Glasgow isn’t always a city you see on a Scottish travel itinerary, but I totally think it should be on your list. I have a friend who works in Glasgow and she always posts cool photos there, and I’ve heard a lot about the city’s revitalization and focus on the arts. I think it gets a bad rep for being tough or gritty but we greatly enjoyed our day in Glasgow and thought we should have spent two there, as there really was a lot to do. (We missed the murals they’re famous for but there just wasn’t enough time in the day!)
The city is definitely busier than Edinburgh and not as instantly enchanting, but it has some seriously gorgeous architecture, quirky details, and super friendly people. Also, one of the great things about Glasgow is everything we did – minus the bus tour – was FREE!
Hop On, Hop Off Bus Tour
The best decision we made in Glasgow (thanks to our Rick Steves Scotland guidebook!) was to take the double-decker sightseeing bus all day. It takes you to all the main sites and you can hop on and off whenever you want.
Everything in Scotland closes pretty early compared to the States, just like it does in England. Don’t expect attractions to stay open past 5 or 5:30 p.m. We had to really maximize our time in order to see everything we did in one day, but my family is used to this from our frequent London trips. The bus definitely helped in the convenience regard and getting to see a lot in one go.
We took the train from Edinburgh, which was just under an hour’s journey and we saw lots of pleasant, green scenery on the way. The bus tour starts from George Square, which is just around the corner from the train station, but you could get on at any stop and pay.
The first bus we were on had a live tour guide sitting up top with us, but the other times we just had the audio commentary (they provide free headphones you plug in at your seat). Either way, it was a nice way to see the city and learn some facts versus constantly catching cabs or figuring out the closest stops on the subway.
A Scottish friend told us how Glasgow doesn’t get nearly as many tourists as Edinburgh and we experienced that right away. The buses were not crowded at all and we easily found seats on top every time. The places we visited throughout the day were definitely not super busy either, compared to loads of tour groups in Edinburgh.
Glasgow Cathedral and Necropolis
The first stop on the tour for us was Glasgow Cathedral and it ended up being my favorite thing we did that day. I had read a little bit about the cathedral in my Rick Steves book but was incredibly impressed when we got there.
First of all, it’s HUGE. It’s hard to actually capture the scale of the building in photos but I was overwhelmed with how massive the cathedral really was. It’s also a little more dark and eerie inside than other cathedrals I’ve been to … the lower crypt is very Harry Potter-esque.
It’s the oldest cathedral on mainland Scotland, dating back to 1136, and story has it that the patron saint of Glasgow, Saint Mungo, built his church here. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ll remember St Mungo’s Hospital! His tomb is actually in the lower crypt of the cathedral, and you can see an Outlander filming spot as well.
Before leaving, we found the chairs reserved for The Queen and Prince Philip when they attend services at the cathedral. I wouldn’t have known they were there if it wasn’t for good old Rick Steves … thanks, Rick! Excuse the poor lighting – it was really sunny in that corner.
After leaving the cathedral we walked up to the Necropolis. You get amazing views of the city from here and the Victorian tombs are really gorgeous and interesting to see. We didn’t walk around too much, because my kid wasn’t exactly interested in a historic cemetery, but it was certainly worth the stop.
The Riverside Museum
Next on our list was the Riverside Museum, one of the newest museums in the city. We love the London Transport Museum and this was a bigger version of that, with the added benefit of some nice water views.
The museum houses a huge collection of historic vehicles and also a replica of a Victorian street that was really fun for my son to explore.
The street is lined with buildings like an ice cream shop, tailor, etc. and you can go inside all of them and do things like dress up in period clothes, play games, or see the interior of a historic pub.
Unfortunately, we kind of rushed through since we had a lot to squeeze into one day. If we ever go back to Glasgow we’ll definitely head here again.
Docked outside the museum is a tall ship called the Glenlee that you can board, which also was great for kids. The ship dates back to 1896 and although it doesn’t take a ton of time to see, it was a nice addition to our museum visit. We toured the ship after eating lunch at the museum and then hopped back on the bus for our next stop.
Our next stop was beautiful Glasgow University, and this place straight-up looks like you’re in a Harry Potter film. I’d read it was one of J.K. Rowling’s inspirations for Hogwarts and I definitely believe that.
We did a quick walk through the main building since it was graduation day and there were tons of students and families about. The fact they were wearing robes made it feel even more like Harry Potter!
The walk from the university to the Kelvingrove, where we headed next, was really pleasant and we stopped for a few photos on the way.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Right around the corner from the university is one of the city’s most popular attractions, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. It’s a bit of a random mish-mosh of natural history, art, historical artifacts … so it has something for everyone. The stunning architecture of the building makes it worth a visit alone.
The museum makes an effort to include interactive activities for children, which was nice. For example, spinning body parts of famous artists that you had to match up, or screens with games having to do with different paintings.
One of my favorite finds in the museum was this change purse owned by Mary Queen of Scots – don’t you love the crown in the middle?
We didn’t have time for shopping during the day since we were on a tight schedule, but once we finished at the Kelvingrove we headed to Buchanan Street. This is a busy shopping area with many high street stores and a mall at the end. Glasgow has the only LEGO store in Scotland, which is located in the mall there, so I promised my son we could go to it after we saw everything else.
We had a wander around Buchanan Street before heading off to dinner and it was quite busy with people leaving work and heading to stores, pubs, and whatnot. I grabbed an amazing pearl-studded headband at Accessorize there and have worn it tons of times since. It’s not online, but you can find an identical headband in a set of six I just bought on Amazon. Thanks to my friend Sarah for pointing these out!
Lunchtime fell during our visit to the Riverside Museum and their cafe was surprisingly excellent – get the chicken tikka wrap!
One thing I learned when we were at the Riverside Museum was that a huge number of Italian immigrants came to Scotland in the 1800s in search of better lives. I was wondering why there were so many Italian restaurants in Edinburgh, so this totally made sense.
When we went to dinner that evening, we experienced this for ourselves and enjoyed one of the best Italian meals we’ve ever had at Sarti (we went to the Renfield Street location, but they have two others). My friend’s boyfriend, who is from Glasgow, recommend it and I would definitely go there if you’re in town!
The building’s architecture is beautiful – it’s housed in a converted banking hall from the 1800s – and the restaurant has a great atmosphere, but at the same time, we didn’t feel like it was too stuffy to bring a child. I’ll be dreaming about these profiteroles for quite a while.
Glasgow vs Edinburgh
So what did I think about our glimpse of Glasgow after spending so much time in Edinburgh?
Edinburgh has more natural beauty and feels so old, whereas Glasgow is very modern and busy. I’d compare Edinburgh to Oxford and Glasgow to London. Just very different vibes!
One thing I don’t love about Edinburgh is it feels like a Disney city to me. The architecture is so beautiful and everything looks like you’re in a Harry Potter film, but it almost feels fake. Which I don’t mean in a bad way, but more like it’s a magical EPCOT pavilion full of visitors and not a real place where people live and work (which I obviously know isn’t true, but you get my drift).
It wasn’t even so much that it was super crowded (other than Edinburgh Castle) but it felt like everything was geared toward tourism in Edinburgh. Walking down the street in Glasgow we felt like it was very much all locals and we were the exception to the rule being a tourist, vs. Edinburgh where it was a bunch of Americans carrying cameras all day.
Several Scottish people we met shared the same sentiment and said Edinburgh definitely has way more tourists and in that sense can lose a bit of its charm. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed Edinburgh and it was a nice place to visit, but Glasgow had more of a “realness” to it. It’s nice to experience contrasting atmospheres and cities versus staying in one place the whole time.
Anyway, that’s it for my whirlwind day in Glasgow! Have you ever been?