Scotland’s largest city by far, Glasgow has all the traits of a proper big city: an underground system; a plethora of cafes, pubs, restaurants, shopping and nightlife; extrovert fast-talking locals; bombastic buildings; traffic problems; urban blight, social problems and suburbia too.
The city first really hit its stride as British colonialism did, then declined as the country’s heavy industry died. There have been plenty of efforts at boosting it since, so now both old legacies and new regenerative developments provide visitors quite a range of sights. Among them are a number of first-class museums (most free), But really – clichéd as it might sound – it’s the affable and wry-humoured Glaswegians that are most likely to really make your trip here.
In the late-18th-century many of the British Empire’s wealthiest merchants lived in Glasgow and built magnificent buildings to show-off their wealth – much of which came from Virginian tobacco plantations. The city’s other great source of wealth was as the “workshop of the Empire” and it dominated heavy industries such as shipbuilding. This again created a rich elite, including one William Burrell, a shipping magnate who turned his profits into a vast art collection which later found it’s way into the city’s hands as the Burrell Collection.
Meanwhile all this industry gave the city a lively hard-scrabble proletarian culture, which turned melancholy in the late 20th-century, as global economic restructuring gutted Glasgow and blighted vast chunks, leaving a hard-edged hopelessness and a glut of social problems.
Yet Glasgow is also famously upbeat and showy, it’s nightlife fast-paced and dining and shopping scenes buoyant and even glitzy. So it’s not inappropriate that the city has slowly reinvented itself as a hip centre for the arts and culture. Much is particularly made of the legacy of influential designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose work is scattered throughout the city: from museums to tearooms to art colleges.
For an introduction a good place to start is this one-day Glasgow in a Day itinerary. Otherwise the main attractions include:
• The Gallery of Modern Art – a small but beautiful changing collection in an impressive city centre mansion.
• City Chambers – the city’s town hall can be explore.
• Glasgow Cathedral and Necropolis – the city’s greatest church, almost as impessive as the neighboring big-wig graveyard.
• People’s Palace – Glasgow’s social history unveiled.
• Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum – the city’s treasure trove with all manner of fine art and even medieval armor.
• The Riverside Museum of Transport – historic modes of transport of almost every type in an awesome modern building.
• Glasgow Science Centre – lots of hands-on for the kids.
• Glasgow Botanic Gardens – elegant gardens with some prize ornamental glasshouses.
• House for an Art Lover – A house designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh that’s perhaps his most complete work.
Glasgow’s immediate surroundings are that of the River Clyde, whose broad valley provides the city with both gritty satellite feeder towns but also spots of genuine rural tranquility. Ironically, a prime one of the latter is now New Lanark, a living-history museum in a former cotton mill. Other family attractions in and around the region include the M&D’s amusement park and the Falkirk Wheel, a boat-lift and engineering marvel that connects two canals.
Meanwhile, the green hills and inky waters just north and west of Glasgow – in today’s Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park – draw not only families wanting to mess about on the waters of Loch Lomond, but also serious hikers, including those bound for the West Highland Way.
Go Ape! at Aberfoyle is a less achingly commercial alternative and can be combined with a boat cruise and cycle ride at Loch Katrine – These Aberfoyle attractions are little more than an hour’s drive from Glasgow.
Several islands are also easy to get to from Glasgow, including Great Cumbrae and Arran and Rothesay Castle on the isle of Bute; while many Argyll destinations also make for a great day out if you don’t mind a bit of a drive.