Looking for a boho vibe, cool cocktails, striking architecture and great shopping? No need for a pricey bite of the Big Apple, when you can have a Sex and the City style break in Glasgow, says Jane Dunford.
It’s brunch in TriBeCa Café. We’re tucking into buttermilk pancakes, piled high and drenched in maple syrup. Outside, an NYPD cop car is parked up and busy city folk scuttle past, looking as if they’ve somewhere important to be. The day’s itinerary is shaping up nicely – a healthy dose of modern art, shopping, cocktails in Art Deco splendour, perhaps a show, maybe a speakeasy with moody musicians and an edgy crowd to round it off.
I’m with my friend Isabel on our annual girls’ weekend away – after partying in Ibiza, yoga in Wales and wine tasting in France, this year we’ve plumped for a Sex and the City-style break. We wanted somewhere fun, cultured, a little bit gritty, with 24-hour energy, cool architecture and great bars. ‘New York?!’ she’d suggested. ‘Hmmm… not a bad idea,’ I replied.
And so here we are, sipping our flat whites and wondering whether we’ve space for the Williamsburg, a smoked salmon and scrambled eggs combo.
But here’s the thing. We’re not in New York. We’re in Glasgow. Yep, Glasgow – on a mission to have an NYC experience without leaving the UK. ‘Why fly across the Atlantic when we could jump on a train?’ I’d reasoned. ‘We’d save money and have just as good a time…wouldn’t we?’ As doubt begins to creep in, I’m relieved that TriBeCa’s owner David Macdonald, a half-Glaswegian, half-American thirtysomething who spent years in the Big Apple, doesn’t laugh at our plans. ‘This place is like the cafés on Ninth Avenue,’ he says, ‘And the people have a lot in common – there’s a misconception that Glaswegians headbutt people for a living… but like New Yorkers we’re just a bit tough on the surface, with a soft centre.’
Brunch complete, it’s time to do what any self-respecting visitor to New York would do (well, any female visitor, at least) – hit the shops. Glasgow may not have the favourable exchange rate, but when it comes to shopping it’s a sport the Scots take seriously. The city’s ‘Style Mile’, focused on the pedestrianised Buchanan Street, lacks a little of Fifth Avenue’s glamour, but there are department stores at each end and everything from Nike (the first Scottish store just opened here) and American Apparel in between.
The grid-like layout of the centre, with its wide streets and soaring buildings, feels distinctly New York-like and makes it easy not to get lost. Princes Square turns out to be a mall with a difference, a carefully restored Victorian warehouse – the perfect place to shop and stop for a mini-mani at the Manhattan Nail Bar.
If you like your shopping a little less mainstream, the West End is where it’s at. Like New York’s Lower East Side it’s crammed with independent stores and has a boho vibe. We browse vintage shops such as Starry Starry Night (all bright green façade and spilling flower boxes), second-hand record store Play it Again, De Courcey’s retro arcade and Ruthen Mews, chock-a-block with antiques.
Brooklyn-style delis and cafés such as Kember and Jones on Byres Road offer respite and great coffee.
For a bird’s-eye view of the city, we head to The Lighthouse, the centre for architecture and design. You can climb the helical staircase to the top of the tower – it may not reach the heights of the Empire State Building, but for a 360° panorama it’s not at all bad.
Scotland’s largest city is something of a gridiron of grand Victorian streets, inner-city highways and splashes of parkland. Though its skyline is far from the heady silhouette of NYC, this was the first high-rise city in the UK with soaring tower blocks built in the 60s and 70s to cope with crippling housing shortages – although many have since been demolished.
There’s something reminiscent of New York’s brownstones in the red sandstone tenement houses found in pockets across the city, erected as the population exploded alongside industrial expansion in the first of half the 19th century. At Tenement House on Buccleuch Street, a flat that’s been preserved exactly as it was a century ago, it feels as if the tenant, one Miss Agnes Toward, has just popped out to the shops. You step back in time in the same way you do in New York’s Tenement Museum, which tells the story of immigrant families who flocked there in the 1800s.
You’ll see the influence of one of Glasgow’s most famous sons, architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, everywhere too. His Art Nouveau and Glasgow Style grace the Willow Tea Rooms and most famously the Glasgow School of Art, where students lead guided tours.
Art Deco splashes its face across town. The architectural movement that most influenced New York – informing everything from the Empire State and Chrysler Building to subway stations – also glammed up Glasgow. So much so that Glasgow is to double as NYC’s dark alter-ego, Gotham City, in The Dark Knight Rises starring Christian Bale, out this year.
The Beresford, once a hotel but now apartments, is a red and white Art Deco stunner, that looks as if it could have been swiped from New York and dropped down on Sauchiehall Street. One of the finest Art Deco buildings in town, though, is the late 1930s Rogano Restaurant and Oyster Bar. Kitted out in the same style as the great Cunard liner Queen Mary, built on the Clyde in 1934, it drips elegance and old-style sophistication. We happily sip Manhattans perched on velvet stools.
Around the corner is the Corinthian Club – an elaborate Victorian hulk of a building that was once the Glasgow Ship Bank and a must-visit for chic cocktails. It’s a definite match for the SATC girls’ favourite hangouts and I feel obliged to order a Cosmopolitan, which I’d wager was as good as any Carrie would have tasted.
Making plans for the evening, we’re almost overwhelmed with choice. Glasgow is a Unesco City of Music with an average of 130 music events each week, from rock to classical and jazz in venues from converted churches to pubs. As a city that never sleeps, Glasgow could sure give New York a run for its money. We find ourselves in King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut (named after a club in New York’s East Village), which has been called ‘quite possibly the finest small venue in the world’ by NME. It’s the right side of dark and dingy and local band The Imagineers is playing to an enthusiastic crowd.
We hop from place to place, checking out the pared down Old Hairdressers and bar-cum-restaurant-cum-music-venue Stereo, before ending up in Boteca, where a Brazilian band whips up a storm.Broadway fans won’t be disappointed by the theatre at places such as King’s Theatre or Tramway – while we were there Alan Cumming’s one man show of Macbeth was about to transfer to… New York.
The next day we’re up early and putting Glasgow’s cultural offerings to the test once more. To New York’s MoMA, Glasgow raises GoMA, housed in an iconic building in the heart of the city, with fab temporary and permanent exhibits.
We hop on the metro (nicknamed the Clockwork Orange) – with 15 stations, opened in 1896, it’s the third-oldest underground system in the world – and make our way to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (The Metropolitan Museum of Art equivalent? I wonder). There’s something a little familiar about the dramatic central foyer – it doubled as New York’s Grand Central Station for the movie The House of Mirth, starring Gillian Anderson, and has the same grandeur of scale. Opened in 1901 as part of the Glasgow International Exhibition, its huge collection boasts Dali’s Christ of St John Cross, works by everyone from Titian to Van Gogh, and great exhibits on the Glasgow Boys and Mackintosh.
We had planned a Central Park style afternoon hanging out in the Kelvingrove Park, but the rain keeps us inside. As city parks go, this can rival most – there’s a lovely river walkway and the Botanical Gardens nearby.
We head instead back east, to Merchant City the fast-changing quarter full of artists and galleries – like New York’s Meatpacking District, where converted warehouses became galleries and empty factories were turned into living space.
It’s here I meet artist and children’s author Teresa Flavin, a New Yorker living in Glasgow with a studio in another building. ‘This area used to have a bit of a Wild West feel, like parts of New York did not so long ago, but just as there’s been quite a sudden change there, there has here too,’ she says. ‘It’s brimming with creativity and very diverse.’
Indeed, you do feel the city’s diversity at every turn – not least in the food. Glasgow doesn’t genuflect to anyone when it comes to fine dining. It may be the curry capital of Scotland but the Chinese influence is strong and, just as New York is famous for its Italian heritage, here too the large immigrant Italian population ensures top-notch restaurants. We check out Piccolo Mondo, voted Best Restaurant in Scotland 2012, and it doesn’t disappoint, with authentic Tuscan dishes.
At the Butchershop Bar and Grill in the West End, owner James Rusk, who learnt his craft at the famous SoHo-based bistro Balthazar, serves up the best steaks in the city. It’s all leather banquettes, staff in slick uniforms offering US-style service and great cocktails. Kosher Jewish delis such as Katz Deli (the one made famous by that scene in When Harry met Sally) can be found here too – try Hello in Giffnock.
New York may have the Hudson, but Glasgow has the Clyde and on our last morning we climb onboard the ferry. We’re not heading to Staten Island (although Glasgow does, in fact, have its own Statue of Liberty – a mini sculpture outside the City Chambers), but to a temple of modern architecture, Zaha Hadid’s £74m Riverside Museum.
Though the shipbuilding industry has long since vanished, the former docklands are being transformed into the city’s gleaming business centre, with property developers building upmarket high-rises along the river. We pass the striking Clyde arch (the Squinty Bridge to locals), and the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (fondly referred to as the Armadillo) where The Hydro, a 12,000 capacity music venue, will open in 2013, aiming to be one of the busiest in the world alongside Madison Square Gardens.
Hadid’s creation sums up the creative energy and fun, can-do attitude I’ve felt all weekend. We wander around, more impressed than I anticipated by the transport collection the museum houses, then head back to the hotel. It’s time again to slip on our Manolos, grab a Cosmo and hit the town.
Jane Dunford travelled with VirginTrains and stayed at BEST WESTERN Glasgow City Hotel.