Why Glasgow is Scotland’s most exciting city right now

As world leaders attending the COP26 Climate Summit may have learned this week, it can be difficult being green in certain parts of Glasgow. Simply wearing the color in certain neighborhoods could be met with howls of derision — due to the city’s 130-year-long soccer rivalry between Celtic and Rangers.

Thankfully, the city and its residents are open to change in other areas. In recent decades, Glasgow—whose Gaelic name, Glaschu, fittingly means “dear green place”—has seen the development of restaurants and hotels, with neighborhoods formerly best avoided evolving rapidly, thrillingly into something new.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Finnieston. The area has become one of Scotland’s most dynamic gourmet corners, and it continues to excite with new openings. The latest additions include the Hidden Lane Organic Brewery and shop, which has popped up in a former laundry off Argyle Street, and Unalome By Graeme Cheevers, which has opened at the unapologetically high end of the food scene.  

Cheevers may well be looking to emulate the Michelin-starred success of Cail Bruich, on the other side of beautiful Kelvingrove Park. For 17 years, Glasgow may not have been in Michelin’s guides, but that changed in early 2021 when Cail Bruich’s clever take on modern Scottish cuisine was finally recognized.

(Find warrior queens, fairies, and castles in Scotland.)

The COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, slowed Glasgow’s regeneration, but in certain areas, it’s provided an opportunity. In the Merchant City quarter, a series of bars and restaurants operating under the Festival Village umbrella was given a permanent alfresco home. Further east, Barras Art and Design—a collection of food, drink, and entertainment spaces—is breathing new life into the century-old Barrowlands Market. At the back of Glasgow Green, with e-bike racks nearby, and a healthy presence of IPAs, street art, hipsters and all, it almost feels as though you could be in Brooklyn. 

Glasgow at a glance

Scotland’s biggest city is too often in the shadow of its rival, Edinburgh, around 40 miles to the east. Edinburgh may have fringe-fest flair, but Glasgow has character—and a swaggering charm embodied in the Glaswegian word gallus, meaning “daring” or “cheeky.”

A wealthy shipbuilding and trade hub on the River Clyde since the 15th century, Scotland’s largest city fell into dereliction, earning a rough-and-tumble reputation that stuck to soot-covered buildings well into the 1980s. Now scrubbed up and gleaming, Glasgow flexes cultural muscle, artfully burnishing its industrial cityscape.

(Scotland’s tourism scene is aiming for the stars.)

As a UNESCO City of Music and the 1990 European City of Culture, Glasgow is applauded for its arts scene. Restoration of the School of Art, the city’s architectural masterpiece, polished a cultural gem and honored the building’s renowned architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose design sensibility shaped how the city is seen by the world.

But for the heart and soul of the city, look to the locals. The city slogan, after all, is “People Make Glasgow.”

Where to feast

The hottest restaurants are now clustered in Finnieston, the trendy riverside district that not long ago languished as a post-industrial ghost town. The Gannet, Ox and Finch, and Crabshakk rank among the acclaimed destinations on the “Finnie strip.”

Glasgow has many excellent curry houses; Shish Mahal and Mother India’s Café are arguably the best.

Deep-fried fish and chips is the classic fast-food choice, as Justin Bieber discovered when he ordered one at the Blue Lagoon on Argyle Street after a recent show. He washed it down with a can of Irn-Bru, the orange soda revered by Scots.

Where to sleep

Described by its designer as “Darth Vader’s apartment,” Dakota Deluxe is all dark brick and black blinds on its exterior. Inside, though, the feeling is indulgent and cozy, suited to couples. The elegant cocktail bar offers a challenge: trying to name all the famous Jacks (Nicholson, Kennedy, etc.) whose portraits line the walls.

(These are 12 reasons to go to Scotland now.)

In Glasgow’s leafy West End, the address of Hotel du Vin—One Devonshire Gardens—has long been a byword for luxury, which is why this converted stretch of Victorian townhomes is the go-to spot for visiting celebs.

Where to play

One of the quintessential Glasgow experiences is attending a gig at the Barrowland Ballroom or at least stopping by to admire its iconic neon sign.

This is also a town for soccer, called football in the UK. The fierce rivalry between the Celtic and the Rangers makes all the headlines, but going to see one of the smaller teams, Partick Thistle or Queen’s Park, provides an authentic glimpse of “fitba” culture.

Make time, too, to visit the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, a stately building that’s home to a world-class painting—Salvador Dalí’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross.”

(Here’s an insider’s take on what makes an epic trip to Scotland.)

The city has 90 gardens and parks, including Victoria Park, where you can see remnants of an ancient swamp forest. The site, called Fossil Grove, protects 11 fossilized tree stumps estimated to be about 330 million years old.

Where to shop

It’s often said that the city has the best shopping in the United Kingdom outside of London. Much of it is concentrated on the “Style Mile” along Argyle, Buchanan, and Sauchiehall Streets.

Look elsewhere for more-offbeat gift ideas: Young’s Interesting Books on Skirving Street; Dowanside and Ruthven Lanes for vintage clothing (Starry Starry Night) and antiques; Penny Black on Great Western Road for Glasgow-themed greeting cards. And don’t miss Scotland’s best record shop, Monorail, inside vegan café Mono in Kings Court.

When to Go

Visit in March through May for the spring flowers, and June to August for outdoor festivals and up to 17 hours of daylight. The end of the year brings the Hogmanay and Burns Night festivals.

This article was updated in 2021 with additional reporting by Jamie Lafferty, first published in National Geographic Traveller (UK).