decoration united the work of friends George Henry and E.A. Hornel. The predominance of pattern, colour and design in Henry’s Galloway Landscape, for example, is remarkable, while their joint work The Druids (both part of the Kelvingrove collection;), in thickly applied impasto, is full of Celtic symbolism. In 1893 both artists set off for Japan, funded by Alexander Reid and later William Burrell, where their work used vibrant tone and texture for expressive effect and took Scottish painting to the forefront of European trends.

Newcastle-born Joseph Crawhall was a reserved and quiet individual who combined superb draughtsmanship and simplicity of line with a photographic memory to create watercolours of an outstanding naturalism and originality. Again, William Burrell was an important patron, and a number of Crawhall’s works reside at the Burrell Collection.

The Glasgow Boys school reached its height by 1900 and did not outlast World War I, but the influence of their work cannot be underestimated, shaking the foundations of the artistic elite and inspiring the next generation of Edinburgh painters, who became known as the “Colourists”. Samuel John Peploe, John Duncan Fergusson, George Leslie Hunter and Francis Cadell shared an understanding that the manipulation of colour was the heart and soul of a good painting. All experienced and took inspiration from the avant-garde of late nineteenth-century Paris as well as the landscapes of southern France. J.D. Fergusson, in particular, immersed himself in the bohemian, progressive Parisian scene, rubbing shoulders with writers and artists including Picasso. Some of his most dynamic work, which can be seen in the Fergusson Gallery in Perth, displays elements of Cubism, yet is still clearly in touch with the Celtic imagery of Henry, Hornel and, indeed, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The work of the Scottish Colourists has become highly fashionable and valuable, with galleries and civic collections throughout the country featuring their work prominently.

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updated 02.06.2021

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