Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Glasgow

Scotland’s second city has a flash veneer and a gritty past, but its superb galleries, iconic buildings and buzzy shopping scene make for inspiring diversions, says James Henderson.

March 31 2010
James Henderson

A gathering of “the Glasgow Boys” might sound slightly alarming to the uninitiated. In Scotland’s second, but larger and more energetic, city this might refer to the combined talents of Billy Connolly, Gordon Ramsay and Rab C Nesbitt. Lively, then. But, as with many things about this metropolis, there is a surprise – the Glasgow Boys are not mouthy humorists, rather Scotland’s Impressionist painters, who formed a school around 1880-1900. For the coming six months they are gathered together here in the first major exhibition of their work for more than 40 years.

Glasgow has always had its own momentum, with the edge on Edinburgh for its art and design. There is a flash veneer on a gritty, mercantile city but the galleries and museums are truly superb – more than enough to enthuse over during a long weekend.

If you arrive at the train station, you’ll walk out into a muscle-bound gridiron of hefty, largely sandstone buildings. The city centre and Merchant City are relentlessly urban, suffused still with the outsized energy and aspirations of the newly monied 19th-century shipping “lords” who commissioned massive commercial edifices and put in place the wide lanes that still criss-cross and define the two areas. As you continue to explore, make sure to take in St Vincent Street church by Alexander “Greek” Thomson for its innovative classical theme amid roads of brick-and-steel façades.

The closest bit of green is at the top of the hill on Blythswood Square. Here, pride of place goes to the new Blythswood Square hotel, set in the former Royal Scottish Automobile Club. Modern tweed and subdued tartan sit well by solid Italian marble, unexpectedly offset by rich red trimmings (until not long ago the area doubled as Glasgow’s red-light district). The suite to stay in is 220, The Blythswood, with its black marble-clad bathroom. A full-service, luxury spa is due to open in late summer.

Just off the square is the Malmaison, which, in keeping with the hotel company’s eccentric tradition, is housed in a former Episcopal church. There’s nothing eccentric about the comfort, though, which strikes a palatable balance of hip and welcoming. If you don’t take The Big Yin (the hotel’s principal suite, with its tartan-patterned, claw-foot tub), try one of the duplex suites numbered in the 550s – smaller but no less sleek havens of plaids and sumptuous fittings.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, of course, looms large in Glasgow. His finest building is the Glasgow School of Art – built in the art nouveau style at the turn of the 20th century, from 1897-99 and then 1907-09. It stands on a hilltop not far from Blythswood Square, all vast windows with slender metal arches and curves. Inside, some of his furniture is on display: wardrobes, clocks and those distinctive tall-backed chairs. It is still an art school and its degree show is held in June. For an uptown gallery visit Roger Billcliffe on Blythswood Street, which exhibits a range of established jewellery makers and painters from Scotland and abroad.

But part of the pleasure of Glasgow is the discovery of work by younger artists and designers – the city has bred many Turner Prize winners over the years – and there are countless galleries and studios to reward one’s curiosity. Head east and in the Merchant City you will find Brazen, which displays jewellery – mostly modern work in silver. Some of the designers are in residence in the workshop and will personalise pieces for you.

The Modern Institute hosts exhibitions in various spaces around the city, and Sorcha Dallas exhibits painters in her space in St Margaret’s Place. Not far off is Trongate 103, an arts centre which has revolving exhibitions in galleries such as Transmission. The GI (Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art), which runs until May 3, has exhibitions and installations around the city.

After all this art, you’ll need to rest your feet and recharge. For a bit of fun (and a brownie), try The Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street; I’m told the ladies’ room upstairs has original Rennie Mackintosh mirrored and panelled walls. For a modern buzz, stop at Fifi and Ally on Wellington Street – a shop, bar and dining room, low lit with sleek black walls, gilt mirrors, rolled-steel joists overhead and refined café fare.

Similarly, there is plenty to discover in Glasgow fashion. Che Camille (though Camille Lorigo herself is from New York) sells up to 50 designers in a huge loft space above Buchanan Street, with leatherwear, hats, clothes and jewellery in an eclectic mix of styles from retro to funky. There is also a workshop where tailors can make to measure. For lingerie, drop by the voluptuously decorated Boudiche, which carries Kiki de Montparnasse and The Lake & Stars, the spangled tights of Bebaroque and leather and tweed accessories by Keira. In Royal Exchange Square is Ma Mode, where Gail Martus stocks evening and daywear by, among others, Siwy, Sass & Bide and Kova & T. Martus has just launched her own line, GM Black Label.

Blokes don’t often get a look in at moments like these, but fear not, you’ll feel suitably cared for in Deryck Walker’s “Micro” boutique above the Argyll Arcade. He puts a contemporary spin on Harris tweed. And to top off the outfit, visit Niche Optical Tailor, which offers a modern take on the traditional optician, with a range of small-production marques such as Dita and Francis Klein.

Another way to approach Glasgow is to lodge away from the centre in the West End, where the urban intensity loosens into lanes of genteel two- and three- storey terraces. The place to stay is the Hotel du Vin on the Great Western Road. It is a welcoming warren of stairways and passages with a lively bar and an excellent dining room, and a spacious, sumptuous night’s sleep on offer in the form of the Vettriano Suite.

Start your explorations at Park Circus, a perfect oval of sandstone town houses that glow in the afternoon sunlight. As you leave the Circus’ western end, pause above Kelvingrove Park. There ahead of you is the university and to the left is the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Here you should pause to consider Dalí’s Christ of St John of the Cross before the main meat of the visit: the retrospective of the Glasgow Boys. Around 150 works are on view, by James Guthrie, George Henry and John Lavery, among others. From here, walk across to the university side and The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, where you will find fine portraits by Whistler and works by William McTaggart, Samuel Peploe and other Scottish Colourists who were active here in the 1920s and 1930s.

Just beyond, on the Great Western Road, is the second centre of gravity of Glasgow shopping. At Timorous Beasties, whimsical Scottish design is available on fabrics and wallpapers – stylised thistles, butterflies and bees, and its infamous gritty street scenes masquerading as toiles de Jouy. And it is worth stopping at Galletly & Tubbs, which carries a range of furniture and household ornaments, from Knoll chairs to handcrafted lamps.

And so to dinner. Blythswood Square and the Malmaison – within a short stride of one another – both have top-notch dining rooms, but just a few yards further on you will find Brian Maule at the Chardon d’Or, in an elegant setting in a West Regent Street town house. His cuisine is French at base, using the best of Scotland’s beef and fish, of course.

Nearer the West End in Ashton Lane, you will find the “Ubi” (short for Ubiquitous Chip) in an inside courtyard garden. There’s more on offer than fries, of course – a full fine-dining and a brasserie menu. And for a lively evening out, there is the narrow bar and tiny upstairs dining room at Crabshakk – brisk, friendly service and superb fish and seafood of all sorts.

Next day, you can cast your eye a little further afield. South-west of the city is The Burrell Collection, only a small proportion of which is on view at any one time, though always enough to warrant spending a morning. Make sure to see Degas’ The Rehearsal and the works by Sisley and Joseph Crawhall.

Afterwards it’s just a quick drive to an architectural delight of the sort only found in Scotland: Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s House for an Art Lover. The art-deco house is new – it was completed in 1996, built from a design presented at a competition in 1901. Margaret Macdonald, his wife, helped design the interiors. Then there’s an excellent lunch to be had at the Art Lovers’ Café. It’s just the sort of place you might meet the modern-day Glasgow Boys – but this time over a pithivier of wild mushrooms and minted potato, or grey sole with a parfait of salmon and chive.