Glasgow, Scotland, once had a reputation for being a drunk, dirty and dangerous city. Due to overcrowding and poor sanitation in the early 1900s, the city’s unsavory reputation was pretty accurate. It wasn’t exactly a place you’d choose as a top vacation destination.
Today, Glasgow has reformed its image, and it’s now a great city to visit with so much to see. I decided to visit Glasgow on the basis of a Rick Steves podcast, and I was truly surprised at the variety of interesting free and cheap activities the city offers. The people of Glasgow are called “Glaswegians” (the ‘wegian’ is pronounced the same way as Norwegian), which is another element I found surprising – and rather cool – about the city.
Here are my top free and cheap picks for visiting Glasgow:
- The People’s Palace (free)
I found this museum, which covers the history of Glasgow, absolutely fascinating. It covered such a wide range of history, from 1750 to the end of the 20th Century. Though many of the exhibits look a bit dated and lack the multimedia elements most newer museums have, I appreciated that the city’s history was covered with such transparency. Widespread problems such as poor sanitation, public drunkenness, the widespread presence of overcrowded and cheaply-built tenement buildings were all described in detail. Great exhibits on the dance halls that used to fill the city, a recreation of the wash houses and many other sections of the museum kept me interested for a few hours and taught me quite a bit about Glasgow’s history.
2. The Lighthouse (free)
Before visiting Glasgow, I had never heard of the turn-of-the-century architect and artist Charles Rennie Makintosh, but he is certainly one of the city’s most revered sons. You won’t be in Glasgow long before you hear of him. He designed homes, schools, and offices throughout the city, and the Makintosh Tower was one of his first works. Climb to the top for beautiful views of Glasgow, and don’t miss the wide variety of exhibits in The Lighthouse. One gallery is devoted to the architect and his life, while others feature changing exhibits of contemporary works. When I visited, I toured several rooms displaying the senior projects of students from the Glasgow School of Art.
3. The Willow Tea Rooms (just the cost of your tea, cakes, or lunch!)
Part of Charles Rennie Makintosh’s legacy in Glasgow are The Willow Tea Rooms, decorated in a unique arts and crafts style. I visited The Willow Tea Rooms on Buchanan Street, which happened to be very near my hostel (and around the corner from The Lighthouse). After enjoying a lovely tea service in the pretty dining room, I learned that these tea rooms were only a second location, and not the original tea rooms created by Makintosh. When you visit Glasgow, go see the original tea rooms, which are located at 217 Sauchiehall Street.
4. Tenement House (£6.50/adult)
There’s an admission fee for this attraction, but it may have been my favorite thing of all that I did in Glasgow. While I have always associated tenements with the very poor, this is essentially a middle-class apartment on nice street. The four-room house has been perfectly preserved since the early 20th century, when Miss Alice Toward moved in with her mother. Visitors can view the house just as she left it, with her perfume bottles in the bathroom and her dishes in the kitchen. The bottom floor has a small, interesting museum featuring photos, letters and papers owned by Miss Toward. Tenement House doesn’t take too long to visit, and it’s a really interesting look into the past.
5. The Necropolis (free)
I don’t usually hang out in graveyards…call me crazy. But this one is pretty unique and worth a visit. Located up on a hill, this historic cemetery features numerous ornate sculptures that provide a testament to Victorian values. Beauty, opulence, wealth and prestige are all displayed prominently here, with many gravestones detailing the achievements of the deceased in gilded letters, some adorned with a life-sized statue of the man himself. The Necropolis also offers great views of the city on a clear day.
6. Glasgow Cathedral (free)
I know, I know…if you spend any time in Europe, you’ve seen what feels like a million churches. Glasgow cathedral is just another lovely medieval church with a small museum in the back. However, it’s located on beautiful grounds, and the Necropolis is located just behind the cathedral, so there’s more to see than the church itself. I did not spend much time inside, but I enjoyed walking around the area and learning about the cathedral’s history.
7. Provand’s Lordship (small entry fee)
I’m a bit of a history geek, so on a rainy day I decided to check out “Glasgow’s oldest house,” which was built in 1471. It also happens to be in the same area as Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis, so I thought it was worth a look. Provand’s Lordship was built as part of a hospital that was managed by the cathedral staff. An interesting introductory video is available on the first floor, and some rooms on the upper floors are decorated as they would have been when the building was constructed. I enjoyed my short visit to Provand’s Lordship, and it provided some context to Glasgow’s medieval history. But honestly I’m hesitant to recommend this with complete enthusiasm because some may find this attraction underwhelming. Know yourself…and use your best judgement on this one!
I spent about a week in Glasgow and had a great time. The city is so full of great things to do that there were several attractions I missed, including the famed Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. If you make it to Glasgow, don’t make the same mistake. Be sure to visit that museum as well as Kelvingrove Park and the Burrell Collection. As for me, I now have a few good reasons to go back!