Which Scottish city is better for a getaway: is it Glasgow, a former industrial powerhouse, that’s been trying to reinvent itself in the past years, by rebuilding its image and architecture, or is it Edinburgh, a former royal capital, that has kept its medieval look almost completely unspoiled? Two very different cities, separated by 46 miles, which I discovered during Hogmanay, the Scottish celebration of the New Year’s Eve. That’s a pretty uncommon time to visit Scotland, I guess that everybody knows how bad the UK winter weather is. Luckily for me, it was way better than expected; there was no snow, almost no rain, just some periods of drizzle, and the wind wasn’t harsh at all. Decent conditions for long walks, my favorite travel activity.
When I booked the trip, I knew very little about Glasgow and a few minor things about Edinburgh. As usual, I did my part of online documentation, and it looked as if Edinburgh would be the clear winner. It’s impossible to think otherwise, after reading and checking the pictures. But to my surprise, the two and a half days spent in each of the two cities proved me that every once in a while reality can be pretty different, as Glasgow managed to exceed my expectations. Was it enough to compete with Edinburgh, though?…
Before moving to more serious things, like transportation and accommodation, here are some fun facts about Glasgow, Edinburgh and Scotland:
Edinburgh became in 2004 UNESCO’s first City of Literature, having more than 60 libraries per 100,000 inhabitants;
Glasgow Subway is the third oldest in the world, operating since December 1896, and it’s one of the very few not to have been expanded beyond its original route;
The first international football match (Scotland vs. England) was played in Glasgow, in 1872;
Both cities make UK’s greenest major city top 3 list, with Edinburgh taking the top spot, while Glasgow coming in third;
Scotland’s national animal is the unicorn… That sounds strange, right? But if you think a bit, it’s no wonder, given that Scots are famous for their love for myths and legends;
And last, but not least, Scotland has the highest proportion of redheads in the world (13%, while the global average is less than 2%).
How to travel between Edinburgh airport and the cities
Despite being the largest and busiest in Scotland, Edinburgh Airport (EDI) feels like a secondary one. It has only one terminal, quite small, and has been named over the past years as one of world’s worst airports. The bright side is that it’s pretty easy to find affordable flights, operated by one of the low-cost carriers. Anyways, here’s how I traveled around Scotland:
Edinburgh Airport to Glasgow (Buchanan Station): the Citylink Air, at a cost of £12.50, ticket purchased when entering the bus. This proved to be the most expensive bus ticket I bought in Scotland. The journey took around 60 minutes.
Glasgow (Buchanan Station) to Edinburgh: the Citylink 900, which was way cheaper thanks to this website. I ended up paying £4.25, for a trip that lasted one hour and 15 minutes.
Edinburgh (Princess Street) to Portobello (and back): Service 124 from East Coast Buses; the price for one way ticket was £1.70, purchased when entering the bus.
Edinburgh (Waverley Bridge) to Edinburgh Airport: the Airlink 100 (Stop D), a ticket was £4.50, purchased when entering the bus. The trip took 30 minutes.
My original plan was to spend the first days (including New Year’s Eve) in Edinburgh, but I had to change it quite fast, because the room prices in the capital were insane. I wasn’t able to find anything under £200+ per night, so I had no option but to go to Glasgow, where the prices were decent. So ibis Styles Glasgow Centre George Square (74 Miller Street) became my home for the first three nights. The hotel had a great location, with many shops, bars and restaurants around, and the personnel was friendly and helpful, in spite of me not being able to understand all their words. It’s not my fault, it’s that Scottish accent… For the two nights in Edinburgh, I opted for another hotel from the same international chain: ibis Edinburgh Centre South Bridge (77 South Bridge). Good location and excellent breakfast, despite the fact that I had to cope with a top floor room with no view and a roof window that could not be opened.
Guide to Glasgow
Glasgow is Scotland’s largest city, a great spot for nightlife, culture, cuisine and shopping. Two to three days should be enough to discover its lively atmosphere, hospitable people and main attractions. And, of course, to have a few pints of beer or glasses of Scotch in one of the century-old pubs. What I’ve learned is that downtown Glasgow isn’t the place for fireworks on NYE. Ashton Lane in West End might be the solution, but keep in mind that the street is hosting a big ticketed party. Here are the top things that stuck in my mind, after my visit:
→ I’ll start with the City Centre Mural Trail, a brilliant art project, meant to lighten up gloomy industrial buildings or abandoned sites. Everywhere around the center you will spot unique murals done by local artists, varying in size from a few square meters to hundreds of square meters. Each work has a story behind, and as a whole they offer a new, fresh perspective.
→ Next on the list: the oldest building of the city, the Glasgow Cathedral, dedicated to the patron saint of Glasgow: Saint Mungo. It’s a magnificent example of the Scottish Gothic architecture from the Middle Ages, and also one of the very few medieval remains.
→ Right next to the cathedral, on a hilly site, it’s the Glasgow Necropolis, a Victorian cemetery with over 3,500 monuments and 50,000 bodies. The cemetery attracts a lot of people, both locals and tourists.
→ The Merchant City district is a great area for shopping and for food and drinks. It’s here that I tried haggis for the first time, at The Drum and Monkey (a cool pub that used to be a bank in the 1920s), and I have to admit that it tastes pretty good. And that’s not all. Merchant City is also the home of the Gallery of Modern Art – free to visit, too bad it was closed while I was in the city, the Lighthouse (the Center for Design and Architecture) and the town hall, Glasgow City Chambers.
→ I found Kelvingrove neighborhood as a nice place for a stroll, thanks to the nature, its lovely streets and beautiful mansions. Kelvingrove Park contains statues and monuments, a large bandstand, used for events, and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (free admission, but closed on the first two days of the year).
→ A visit to the University of Glasgow, one of the centers of the Scottish Enlightenment, is mandatory. Most of the buildings around the campus are marvelous, and gave me the impression of being on a Harry Potter movie set. Despite looking the part, nothing of the series was filmed here. But still, I was over thrilled with the whole experience.
→ The modern part of the city, under continuous development since the 1980s, can be found along the banks of the River Clyde. Examples of eye-catching modern buildings include the Riverside Museum, the Science Centre, the SSE Hydro or the SEC Armadillo.
Guide to Edinburgh
Edinburgh became the capital city of Scotland in 1437, when it replaced Scone (nowadays part of Perth), and has held this position uninterruptedly ever since. It’s one of the largest financial centers in Europe and has the second most powerful economy in the UK. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Edinburgh is the second most popular tourist destination in the UK (behind London), thanks to its intact medieval Old Town and to its many festivals and cultural events.
Here are my top things to do in Edinburgh:
→ It’s common to start with the Old Town, a labyrinth of cobblestone streets and small alleyways and courtyards, with centuries of history behind. The area is woven with landmarks and historic buildings, but also with shops, restaurants and pubs. My advice is to walk its main street, the Royal Mile, from one end to the other, and let yourself absorbed by the legends and the myths of the city.
→ Right in the middle of the Old Town it’s St Giles’ Cathedral, one of the most important places in the history of presbyterianism – a religion that comes from the 16th century Protestant Reformation. It’s here that John Knox, one of its leaders, used to preach.
→ The Edinburgh Castle dominates the skyline from Castle Rock, a 350 million years old volcanic plug. It’s the home of the oldest crown jewels in Britain and of the Stone of Destiny (the artifact used during the coronation of the Kings of Scots). I recommend booking online your tickets (£17.50), because you will pay £2 less than at the gate.
→ Victoria Street is considered to have been the place that inspired Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. As a note, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, lived in Edinburgh for years, so that’s the reason. It has a vibrant atmosphere all day long; there are many shops and bars, and crowds of tourists are going up and down the street, while taking pictures.
→ Another well-known street is Cockburn Street, one of the most picturesque in Edinburgh, having been featured in several films throughout the years. It hosts some good coffee spots, too, like The Milkaman or Edinburgh Press Club.
→ If you’re into spooky things, then a visit to Greyfriars Kirkyard is a must. There are many ghost stories surrounding this haunted graveyard, from body snatchers and poltergeists to Harry Potter characters and one loyal dog, Greyfriars Bobby. Bobby was a loyal skye terrier, who sat by his master’s grave for 14 years, until his own death. Nearby, there’s a statue in his honor, and the Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar, a fine place to grab a few drinks and to enjoy live music on Friday evenings.
→ Situated at the bottom of the Royal Mile, the Palace of Holyroodhouse is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. In other words, it’s the place where Queen Elizabeth II comes every summer, during the Holyrood week. The palace is open to the public, at a fee (£16.50) – I wasn’t that interested to go inside, but maybe I’ll visit it next time, if the Queen invites me.
→ The National Museum of Scotland is the perfect place to learn more about the Scottish history. It’s a fascinating museum, hosting several other collections as well, like natural history, science and technology, minerals, and even fashion. You can spend hours and hours inside, if you’ve got enough time. The entrance is free of charge. I was mostly impressed by the Grand Gallery and felt a bit intrigued to see in one of the rooms the stuffed remains of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned animal.
→ Built in the 18th-19th centuries, the Georgian New Town has been included on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list, along with the Old Town. Its main traffic artery, Princess Street, is one the busiest streets you’ll ever find. It’s a shoppers’ paradise, with tens of local and international stores, which also offers a spectacular panoramic view of the Old Town. Popular landmarks in the area include the Scott Monument, a Victorian Gothic monument, dedicated to the memory of Sir Walter Scott, and The Balmoral, a luxurious five-star hotel.
→ Go to Calton Hill and enjoy a 360 degrees panorama of Edinburgh. The hill is also known for other notable buildings, such as the National Monument, the Nelson Monument and the Dugald Stewart Monument.
→ Dean Village is an oasis of tranquility, located very close to the city center. During the 21st century, these type of places tend to stop existing, especially inside the European capitals. It’s amazing how an actual area of the city can feel so remote and rural.
→ If you’re eager to see the North Sea from up close, I recommend a short trip to Portobello, a coastal suburb of Edinburgh. It has a long beach and a nice promenade, with multi-colored row houses.
Glasgow or Edinburgh? Well, I’d say both. After spending the same amount of time in each one, I simply can’t decide on a winner. Sure, Edinburgh is pretty impressive and incredibly photogenic. It’s hard not to be amazed by its stunning architecture and medieval heritage, but in the same time it’s a very touristy city. And you will feel this in almost each part of the Old Town. On the other hand, Glasgow offers a more authentic Scottish experience, and it achieves this in a pretty natural way. Overall, I think that the two provide a completely different travel experience. So it’s up to each visitor to wander the streets and uncover these cities, and see which one fits his or her personality better. The cool thing is that there’s no bad choice.
Guid cheerio the nou, Glasgow an’ Edinburgh!