Ten years after becoming a European Capital of Culture, Glasgow remains an epicentre of contemporary visual and performing arts, and a leader in design and architecture.

Kilts and bagpipes may be shorthand for Scottish culture, but Glasgow, the country’s largest city, has carved out its own space in the country’s cultural landscape, with no tartan in sight.

While the traditional trappings of the Highlands recall a nostalgic and independent past, the working seaport of Glasgow feels far removed from the rural lifestyle up north. It is also blissfully less crowded with tourists than Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city. Once the fourth largest city in Europe (behind London, Paris and Berlin), it became a major trade centre in the early 17th Century thanks to its prime location on the River Clyde. International visitors and new ideas mingled early on, creating a city with its own cutting-edge breed of character and culture. It is uniquely worldly while retaining a strong Scottish spirit.

Named a European Capital of Culture by the European Union in 1990, Glasgow has continued to rake in the accolades over the years. The city was celebrated as a UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999 (beating out Liverpool and Edinburgh), named Europe’s Secret Capital of Music in 2004 and honoured as the first British city to be named a Unesco City of Music in 2008. Additionally, Glasgow’s new Riverside Museum of transport and travel, which opened in June 2011, is a finalist for the UK’s annual Art Fund Prize, due to the museum’s innovative exterior architecture and creative historical exhibitions.   

Awards aside, Glasgow is a place that moves ideas and culture forward, not just within the city limits, but worldwide. As an epicentre of contemporary visual and performing arts, architecture and design, the city creates with the future in mind while also honouring the city’s rich past.

A design pioneer
Glasgow burst onto the art scene in a major way at the end of the 19th Century when Glasgow-born and educated Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his Modernist-meets-Art-Nouveau design aesthetic captured Europe’s imagination. Considered to be one of the most significant architects of the early 20th Century, Mackintosh designed a number of buildings that dot the city’s landscape, such as the Glasgow School of Art, the Queen’s Cross Church and the Willow Tea Rooms.

Afternoon tea at one of the two Willow Tea Rooms provides a glimpse into the Mackintosh aesthetic with its high-backed chairs and floral glasswork, but the Glasgow School of Art, which the artist attended before leading its redesign 14 years later in 1897, remains his most important piece of work. With a mix of stone-heavy Scottish architecture and iron-work Art Nouveau motifs the exterior of the building showcases his ability to blend hard and soft lines and his eye for using light and shadow to create interesting spaces. The daily, student-led tours are  the only way to see the school’s private rooms, including the unaltered library with its glass-fronted bookcases and zinc and brass lampshades, and the newly opened Furniture Gallery, featuring one of the largest displays of Mackintosh-designed pieces in the world. The school is the only independent university in Scotland to focus on design education, and has kept the city at the forefront of architecture and contemporary art around the world.

A city within a city
Though the art school is located in northwestern Glasgow, many practicing artists congregate and work in what has become the city’s southeastern cultural centre, called Merchant City after the area’s history as a fruit, vegetable and cheese market. With the densest concentration of public art in Glasgow, Merchant City recently launched a public art walking trail, highlighting works from 17th-century statues to contemporary neon installations.

The area is also home to a slew of recently revitalized buildings dedicated to the creation and display of art. Trongate 103, a six-storey Edwardian warehouse in Merchant City, opened in 2009 and houses eight different art organisations, a number of artist studios and shops, as well as spaces for visitors to try their hand at several different mediums ,including printmaking and photography.

Following Trongate’s success, the city and six different Scottish cultural foundations  renovated the Briggait, a former fish market building from 1873. Empty for 20 years, the building now houses 68 workspaces for artists and cultural organisations, as well as the original public courtyard and a space for a future cafe with views of the River Clyde.

Every two years, the Glasgow International Festival of Art puts its artists’ work on display for the rest of the world. Running now through 7 May, the festival puts on lectures, screenings and displays in venues throughout the city, including the Gallery of Modern Art and the Glasgow Green city park.

Arts out loud
The city’s incredible visual arts can only be matched by Glasgow’s performing arts and music scene. The Scottish Ballet, which relocated to the gold-roofed Tramway performance space in 2008, regularly performs the first screenings of its productions in Glasgow before touring the rest of the United Kingdom. This season’s offerings include a dance take on the play Streetcar Named Desire, Hans van Manen’s Five Tangos and Dance GB, celebration of British dance inspired by the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

The Scottish Opera and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra also call Glasgow home, but most know the city more for its myriad other musical offerings., The city hosts an average of 130 music events per week in genres as diverse as electro, rap, jazz and country, in venues as special as the tunes themselves.

Discover the next big thing at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, where Oasis signed their first record deal after a performance in 1993, but buy tickets early as the spot hits its 300-person capacity quickly. The Glasgow Barrowland (also known as the Barras) holds about 1,900 concert-goers, but is just as renowned for hosting bands that later end up as chart-toppers, as well as established acts (from Metallica to U2) that often take a smaller fee for the chance to play the space, known for its excellent acoustics See solo stars-to-be sing their stuff at Acoustic Open Mic Night, held every Monday at the Nice ‘n’ Sleazy bar and club on Sauchiehall Street.

Music takes over much of the city in summer. George Square in front of the Glasgow City Chambers will be the centrepiece of a free outdoor music festival that honours the Olympic Torch passing through Glasgow on 8 June, and the 17th annual West End Festival from 1 to 17 of June will feature classical quartets, jazz bands  and folk singers throughout the up-and-coming venues on the west side such as Brel, Oran Mor and the Captain’s Rest.

The Glasgow Music Tour, recently launched for smartphones and MP3 players, offers four audio walking routes for £0.59 each. The app gives visitors a walking run-down of the most popular venues and concert halls, and plays interviews with influential local singers and musicians, providing an insightful peek into the rhythm behind Scotland’s savviest city.