Freshly deposited in Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city at 1.2 million people, my youngest child is surprisingly enthusiastic: about shopping. And I can’t blame the tween fashionista.
I’m hooked too as our family of five wheels our suitcases down the teeming sidewalks from Glasgow Queen Street train station to our hotel, the Premier Inn Glasgow City Centre Buchanan Galleries, smack in the centre of the city’s Style Mile, the compact, a walkable pedestrian hub that boasts overs 200 stores.
As we walk, we see shops upon shops, coupled with an almost festive vibe as streams of people walk and talk through the cobblestone streets.
If we’re to begin our time in Glasgow, an edgy, modern, bustling metropolis dubbed the Merchant City, by shopping the U.K.’s largest retail playground outside London, then I’m okay with that.
Here’s what we liked about Glasgow:
The Style Mile
Even if you don’t buy a thing (like that’s going to happen!), strolling the Style Mile is an experience to savour. Soak in the architecture, watch street performers, stop for something to eat, and pop in and out of designer and vintage shops that stretch across Sauchiehall, Buchanan and Argyle streets. People couldn’t be friendlier. In the four-level, 90-store Buchanan Galleries, I’m looking for travel size hair products, and soon the clerk is dishing directions to some of her favourite shopping spots: John David, Mango, Primark. “Do you like good stuff at a low price? Try Primark, it’s outside on Sauchiehall Street, and there’s another on Argyle. I love Primark, my top, my jeans, my shoes, are all from Primark. You can get a whole outfit for 10 pounds,” she raves, indicating her stylish ensemble. As we walk the pedestrian streets on a mission, every third person seems to be carrying Primark’s trademark brown paper bag. Finally, we arrive, and my chic charge goes wild happily filling her bag. Me? After slathering on sweet lotions at Molton Brown and browsing New Look en route, I do damage at Marks & Spencer just a few doors down.
City Sightseeing Glasgow
Shopping satisfied, it’s time to see the city. Glasgow, we find, is quite easy to navigate. Still, one of the best ways to get your bearings is the Hop-on, Hop-off City Sightseeing bus tour. With a family pass in hand, we jump on the distinctive bright red open-top double decker bus at George Square, the city’s cultural centre, and sit back for the full ride, a narrated, hour-and-20-minute tour with 21 stops at some top attractions. Glasgow is rife with history and guides spill it all on tour. Plus, it’s an excellent way to get around. After completing a loop, we hop off frequently and never have to wait long for pick-up – the big red bus pulls up at 10-minute intervals. Between stops, we learn of Glasgow’s past – how the city became wealthy importing and exporting goods on the River Clyde, and later, in the 1800s, how Glasgow developed a world-renowned reputation for shipbuilding. We learn too of the tobacco lords, who became incredibly wealthy. You can still see ornate buildings, many dating back to the 17th century. Today’s charms also make it into the narrative, the thriving music scene, and the culinary goodness, including the city’s surprising status as a curry capital.
At George Square, do make time to pop into Glasgow City Chambers, one of the city’s most important and beautiful buildings, and headquarters to city government for over a century. We pulled open the doors to the Victorian masterpiece just to ask for directions and were immediately wowed by the architecture including a gorgeous, large marble staircase. Take a look inside with free tours at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
West End Fun
“Do you want a wee drink?” the welcoming server at University Café, a small eatery on Byres Road, asked my kids, who sipped down whipped cream laden hot chocolate, thick homemade soup and arguably the city’s best ice cream at this retro find they still talk fondly about today. Advertising tea, coffee, sandwiches and takeaways, the café is nearly 100 years old, and it looks like the décor has been in place for decades. That’s part of the charm. So is the food. I scoffed down my first ever toasties, ham and cheese please, and it was the best. While in the west end, don’t miss the chance to walk the neo-gothic grounds of the University of Glasgow, said to be the inspiration of J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts in Harry Potter. True or not, it’s something to see.
Glasgow appeals for many reasons and one definite standout is the world-class attractions it offers, many with free admission. All national art galleries and museums are free in Scotland, welcome news to this family of five Canadians dealing with an exchange rate not in our favour! Visitors can easily plan a museum hop to several stellar locations. If, however, you have time for only one, make it the iconic Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
Housed in a stunning red sandstone, Spanish baroque style building, the museum is a fascinating collision of natural history, Scottish history and world cultures. It has everything from Renaissance art to medieval weaponry and is handily located beside Kelvingrove Park where you can stroll by the River Kelvin. Other great options? The interactive Riverside Museum offers a history of transport in Scotland (more fun than it sounds, a local assured!) and The People’s Palace, a hands-on museum telling the history of Glasgow. It has a botanic garden attached and is located on historic Glasgow Green, a 15th-century gift from King James II and the city’s oldest park—one of over 70 parks in Glasgow, including Pollok Country Park where you can see Highland cattle.
Even to the teen and tween set, there’s something special about the beautiful, spiritual High Kirk of Glasgow, also known as St. Mungo Cathedral or Glasgow Cathedral.
The massive, imposing 13th-century cathedral captures the imagination as it showcases centuries of history (we learn it’s the only one on the Scottish mainland to survive the Reformation of 1560 intact) within its stunning stone walls. My kids happily wander through one of Scotland’s most significant medieval buildings. Legend has it that it was built on the site of St. Kentigern’s tomb and marks the birthplace of the City of Glasgow. Admission is free, and it’s a highlight to explore.
Next to the cathedral, and also free (a trend I’m liking!), is the Glasgow Necropolis, a captivating hillside meander up to explore the monuments and impressive architecture in a Victorian garden cemetery.
The final resting place of Glasgow’s wealthy Victorians, you truly get a sense of their wealth gazing at the grand and intricate tombs that mark their place. There are great city views too.
Gateway To Explore
Glasgow is also a natural gateway to explore the rest of Scotland, and several guided, small group day tours leave daily from George Square. On a last minute whim, we booked a day-long Discover Scotland tour, and kids and adults alike had the best day learning Scottish history. Highlights included; buying hand-turned chocolates and eating fresh fish in the seaport of Oban; touring Inverary Castle, where the Duke of Argyle still lives today; visiting haunting, historic Glencoe; seeing the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. We capped our day off by settling in for a drink (ale and soft drinks) at the 312-year-old, reputably haunted and certainly atmospheric, Drover’s Inn.