Hello, Glasgow: The Gritty and the Pretty

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Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow

Here’s something I’ve learned from a year and a half in the UK: if you open any guidebook about this nation and skip London, Edinburgh, and the most touristy sites, you’ll soon see tales woven of cities once dark and desolate, cities defined by their industries, where life was hard and cold and there wasn’t enough money, where streets were dangerous, violence was rampant, and there was absolutely no tourist value whatsoever.

That was the case as late as the 80s.  But now there has been a revival.  The city is much better, much safer, much cleaner and much prettier, and not only does it have a lot to offer tourists, it’s also home to a growing arts scene.

The funny thing is, this same story could be told about Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Belfast, or Newcastle.  Or, as I soon learned, Glasgow.

I ended up in Glasgow on a whim in November, just after returning from South Africa.

My love for Scotland is deep, as you all know, but I had never been to Glasgow.  For as much as I loved beautiful, perfect Edinburgh, I didn’t know much about its harder, rougher sister.

But of all the gritty-turned-pretty British cities, I think Glasgow is my favorite.

Here is what I got to enjoy during my trip:

University of Glasgow

University of Glasgow

I was fortunate enough to have a friend act as a tour guide — my friend Emma, a University of Glasgow alumna and easily one of the fieriest Scottish lasses I know, offered to show me around her city.

The University of Glasgow is one of the best places in the city to enjoy traditional Scottish architecture.  Emma showed me the most famous parts, like the Cloisters.

Cloisters, University of Glasgow

The Cloisters were beautiful — but at the same time, haunting.

University of Glasgow Architectural Details

The inside was as grand as the outside.  Right away, I felt like I was spirited away to Hogwarts.  A lot of people like to claim that J.K. Rowling was inspired by the University of Glasgow when writing Harry Potter.  She’s never said so — but if she was, I could definitely see it.

As for what the students like to do when they’re not studying?

Party Rock!

The Party Rock has been found!

Ashton Lane

Ashton Lane

Ashton Lane, just around the corner from the University, is one of the most famous streets in town.  Like Glasgow as a whole, it was once seen as no-man’s-land back in the 70s, but today is filled with lots of cool cafes, bars, and restaurants, along with a tiny movie theater.

Glasgow Rainbow

Glasgow Botanic Gardens

Whenever you visit Scotland, plan for overcast skies and rain at least a few times throughout the day.  It being November, I didn’t expect much. But after a few days of drizzling, the sky cleared, just in time to reveal a perfect rainbow!

As lovely as the gardens are, November isn’t prime time to see the flowers in bloom.  But what really were special were the glasshouses — greenhouses that looked like they were straight out of the Victorian era.

Glasgow Glasshouse

If it’s a particularly chilly day in Glasgow, I recommend you head here to warm up.  The glasshouses are free and guaranteed to be hot and humid year-round!

Vinegars at Demijohn

Haute Homemade Booze from a Jar

Just outside the Botanic Gardens is Demijohn, a shop that the owners have christened a “liquid deli.” They have homemade whiskies, liqueurs, and vinegars, all stored in large glass jars.  You pick a bottle and they fill it for you.  It’s a perfect place for gifts — nothing says romance like a giant heart-shaped bottle of organic rhubarb vodka!

After sampling a few of their finest wares, I bought a small bottle of gin infused with Sevilla oranges.  (I really need to crack that open sometime.)

Dinner at Stravaigin

Cool Restaurants

I don’t use Yelp very often, but I now will after the awesome restaurants it found me in Glasgow!  Best of all was Stravaigin.  This pub, which strays the line between traditional Scottish pub and artsy establishment, serves global cuisine from local ingredients.  I had a “smokey aubergine and chickpea pastilla, beetroot and quinoa tabbouleh, tahini remoulade, baba ghanoush” (pictured above) for £12.95 ($19.50). My friend had the haggis, neeps and tatties (£9.95/$15).

I also loved Ichiban, a cute and casual Wagamama-like Japanese restaurant on Queen St.  A big bowl of ramen topped with vegetables and a salmon filet cost me £8.90 ($13.50).

Emma took me out to Ketchup, right on Ashton Lane.  The burgers are huge and have hilarious names — I went for the Incredible Hulk with bacon and peppercorn sauce (£9.50/$15).

Scottish Branches

My favorite thing about Scotland is that the people are so friendly, and Glasgow absolutely has its share of friendly folks (aside from one scary guy who screamed at me on the street).  Every time we jumped into a cab, we immediately got into an epic conversation with our driver.  It feels like it would be impossible not to make friends in Glasgow.

My overall verdict?  What a great city!  I’m so glad I visited, and I’d love to return soon.  If you’re spending time in Scotland, you might want to give Glasgow a second look.

What are some lesser-loved cities that you love?

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33 thoughts on “Hello, Glasgow: The Gritty and the Pretty”

  1. AWESOME. We’re here right now trying to figure out what we should do for the next 3 days and you’ve sold me on the Botanic Gardens. We are so there. Also, we heard that while we were in Edinburgh, J. K. Rowling got her inspiration of Hogwarts from one of the private schools there. Apparently the inside of this private school is as funky as Hogwarts. Probably without the magic and wizards, but who really knows…


    1. Hi Carolyn and Graeme, I was having a look through Kate’s blogs when I found the Glagsow one – I was curious about what she had to say since I’m from here! Don’t know if you’re still around, but the school you want to see if George Heriots and Rowling wrote the book in Elephant Cafe on George IV bridge. You can see the school from the back of the cafe, as well as Greyfriers Kirk (church graveyard) which many say was inspiration for the Shrieking Shack etc…! Hope you have a great time, and if you can fit it in – do one of the Ghost Tours of the old vaults underneath the city – ancient streets of Edinburgh and some pretty dark history are just a few metres below your feet!

  2. I’m glad to hear that you had such a great time in Glasgow. I met quite a few Scots when I was in Ireland last year, and they were all quick to inform me that Glasgow was THE city to go to in Scotland. I’ll definitely have to take a trip there!

    My favorite lesser known city is definitely Cork in Ireland. Dublin is lovely, but Cork is just a bit funkier and more vibrant in my opinion. Probably the result of it also being a huge university city. Plus, they have the coolest selection of bookstores I have ever been to in any city! Each was so quirky.

  3. That’s great you got Glasgow. I don’t like the sound of that guy shouting at you on the street. I live in between Glasgow and Edinburgh. I’ve always said that Edinburgh is better to take pictures and spend a weekend but Glasgow is better in most other ways. The Glaswegians are amazing people, completely different to the Edinburgers. I loved Canberra in Australia and really liked Zagreb in Croatia also.

  4. Glasgow is a lovely city and easily my favorite city in the UK. I’ve always been surprised at how underrated it is, however. The Botanical Gardens are beautiful and the culture of Glasgow is sooo unique. Cheers for the great article!

  5. I remember reading your post about Liverpool in the past and really enjoying it – it’s my city and I love it dearly. I also love Glasgow, which is my adopted second home since I married a Glaswegian boy.

    I love that these cities (and others) are becoming more popular – and I think the natives are so genuine with their welcome because we’re so happy to have people visit our cities. In Liverpool we don’t really have tourist spots where you don’t find any locals – it’s our city and we are everywhere, getting stuck in! Even on the tour bus – I’ve been on it, and there were plenty of other Liverpool voices besides mine. Showing their kids our important landmarks.

    Part of the culture in cities like Glasgow and Liverpool is working hard, and locals in both places work hard to make visitors feel welcome.

  6. Glasgow is indeed a much better city than it gets given credit for – and yay for having Emma as your guide!

    I spent about 4 days in Glasgow last summer and had fun exploring it, as well as getting taken around by my friend Marcus, who’s also a local. Ashton Lane was definitely a highlight for me, too!

  7. I’ll admit, I’m one of those who’s been contributing to Glasgow being an underrated city! Somehow, I just found Glasgow a little grittier and didn’t enjoy Glasgow as much as I enjoyed Edinburgh! So whenever people ask me where they should go to in Scotland, I tend to gloss over Glasgow.

    But I might have to give Glasgow a second look though – you’ve made it sound so appealing! Maybe I just didn’t to all the right places!

  8. Glasgow sounds amazing! I never considered going there before, but you made it sound like the kind of city I’d love too: A little edgy but with an appeal – love at second sight!

  9. The more photos I see of Scotland, the more it takes my breath away and I know I have to spend a long period of time there to explore it more fully.

    The home-brews at Demijohn looks awesome! Definitely adding that to my ‘to do’ list. =)

  10. aaaa, you made me feel like going there! as for the less loved cities i love – YEREVAN. everyone says it’s dirty, Soviet and there is nothing to do, maybe except one or two museums (Matenadaran and Parajanov). Love from the first sight exists..this works with cities too!

  11. Ha, love that ‘liquid deli’ concept…! Glasgow seems to have a lot to offer, yet I stay away as I fear that my time in Scotland would be spent almost entirely in distilleries and pubs! Maybe someone needs to drop me off in the middle of the Scottish Highlands…

  12. Gorgeous pictures! Despite being from the UK, I’ve never been to Glasgow; this definitely makes me want to, though!

    I think my lesser-known city of choice would have to be Linz in Austria. It has an unusual (for Austria) mix of old and new, and sits right on the Danube. It’s beautiful most of the year round.

  13. Looks like a great city! I love cities that mix “the gritty and the pretty”–Ghent is one of my favorites that I have visited recently–it seems that as a whole, Belgium is a fairly underrated country, but I loved it!

  14. What great timing! I’m going to Glasgow in June and was wondering what places to check out! Thanks for the great post!

  15. Great to see an article favourable to Glasgow finally! I spent a year there as a grad student and I absolutely loved the city. No doubt it’s gritty and a harder nut to crack than Edinburgh – but that’s a huge part of its appeal; It feels like a truly lived-in city, not one that seems overrun by tourists.

    I think the biggest mistake so many visitors to Scotland make is to skip Glasgow altogether or to skim through before the city gets under your skin. Overall, it’s still probably my favourite city in the UK (but I suppose my sentimentality renders my opinion slightly biased). I hope everyone listens to Kate’s advice: check out Glasgow!

  16. Glasgow is in the dozen or so top 5 cities I want to visit next 😀 and your post just increases the wanderlust. Was the city walkable or were the cabs often required?

  17. Great to hear Glasgow being bigged up! As a local I am dangerously biased but I really think it is hugely underrated and getting better all the time. Great art scene as you say Kate, brilliant shopping and nightlife, food’s great too. Now if only we had the sun now and again….

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