When you think of Scotland you might think of kilts, haggis, bagpipes and accents you can’t even begin to comprehend right? Or maybe Scotch whiskey. Barrels and barrels of sweet amber nectar from the…. ok I’m getting sidetracked here.
Most of those things are pretty accurate about Scotland, and most people when they visit the northern neighbour of England hit up Edinburgh only and then high tail it back home. A few weeks ago I got to visit a different side of Scotland that was filled with maritime and industrial history, really friendly people and a cracking pace of nightlife that sets the standard that side of Hadrian’s Wall.
Things to See and Do
There’s a few things in Glasgow that are worth spending the day visiting. The things that make Glasgow significant and have shaped it’s development of the past couple of hundred years, most notably through the industrial revolution.
At a ripe old age of 700 years and without the massive grandeur of English cathedrals, Glasgow Cathedral isn’t the most jaw-dropping piece of architecture you’ll come across.
It’s very much of the understated Gothic style that doesn’t say “whoa check me out, I’m the result of hundreds of years of religious wealth” and you’d think “hmm, it looks pretty dirty”, but it’s meant to look that way. To you know, fool you a bit, because inside is where this place really knocks you for six.
The cathedral actually consists of two distinct separate parts – an upper and a lower church, each feeling a bit different as you wander through the centre aisle. At the very back, there’s also an undercroft/crypt type series of rooms that loops around the back underside of the cathedral with incredible vaulted ceilings that give you that “this is where some taboo, medieval skullduggery took place” kind of feeling. Definitely worth checking out. Free too.
Ships! Trains! Trams! This is where the story of travel and transport in Scotland is told, at Glasgow’s new Riverside Museum on the banks of the Clyde.
Here you’ll find a complete wall covered in different models of cars, a massive steam train that was once used in South Africa during apartheid times and more info about bikes than you thought you could learn under one roof.
It’s a bit of a way out of the centre of the city, but the new 100 bus takes you straight there from Central Station. The Riverside Museum is another free attraction. Doing alright cash wise so far aren’t we?
Glasgow City Centre
As far as British cities go, Glasgow is pretty bloody hilly. It reminds me a lot of Melbourne, with its undulating rivers of pavement and pedestrianised shopping streets. There’s lots to check out by just wandering the streets around Central Station, but make sure you check out the centrepiece of town in George Square.
And get this for a street name – Sauchiehall Street. I was originally like “soor-cheee-hall?” as I mentioned where we might venture down towards after dinner with a very sheepish look on my face. It wasn’t long before I was corrected by a local who said “no love, it’s sockie-hall street” with a soothing yet coarse Glaswegian accent. Schooled, I was.
The West End is the real hip part of Glasgow. Breaking free of the repetitive slew of chain bars in the city centre, the West End is where you’ll find some more unique places to spend your Scottish sterling putting away a vodka and Irn Bru or two.
Ashton Lane in Glasgow’s West End
All up and down the main drag of Byres Road you’ll find cool little vintage shops, frozen yogurt places and Japanese/Mexican fusion cafes. Venture off into one of the laneways to find some more hidden away gems like the vintage market in Ashton Lane on weekends.
Check out the Food and Drink section below to get the full lowdown of the bars and restaurants I liked in the West End. Jayne also did a good job of articulating what’s cool about Glasgow’s west end over on her blog here.
Food and Drink
This is where Glasgow rolls out the red carpet and invites you in for a whiskey to warm your belly. After you’ve learnt all about Colin MacRae’s rallying antics at the Riverside Museum, it’s time for some eats and a few jars. And I’m not talking deep-friend Mars bars or a Munchy Box.
A vintage store by day (called Postcard Limited), Lucky 7 becomes a bar at night and was the first place we ended up in on our Friday night. With a big blackboard behind the bar detailing the specials, a map of Russia on one wall and two big windows looking out onto the street, this place is like your crazy uncle’s cigar den forklifted right onto Glasgow’s Bath Street.
Sporting the staple Staropramen and the local St Mungo’s on tap along with tons of bottled beers, you’re bound to find something to start the night off with here. Cushioned booths line each side of the lengthy interior of this bar, which features a big island table as the communal centrepiece.
The bar goes right back ending in a secluded vintage dining room complete with dart board, 12″ LP covers on the wall and a large boardroom-esque table to gather around. All the furniture in Lucky 7 is old 70s stuff for you to test the structural integrity of. You’ll also discover knitting needles under a lamp, for you to test your crocheting skills. And free wifi. Score.
Quite the popular venue this place is, at the top end of the West End. And why shouldn’t it be, there’s not too many pubs around where you can enjoy a beer in an old converted church in the middle of the city is there?
An institution renowned for the old adage of “a Pie, a Pint and a Play”, it features all the hallmarks required to deliver on such a statement (a pub, a restaurant and a playhouse). As you walk through the grand front archway, you find yourself a bit perplexed as to where to go, but you soon see one of two nondescript doors on either side of a spiral staircase burst open, revealing the main bar area of Oran Mor.
The main pub area has a big drinking hall feel about it, with a big central bar that wraps right around on itself to create a double-sided island type affair in the centre of the vast room. A lot of the seating in here is recycled from the church, with what was once parishioners pews becoming room along the walls for friends to cosy up and enjoy a pint or two.
Hill Head Book Club
When I first checked out Lucky 7, I thought that place was quirky and special. Then we discovered Hill Head Book Club, a joint tucked away off Byres Road in the West End. This was a place I truly got a bit excited about upon entering.
Housed in what resembles an old theatre, this place redefines kitsch. The menu on the wall is thrust upon it from an old overhead projector you might find in late 80’s maths class. There’s games of table tennis and Super Nintendo going on upstairs. This place feels more like a huge frat party than a bar in Glasgow.
Ornate Victorian era decorations feature across the ceiling and only very dim lamps light up the central atrium, all to the sounds of lounge inspired Creedence Clearwater Revival. It gets busy after 10pm, but it doesn’t become totally packed out. This is undoubtedly where the cool kids come in Glasgow, but it doesn’t feel at all pretentious. The icing on the cake? Free wifi and comics used as wallpaper in the toilets. Bravo.
Check out more info on their website – http://www.hillheadbookclub.com/
This one brings us back into town and onto Bath Street. Split over 2 (or three, I lost count, it just kept going up and around little corridors) levels, Hummingbird is a modern, well appointed bar that says “yeah, I’m here to party, let’s start off with a Mojito and see where this night goes” and gets right on down to business.
The big central atrium opens up around you as you venture further into the rear of the venue, announcing a dance floor which is backed up by a bar running from wall to wall.
In addition to this, there’s loads of stylish seating dotted all round the place so you won’t have to look far for a bit of support when being vertical becomes too much hard work. To top it all off, there’s wicker basket-type egg seating pods on the top balcony hanging by chains from the roof (you bet we got told off for swinging around on them like kids).
La Vita Spuntini
Smack bang on Byres Road in the West End, La Vita Spuntini is an Italian restaurant with a twist. Rather than your standard “pizza or pasta, that’s all mate” kind of gaff, this is Italian done tapas style.
Everyone orders a few small plates of say, meatballs, chicken, pasta and mini pizzas and you share it all around. A great concept and the menu explains it all really well. If you still feel lost, the waiters will make sure you order enough to walk out satisfied. Located in a large premises with a mezzanine level above, this place (recommended by Kate Hopper aka Miss Smidge) gets busy on weekends and booking is advised. More info on their website.
How to get there
Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland and is located about 400 miles north of London. For a leisurely 4 and a bit hour journey, you should definitely check out getting the train there. It means arriving right in the middle of the city with no “airport to town” transfer hassle. Booking in advance usually yields the cheapest fares, and the guys over at Red Spotted Hanky will make sure you get them.
Alternatively, you can always check out flights to Glasgow on easyJet, bmi and BA from all major European airports.
A bit of orientation
Here’s a handy map laying out all the sights mentioned above to give you an idea of where things are in Glasgow. Click on the markers to see the sight listed and zoom and pan around to see more of the map.
View 48 hours in Glasgow in a larger map
Get around in Glasgow
Glasgow is served by one of the oldest subway systems in Europe, having opened in 1896 and only being beaten by the London Underground and the Budapest Metro.
It runs in a circular (clockwise and anti-clockwise) route under the city and connects the central part of Glasgow to the west end and other key areas. It’s orange, cheap, cheerfully 80’s and reminds me of a miniaturised version of the London tube. The only way to get around Glasgow.
Where to stay
Glasgow is abound with accommodation choice – from budget hostels to expansive opulent five star luxury pads, there’s no shortage here. But all anyone really wants is somewhere nice to lay their head at night though, right? And the Thistle Hotel Glasgow is the affordable choice that hits all the right notes and gets the job done.
Centrally located in the city and right near Cowcaddens subway station, the Thistle boasts 300 spacious, functional rooms for you to call home for a weekend. The super comfortable beds will leave you well rested and the friendly staff that will make you feel welcome to no end.
Breakfast here is an occasion in itself. Served in the large Annlann Restaurant, a never ending buffet of Scottish delights welcomes you each morning. I stuffed myself silly with eggs, bacon, beans, hash browns and toast both mornings – and because you’re in Scotland, you can sample some haggis for breakfast as well, tick that one off!
They’ve got a great winter break deal going on right now. For just £39 per room per night, you can stay in the centre of Glasgow in comfort on the cheap. Valid for stays until 29th February 2012.
Being a city way up in the northern part of the UK, you can expect much cheaper prices than London. A round of drinks for the four of us never exceeded £15 and a main meal was never more than £12 usually. A pint will be around £3 if not just under.
I must say that I approached our trip to Glasgow with skepticism and trepidation, as no one I knew ever really had anything amazing to say about the city. On the first night these concerns were totally dashed as I encountered friendly locals, bars with decor that made me feel like I was enjoying a drink in my own private lounge room, and a compact city I could easily get a feel for in a few days.
For a taste of Scotland that doesn’t centre around a big castle on a rock, Glasgow is the working class bigger brother that has a stomping student vibe, easy to use public transport and a quirky mix of new and old.
Disclosure: I travelled to Glasgow as a guest of Big Mouth Media and Thistle Hotels but as always, opinions are my own.