My complete guide to all the free museums in Glasgow
When I was growing up in Glasgow, I didn't always appreciate how privileged I was to have so many fantastic museums to visit on my doorstep. The fact that many of them cost nothing to enter made them accessible to working class families like mine and I spent many a happy hour learning about everything from dinosaurs to tram cars.
When I'm back in the city I still love popping in and out of these varied venues and I can't recommend them highly enough if you are visiting Glasgow. No matter what your interests, there is a museum for you.
I've put together this guide to the free museums in Glasgow which should give you plenty of indoor inspiration suitable for all ages and ideal for rainy days.
Although these attractions cost nothing to visit, many of them rely on financial support from the public to remain open, so consider leaving a donation if you can.
KELVINGROVE ART GALLERY AND MUSEUM
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum has long been a favourite with both Glaswegians and visitors to the city. It is not only the top attraction to visit in Glasgow, but one of the most popular in Scotland.
With 22 themed galleries you can expect to find a wide range of exhibits from dinosaurs to suits of armour. There are actually over 8000 eclectic objects on display, including items of local interest and international significance.
The art collection is said to be one of the greatest In Europe, with 'Christ of St John of the Cross' by Salvador Dali being one of the most famous paintings.
Although the galleries are the main appeal for visitors, the grand building is an attraction in its own right. Officially opened in 1901 it is a striking piece of architecture.
The museum is situated in the west end of Glasgow and can easily be reached by public transport from the city centre. Expect to easily lose a couple of hours wandering around the exhibits and gift shop.
If the weather is nice then a walk around the adjacent Kelvingrove Park makes for a pleasant way to finish off your visit or enjoy a cup of tea in the cafe.
THE RIVERSIDE MUSEUM OF TRANSPORT
The Riverside Museum is home to a wide variety of modes of transport and is a great place to visit for all ages. Expect to see everything from prams and skateboards to vintage cars and buses, there is even a wall of motorbikes.
Over 3000 objects and 90 touch screen panels with films and stories will keep you entertained for hours. There is even the opportunity to climb on board some of the vehicles and walk down recreated cobbled Glasgow streets with period shops you can explore. It is this interactive element that makes the attraction lots of fun.
The Glasgow Museum of Transport has been my favourite museum since I was a wee girl. It first opened in 1964 and has actually moved location twice since then. My earliest memories date back to when it was originally housed in a former tram depot on the south side of the city. After that it moved to the Kelvin Hall in the west end of Glasgow before relocating again to its current home on the banks of the River Clyde.
The new statement building was designed by the renowned architect, Zaha Hadid, and the museum has won several awards since it reopened in 2011, including European Museum of the Year. It is situated next to The Tall Ship at the Riverside (see below) which is also free to visit and it makes sense to combine a trip to both attractions.
For a full day out in the city, you can also take the free Govan Ferry across the River Clyde during the summer months. On the opposite bank you can visit the Govan Stones and Fairfield Heritage Centre (see below). Another option for a longer day out is to visit the nearby Clydeside Distillery and join a whisky tour.
THE TALL SHIP AT RIVERSIDE
The Glenlee is a tall ship moored alongside The Riverside Museum and it is a good idea to visit both, especially if you want to learn more about Glasgow's rich maritime heritage.
The ship has had a varied and interesting history, having been built just further down the river in Port Glasgow. When she first took to the water in 1896, her first role was as a bulk cargo carrier. Among her many voyages, she circumnavigated the globe four times and sailed through the notorious storms of Cape Horn 15 times.
In 1922 she was bought by the Spanish Navy who used her as a training vessel. She eventually ended up being neglected and left in Seville harbour until she was bought by the Clyde Maritime Trust at an auction in 1992.
She was restored by the trust over a 6 year period and is only one of five sailing ships built in Glasgow still afloat in the world today. This seems almost unbelievable given the hundreds of ships that were built in the city. It is also the only ship of its kind in the UK.
Visitors are free to explore this historic vessel which also holds regular events throughout the year.
The Hunterian has themed collections situated across various buildings within the University of Glasgow and is Scotland's oldest public museum. It was founded in 1807 and was originally situated near to Glasgow Cathedral before reopening in 1870 when the university moved to its current location in the west end of the city.
The museum is the legacy of Dr William Hunter who was born locally in 1718. He was a student at the university before going on to be one of the pioneering obstetricians of his time. He was also physician to Queen Charlotte and a Professor of Anatomy.
He built up some wealth during his lifetime and became an avid collector. On his death he bequeathed his collection to the university, along with a large sum of money to build a museum.
Today his collection has been split between various university buildings which include the main Hunterian Museum, an art gallery, zoology museum and an anatomy museum. His books and manuscripts are now housed in the library.
Admission to all the exhibitions is free, however each museum has different opening times so it is best to check the Hunterian website to plan your visit.
Opened in 1898, The People's Palace and Winter Gardens stands within Glasgow Green between the city centre and the east end of the city. Just opposite the entrance way is the highly decorative Doulton Fountain, the largest terracotta fountain in the world.
The museum was always designed as an asset for the people of Glasgow and originally offered reading and recreation rooms, along with a museum and art gallery. It formed part of Victorian endeavours to provide working class people with a space for learning and self-improvement.
Today the entire space forms a museum which tells the social and cultural history of Glasgow and its people from 1750 to the present day.
An eclectic mix of exhibits, artwork, film footage and interactive displays cover a wide range of events that have shaped the city, along with the everyday stories of the ordinary people.
If you want to learn more about Glasgow and Glaswegians, this is the best museum to visit.
SCOTLAND STREET SCHOOL MUSEUM
Scotland Street Museum is a former school located on the south side of the city and is a must visit for fans of Glasgow's most celebrated architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Mackintosh was an architect, designer and artist who was born in 1868 and died in 1928. There are many example of his iconic and distinctive designs in Glasgow, including Scotland Street School which was his last major commission in the city.
Designed between 1903 and 1906, it was a functioning school up until 1979. Originally the pupils came from educated shipbuilding and engineering families in the south side of the city.
Today it is a free museum which tells the story of 100 years of education in Scotland from late 19th century to late 20th century. There are reconstructed classrooms and the opportunity to dress up as a pupil!
You can also admire the Mackintosh architecture and interior design, with many preserved original features. The museum sits directly opposite Shields Road underground station.
ST MUNGO MUSEUM OF RELIGIOUS LIFE AND ART
St Mungo Museum is named after Glasgow's patron saint who brought Christian faith to Glasgow in the 6th century. The attraction sits in the medieval quarter of Glasgow where some of the oldest buildings in the city can be found.
Just across the square is Glasgow Cathedral and opposite is Provand's Lordship, the oldest house in Glasgow (see below). Both are free to visit and it is in this area that Glasgow grew from a small settlement in to a sprawling city.
The buildings here once formed a religious centre and St Mungo Museum is built on the site of the medieval Bishops' Castle. The design of the museum is quite deceiving as it actually looks much older than it is. Inspired by Scottish baronial style, it was only designed in 1989 and opened in 1993.
The exhibits explore the importance of religion in people's lives across the world and it was the first museum in the world dedicated to all major world religions. It aims to promote understanding between faiths and those of no faith.
Three permanent galleries host a vast array of ancient and contemporary artefacts and artworks. Outside you can visit the Zen garden which was the first in Britain.
Provand's Lordship was built in 1471 and is said to be the oldest house in Glasgow. As mentioned above, it is located in the medieval quarter of the city and along with the other free attractions around Cathedral Precinct, it can form part of longer historical based excursion in the city.
It is one of only 4 surviving medieval buildings in Glasgow and was originally part St Nicholas's
hospital built by Bishop of Glasgow, Andrew Muirhead.
While many old buildings in the city have been demolished, the Provand's Lordship Society was formed to save this old town house. It was last occupied by a family at the beginning of the 20th century when it was run as a sweet factory and shop.
The Society initially leased the property before buying it outright to save the historical building for future generations. Today it is operated as a museum by the City of Glasgow who have carried out some necessary restorations to prevent part of the building from collapsing.
The three storey attraction has 17th century furniture and artwork on display, including historic royal portraits. There is also video information about the history of the building and the surrounding area.
At the rear of the museum is St Nicholas herb garden where you can find carved stone heads dating back to the mid 18th century.
GLASGOW POLICE MUSEUM
Hidden up on the first floor of a city centre building in Bell Street, you will find the small but interesting Glasgow Police Museum.
This independent museum is manned by volunteer members of the Glasgow Police Heritage Society, with many of them being retired police officers. The society was set up to preserve the history of the City of Glasgow Police Force which existed from 1779 - 1975.
Many people don't realise that Glasgow had the first police force in Britain and the museum documents its history over its almost 200 years of existence. The historical exhibition provides an insight into the people and events that contributed to the founding and development of the force.
There is also an international exhibition which features over 2000 items of police uniform, representing every country in the world.
Don't be put off thinking that the museum is solely about the police. It also tells the story of law and order in Glasgow over the centuries with displays about famous cases, trials and events. It is a great place to learn more about the social history of the city.
The museum is supported entirely by public donations so although it is free admission, consider leaving a contribution if you enjoyed your visit.
ROYAL HIGHLAND FUSILIERS MUSEUM
The Royal Highland Fusiliers Museum is situated within a distinctive red sandstone building in Sauchiehall Street in the city centre of Glasgow. This has acted as the regiment's headquarters since 1960.
The architecture is quite impressive and that might have something to do with Charles Rennie Mackintosh being involved in the design. The earliest part of the building dates back to 1825, with this extension designed around 1903. The museum is just a short walk from the Glasgow School of Art, one of Mackintosh's most famous designs.
The Royal Highland Fusiliers was formed in 1959 by the amalgamation of The Royal Scots Fusiliers & The Highland Light Infantry. The Royal Scots Fusiliers, the 21st Foot, were raised in 1678 by the 5th Earl of Mar in response to internal instability in Scotland. The 73rd Highlanders were raised by John MacKenzie, Lord Macleod, as the first clan Regiment in 1777 in response to the outbreak of the American War of Independence.
The museum tells the history of the regiments from 1678 to the present day. There is a wide range of militaria on display including uniforms, weapons, flags, medals, paintings, memorabilia and musical instruments. There is also a library and photographic collection of some historical importance.
There is talk of the museum relocating to a more suitable space in the future, however for the time being you can view the collection within this grand building.
THE GOVAN STONES
In recent history, Govan was famous as a centre for shipbuilding and industry in Glasgow. Today most of the sprawling workplaces are gone and the area is mainly residential. However, this town was also at the heart of an even more significant historical chapter in the story of Scotland which has often been overlooked.
It was one of the earliest seats of Christianity in Scotland. Its location next to the river and ease of reach by land or sea, led to Govan growing rapidly as a powerful political and religious centre in the 6th century. The original church at Govan became the most important in the medieval Kingdom of Strathclyde which was ruled from nearby Dumbarton Rock.
Govan Old Church, dating back to 1888, was built on the site of the original church. Today it is home to a display of 31 early medieval stones carved in the 9th – 11th centuries. They would originally have been brightly painted and marked the graves of kings and other important people. Some of the stones also feature more recent carved dates and initials as they were reused for local burials.
The stones were recovered from the churchyard and include carved crosses and 5 Viking hogback stones. The collection is said to be the finest of its kind and one of the hogback stones was even on loan for display in the British Museum. An ornate sarcophagus is also on display and although it was empty when it was discovered, it is thought to have held the relics of St Constantine.
This is one of my favourite 'hidden gems' in Glasgow, however it does very much rely on funding and donations to keep the museum open for the future.
It makes a great afternoon out with a combined visit to the nearby Fairfield Heritage Centre below. During the summer you can take the free Govan ferry that runs between the Riverside Museum and Govan if you fancy a day of diverse museums.
FAIRFIELD GOVAN HERITAGE CENTRE
Just along from The Govan Stones exhibition is Fairfield Heritage Centre which is dedicated to the story of shipbuilding in the city. The museum is housed in the former Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Offices, described as architecturally the finest shipbuilding office in Britain.
Built on Govan Road between 1889 and 1891, it contained functional working spaces including drawing offices, and a mould loft, where the lines of the vessels were drawn out in full-size. The ground floor was occupied by managers’ offices, and by a boardroom which is now open to the public as part of the exhibition.
The heritage centre has several rooms filled with shipbuilding memorabilia and information boards. There are also some great historical films and a really good video about the growth of Fairfield, one of only two major shipyards still in operation on the Clyde today. Fairfield has undergone a number of transformations under different owners and is now part of BAE Systems.
Glasgow exists as you see it today largely thanks to shipbuilding as it brought a lot of prosperity to the city. At one time there were 40 shipyards responsible for the employment of around 100,000 people. In the early 1900s Glasgow contructed around a fifth of all ships launched in the world.
At its height, Govan was at the heart of the industry and it was here that some of the finest liners, steamships and naval vessels were designed and launched. Large shipbuilders located to the town, bringing jobs and attracting other local businesses. Govan’s population which had been only 9,000 in the 1860s grew to 90,000 by 1912. Shipbuilding became an integral part of the identity of Govan, with many, many families depending on the shipyards for their livelihoods
However, the eventual decline of shipbuilding in Glasgow meant many companies collapsed and today there is little evidence of this once thriving industry. Fairfield is a great place to find out more about this part of the city's history and the fact that it is housed in what was the greatest yard at the time just enhances the visit.
GLASGOW MUSEUMS RESOURCE CENTRE
With all these museums, you might think that all the city's collections are on display, but amazingly only 2% of Glasgow's public museum collection is currently exhibited. Most of it is actually kept at the Glasgow Museum Resource Centre in the Nitshill area.
The purpose built storehouses contain everything from fossils to paintings and much, much more. It is a real Aladdin's Cave of a place filled with a staggering 1.4 million objects!
Public access to the interior is controlled although some of the collections can be viewed on one of the free themed tours that take place most days - places need to be booked in advance. The centre also runs themed events throughout the year and you can make special requests if there is something particular you want to see on your visit.
I joined a general tour which lasted an hour and got to visit several of their pods containing art, natural history, transport and world cultures. The amount of objects here is just astounding!
If you've been to all the other museums mentioned and think there's nothing of interest left to see, then a visit to the Glasgow Museum Resource Centre is a must.
There is one notable omission from this post and that is The Burrell Collection which is currently undergoing renovations and will be added once it is re-opened.
A HANDY MAP OF ALL THE MUSEUM LOCATIONS
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