Being a Glaswegian I often get asked about things to do in the city and one question I get a lot is for my recommendation of the best Glasgow tours. Until recently I hadn't been on that many tours in Glasgow so I decided to rectify that and have spent the last few months on a mission to discover the top unique tours in the city. After walking countless streets, climbing umpteen stairs, having a peek behind the scenes of several city landmarks and even exploring a few graveyards (all in the name of research!), I'm finally ready to share my findings.
Recommending the best tours in the city is pretty subjective as it really depends on personal interests, so I have decided to include a range of unique tours that in my opinion are 6 of the best in Glasgow...
Glasgow Central Station Tour
If you think a tour of a railway station might be dull, think again, this is actually my top recommended unique Glasgow tour overall, guaranteed to educate and entertain, just remember your hankies!
Paul Lyons is the mastermind behind the 90 minute tours that take you on a journey below the station platforms through forgotten Victorian tunnels and hidden rooms. It is his vision and passion that has made these tours a success and his plans to restore historic parts of the 135 year old station with money raised from ticket sales are commendable. Paul's ability to bring the human stories of the station to life is powerful, when he tells you at the beginning he will have you "Greetin' before the tour is over", he isn't kidding, although pan faced Glaswegian humour is also something he does very well.
It's no surprise that this is also the number one Glasgow tour on TripAdvisor, a well deserved accolade.
Glasgow City Chambers Tour
I've explored Glasgow City Chambers quite a few times over the years and I'm always surprised how few people realise that free guided tours take place every weekday providing a look behind the scenes of this grand Victorian building filled with mahogany, mosaics and marble.
As the seat of political power in Glasgow, the City Chambers was designed to impress and not surprisingly the interior is just as ornate as the exterior. As it is a working building and the headquarters of Glasgow City Council, access to some areas may be restricted at certain times although tours generally take in the opulent banqueting hall, the grand marble staircase which is reputed to be the largest in the world, the portrait gallery and even the opportunity to sit in the Lord Provost's chair, an ideal photo opportunity! I've yet to find a better free tour in the city.
The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis Walking Tour
As part of my research I did a few history based Glasgow walking tours and the only one I felt really stood out as being unique was the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis Tour around the city's most famous graveyard. This might not be everyone's idea of a fun day out but in my experience graveyard's offer one of the best insights into the history of a place and the volunteer guides really bring this city of the dead to life with their knowledge about monuments of interest and anecdotes about people that are buried here.
The Glasgow Necropolis is a 37 acre cemetery which has seen 50,000 burials and is home to 3,500 tombs, some of which are works of art in themselves designed by major architects and sculptors of the time. It also boasts impressive views over Glasgow from the top of the hill and joining a walking tour will really enhance your visit and knowledge about the city.
The Isle of Gigha is clearly visible from the Kintyre peninsula and a short 20 minute ferry ride across the Sound of Gigha is all that separates the two. The close proximity doesn't stop me feeling the same excited anticipation that always precedes an island adventure, or from standing on deck braving the gusty wind and regular soaking from sea spray as the main settlement of Ardminish draws closer.
This is an Island I have been meaning to visit for a while and a last minute decision to pop over and fill a free day in my diary sees me making my way to the little lump of land that the Norse King Hakon originally named Gudey, meaning the Good Isle or God's Isle, and which the Gaels later adjusted to Gigha (pronounced Geeea).
There aren't many Scottish Islands that you can feasibly visit and explore in 1 day but the community owned Isle of Gigha is the ideal destination for those looking to experience a little piece of Hebridean paradise in a short amount of time thanks to its close proximity to the mainland and bijou size.
It is the most southerly Hebridean Island and only 7 miles long by 1 1/2 miles at its widest point, with one main road dissecting its length. Having the car meant I could explore most of the island in an afternoon, however it is equally doable in a day by bike (bike hire is available locally) or on foot.
There are not many man-made attractions on Gigha but the beautiful natural scenery is enough to make a visit worthwhile and although there are no museums, the history of the island is told through the objects that intertwine the landscape from the standing stones to the modern 'Dancing Ladies' wind turbines.
White Beaches and Turquoise Water
If the very mention of 'Hebridean island' conjures up an image of flawless white sandy bays, clear turquoise water and rugged coves, you'll be pleased to know Gigha won't disappoint with its own bite sized slices of paradise. Being only 1 1/2 miles at its widest point and 1/2 mile at its narrowest, you are never far from the coast and at certain places you can even admire the tempting stretches of sand along both sides of the island at the same time, talk about a dilemma!
Views to Islay and Jura
You can almost smell the waft of whisky from Islay and reach over to touch the Paps of Jura which both sit teasingly close off the west coast of Gigha. If a visit to this miniature Hebridean oasis leaves you hankering for more, then gazing across at its imposing relatives is guaranteed to add to your island wanderlust and immediately booking you next ferry trip.
Having grown up and lived in Glasgow most of my life, I have watched it transform from a rather unattractive post industrial weed into a colourful bloom, worthy of its place in the cultural garden of Europe. As part of its reinvention, this 'Dear Green Place' on Scotland's west coast is gradually learning to capitalise on the talented art and design scene that has always been present in the city but not always marketed as one of its major assets. Creative studios have been reclaiming historical buildings, world class museums now attract visitors from every part of the globe and public art has appeared all over the city.
I moved out of Glasgow almost 3 years ago and each time I return I notice more changes, some subtle and some designed to make a bolder statement. The street art scene in the city has exploded over the last few years and this artistic development made such an impact on me it was the very first topic I wrote about on this blog!
With my blog turning 2 next month I decided it was time to revisit the street art of Glasgow that first inspired me to put finger to keyboard to find out how it has been progressing and I'm glad to report that almost 2 years on, we are both flourishing!
These days, Glasgow's street art has spread its graffiti tentacles all over the city, however a walk around the centre provides a good introduction to the diverse range of murals that have been commissioned since 2008 to brighten up neglected spaces. The nature of street art means that new pieces appear while other pieces disappear; it is an every changing open air gallery which can be enjoyed for free by anyone at anytime. I'm a huge fan of the murals and judging by the amount of people that were clicking away on cameras and phones next to me, I'm not alone.
If you want to find out more about the Glasgow city centre street art murals, here is an introduction to some of the main artists and venues.
Street Artist - Smug
Smug One (aka Sam Bates) is an Australian born street artist based in Glasgow and as you walk the streets of the city it is hard to miss his enormous works of art that often adorn entire gable end walls. His pieces are completed freehand using aerosol cans and in my humble opinion he is one of the most talented street artists in the world. Here are a few of his most prominent works in the city centre.
If you are looking for a historical escape within an hours drive of Glasgow or Edinburgh, Biggar might just be the ideal place for you. Add in a large dose of lush, green hills and a higher than average ratio of award-winning local businesses and a short break in this characterful South Lanarkshire town will easily satisfy most needs.
The area in and around Biggar occupies an important strategic position between the rivers Tweed and Clyde, which has resulted in people settling here since prehistoric times. In the 14th Century, the Fleming family were given lands in the area by Robert the Bruce, whose cause they had supported. The Flemings later built Boghall Castle, one of the largest and most imposing castles in the south of Scotland and a few remains from the building can still be seen today. The Flemings found themselves on the wrong side in the 16th Century, when they supported Mary, Queen of Scots, and their lands were given over to the Elphinstone family.
Biggar was also a principal stopping off point on the old Pedlars' Way from Edinburgh to the South West of Scotland which attracted everyone from royalty to hawkers and some famous names in Scottish history including the usual suspects, William Wallace, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Robert Burns, have all been associated with the town.
Sitting on the Northern edge of the Southern Uplands and surrounded by rolling hills, a visit here also offers the promise of a rural escape with a variety of countryside walks starting nearby and the many independent stores will also cater to those in need of a shopping fix!
To help make the most of your stay I've devised a suggested a 2 day itinerary to help you discover the best of Biggar.
MORNING - VISIT THE EXCELLENT BIGGAR MUSEUM
Definitely not stuffy and boring, The Biggar and Upper Clydesdale Museum is a recent addition to the town and what a fabulous addition it is! The light, bright and imaginative displays span 14,000 years of Biggar's rich archaeological, social and historical heritage. I particularly loved exploring Gladstone Court at the back of the museum, where old shops, businesses and even a working telephone exchange have been recreated. Great value at £5 entry and a fantastic introduction to the history of the town, a must do during your visit!
Biggar High Street is not particularly long, yet it is bursting with awards and pride. Reflecting its history as a busy and significant market town, most of the businesses remain independent. It seems that every other window proudly displays at least one certificate (often several) for a recently won accolade. From ice-cream to books, the range of honoured businesses are as diverse as their awards,
I popped in to Biggar Flavour, the local bakery which as you might now have guessed, has won several awards. I was in a cake heaven dilemma with over 50 types of freshly baked goodies to choose from with so many flavours I'd never seen before. Gooseberry and Hazelnut and Carrot and Courgette cakes are just some of the more unusual creations on offer! I opted for a lemon coconut bar which went down a treat with a cup of tea in my hotel room later :-)
GRAB SOME LUNCH AT A LOCAL CAFE
When you're all shopped out head for lunch at one of the local cafes. I managed to get a seat at The Olive Tree, a local deli with a few tables. I opted for whisky and marmalade pate on toast which was served with sun dried tomatoes, a light and tasty combination. This is also a good place to pick up a bottle or two of Broughton Ale which is brewed in the neighbouring village.
If you can't get a table here then there are plenty other choices for lunch along the High Street.
AFTERNOON - EXPLORE THE HERITAGE TRAIL
I really believe that the best way to get to know a place is on foot, wandering along the streets, taking your time to look up at the buildings and probing all the dark nooks and crannies. The Biggar Heritage Trail is a great resource that encourages you to explore and learn about the history, characters and legends that are interwoven in the fabric of this picturesque market town. The trail is easy to follow in an afternoon and a few of the interesting places to look out for include
I've written a few guides to Outlander filming locations in Scotland and if you're a fan you might be pleased to know more are on the way. I know many of you are travelling to Scotland to visit some of these locations for yourself and have created special boards on Pinterest to help with your itinerary. To make your planning that bit easier I have created some Outlander location images in optimal Pinterest size, ready to be shared with a quick click. If this proves a popular way to gather up that all important Outlander information I will create a few more so please let me know if this helps with your vacation planning or just satisfies your Outlander lust ;-)
Incidentally I'll be creating my own Outlander board on Pinterest very shortly so you might want to join me at https://uk.pinterest.com/scotadventures/. Happy Pinning!
Outlander fans can recreate one of the first scenes of the show by standing at the Bruce fountain in Falkland town centre and looking up to the window of Mrs Baird's B&B just as the ghost of Jamie did in the first episode. Mrs Baird's is in fact The Covenanter Hotel so you can go inside and enjoy a drink if you need a refreshment to quell all the excitement!
Fort William sits nestled beneath the rugged peaks of the Northwest Highlands, with Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain, a constant fixture over the town. Each year it celebrates everything great about the outdoors and wild mountain culture through art, photography, film, workshops and well known names in the world of adventure at The Fort William Mountain Festival.
This year I was invited to experience some of what the festival has to offer and also to explore what else there is to do in Fort William in the winter. As it turns out there is a surprising amount of ways to fill your time (you can read some of my recommendations here) and combining a winter break with some of the festival events meant I enjoyed a diverse range of activities during my three days there.
I got my first feel for the festival at the launch night which officially kicked off with a torch-lit descent of Aonach Mor on ski, board and mountain bike before everyone gathered in the warmth of The Pinemartin Cafe at the Nevis Range. Here we were treated to a series of short films and talks before providing an audience for the BBC's Adventure Show live with presenters Dougie Vipond, Cameron McNeish and Michael Stewart keeping us entertained with their witty banter. I also have to give a special shout out to the Scottish stovies served up during the interval, they were amazing!
When winter arrives in Scotland I always find myself drawn north to the Highlands. The mountains seem that bit bigger with their snowy peaks than they do with their green summer coats; the quiet loch surfaces reflect the landscape like mirrors and although many attractions close their doors for some seasonal respite, a whole new world of outdoor adventure opens up.
One of the best places to base yourself for what is arguably the most spectacular Scottish season, is Fort William. The town is the beating heart of the Lochaber region, dubbed the Outdoor Capital of the UK due to the large number of adventurous activities available. While it is popular with tourists in the summer, the area also has plenty to offer visitors in the off-peak season. I visited in February and easily filled the 3 days I spent there, so here are 10 of my recommendations for winter activities in the Fort William area and you might be glad to know not all of them involve being outdoors!
1. Skiing and Snowboarding
One of the most popular winter pastimes in Fort William is a trip to go skiing or snowboarding at the Nevis Range just outside of the town. With an extensive network of graded runs and the off-piste expanse of the Back Corries all under the shadow of Ben Nevis, it is easy to see why this is a popular haunt for snow-sport lovers. It is also the newest resort in Scotland and if taking to the slope on skis is not your thing or you want to try something a bit different, the Nevis Range also offers other fun winter activities including sledging, snowshoeing and even snow biking.
Alternatively, Glencoe Mountain Resort, Scotland's oldest resort can be reached in under an hour by car from Fort William.
Both resorts provide lessons and equipment hire, so even complete beginners can turn up and have some fun on the slopes.
2. Wildlife Spotting
If you want to spot the Scottish big five (golden eagle, red deer, red squirrel, common seal and European otter), Fort William and the surrounding area is one of the few places in Scotland that offers the possibility of seeing all five in one day.
Of course it always helps to have an expert on hand to point you in the right direction and a guided wildlife safari with Ian MacLeod from Wild West will not only greatly improve your chances of seeing these iconic species for yourself but also teach you about the history, culture, language and geology of the region.
Thanks to Ian I discovered a great spot that has been set up especially for watching red squirrels just next to the car park at Glen Righ. I have driven by there on the way to Fort William so many times without realising this wee hidden wildlife gem existed, needless to say I will be stopping off there in the future.
Being situated in the Outdoor Capital of the UK, it is not surprising that the walking possibilities around Fort William are only limited by your imagination. Although winter hill-walking requires some experience and equipment, there are plenty of low level walks that will reward you with stunning snowy mountain vistas and walking around Fort William you are never far from a great view of Ben Nevis towering over the town.
My personal favourite winter walk is through Glen Nevis to Steall Falls, you can read about that and a couple of walks I did in the area here.
The Outdoor Capital website also has a selection of recommended walks for different abilities and if that's not enough the nearby Nevis Range has 25 miles of forest trails to explore.
It's not every day you get invited on a trip to a mystery destination in Scotland (well I certainly don't!), so needless to say when I received such an invite from VisitScotland, I immediately cleared my diary and packed my bag for all eventualities. Okay they did specify dress cosy and warm but that seemed a bit vague so I stuffed my rucksack with as many clothes as I could fit, although the fact that one of the zips burst was a sign that I might have packed a few things too many, oops! The trip was a media event to coincide with the launch of their new global marketing campaign 'Scotland - A Spirit of its Own'.
In search of some top secret #ScotSpirit I boarded a minivan in Glasgow, accompanied by a group of journalists and bloggers from around the UK and Ireland and we quickly set off towards our still undisclosed destination.
I was delighted when we eventually stopped and I realised we were in the depths of Galloway Forest Park in a stunning spot overlooking Loch Riecawr. It seemed rather fitting that our secret destination turned out to be in Dumfries and Galloway, a region which still remains secret to many tourists despite it being rich with scenery and steeped in history. Our immersive local experience provided an opportunity to discover some of the elements that make up the Dumfries and Galloway #ScotSpirit.
After a quick chance to stretch our legs, a children's playpark provided a viewpoint and variety of unconventional seating for the group to sit quietly, while we were encouraged to reflect and inhale the unique detail of the surrounding landscape, looking for original photography ideas rather than randomly clicking away with our cameras and phones. Thankfully we had some expert advice on hand from one of the park's new Dark Sky Rangers, Morag Paterson, who handily also happens to be a professional photographer and artist.
In 2009 Galloway Forest Park gained status as an International Dark Sky Park, the only one in the UK and only one of four in the Western world. In a bid to increase tourism to the area in the quieter months, four Biosphere Dark Sky Rangers, from a variety of backgrounds, have been trained to use their personal specialisms in a way that will encourage wider use of the park, with photography being just one of the activities on offer.
Getting a literal flavour of an area, is an essential ingredient to any immersive local experience but how do you provide an authentic fine dining setting in the middle of a remote and commercially undeveloped forest? Well naturally you deliver the restaurant to the park! This is much easier when the restaurant happens to be a converted shipping container on wheels pulled by a tractor.
Once you realise it is one of the latest brainwaves from brothers, Tom and Dick Lewis, of the family run Mhor brand, the quirkiness of it all makes perfect sense. Owners of a hill farm in Perthshire, an esteemed hotel, motel, fish restaurant and bakery among other smaller ventures, a transportable eatery seems like a perfect addition to the family.
However, it is also their passion for local produce that made them the perfect hosts for the evening and both brothers were on hand to tell us more about the ingredients behind the delicious dishes which were either sourced from within 30 minutes of our location or raised on their own farm.
Follow me as I search for the best and most original travel experiences in Scotland.