Scotland Travel: Glasgow

Oh, Glasgow. In truth, I don’t really know what to say about you. My feelings are so mixed and complicated. On one hand, Glasgow is a generic, bland, working-class city. The kind of type that would be fine to live in, if you were a Scot, but dull and uneventful to the average tourist (like myself). I likened this to my current city of residence (Richmond, Virginia)– it would be fine to live here, but not somewhere you would go out of your way to visit if you were a tourist in the United States. On the other hand, I feel some deep sense of remorse about saying anything bad about Glasgow. The Glaswegians were, without argument in my mind, the most friendly, helpful, sincere group of Europeans I met my entire time abroad. I was shown acts of kindness on the subway (a young couple showed me how to get to my hostel because they knew what it felt like to be lost in a foreign city) and greeted warmly at almost every establishment I entered. The people seemed genuinely interested in me as a foreigner– my story, why I was in Glasgow, what America was like. Maybe the Glaswegians don’t get many foreign tourists, or maybe they are just exceptionally friendly. Either way, I felt more welcomed in Glasgow than nearly any other city I visited (you wouldn’t get that kind of response in a large, multinational city like London!)

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Aside from the warmness of its people, I don’t have many other pleasant things to say about Scotland’s largest city. I spent approximately a day and a half in Glasgow, and that was all I really needed. Maybe part of my bitter feeling towards the city stems from the circumstances of my travel: I traveled with a group there out of necessity (it was never originally on my list of places to visit), and I spent most of my time wandering the city streets alone. But circumstances aside, vising the city itself was like eating a big bowl of bland tofu. Sure, there were fantastic old buildings with architecture seen throughout Scotland, but I got that (and more) in Edinburgh, so nothing stood out to me. And sure, there were museums and parks, but nothing entirely noteworthy. It was all just kind of, “meh.” But hey, some people like tofu– so who am I to judge?

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One of my first trips in Glasgow was to the University of Glasgow. One of the most prestigious universities in the United Kingdom, the University of Glasgow looked much like other old British universities– tall Gothic towers and arched hallways surrounding courtyards abounded. I found myself having to duck into the university’s museum (the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery) just to escape Scotland’s cold March weather. I suppose the weather didn’t help my experience in Glasgow, it was often freezing and entirely overcast.  The picture above, dated circa March 2013, is of the University of Glasgow from nearby Kelvingrove Park. 

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I actually spent a large portion of my time in Glasgow in Kelvingrove Park and the surrounding park district. My hostel was nearby, situated on a hill that overlooked much of the city and Kelvingrove Park (that location wasn’t worth much– it overlooked the city, but trees obscured the view!). The park itself was, if nothing else, quiet and serene, and included the majority of Glasgow’s museums. One of the museums is pictured above (the Glasgow Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum). I spent a decent amount of time exploring this museum in an attempt to get out of the cold weather and keep myself occupied in an otherwise uneventful city. There, I was able to see many suits or armor and I learned that the Glaswegians have a strange obsession with American country music and cowboy culture.

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I guess the suits of armor were pretty cool. From Kelvingrove Park, I ventured closer to the city’s center via the Glasgow subway system. Easily the most underwhelming, simple, and quite dirty subway system in Europe I visited, the train essentially travels on two tracks around a big loop. Although, I shouldn’t really complain– at least there was a subway system at all! Plus, I got to see some awesome graffiti at many of the tracks. I arrived at the Buchanan Station to what is known as Buchanan Street, Glasgow’s main shopping thoroughfare, shown below.

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On Buchanan Street, I often found myself running into various shops to sit and escape the cold. Because boy, was that wind chilly! On the plus side, ducking into these shops was the only way I met local Glaswegians, who were all incredibly friendly. In addition to visiting various shops and malls, I had the pleasure of running into some street performers, who– dressed in rags while playing bagpipes and drums– looked like they came straight out of Braveheart. A picture is shown below, circa March 2013.

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Probably the highlight, at least from a tourist’s perspective, of my time in Glasgow. And the music itself wasn’t too bad! Those weren’t the last kilts I would see during my tour of the city center. As I meandered through odd art museums (where I practiced some French with a group of French tourists) and a delicious Chipotle-esque restaurant named Pinto, I stumbled upon even more kilts in a shop window. But this time, they were fancy kilts.

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The rest of the downtown area was much less interesting. I wandered the streets looking for any tourist attraction that I could find, but there wasn’t much to see. I did see many neighborhoods in my time in Scotland and I will say that the architecture (I’m pretty sure it was Gregorian), while similar to Dublin, was still quite interesting in how unique it was from my prior American experiences.

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The city center’s focal point seemed to be the Glasgow City Chambers, where the Glasgow City Council resides. One of the more impressive buildings in Scotland’s largest city, the Glasgow City Chambers building sits adjacent to George Square. This square is adorned with the statues of famous figures from Scottish history, and is a popular spot for pedestrians to cross through. Granted, because the day I spent in Glasgow was so overcast, the entire square seemed gray and grim. There was a rather large memorial to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who at the time had recently passed away. A banner read “We Are all Chavez”, something I don’t think you would see anytime soon in the United States. Below is the City Chambers building from George Square.

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From there, I wandered to a nearby park known as the Glasgow Green, which sits along Glasgow’s main River Clyde. The park itself, like much of Glasgow, was pretty underwhelming. Notable features included an Egyptian obelisk, a few museums, and a view over the river– straight at some industrial plant, which wasn’t very pretty. Oh well, guess you can’t win ’em all, right? The entrance to the park is shown below.

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The rest of my time in Glasgow was spent predominantly running into as many shops as possible to escape the night’s cold. I did enjoy seeing one of my British Isle favorite stores, Tesco, adorned with Scottish memorabilia. And getting Scottish currency as change was pretty awesome, too (still the pound, but with decorative variation)– there’s even a knight on one of the bills!

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If there was one thing I enjoyed about Glasgow’s city center, it was the way the city looked at night. This was especially true near the Gallery of Modern Art (the aforementioned weird art museum). Lights lined the walkways around the museum and nearby restaurants. That was a nice thing to see.

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At the very least, I see my time in Glasgow as a learning experience. It was one of the few trips that I spent primarily alone, and learning how to navigate a foreign city alone is something that most people should experience at least once. I’m not jumping to do that again anytime soon, but in a sense I’m glad I was able to experience it once. The city itself was quite mundane, in my opinion, especially relative to nearby Edinburgh. But I’ve heard loads of people who loved their experiences in Glasgow, so maybe there are people out there who would enjoy it. The people were incredibly sweet and thoughtful, so for that I am grateful. You guys made my already complicated trip a little less painful.

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Plus, I was highly amused by your fascination with Old-West American culture. I may not ever return to Glasgow, but thanks for giving me that to remember.

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