A neighbourhood guide to the Scottish city of Glasgow
From its underground clubs and centuries-old pubs to its street markets and museums, Glasgow spools out its charms and secrets in an unhurried fashion.
It’s a city that hangs on to its marketing slogan with a kind of cocky pride: ‘People Make Glasgow’, written in large, white font on a pink background. It’s a claim that’s bold, yet true. Glaswegians are, for the most part, warm, welcoming, kind, funny and full of the ‘banter’. Glesga, as it’s affectionately known, may perhaps be the world’s finest Victorian city, filled as it is with sandstone tenements, parks and a wealth of museums and galleries, but it’s also a place of music, comedy and charm, brought to you by characters and chancers in the thick vernacular lovingly known as weegie. Geographically, Scotland’s most populous city is divided into quarters: the town (city centre), the East End, the West End and the Southside, each of which divides into its own neighbourhoods. And, although it’s brilliantly walkable, no visit to Glasgow is complete without a spin on the ‘clockwork orange’, the subway system that opened in 1896 and follows a circular route of 15 stations.
Townhead, Trongate & the Barrowlands
The site of today’s Townhead is where Glasgow was first founded in the 6th century, when St Mungo built his church on the banks of the Molendinar Burn. It’s on this same site that the majestic 12th-century Glasgow Cathedral now rises. Behind it, high on a hill, towers the Necropolis, a cemetery that speaks of the city’s mercantile and slaving past, where wealthy tobacco merchants built large stone and marble tombs for their final slumber; fittingly, the main entrance is reached via the ‘Bridge of Sighs’. From the top of the hill, you can see out across the city and down to the historic Wellpark Brewery, home to more than 450 years of brewing tradition; Scotland’s best-selling lager, Tennent’s, has been produced here since 1855. The recently renovated Cathedral House Hotel stands nearby, many of its rooms offering views of the Necropolis and the cathedral.
A walk down Glasgow’s High Street takes you to the Old College Bar, where the city’s older denizens get dolled up for a spot of karaoke and dancing on Saturdays. Down on Trongate, you’ll find the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, filled with animated sculptures crafted from scrap materials by Russian émigré Eduard Bersudsky. Transmission Gallery, Glasgow Print Studio and Street Level Photoworks are clustered here, a stone’s throw from the historic Tolbooth steeple at the centre of the Glasgow Cross junction. The area is also home to the Tron Theatre, as well as Terry’s Tattoo Studio, a parlour that has been inking the city’s skin since 1964. Under a nearby railway arch is Monorail Music, a cult record store part-owned by Stephen McRobbie of Glasgow band The Pastels.
Crossing from here into the East End will bring you to the Barras, a vast indoor and outdoor market, where generations of traders have sold old clothes, bric a brac, bargains and knock-off goods — these days, there’s also a lot of tat. This is the place to go to hear the Glasgow patter; I’ll always remember a line from a chancer of a salesman, heard on a visit years ago: “There’s yer hauf-deid (half-dead) plants, get yer hauf-deid plants.”
Above the market is the famous Barrowland Ballroom, one of the best live music venues in the UK and the place where locals once went to jive and lindy hop the night away; the giant neon sign splashed across the front of the building is a Glasgow icon.
On the edge of the Barras is Loch Fyne, a shellfish cafe and local institution. Alternatively, for somewhat more refined seafood dishes in a vibrant setting, head to restaurant and cocktail bar A’Challtainn in the heart of the Barras Art and Design Centre (BAaD).
River Clyde & Finnieston
Glasgow’s shipyards were once the metal-hammering heart of the city’s working life but these days the River Clyde is largely silent, with the disused Finnieston Crane one of the last markers of this industrial age. The soaring Riverside Museum, designed by Zaha Hadid, houses over 3,000 objects, including trams and original subway carriages.
A short walk from here takes you to SWG3, a multi-disciplinary events space that hosts live music and dance parties, as well as a regular roster of the city’s top chefs at Acid Bar, a super-cool dining spot with communal tables. On one of my recent visits, chefs at traditional Scottish restaurant Cail Bruich turned their hands to Thai food, serving up some of the best I’ve tasted outside of Thailand.
Running almost parallel to the river is Argyle Street, which slices through the happening area of Finnieston. You’ll find some of the city’s best restaurants and bars in this neighbourhood, including The Gannet, which draws on the prime of Scotland’s larder and brings it to the plate with unrivalled passion and skill. Over the road, Crabshakk does exactly what should be done with exceptional seafood — very little at all. And just a few minutes down the road is El Perro Negro, whose Top Dog burger was named the best burger in the UK at the National Burger Awards 2019.
Finnieston is also home to some of the city’s finest traditional pubs. The Ben Nevis has the feel of a highland bothy and its walls are lined with hundreds of bottles of whisky. The Park Bar, meanwhile, is the place for live Scottish folk music and ceilidhs. If a quiet speakeasy is what you’re after, head to Wheesht. The exact address is secret; entrance to the bar involves texting a number given to you on the day of your booking and quoting the daily-changing password.
The majestic Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum abuts Argyll Street, its main hall constructed from blond sandstone and marble. Within it is a gallery dedicated to the Glasgow Boys, the painters who created the distinctive ‘Glasgow style’ in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The museum stands within Kelvingrove Park, where wanderers, skateboarders and families with children congregate. Come here in summer to see the phrase ‘taps aff’ (‘tops off’) in action.
Cross the River Clyde via Jamaica Street Bridge and you’ll find yourself in the Southside. This part of the city has come into its own over the past decade. Once known for its assortment of spacious flats available at a lower cost than those in the West End, it’s now recognised for its vibrant food, drink and music scene. Of course, Glasgow’s south side — not the same as the Southside — extends far and wide, but the neighbourhoods of Strathbungo, Shawlands and Langside are what most people think of when they speak of the ‘Sooside’. They skirt the green, beating heart of Queen’s Park, where you can climb the central hill for views across the city and over to the gentle slopes of Campsie Fells.
Take a wander along the back streets of Strathbungo to see the sandstone terraced houses designed by pioneering Victorian Glasgow architect Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson. There are a number of micro-festivals held here, including Bungo in the Back Lanes, which sees residents setting up stalls to sell crafts, bric-a-brac and homemade food, and Strathbungo Window Wanderland, which sees the streets transformed into an outdoor gallery and local residents opening up their homes for live performances. The Southside Fringe, meanwhile, is a fortnight of music, workshops and events.
On Pollokshaws Road, you’ll find The Glad Cafe, a music venue, cafe and social enterprise run by The Glad Foundation, which creates opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to engage with music. Next door is Glad Rags, full of second-hand and vintage clothing. Further down the road is Julie’s Kopitiam, a tiny restaurant serving Malaysian food, and nearby Ranjit’s Kitchen, run by Ranjit Kaur, a Sikh woman from northwest India, serves up vegetarian Panjabi food. A wee wander — or a stravaig — will bring you to The Old Toll Bar in Kinning Park, a beautiful Victorian pub that features a fabulous gantry and huge mirrors, one adorned with the words, ‘Very Old Vintage Port & Brandy, Champagne, Clarets’. It sells real ales and beers, including its own Old Toll Lager. Come here for the bevvy and the banter, bring your vinyl to play on the turntable or join in with a live folk gig.
Five great things to do in Glasgow
1. A Play, A Pie & A Pint at Òran Mór
Head to this theatre in the West End to watch a short play at lunchtime. Tickets cost £15 and come with a Scotch pie or veggie quiche and a drink.
2. Duke of Wellington
There’s rarely a moment when the equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington doesn’t have a traffic cone on its head. Sitting outside the Gallery of Modern Art, the ‘chooky’, as locals know him, and his trademark orange and white hat have become an icon of the city.
3. Ashton Lane
This pedestrianised street, lined with bars and restaurants, is a real gem. If the weather is fine, try the al fresco options. If it’s cold, head to the peat fire in the upstairs bar at the Ubiquitous Chip.
4. Music & clubbing
Glasgow lays claim to a rich musical heritage — King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut is the place for intimate gigs. For those wanting a dance, the basement Sub Club has been a stalwart since it opened in 1987.
5. Dear Green Place
Glasgow’s parks are spectacular — the fact that it rains an awful lot of the time is a big help. Try the Botanic Gardens’ glasshouses and arboretum, or Glasgow Green’s People’s Palace.
Where to stay: Cosy rooms at Cathedral House Hotel begin at £80, room only.
Published in the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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