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Greenock (Glasgow), Scotland

Trendy stores, a booming cultural life, fascinating architecture, and stylish restaurants reinforce Glasgow's claim to being Scotland's most exciting city. After decades of decline, it has experienced an urban renaissance uniquely its own. The city’s grand architecture reflects a prosperous past built on trade and shipbuilding. Today buildings by Charles Rennie Mackintosh hold pride of place along with the Zaha Hadid–designed Riverside Museum. Glasgow (the "dear green place," as it was known) was founded some 1,500 years ago. Legend has it that the king of Strathclyde, irate about his wife's infidelity, had a ring he had given her thrown into the river Clyde. (Apparently she had passed it on to an admirer.) When the king demanded to know where the ring had gone, the distraught queen asked the advice of her confessor, St. Mungo. He suggested fishing for it—and the first salmon to emerge had the ring in its mouth. The moment is commemorated on the city's coat of arms. The medieval city expanded when it was given a royal license to trade; the current High Street was the main thoroughfare at the time. The vast profits from American cotton and tobacco built the grand mansions of the Merchant City in the 18th century. In the 19th century the river Clyde became the center of a vibrant shipbuilding industry, fed by the city’s iron and steel works. The city grew again, but its internal divisions grew at the same time. The West End harbored the elegant homes of the newly rich shipyard owners. Down by the river, areas like the infamous Gorbals, with its crowded slums, sheltered the laborers who built the ships. They came from the Highlands, expelled to make way for sheep, or from Ireland, where the potato famines drove thousands from their homes. During the 19th century the population grew from 80,000 to more than a million. And the new prosperity gave Glasgow its grand neoclassical buildings, such as those built by Alexander "Greek" Thomson, as well as the adventurous visionary buildings designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and others who produced Glasgow’s Arts and Crafts movement. The City Chambers, built in 1888, are a proud statement in marble and gold sandstone, a clear symbol of the wealthy and powerful Victorian industrialists' hopes for the future. The decline of shipbuilding and the closure of the factories led to much speculation as to what direction the city would take now. The curious thing is that, at least in part, the past gave the city a new lease of life. It was as if people looked at their city and saw Glasgow’s beauty for the first time: its extraordinarily rich architectural heritage, its leafy parks, its artistic heritage, and its complex social history. Today Glasgow is a vibrant cultural center and a commercial hub, as well as a launching pad from which to explore the rest of Scotland, which, as it turns out, is not so far away. In fact, it takes only 40 minutes to reach Loch Lomond, where the other Scotland begins. As cities go, Glasgow is contained and compact. It's set up on a grid system, so it's easy to navigate and explore, and the best way to tackle it is on foot. In the eastern part of the city, start by exploring Glasgow Cathedral and other highlights of the oldest section of the city, then wander through the rest of the Merchant City. From there you can just continue into the City Center with its designer shops, art galleries, and eateries. From here you can either walk (it takes a good 45 minutes) or take the subway to the West End. If you walk, head up Sauchiehall Street and visit Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art. Once in the West End, visit the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow University, and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Then take a taxi to the South Side to experience the Burrell Collection and Pollok House. For Glasgow’s East End, walk down High Street from the Cathedral to the Tron Cross; from there you can walk to the Barras and Glasgow Green. If you break your sightseeing up into neighborhoods, it's completely manageable to explore a variety of places in three days. Glasgow's pubs and clubs serve up entertainment until late in the evening; there's something for everyone.

Dining

In the past few years, restaurants have been popping up all around Glasgow that emphasize the best that Scotland has to offer: grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, wild seafood, venison, duck, and goose—not to mention superb fruits and vegetables. The growing emphasis on organic food is reflected on menus that increasingly provide detailed information about the source of their ingredients. No wonder Glasgow is garnering a reputation among food lovers.

You can eat your way around the world in Glasgow. Chinese and Indian foods are longtime favorites, and Thai and Japanese restaurants have become popular. Spanish-style tapas are now quite common, and the "small plate" craze has extended to every kind of restaurant. Glasgow has a large Italian community, and its traditional cafés have been joined by a new generation of eateries serving updated versions of the classics. And seafood restaurants have moved well beyond the fish-and-chips wrapped in newspaper that were always a Glasgow staple.

Smoking isn't allowed in any enclosed space in Scotland, so many restaurants have placed tables outside under awnings during the warmer summer months. With this type of outdoor dining come more Mediterranean-style meals.

Hotels

Glasgow's city center never sleeps, so downtown hotels will be noisier than those in the leafy and genteel West End. Downtown hotels are within walking distance of all the main sights, while West End lodgings are more convenient for museums and art galleries. Over the past few years the hotel scene has become noticeably more stylish, with new hotels opening, including Blythswood Square and Grand Central.

Although big hotels are spread out all around the city, B&Bs are definitely a more popular, personal, and cheaper option. For country-house luxury you should look beyond the city—try Mar Hall, near Paisley. Regardless of the neighborhood, hotels are about the same in price. Some B&Bs as well as the smaller properties may also offer discounts for longer stays. Make your reservations in advance, especially when there's a big concert, sporting event, or holiday (New Year's Eve is popular). In 2014 the Commonwealth Games will take place in Glasgow between July 23 and August 3, and city officials expect hotels to book up months in advance. Glasgow is busiest in summer, but it can fill up when something special is going on. If you arrive in town without a place to stay, contact the Glasgow Tourist Board.

Nightlife

Glasgow’s music scene is vibrant and creative, and many successful pop artists began their careers in its pubs and clubs. Celtic Connections is probably one of the world’s most important festivals of its kind, and the city’s summer Jazz Festival has attracted some of the world's finest players.

When it comes to nightlife, the city center and the West End are alive with pubs and clubs offering an eclectic mix of everything from bagpipes to salsa to punk. The biweekly magazine the List, available at newsstands and many cafés and arts centers, is an indispensable guide to Glasgow’s bars and clubs.

Shopping

You'll find the mark of the fashion industry on the city center's hottest shopping streets. In the Merchant City Ingram Street is lined on either side by high-fashion and designer outlets like Cruise and Agent Provocateur. Buchanan Street, in the city center, is home to many chains geared toward younger people, including Diesel, Monsoon, and USC, and malls like the elegant Princes Square and Buchanan Galleries. The adjacent Argyle Street Arcade is filled with jewelry stores. Antiques tend be found on and around West Regent Street in the city center.

The West End has a number of small shops selling crafts, vintage clothing, and trendier fashions—punctuated by innumerable cafés and restaurants. The university dominates the area around West End, and many shops cater to students. The easiest way to get here is by taking the subway to Hillhead.

Arts/Entertainment


Because the Royal Scottish Conservatoire is in Glasgow, there is always a pool of impressive young talent that's pressing the city's artistic boundaries in theater, music, and film. The city has a well-deserved reputation for its theater, with everything from cutting-edge plays to over-the-top pantomimes. The Citizens Theatre is one of Europe’s leading companies, and the Kings and the Theatre Royal play host to touring productions.

Shopping

Princes Square

The city's best shopping center is the art nouveau Princes Square, a lovely space filled with high-quality shops and pleasant cafés and restaurants. A stunning glass dome was fitted over the original building, which dates back to 1841.

Hector Russell Kiltmakers

This shop specializes in Highland outfits, wool and cashmere clothing, and women's fashions.

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Greenock (Glasgow), Scotland