48 hours in arty Glasgow

Scotland's largest metropolis is fast becoming a favourite short-break destination for culture-seekers who live further south. And it's the perfect place to see in the new year

Why go now?

While 13 British cities are now competing to be our next European Capital of Culture, Glasgow can feel a certain smugness that its artistic supremacy was sealed in 1990. Hogmanay is one good reason for setting off on the party trail to Glasgow, but the cultural hub of Scotland also displays a kinetic spirit often likened to that of New York – which also has plenty of people who are descended from Irish immigrants.

Beam down

Glasgow's main airport is served from Luton on easyJet (0870 600 0000, www.easyJet.com), from Stansted and Bristol on Go (0870 607 6543, www.go-fly.com) and from various UK airports on British Airways (0845 773 3377, www.ba.com) and British Midland (0870 607 0555, www.fly-bmi.com). Ryanair (0870 156 9569, www.ryanair.com) flies to Prestwick from Stansted. GNER and Virgin trains arrive at the splendid Victorian Central station; most ScotRail trains serve Queen Street; 0845 748 4950 for times and fares.

Get your bearings

Nearly everything of interest to the tourist happens north of the river, the Clyde. The town grew south and west from the Cathedral, in Cathedral Square in Upper Town, founded by Saint Mungo in a leafy, elevated glen. Walking west down Cathedral Street, you cross Glasgow's architecturally splendid Buchanan Street and enter a grid of busy, handsome 19th-century buildings, many of which have found a new life as modern hotels, fashionable restaurants and late-night clubs.

Check in

The Arthouse Hotel at 129 Bath Street (0141 221 6789, www.arthousehotel.com) used to be home to the Glasgow School Board (the meeting hall is now a restaurant). Modern Glasgow favours rich colours; you'll find them here in purple and silver-checked carpets and gilded lions rampant on corridor walls. Doubles start from £90, room only. For a relentlessly minimalist look, the Brunswick Hotel at 106-108 Brunswick Street (0141 552 0001, www.brunswickhotel.info), has rooms for £65. If you're on a budget, there's the Euro Hostel B&B at 318 Clyde Street (0141 222 2828), with doubles from £37.

Cultural morning

No visitor to Glasgow should ignore Charles Rennie Mackintosh's School of Art at 167 Renfrew Street (0141 353 4500, www.gsa.ac.uk, £5). The only way to see the interior is one of the excellent but infrequent guided tours which take place on Saturdays at 10.30am and 11.30am; call to find out the next opportunity. Next stop on the cultural trail is the Mackintosh House at the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery at 82 Hillhead Street (0141 330 5431, www.hunterian.gla.ac.uk, free, Mon-Sat 9.30am-5pm, closed until 3 January). When the original house that Mackintosh decorated with his wife, Margaret Macdonald, was demolished, the interior was moved to a purpose-built facsimile at the museum. The Whistlers are next door, bequeathed to Glasgow University by the artist's sister-in-law.

Lunch on the run

A good place to combine lunch with a quick study of a wide selection of history and guide books is the café at the back of the first floor in Borders bookshop at 98 Buchanan St (0141 222 7700). I found myself buying two excellent architectural guides, Central Glasgow (£11.95) and Contemporary Glasgow (£7.95). If you are in the western part of the city, the justly renowned Ubiquitous Chip, at 12 Ashton Lane (0141 334 5007), does an excellent lunch menu – we had vegetarian haggis, with neeps 'n' tatties (£5.35), followed by Mull of Kintyre cheddar cheese with apple jelly and biscuits (£3.85). Or, for the genuine Glasgow tourist experience, you could take in the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed Willow Tearooms at 217 Sauchiehall St (0141 334 5007), where you can feast your eyes on characteristic Mackintosh design features over tea and crumpets.

Take a hike

To see an example of the modern fashion for rehabilitating old commercial buildings, take a walk through the so-called Merchant City, the area north of Trongate and east of Buchanan Street. Start at the Gallery of Modern Art, Royal Exchange Square (0141 229 1996, free admission, open Mon–Sat 10am-5pm and Sun 11am-5pm). The former Royal Exchange, a massive neo-classical temple, begun in 1827, was converted in 1966 to four galleries and a café. Head down Ingram Street to the Italian Centre, an innovative combination of an Italian-inspired inner courtyard and severe Scottish façade. Other Merchant City highlights include the 1817 City Hall in Candleriggs Street. And, for historical as much as architectual interest, take in Robert Adam's late 18th-century Trades House, whose grandeur can give you a good idea of the prosperity that the colonial tobacco trade brought to Glasgow (see also the nearby stately buildings of Virginia Street).

Window shopping

Boutique shopping is available in Prince's Square shopping centre, across Buchanan Street from Frasers department store, Glasgow's answer to Jenners in Edinburgh. Bigger shops can be found at the massive Buchanan Galleries, the winner of an award from Private Eye for the "worst new building of 1998".

An aperitif

If you are going to the ballet or opera on Saturday night, arrive early at the Theatre Royal (19), 28e Hope St, for a drink in the corner bar. Or, if you prefer an evening at the pub, you could try the Scotia Bar (20) at 112 Stockwell Street (0141 552 8681), which claims to be where the comedian Billy Connolly began his career.

Dinner with the locals

Groucho Saint Jude's at 190 Bath Street (0141 352 8800) is the Scottish outpost of London's Groucho Club, but it is open to all-comers. We had the grilled langoustines with ginger (£17.50), which were excellent. You could also try Stravaigin at 28 Gibson Street (0141 334 2665), which mixes Scottish produce with ingredients imported from far-flung places around the globe.

Sunday morning, go to church

A return to the Cathedral might be in order here for those who like their religion on a grand scale. Or, if you prefer the multi-cultural approach, you could visit the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, at 2 Castle Street (0141 553 2557), which claims to be the only public museum to examine all the world's major religious faiths (Mon-Thurs and Sat 10am-5pm, Fri and Sun 11am-5pm).

Bracing brunch

Merchant City is home to people who do brunch, rather than just a late breakfast. You'll find them reading their Sunday papers over toasted bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese at Corinthian, 191 Ingram Street (0141 559 6800).

A walk in the park

It's time to see the Clyde, finally, at Glasgow Green, the city's oldest park, which for more than 300 years has been home to innumerable political, social and sporting events. If you need just that bit more culture, you can take in the People's Palace museum while you're there.

Write a postcard

One more Rennie Mackintosh stop is the restored Lighthouse at 11 Mitchell Lane (0141 221 6362, www.thelighthouse.co.uk, Mon, Weds-Sat 10.30am-5pm, Tues 11am-5pm, Sun 12pm-5pm). Haul yourself up the winding stairs to the viewing parapet at the top, then settle down to a panoramic view of the city as you pen your impressions on a postcard, purchased from the excellent selection in the shop below.

Take a ride

To New Lanark, midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, the restored factory town of the socialist visionary Robert Owen. Built by his father-in-law, David Dale, in 1785 to harness the power of the falls of the upper Clyde to drive spinning machines and looms, Owen tried out his utopian social ideals – which included schools for workers' children, decent housing, and a dance and concert hall – in the setting of this model village. It is now run by the New Lanark Conservation Trust as an outdoor museum. The town is one mile south of Lanark, which is 25 miles southeast of Glasgow on the A72. Trains run every hour from Glasgow Central to Lanark, from where there are buses to New Lanark. For more information, call 01555 661 345 or visit www.newlanark.org.

The icing on the cake

The Burrell Collection (27) at Pollok Country Park, 2060 Pollokshaws Road (0141 287 2550, free admission, Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 11am-5pm) contains a choice selection of great art from many cultures and periods, collected by the millionaire shipping magnate, Sir William Burrell. It is housed in a beautiful, purpose-built building set in a landscaped park.

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