A Short Stay In... Glasgow

At festival time, Edinburgh seems to be Scotland's only city. But a bigger one waits in the wings. By Benjamin Mee
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The Independent Travel
Why go there?

Glasgow is currently limbering up for 1999, when it will stage what it claims will be "the largest and most ambitious celebration of architecture and design ever attempted" as the UK City of Architecture and Design.

After successfully pulling off European City of Culture in 1990, Glasgow, and the Arts Council, shifted their attention to architecture and design as other strong points of the city. The main reason for this is that there was no money in Glasgow for redevelopment in the Sixties and Seventies, when many other city centres were vandalised beyond recognition. The foreboding facades from its days as the "Second city of the British Empire" remain, looming with Victorian reserve over the bustle of modern life. (Several of these facades are currently braced with girders while the inconvenient buildings are scraped from their backs, to be replaced by airy, ergonomic offices.)

Some more subtle conversions do survive, such as the Drum and Monkey, an old bank on St Vincent's street now put to much better use as a bar (see Food and Drink). But there is more to Glaswegian architecture than Victoriana.

Glaswegians are particularly proud of their Charles Rennie Mackintosh buildings. The Lighthouse, Mackintosh's first major public building and the former Daily Herald office, is being restored as the flagship of the 1999 celebrations. Also being celebrated is the work of Philippe Starck, Frank Lloyd Wright and "Greek" Thompson, and there will be 2,000 exhibitions, events, lectures, tours, films and workshops.

When to go

Cities about to host events can be just as interesting as those actually hosting them. The preparations are more than halfway there, but it is a bit like visiting an actor "in make- up" just before the first performance. There is a sense of anticipation directed elsewhere, as though you don't have the city's full attention. A lot of places are being spruced up under wraps, so there is a lot of polythene billowing from scaffolding, including the flagship Lighthouse. Seeing Glasgow now is seeing it with its hairnet on.

Local weather

Inclement, particularly for southern softies. Glasgow is wetter, windier and colder than most places in the south.

Getting there

Planes fly into Glasgow International Airport from all over the UK, Europe and North America. There is an open-skies policy at the airport, though BA (tel: 0345 222111) and British Midland (tel: 0345 554554) are the mainstays.

Trains run direct from 14 British cities. Contact National Rail Passenger Enquiries (tel: 0345 484950).

From the Western Isles, Shetlands or Orkadians, travel by ferry. Contact Caledonian MacBrayne (tel: 01475 650 100); Western Ferries (tel: 01369 704 452); P&O European Ferries (tel: 01581 200 276); Seacat Scotland (tel: 0345 523 523); Stena Line (tel: 0990 707070).

Mainlanders travelling by bus can contact Buchanan Bus Station (tel: 0990 505050) between 8am and 8pm daily.

Getting around

The subway is referred to by locals as the Clockwork Orange on account of the orangeness of the 33 carriages which bustle about the six and a half miles of century-old tunnelling. It has an inner and outer ring, 15 stations and a flat fare of 65p. Contact (tel: 0141-226 4862).

Low Level Suburban Rail trains, confusingly, also run underground around the city centre, starting from Central Station and Queen Street, then carrying on above ground to 175 suburban stations.

For details of buses, contact local travel centres: Buchanan Travel Centre (tel: 0141 332 7113; St Enoch's (tel: 0141 226 4826; Hillhead (tel: 0141 3333673). A Roundabout Glasgow ticket, covering most trains and buses, costs pounds 3.40, or pounds 6.50 to include the Discovering Glasgow City bus tour, a handy hop-on hop-off way to get your bearings. Taxis seem ubiquitous and rates are reasonable - city centre to West End costs around pounds 3.50.


From much of Glasgow, which means "Dear green place" in Gaelic, you can see hills in the distance. Blocks of flats in the middle distance, granted, but real countryside beyond. Although this contributes to the windy feel, it also makes walking in Glasgow seem somehow more appropriate. There are also hills closer to hand, giving some streets a mini-San Francisco feel, which may discourage some. The city also has 70 public parks and gardens - more per capita than any other city in Europe.

What to see

The Armadillo A building so cool and funky that James godfather-of-soul Brown himself has anointed it with his presence. You have to think of the Sydney Opera House, but the Armadillo is almost more gorgeous. Its muted folds seem more organic, lobster-like and tasty. It is a conference and exhibition centre as well, apparently the only one in Europe with a purpose-built elephant toilet, for the circus which visits annually. Architects taking these things into account certainly save the plumbers a big job on the day.

St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art (tel: 0141-553 2557). A very up-to-date (opened 1993) display of artefacts from various religions, with captions in six languages. Boasts Dal's Crucifixion, and "The UK's only authentic Zen garden". Also features comment boards, encouraging visitors to pin up their impressions (generally lavish praise, alongside complaints from countries whose languages are not represented). Until 30 August, this will be the only British venue on the world tour of the controversial Dead Sea Scrolls, something of a Holy Grail among religious artefacts.

The Horseshoe, 17 Drury Street. Not only serves real ale and good food, but one of several bars in Britain claiming to be the longest. The Horseshoe bar has the added authority of its three interlocking horseshoes design, which forms a continuous clover shape with no real beginning or end. It's also the Clapham Omnibus of Glasgow, a cultural barometer and the place to be during city events (Robbie Coltrane has definitely been sighted propping it up).

Botanical Gardens (tel: 0141- 334 2422). Big glass jellyfish going green on the inside, but well worth a visit to wander among the temperate shrubs.

Food and drink

La Fiorentina, 2 Paisley Road, at the junction with Govan Road (tel: 0141-420 1585). Authentic Italian job with spontaneously singing waiters. Three courses, pounds 12.50.

Canton Express, 407 Sauchiehall Street (tel: 0141-332 0145). A must, popular with local Chinese, young trendies and young trendy Chinese. Excellent food, strip-light greasy cafe atmosphere, squalid toilets.

Open till 4am, pounds 5.50 per person, unlicensed.

The Drum and Monkey, 93-95 St Vincent Street (tel: 0141-221 6636). This ex-bank still has the original counter, now the bar, over which money still passes, but only alcohol returns. Feels real and used by locals, and features a big leather Knole chair and built-in benches covered with Persian carpets. Food is excellent, (including several chef's specials on the poached-egg theme), pounds 5-pounds 6 a head. The adjoining bistro is flash/businessy, pounds 8-pounds 15 a head.

Downstairs, the toilets have replaced the bank's safe.

The Ubiquitous Chip, 12 Ashton Lane (tel: 0141-334 5007). An irritating name, but an extremely popular place. A two-storey covered courtyard with a Hanging-Gardens-of-Babylon ambiance. Much dangling foliage, and reputedly good food. Dinner, two courses, pounds 26.60, three courses, pounds 31.60.

The Attic, 44 Ashton Lane (tel: 0141-334 6688). A trendy bar on one of the city's most fashionable restaurant rows. Tables fill up with flyers from fab young things telling you where the party is. Breakfast from 8am starts at 75p. Evening tapas, six dishes for pounds 5.25.

Gay Glasgow

Polo Lounge, 84 Wilson Street (tel: 0141-553 1221). Upmarket, licensed till three, Friday to Sunday.

Squire's Lounge And they do, in this below-street-level dive on West Campbell Street (tel: 0141-221 9184). Described as "small and cruisy".

Sappho's, 8 West George Street (tel: 0141-332 8005). All girls, and a pool table. Tuesday to Sunday, 7pm to midnight.

For more venues, get a copy of The List, Glasgow's answer to Time Out, from any newsagent.

Where to stay

Stakis Glasgow Grosvenor Hotel, Grosvenor Terrace, Great Western Road (tel: 0141- 339 881). B&B pounds 102.50-pounds 117.50. Big-hotel feel.

The Ewington, Balmoral Terrace, 132 Queens Drive (tel: 0141-423 1152). B&B pounds 84.50- pounds 104 single, pounds 47-pounds 74 double or twin. Room only pounds 75-pounds 145. Victorian-style rooms, some with four-poster beds.

Strathclyde Graduate Business School, 199 Cathedral Street, (tel: 0141- 553 6000). Good business indeed to offer 108 rooms with en suite bath/ shower, B&B from pounds 39-pounds 59 single, and pounds 38.50-pounds 41.75 twin or double.

Willow Hotel, 228 Renfrew Street (tel: 0141-332 2332). B&B from pounds 24-pounds 30 single, pounds 20-pounds 25 double. Very central.

Chez Nous Guest House, 33 Hillhead Street (tel: 0141-334 2977). B&B pounds 18.50- pounds 25 per person for single/double/twin. Near to the university, in the restaurant-rich West End.

Craigenmuir Park, Campsie View, Stepps (tel: 0141-779 4159). Twenty pitches, pounds 6.50 for two people, plus car and caravan or tent per night. As central as you can get in a tent.

Out of town

When visiting a foreign city it is often worth asking what the locals do at the weekend, then doing it during the week, because you can. Enlightened Glaswegians recommend hillwalking, and one of the best places to go is the Falls of Clyde, New Lanark. Local writer Peter Irvine describes "dramatic falls in a long gorge of the Clyde". Swimming above or below the falls is not recommended, and definitely not a good idea on the one Sunday each month when the local power station "diverts all the water back down the river in a mighty surge".

Python fans can take a trip to Castle Aaaargh (from the end of the Holy Grail - a small castle on an island not much bigger). It is actually called Castle Stalker, and it sits just off Port Appin, 30 miles up the coast, past Oban. Beautiful scenery on the way, and an unusual site for a castle, built as a royal hunting lodge in the 17th century.

Further information

Glasgow Tourist Information (tel: 0141-204 4400).