Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast Are Hip, Historic Cities Off Britain’s Beaten Path
If you’re visiting the British Isles, perennially popular London, Edinburgh and Dublin likely top your “must-see” list. But as an American expat who relocated to the United Kingdom more than a decade ago, I’ve discovered a cadre of lesser-known cities that also deserve to rank among Britain’s greatest hits.
Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast were once epicenters of shipping and industry. Now they’ve undergone millennial makeovers, reinvented as hip hubs for food, culture and nightlife.
Whether you’re making a return trip to the U.K. or simply want to explore beyond the usual suspects, these destinations are well worth a detour.
A building on Glasgow’s City Centre Mural Trail (photo by Monica Wells / Alamy)
Where: About 40 miles west of Edinburgh
Nearby attractions: Loch Lomond; The Trossachs National Park; Gailes Links, Prestwick, Royal Troon, St. Andrews, Turnberry and Western Gailes golf courses
How to get there: One-stop flights from Seattle to Glasgow
Scotland’s biggest city is called “Glas-GO” — as in, go now — for good reason, given its vibrant mix of art, architecture, music, and cuisine. Glasgow first gained artistic street cred when native son Charles Rennie Mackintosh put his Art Nouveau architectural stamp on the city at the turn of the 20th century. But its transformation from an industrial and shipbuilding center to a creative powerhouse really began in the 1990s, when it was named a European City of Culture and U.K. City of Architecture and Design.
The biennial Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art returns in 2020. Permanent attractions include more than 20 pieces of extraordinary street art along the City Centre Mural Trail, and world-class venues like the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, home to an eclectic collection ranging from Mackintosh interiors to Monet paintings to a WWII-era Spitfire airplane. For hands-on interactions with more vintage vehicles, head to the award-winning Riverside Museum, brimming with buses, trains, trams and cars, many of which you’re welcome to climb aboard.
As a UNESCO City of Music featuring more than 130 gigs each week, Glasgow is a hotbed for up-and-coming acts. David and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Simple Minds, and Franz Ferdinand are among its more noteworthy exports, and big names like Paul McCartney and Kylie Minogue headline at the SSE Hydro, which opened in 2013.
The Barrowland Ballroom, which has a sprung dance floor, stars in the ceiling and has hosted legends like The Smiths, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters, is most beloved by locals. “It’s so old school,” says Alison Stroak of Glasgow Music City Tours. “The atmosphere can’t be beaten.”
Follow Glaswegian gourmands to Argyle Street in the trendy Finnieston neighborhood. This culinary corridor offers a feast of local favorites, including The Gannet, with its seasonal Scottish menu; Six by Nico, which serves a six-course tasting menu that changes every six weeks; and The 78, a laid-back vegan pub that hosts live music.
Whet your whistle (responsibly) amid Old World elegance at Gin71, serving gin-centric cocktails in the 19th century former Bank of India building. The Clydeside Distillery, which opened beside the River Clyde in 2017, offers tours with a whisky tasting, although their own lowland single malt won’t be ready for bottling until 2022 or 2023.
Where: On the Bristol Channel, about 150 miles west of London
Nearby attractions: Access to the southern portion of Wales’ coastal hiking path; within about an hour’s drive of more than 100 castles; St. Fagans National Museum of History, a free attraction featuring dozens of historic buildings from around Wales
How to get there: One-stop flights from Seattle to Cardiff; nonstop flights from Seattle to London, continuing to Cardiff by rail (2.5 hours from London Paddington) or car (2.5-4 hours)
A former 19th century coal-shipping center, today Cardiff combines its Victorian heritage with the best of the modern age. Take a stroll around Cardiff Bay to see the old port, redeveloped as a buzzing lakefront district with walking trails, shops and restaurants. The turreted brick Pierhead Building, the one-time offices of the Cardiff Railway Co., stands alongside the copper-plated Wales Millennium arts center and the sleek glass Senedd Welsh Parliament.
Cardiff’s pedestrian-friendly city center has a cool, independent vibe with quirky venues like the Chapel 1877 restaurant in a converted Gothic church and The Dead Canary, a speak-easy style bar which has no sign, just a doorbell beneath a birdcage. The new Hotel Indigo Cardiff features funky Wales-themed décor and a rooftop restaurant from acclaimed British chef Marco Pierre White.
Stock up on weird and wonderful souvenirs at Cardiff’s Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades, which embrace vintage clothing, collectible toys, skateboard stores, art galleries, and chic gin bars and coffee shops. Bodlon, next to the Cardiff Story Museum, sells Welsh-made pottery and textiles, while Cardiff Market is a crazy hodgepodge of sewing sundries, feather boas, fresh baked bread, and exotic meats (think camel and crocodile). For a true taste of Cardiff, pop into a pub and try a local beer from Brains Brewery.
Like Glasgow, Cardiff has a flourishing music scene. Morgan’s Arcade houses Spillers Records, which claims to be the oldest record shop in the world, and Womanby Street is famous for its live music venues. The city also is a big draw for “Whovians,” fans of Dr. Who, the long-running TV series filmed and produced here.
Cardiff’s showpiece is Cardiff Castle, built on an ancient Roman site alongside the leafy oasis of Bute Park. Take in panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside from atop the 11th century stone keep, which has remained virtually untouched by time.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Where: About 90 miles north of Dublin on the Belfast Lough, which opens to the North Channel
Nearby attractions: “Game of Thrones” location tours; about a 75-minute drive from the volcanic landscape of Giant’s Causeway
How to get there: One-stop flights from Seattle to Belfast City Airport
Belfast has come a long way. For nearly 30 years, the city was plagued by political and religious strife commonly known as “the Troubles.” With the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, that turmoil was pretty much put to rest, and visitors gradually began to test the waters.
The trickle of tourists has now become a flood, thanks in part to “Game of Thrones,” which was mostly filmed around Northern Ireland, and the 2012 opening of the Titanic Belfast experience at the site of the former shipyard where the Titanic was built. Northern Ireland’s capital really hit the big time when Lonely Planet named Belfast and the adjacent Causeway Coast the No. 1 region to visit in 2018.
If you do come looking for the Troubles, native Belfast tour guide Dee Morgan can take you to essential sites related to the conflict, including the International Wall, renowned for its political murals, and the “Peace Wall,” emblazoned with messages of hope and love. Morgan, who was born in the late 1960s, also shares her own experiences, like dodging bullets as a child.
“But now we have resolution,” she insists. “We’ve got a young population and they’ve never seen conflict — nor will they.”
The Cathedral Quarter is at the core of this university city’s thriving nightlife, anchored by pubs like Harp Bar and its sister pub, the Duke of York, which opens onto Commercial Court and its mural-filled square. In fact, this entire neighborhood is a showcase for outdoor art, with an annual “Hit the North” street art festival that draws spray can-wielding artists from around the world.
For an introduction to the city’s culinary scene, take the Taste & Tour’s Belfast Food Tour. On the four-hour guided walk you’ll sample regional specialties, which might include sausage made from beer-raised beef, traditional soda bread, Guinness-infused cheddar cheese, locally produced beer, cider and gin, and artisanal chocolates.
End your visit on a high by reserving a seat at the Observatory, the loftiest bar in Ireland. This classy cocktail venue is located on the 23rd floor of the Grand Central Hotel Belfast, which opened in June 2018. The gleaming glass icon towers loud and proud above the city skyline, a visible vote of confidence in Belfast’s future.
What’s in a Name?
England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are countries within an over-arching country called the United Kingdom. England, Scotland and Wales are on the island of Great Britain. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland share the island of Ireland, which is part of the British Isles. However, the Republic of Ireland is independent from the U.K.
— Written by Amy Laughinghouse, who has paraglided in the Swiss Alps, walked with lions in Mauritius and swum with sharks in French Polynesia.