City Guide: Off Duty in Glasgow
Throughout my life, whenever I heard Scotland mentioned, the conversation was usually about Edinburgh. For the longest time, I associated Edinburgh with Scotland in that “you-haven’t-actually-been-to-Scotland-unless-you’ve-been-here” mentality. But just an hour away by train from Scotland’s famous coastal capital city, Glasgow casually strolls along, bubbling with activity and livelihood and undertones of an “I-don’t-need-you; I already know I’m fabulous” sort of panache. Glasgow is like that secret speakeasy that you can’t find on Yelp, but if you know where to find it, and how to get in, you know you’ve walked into something special. But don’t tell anyone from Edinburgh this–the rivalry between Scotland’s 2 cities over which is the best is extremely palpable, even to this day. And I can say this with certainty, because when I mentioned to my cab driver that I was heading to Edinburgh after my stay in Glasgow, he (jokingly) told me to get out of his car.
Last October, after spending a week in Iceland, my boyfriend and I caught a 2-hour flight over to Scotland. We spent the first night up in Isle of Skye, and then drove back down to Glasgow. We arrived late at night on a Thursday, exhausted after a 10-hour drive down from Isle of Skye and Fort William (a must to go and visit, if you’ve rented a car). We were stressed out, we dropped off our rental car and didn’t notice we were still carrying the keys around with us until an hour later, and we were tired. But Glasgow has a way of waking you up, slapping you in the face with sharp humor and witty banter, and getting you going.
As with lots of cities, Glasgow has a lot to do and see–you just need to know where to look. An ex-industrial city that, in recent years, has redefined itself with an impressive arts, music, and startup scene, Glasgow’s electricity rubs off on you almost immediately. One of the first things we noticed, and consequently fell in love with, was the city’s stunning architecture. By many accounts, Glasgow features some of the UK’s best architecture, all of which is laid out neatly on a grid system that could rival the streets of Manhattan. If you’ve heard of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Scotland’s most famous architect), his footprint is all over the place, mixed in with centuries-old merchants’ mansions, historic cathedrals and landmarks, and newer “Scottish-style” architecture peppered in throughout.
Each pocket of Glasgow has something different to offer. In Merchant City, you’ll find vintage shops and theaters, along with some of the city’s most striking buildings. In Ashton Lane, Glasgow’s music and bar scenes come alive after dark (mixed in, for better or worse, with the college crowd. But hey–with the college crowd comes cheap food and drink specials! So there’s that). A walk down Sauchiehall Street, along Buchanan Street and up Argyle Street puts you at the crossroads of Glasgow’s high street shopping area. And, in addition to all the city has to offer, the people are pretty great too. I loved getting to chat with everyone from our cab drivers to our hotel staff, but just keep in mind, the Glaswegian accent is no joke. Finally, to top it all off, the city is fairly cheap, with a cab anywhere in the city only setting you back around 5 pounds, and a decent meal ringing in at maybe 10-15 pounds max. This was probably one of the best parts for us, since the week before, when we were in Iceland, as much as we loved it, our wallets DEFINITELY did not.
Where to Stay
It’s pretty easy to find an affordable ($60-150 US) hotel or Airbnb in the downtown area, and it gets even cheaper the further you get from the city center. A bed in a hostel may cost you $15-$30, and a private hostel room is probably upwards of $50. If you only have a limited amount of time in the city, definitely plan to stay in the city center to get the most out of your time there. We stayed at the citizenM on Renfrew Street, which is a short walk from Buchanan Street and Sauchiehall.
What to Eat
While you could likely find just about any cuisine in Glasgow’s urban metropolis, I was here for one thing: the legendary Scottish fare. We purposefully sought out places to get haggis, blood pudding, and a traditional Scottish breakfast, and I’ll include all of the spots we went to below. But, amidst all the heavier fare that the UK is known for, what I didn’t expect to find in Glasgow was a vibrant vegan and vegetarian scene! In fact, after some research, it seems like Glasgow is the place to go if you’re not a meat eater (definitely something to keep in mind, if haggis and smokies just aren’t your thing).
Do a quick search of where to eat in Glasgow, and on all of the “top restaurant” roundups, you’re likely going to come across Ubiquitous Chip. Obviously, I wanted to check it out to see if it lived up to the hype. The Chip is one of the first places in Glasgow to champion contemporary Scottish cuisine, so I figured it would be the best place to try one of my “must-eats” in Scotland: haggis. Once I sat down, I actually almost changed my mind and ordered the vegan haggis (see? It’s a thing!), but the waiter talked me out of it, and I’m glad he did. Once you forget about the ingredients in it, the taste and texture of the Chip’s venison haggis is comparable to a savory meatloaf, and, served with tatties (mashed potatoes) and ‘neeps (mashed turnip), it’s actually really divine. We rounded off our experience with a chicken and potato dish, a cheese plate, a whisky flight, and the best whisky drink I’ve ever encountered–an apple crumble cocktail. In addition to the food, the restaurant itself is pretty cool to see–it’s designed to resemble a rainforest. Dine at the Brasserie for a more affordable experience, or go to the main restaurant if you want to splurge. And, you’ll want to check out one of the Chip’s 3 on-site bars on your way out as well (including the Wee Bar, Scotland’s tiniest pub).
Another restaurant that prides itself on locally sourced ingredients and classic Scottish flair, Cafe Gandolfi came recommended to us by one of our cab drivers. I ordered smokies–smoked haddock (another thing on my “must-eats” list) and a goat cheese salad, because I was feeling sluggish from all the travel eating. I’m not sure I ordered the best food on the restaurant’s menu, because the reviews are amazing and my food was just okay, but I also can’t say I’m a smokies eater, either. Nevertheless, the service was amazing and it’s located right in the city center.
Also, a quick word of caution for my fellow clumsy readers out there–I ate it HARD here falling down the metal steps that lead up to the bathrooms here. My butt was bruised and sore for weeks. Be careful!
We came across Mono after doing a Yelp search on local vegan food (because why not?). The restaurant has a bit of a hipster vibe, with an intriguing vegan menu and a DJ spinning actual vinyls. I’d never met a mushroom soup I actually liked until we ate here. Also, my boyfriend had an order of tofu fish and chips–how awesome is that?
Located in Princes Square on Buchanan Street, the Cranachan is known for its breakfasts, desserts, and high tea. We bypassed all of the cakes and pastries for an order of a traditional Scottish breakfast and a serving of porridge and berries. I wanted to like the Scottish breakfast (which consists of blood pudding, potato scones, eggs, toast, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, and grilled tomato), but it was probably my least favorite meal in Scotland. However, the porridge was delicious, and the cakes looked amazing. If we hadn’t gone so early in the morning, I’d have been all over them. I’d give this place another shot the next time I’m in Glasgow, but I think I’m crossing blood pudding and potato scones off my bucket list and leaving them there.
We didn’t eat here, but Paesano (and the restaurant below) came highly recommended from another very sweet cab driver. There’s always a line to get your hands on one of their artisan wood-fired pizzas, but apparently, it’s well worth it (and cheap!).
Another place we didn’t eat, but if you like seafood and have money to spend, The Rogano seemed to be another spot that was popular with locals.
Where to Drink
On our first night in Glasgow, while I was on my way to Ubiquitous Chip in my cab, we drove past a large church in the West End. My cab driver casually mentioned in passing that I should plan on heading here after dinner for a pint. A what? A pint of beer in a church? Yeah, exactly.
I’m not sure who decided to restore a church and turn it into a bar, restaurant, club, and music venue all in one, but it’s definitely a must-stop if you’re in the area, if for nothing else but the novelty of it all. Find your way through the church’s grand entrance and you’re immediately welcomed by a wide selection of whisky, beer, and cocktails. Pretty cool, if you ask me.
Shilling Brewing Company
My boyfriend and I can’t go to a new city without seeking out a worthwhile beer stop. Shilling Brewing Company resides in a renovated former Bank of Scotland building in the heart of Glasgow, and brews a pretty impressive offering of craft beers onsite. Scotland is well-known for its prominence on the craft beer scene, and this brewpub felt like a good little representation of that. This was definitely one of my favorite places to grab a drink while we were in town.
WHERE NOT TO DRINK
If you walk down Sauchiehall Street at night, don’t let promoters trick you into wasting your time on Victoria’s Club. It felt dirty, outdated, and most importantly, empty.
Another spot that felt a little bit like a fail to me, O2 ABC is part-club, part-music venue, and if you were to go to O2 ABC to see your favorite band or musician play, this place is probably fantastic. But on the night we went, we didn’t know who was headlining, and so it felt a little too much like a basement rave from Skins, with a touch too many high school makeout sessions happening on the stairwells for my taste.
WHERE TO DRINK TEA
The Butterfly and the Pig
If you’re in the UK, you can’t go without at least one afternoon spent indulging in tea time. We wandered into The Butterfly and the Pig late in the afternoon–too late for a full tea experience (with a three-tiered tray of cakes and finger sandwiches), but just in time for what I think is referred to as a “cream” or “light” tea: tea served with scones or another sweet treat, like cake or pastries. We each ordered our own pot of tea (I tried apple cinnamon–so good!), I opted for a scone with cream and jam, and my boyfriend ordered a banana cake. It was the perfect way to hold us over till dinner, and I really wish this tradition existed in the US…. Oh, and if you want to spice up your tea experience even more, most places have the option of throwing champagne into the mix. A very worthwhile British equivalent to our penchant for bottomless mimosas, I’d think.
WHAT TO SEE
Buchanan Street and Argyle Street
Glasgow’s high street area for shopping. Be sure to stop into Princes Square, while you're at it.
Cathedral Square, the Glasgow Cathedral, and the Necropolis
The Glasgow Cathedral is almost 900 years old, and the Necropolis is one of Europe’s most famous cemeteries. You can honestly spend an entire afternoon getting lost in the grounds, reading tombstones, and admiring the architecture.
Kelvingrove Art Galleries
One of Scotland’s most popular–and more importantly, free–art galleries.
Glasgow’s main central square, filled with statues of important people from Scottish history, and surrounded by stunning architecture, important buildings, and great restaurants.
Glasgow School of Art
Learn all there is to know about Charles Rennie Mackintosh (the School is one of Glasgow’s most famous buildings, and also one of Mackintosh’s greatest works), check out the free exhibits, and go on a guided tour led by one of the School’s students.
Glasgow’s Center for Design and Architecture, and also, the best view of Glasgow you can get. Climb up to the very top of the spiral staircase and you’ll see what I mean.
Obviously, this only just begins to scratch the surface, and while I wish I could have stayed in Glasgow for much longer, this is as much as I could cram in during our short 48-hour visit. But in that short 2-day stay, I really fell for this place. After taking in all of Glasgow’s energy and electricity for one last time from the top of the Lighthouse, we got on a train and set off for Edinburgh. And, after seeing both of Scotland’s biggest cities up close, know that if you’re also planning a trip here, you’d be making a serious mistake if you didn’t take time to see both, too.