With sassy new haunts to the east, west and along the Clyde, no amount of colonnaded grandeur can mask this Scottish city's rebellious streak
Among the things you need to know aboutGlasgow that tend to get left unsaid: it is a spectacularly beautiful city that did as much as almost anywhere else in western Europe to shape the modern world and the way we live now. For more information, keep reading - or better still, go there and ask a Glaswegian. Any Glaswegian. Glaswegians like a wee blether, so they do. They're mouthy, irreverent, tipsy with talk, pleased to supply perfect strangers with up-to-the-minute bulletins as to their state of personal well-being and the human condition. And of course they swear wonderfully too.
Glasgow's mostly Victorian city centre is said to resemble that of 19th-century New York. Filmmakers love it for this reason (go to the intersection of Hope Street and St Vincent Street and you'll see why). But Glasgow's grandeur is its own. A little frayed around the edges, perhaps, yet the grandeur remains. Take a few steps off George Square and into the City Chambers and look up. Gleaming acres of marble, alabaster, gold leaf, mosaics and mahogany, receding in mad Piranesi perspectives. A monument to the tobacco lords, slave traders and ship builders in toppers and tails whose fortunes paid for it; a portal in time left tantalisingly ajar that leads back to Glasgow's longish moment as the Second City of the British Empire.
You get the grandeur in smaller doses too, in places where you least expect to find it, and it is a feature of the city's present as well as its past. Contradiction is the key. 'There's more joy in a Glasgow knife fight than an Edinburgh wedding,' they joke. Gallowgate humour. There is real strife here, but great wit and beauty and spirit too. Glasgow is a city that requires a kind of double vision if you are to see it clearly (cf 'Where to drink').
WHERE TO STAY
In the centre of Glasgow, two modern hotels in historic buildings remain popular: Blythswood Square (doubles from £120) and Malmaison Glasgowon West George Street (doubles from £89). Trainspotters and those who find Tannoys soothing will enjoy the Grand Central on Gordon Street (doubles from £89), which adjoins the main railway station. In the leafy West End, Hotel du Vin & Bistro (doubles from £125) occupies an entire terrace of sandstone townhouses in Devonshire Gardens, beautifully restored inside and out. Guests are greeted on arrival with a dram of Macallan; the bar is cosy, woody, heavy on the tartan and popular with locals; so is the restaurant, which serves up an interesting contemporary take on traditional Scottish grub - the Cullen skink (haddock-and-potato soup) is fantastic. Among the city's new wave of boutique hotels, 15 Glasgow in Woodside Place (doubles from £99) is whip-smart and conveniently located between the city centre and the West End, facing the university's darkly looming Gothic spire.
THE BONNY, BONNY BANKS
Less convenient but even smarter is Cameron House (doubles from £149), half an hour north-west of the city, on Loch Lomond. It's gorgeous, it has its own Michelin-starred Martin Wishart restaurant and you can catch a seaplane from the jetty outside the front door. A haven for those who voted 'No' in the independence referendum: for 300 years or so this Disney-perfect baronial pile belonged to the Smollett family, and Sir James Smollett helped draft the Act of Union in 1707.
WHERE TO EAT
Rogano in Exchange Place (about £90 for two) has since 1935 been doing a faultless impersonation of the Art Deco interior of the Cunard liner Queen Mary, launched from a Clyde shipyard the previous year. There's a ground-floor bit, a basement bit, a bar bit and an outside bit (over which hangs the suavest neon sign in the city). Ask for a booth at the back of the ground-floor bit. The lobster thermidor is beyond a guilty pleasure - more like a mortal sin. Other seafood stalwarts include the various outposts of the Two Fat Ladies empire - of which the West End original on Dumbarton Road (about £65 for two) is a firm favourite. A few years ago, the Crabshakk on Argyle Street (about £50 for two) scuttled onto the scene and clawed back some of the Fatties' business.
SPICE IT UP
In Britain, only London and Bradford are better served for curry. The options are practically endless. The Wee Curry Shop on Buccleuch Street (about £30 for two) has the distinction of being very good, very friendly and - the clue is in the name - very small, with space for no more than 20 diners at a time.
The place for custard tarts is Kember & Jones on Byres Road. For ice cream, go a little further along and cross the road to Nardini's, younger brother of the legendary Largs establishment. For coffee, All That Is Solid on Osborne Street and the sleek, slightly smug Hyndland Fox on Clarence Drive are excellent.
WHERE TO DRINK
ALL SHOOK UP
Glasgow may have a reputation among drinks snobs as 'not really a cocktail kind of town', but there's no desperate shortage of places to find a good cocktail. The bar at Blythswood Square hotel may have slipped from the eminence it enjoyed a few years back, but it's still going gangbusters. The Bootleg at The Corinthian Club on Ingram Street is part of a club-casino-bar-restaurant affair that sprawls over several floors of an old mansion in the Merchant City, which must be seen to be believed - the scale is so wrong it's right.
The Lab on Springfield Court has tables with names such as The Periodic Table and The 12 Times Table, and serves clever cocktails in test tubes (at £5 for five, it's an experiment that couldn't possibly go wrong). There are no books at the Hillhead Bookclub on Vinicombe Street but there are retro video games, ping-pong tables, a lady who teaches embroidery on Tuesdays, £3 Strawberry Mojitos, and Bloody Marys served in old gramophones. TheKelvingrove Café is a converted ice-cream parlour on Argyle Street in hipster-friendly Finnieston, run by mixologist Mal Spence, late of the Blythswood, who insists on making his own ice using '1930s techniques' (freezing water presumably among them).
If you plan to keep things simple and stick with whisky, head for The Pot Still, an old-school boozer on Hope Street that specialises in malts, of which they claim to stock several hundred. So much for the plan to keep things simple.
WHERE TO SHOP
FINE AND DANDY
Many first-time visitors are surprised by how snappily Glaswegians dress. When Armani opened its first Glasgow boutique, on John Street, it did a higher turnover than any of the brand's other outlets in Europe. You can find the usual suspects around Buchanan Street and the Merchant City. But there is more fun to be had on dingy Dumbarton Road - Scotland's Royal Mile of second-hand tat - or at Saratoga Trunk, a warehouse chock-a-block with vintage clothing and costume jewellery, some of which is available for hire.
ROLL UP, ROLL UP
A friend of mine has a theory that for £45 you get anything you want - a plasma-screen TV, a kitchen, a yacht, a kidney - at The Barras, the market on and off Gallowgate, east of the city centre near Glasgow Green. It's worth a visit even if you're already sorted for white goods and body parts. Elsewhere, for psychedelic soft furnishings and wallpaper (as seen in fine establishments such as the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom), check out Timorous Beasties on the Great Western Road. For random, cool, designery stuff, try The Shop of Interest on Argyle Street.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
Only a handful of geniuses manage to produce work so disconcertingly original that it compels you to look at familiar things in a new way. Charles Rennie Mackintosh - artist, architect, designer, decorator, prodigiously moustachioed dapperling - was such a one. Start with the Glasgow School of Art on Renfrew Street, his first completed project and still among the top schools of its kind in the world. Mackintosh's masterpiece was badly damaged by fire last spring; even so, comparison between its scorched shell and a brand-new annexe across the street - the Seona Reid Building, by a fashionable American architect, which is supposed to be in some sort of 'dialogue' with Mackintosh's original - is likely to lead to a lively assessment of the two architects' relative merits. The city knocked down the house Mackintosh shared with his wife and collaborator Margaret Macdonald, but its ethereal interiors were preserved and reassembled in a wing of the Hunterian (see below), a perfect gem of a museum run by the University of Glasgow.
The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum on Argyle Street is as impressive without as it is within. It's a brooding, baroque confection in that infernal red sandstone you see so much of in Glasgow - the kind of place, perhaps, that Lucifer and his fallen angels knock up at the end of Book I of Paradise Lost. In a good way. The Gallery of Modern Art on Royal Exchange Square is housed in a fine neoclassical building on one of the city's most elegant quads. The best exhibit is outside the front door: a statue of the Duke of Wellington on horseback, invariably embellished with a plastic traffic cone for a hat. A plan to raise the plinth in order to prevent pranksters from clambering up and replacing the duke's headgear whenever it gets removed was abandoned in 2013 after public outcry and many awful puns ('i-cone-ic', 'cone-troversial', etc).
CABINETS OF CURIOSITIES
The Hunterian comprises several exhibition spaces scattered about the University of Glasgow. Together, they are a vast Wunderkammer that runs a weird gamut from extinct marine arthropods and pickled foetuses to the ineffably lovely nocturnes of James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
If you have time to visit just one museum in Glasgow, then it must be theBurrell Collection off Pollokshaws Road. Shipping supremo Sir William Burrell personally assembled more than 8,000 objects with a combination of magpie eclecticism and unerring good taste - Tang dynasty porcelain, medieval stained glass, Mughal carpets, exceptional works by Degas, Manet and Cézanne. This is one of the great single-collector museums, possibly only rivalled by that of Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon. It's in Pollok Country Park, which, though not in the country, is fairly bucolic by Glasgow standards. After admiring Sir William's knick-knacks, stroll through the park past a herd of shaggy Highland cattle to Pollok House, a mini-stately now managed by the National Trust for Scotland. El Grecos and Goyas upstairs, tea and scones downstairs.
Mention must be made of the city's abundance of contemporary galleries. These began to appear on the edge of the Merchant City in the early 1980s, led by Transmission on King Street. Now mixed-use artsy-music-studio spaces - such as SWG3 in Eastvale Place - are proliferating. Something about Glasgow seems to attract artists from elsewhere in Britain and abroad. Part of the attraction may have to do with the city's utter lack of concern about what anyone from anywhere else thinks of it.
MUSIC AND DANCE
WHAT A PERFORMANCE
UNESCO has declared Glasgow one of half a dozen Cities of Music. Some 130 concerts are said to occur here every week. At one end of the spectrum you've got the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Claremont Street, theScottish Opera on Elmbank Crescent and the Scottish Ballet. The latter is headquartered in a tram depot south of the river on Albert Drive and, winningly opens its doors to anyone curious about life as a dancer. There are drop-in ballet classes for all comers, including special options for Wee Mice (aged three to five) and Silver Swans (50-plus). At the other end of the spectrum, you've got the petri dish of indie talent that is King Tut's Wah Wah Hut on St Vincent Street and the grungy Jamaica Street basement that many say is the best underground techno venue in the world, the Sub Club. 'It isn't where you're from, it's where you're at,' says the Subbie's resident DJ Harri.
words by STEVE KING
This feature was first published in Condé Nast Traveller January 2015