Glasgow's free things to do
Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) occupies a stately looking neoclassical building in Royal Exchange Square, which since being built as a townhouse by a wealthy tobacco lord in 1778 has served several purposes, from a home to a bank to a library. It was in 1996 that it became Glasgow’s foremost centre for contemporary art, housing not just extensive gallery space but also educational facilities, including a studio and a library, and public spaces such as a hideaway café in the basement. GoMA exists to showcase not just the work of the city’s greatest artistic talents (including several Turner Prize success stories), but also to highlight what those artists share in common with others around the world in terms of influences and practices.
Originally laid out in 1841 to supply the University of Glasgow, the gardens were acquired by the City of Glasgow and made public in 1891. In 1873, the gardens’ defining building – the eccentric wrought-iron and glass domed glasshouse Kibble Palace – was erected, followed a few years later by the Main Range teak glasshouse. Both remain beautifully preserved, free to enter and filled with exotic plant life, from arid lands and tropical rainforests alike. The long east-west facing green in front of the glasshouses teams with life on warm days, be it families or groups of students or yoga classes.
Glasgow is a city practically built on organised religion, which makes a visit to its famous and historic cathedral only polite if you’re in town. Built on the spot where the first bishop of the ancient British kingdom of Strathclyde St Kentigern – or St Mungo as the patron saint of Glasgow is better known – was thought to have been buried in AD 612, the dramatic construction of spires and blackened stone that stands just back off the city’s High Street today was erected between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. Uniquely for a Scottish mainland medieval cathedral, it survived the 1560 Reformation – when Scotland formally broke with the Papacy, and destroyed many ornate symbols of worship in the process – virtually complete.
Not for the superstitious, nor to be experienced by dark, Glasgow’s 37-acre Necropolis is a treasure trove of fascinating architecture, sculpture and stories from the city’s Victorian past that’s been described by one historian as ‘literally a city of the dead’. Modelled on Père-Lachaise in Paris, it’s estimated that somewhere around 50,000 burials occurred here between its opening in 1832 and the laying to rest of Commonwealth war dead in the 1940s. Located adjacent to Glasgow Cathedral, and commonly visited in combination with the cathedral and the nearby St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art, the Necropolis was built in the Classical Revival architectural fashion by the Merchants’ House of Glasgow in 1831. Its most prominent monument, dominating the hill and actually predating the Necropolis by several years, is to John Knox, the Scottish clergyman and writer who was a leader of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.
In May 2014 when a fire ripped through Glasgow School of Art’s historic century-old main building – legendary local architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s defining masterpiece – art and architecture lovers the world over held their breath, fearful that this iconic structure was about to be lost forever. But thanks to some heroic work by firefighters, against the odds the vast majority of it was saved and disaster averted, with the exception principally of the beautiful Mackintosh Library – which was tragically completely destroyed. It will be years before the building is fully functional again, but it speaks volumes of the mysterious mastery of Mackintosh, who masterminded the building of the Art School between 1897 and 1909, that even blackened and smelling of soot, with several of its dramatic panelled windows blown out, it still looks noble and majestic.
A magnificent and imposing mass of red sandstone and gothic-looking spires, Kelvingrove is Glasgow’s finest museum – and arguably Scotland’s too. The collection contains more than 8,000 pieces, which range from one of Europe’s greatest displays of civic art to a Supermarine Spitfire suspended dramatically from the ceiling. You’ll also find a world-famous assembly of arms and armour from throughout the ages, pieces from ancient Scotland and ancient Egypt alike, and various natural history exhibits showing off weird and wonderful beasts from across thousands of centuries. There’s a menagerie of more recently stuffed animals too, including Sir Roger the Indian Elephant, one of Kelvingrove’s oldest and most-loved exhibits (just try to stop the kids from spotting the bullet hole in his skull). Kelvingrove is Scotland’s most popular free tourist attraction, and the UK’s most visited museum in the UK outside of London.
Kelvingrove Park is more or less the heart of the West End, tying together several of its neighbourhoods and most famous sites and attractions. On a clear, bright morning, the view from the top of the hill at the entrance from Park Circus, down across the River Kelvin towards the spires of Glasgow University and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum might just be the finest in the city. Originally created in 1852 as the West End Park, Kelvingrove’s purpose was to provide relaxation and recreation opportunities for the new middle class flocking westwards out of an increasingly overcrowded and dirty city centre. While Glasgow may have changed a great deal around it in the intervening century and a half, Kelvingrove’s fundamental appeal hasn’t altered much.
Has any single structure come to represent Glasgow more than the Finnieston Crane? Probably not. A relic of the age when Glasgow’s shipyards made this one of the most powerful and important industrial cities in the world, the giant grey cantilever crane – still emblazoned with the title of its former owners Clydeport, and one of just four remaining such cranes on the Clyde – is no longer in working order today. But it has been wisely retained and recontextualised in new proximity to such shiny modern buildings as the Armadillo, The Hydro, the Glasgow Science Centre and the BBC Scotland headquarters, as a potent and emotive 53 metre-tall symbol of proud engineering heritage. It’s just one among several landmarks on the Clyde – the famous river upon which Glasgow is built – which can be experienced along a relatively short walk from Glasgow Green east of the city centre upriver to Govan.
Glasgow can seem unremittingly urban most of the time but escape from the sandstone, concrete and internal combustion engine can be relatively easy: the Firth of Clyde and the great sea lochs and mountains of Argyll are fairly close by. If you want to stay in the city and seek some green respite however, Pollok Country Park is an excellent choice. It extends over 146 hectares and has various walks, an attractive walled garden, a woodland garden, Clydesdale horses, a pedigree fold of Highland cattle, three mountain bike circuits, a play park for kids and places to picnic.