Next week over 1,000,000 people will flood Glasgow for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. It’s a proud moment for this city that has been through cycles of boom and bust for hundreds of years, sinking into squalor and scraping its way up again. Today it’s a media titan and a haven for artists, chock full of gorgeous architecture from just about every historical period, and teeming with workaday crowds as well as curious tourists.
With one day left on a BritRail pass I had a free ticket to travel anywhere in Britain for one day. I tried to think of a) somewhere I’d never been before and b) somewhere far away and expensive. A friend suggested Glasgow, and I knew that it was high time I had a look at the “Second City of the Empire” for myself.
I had just eight hours to experience Glasgow.
While it’s impossible to get a comprehensive look at a city in one day, I tried to hit the highlights, enjoyed what I experienced, and left planning to visit again. For anyone else planning a trip to Glasgow (or you Anglophiles who just enjoy reading such things), here is the CliffsNotes version of my day:
The City Sightseeing Bus
City Sightseeing runs a hop-on hop-off bus tour in over 90 locations around the world. I’ve seen the distinctive red buses many times, and since I wasn’t at all familiar with Glasgow I thought it would be the best way to familiarize myself with the area. For £12 I got a day pass and hopped on.
The first bus I took had a fantastic live guide. Though the Glaswegian accent takes some getting used to, her commentary added color and interest to what might have been an unimpressive ride through city streets. The open-top bus afforded a great view (my advice: only sit on top, no matter the weather, because down below your view is ruined by traffic), and was a fast way to travel between the tourist hotspots. The worst part of the tour is that you can’t go backwards. If you don’t hop off when you think a site sounds interesting, you’ll have to ride the whole loop again to get back.
The Tenement House
This was an unexpected treasure. An ordinary tenement house just off Sauchiehall Street, once owned by a quirky woman named Agnes Toward, is a time capsule of life in Glasgow in the early 20th century (photography not allowed indoors, see pictures here). Miss Toward lived alone in her house for decades, never changing the decor or furniture (even the calendar stops at 1935). When she passed away, her family discovered a treasure trove of objects from a time gone by.
The best part of this mini-museum is the enthusiastic group of guides. Walking up the stairs to the first floor you use the Victorian bell pull to signal your arrival and the ladies smile and beckon you inside. They glow when you ask questions and they overflow with stories. I learned about horsehair chairs, discovered what “deal” furniture is, and saw gas lighting for the first time in my life. If you don’t have a National Trust membership entry costs £6.50.
The Willow Tea Rooms
I am becoming a bigger and bigger fan of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and this visit to Glasgow sealed my fate as a lover of Art Nouveau. One of my goals for this trip was to have tea at The Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street. The rooms look almost exactly as they did when Mackintosh designed them back in 1903. He was such a perfectionist, he designed everything about the building from the facade to the forks!
Unfortunately, I would say that this was the worst disappointment of the day. The tea rooms were beautiful, but the whole place smelled like salmon, it was a bit too warm and cramped, and the prices soared uncomfortably high. Nevertheless, my server was sweet and the strawberry tart even more so. I enjoyed my tea and the feel of dining in a place of such fame and elegance.
The Glasgow School of Art
On May 23 a fire tragically destroyed portions of the Glasgow School of Art, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece. Thankfully only about 30% of the interior was damaged, but the entire building is now off limits and under repair. Even behind a metal fence though, the architecture is beautiful to behold.
Ever since blogging about the Necropolis I’ve longed to visit with camera in hand. 50,000 bodies lay buried beneath a cityscape of ostentatious monuments and crumbling statues. It’s modeled after Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (The British have always had a running competition with the French, even when it comes to burying their dead). Memorials line the path that spirals up a steep hill, and the peak affords an impressive view of Glasgow. I took my time stepping around stones and markers, reading inscriptions and admiring the sculpture. It’s a sobering place to reflect, a chance to consider your life and ambitions which will one day crumble like the headless angels around you.
To Sum it Up
Glasgow is a fantastic city. Grittier and less touristy than Edinburgh, it has a robust flavor all its own (reminiscent of Irn-Bru). I want to go back already, and next time I can stay overnight, sample the many free museums, and maybe eat a Scooby Snack from The Maggie food truck.
I encourage you to visit Glasgow for yourself, even if you only have a few hours. You don’t have to spend days or weeks in a place to enjoy it. Sometimes all you need is an afternoon.