Deep Fried Candy Bars, Projectile Pies, and a Wee Dram
Glasgow is a rough and tumble city that has lingered in the shadow of showy Edinburgh for decades. But, the Dear Green Place is emerging as a great destination in its own right with friendly locals who have their own vernacular, superb high and low cuisine and, of course, Scotch whisky.
A Short History
Humans have inhabited Scotland for at least 12,000 years, and likely much earlier than that, although the presence of these earlier settlers was erased in the last ice age.
The Romans had outposts in the city and built the Antonine Wall (well north of Hadrian’s Wall) to keep out the Celts.
In the 6th century, Mungo, later St. Mungo, is credited with founding the city and supposedly performing four miracles there. The 12th century Glasgow Cathedral (aka St. Mungo’s Cathedral) houses his remains.
During the 16th century, Glasgow’s lot improved due to trade with the New World. Sugar, tobacco, and cotton were the top imports and manufactured goods were exported. Because of this influx of trade, Glasgow became known as the “Second City of the Empire” and surpassed rival Edinburgh in importance.
In the early 1900’s the Red Clydeside movement gained traction in the city. Attempting to organize around workers’ rights, (especially women’s rights) rent strikes, and later, anti-war efforts, the group gained popularity. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has aligned itself with the legacy of the Clydesiders and holds many constituencies in the city.
After WWII, de-industrialization took its toll on Glasgow with many people moving away and blight taking over. Recently, people have moved back and the city has once again become vibrant with tourism being an important part of the economy.
It would be easy to dismiss the Glasgow culinary scene. After all, the city’s most famous contributions to gastronomy are the Deep Fried Mars Bar and the Glasgow Salad (aka the Munchie Box). And while it’s true that Glasgow seems to have more than its fair share of Chippies (Fish and Chip shops) and kebab stands, the Dear Green Place also boasts 17 restaurants with the Michelin Plate designation.
Sure, workaday Glasgow isn’t a fine dining Mecca (yet), but what she lacks in fancy tablecloth establishments, she more than makes up for with delicious eateries, many of which are run by immigrants from the U.K.s former colonies.
Deep Fried Mars Bar
Ever since its invention, the Deep Fried Mars Bar (and its American cousin, the Deep Fried Snickers Bar) has been held up as an example of Scotland’s (and Glasgow’s in particular) unhealthy eating culture. Some have called it the “Glasgow Effect,” the idea that Glaswegians are pessimistic by nature and, therefore, not concerned with planning for their future by eating fresh foods and adopting a healthy lifestyle. This, according to proponents of the “Glasgow Effect,” has led to low life expectancy and high obesity rates among Glaswegians.
Of course, eating one Deep Fried Mars Bar won’t kill you (probably) and the University Cafe is a nice place to get one.
Scotch Pie is the original fast food of Glaswegians, its history dating back perhaps 500 years. The Scotch Pie is traditionally a workingman’s food; hot, filling, cheap, and small enough to eat with one hand.
The little pie (about 3 inches in diameter) is double crusted (top and bottom) and filled with minced mutton. The mutton is often heavily seasoned, especially with pepper, which can mask what is sometimes low quality meat.
An interesting design feature of the Scotch Pie is that the center is slightly lower than the edge. This allows the top to be filled with brown gravy or beans.
The Scotch Pie is especially popular on Saturdays when it’s served in bars and at stadiums during football (soccer) matches. The handheld size and round shape also make it a perfect projectile if the pie or the play on the pitch is of low quality.
Bakeries, cafes, and bars all over Glasgow serve Scotch Pies, from dives like the Star Bar where you can get one and watch the game to the upscale Victoria-era Horse Shoe Bar. If the idea of questionable minced meat puts you off, Rose & Grant’s Deli Cafe serves a great vegan Scotch Pie.
Don’t be misled, the Glasgow Salad (aka Munchie Box) has as much to do with leafy greens as a Glasgow Kiss is a sign of affection. With a heavy dose of typical sarcastic Glaswegian humor, the Glasgow Salad is served in a pizza box for takeaway because no self-respecting human would be seen eating one in public.
The box is stuffed with pizza, chicken (fried or tikka), kebabs, onion rings, garlic bread, French fries, fried rice, and any other combination of deep-fried or carb-laden fast food. As you can imagine, this box of saturated fat is best after a long night of imbibing. And with some Glasgow Salads checking in at over 4,000 calories, you’re best advised to have several drunken friends to share it with.
The Munchie Box is ubiquitous at the chip stands, kebab joints, and takeaway spots in Glasgow. I’m not recommending one, but feel free to roll the gastronomic dice and sit on the curb with your Glasgow Salad at 2am, pondering poor life decisions.
Clapshot (aka Neeps and Tatties)
Lest you think there isn’t a vegetable in sight in Glasgow, I present Clapshot, aka Neeps (turnips) and Tatties (potatoes). Even if they’re carb-dense, they’re still vegetables. The potatoes and turnips are boiled and mashed together with butter, salt, and pepper added. Herbs like chopped chives can be added on top. Kind of like mashed potatoes with the turnips adding some extra flavor.
Neeps and Tatties is often served as a side dish with Haggis, but you can often get it by itself. The Piper Bar is a nice place for Clapshot.
Tablet is sometimes referred to as Scottish Fudge, but it’s actually something wonderfully different. Whereas fudge is soft and gooey, Tablet is crunchy and brittle. Not as brittle as toffee or hard candy, though. Made with sugar, condensed milk, and butter, you’ll often see Tablet flavored with vanilla, nuts, or Scotch Whiskey.
Vegetarians will need to know that some makers use fondant in their tablet and fondant contains gelatin.
There are some great sweets shops in Glasgow where you can get freshly made Tablet. Mrs. Mitchell’s Sweet Shop’s proprietress makes Tablet using their own secret recipe. Glickman’s has been around since 1903 and has a couple different kinds of Tablet.
Drinking in Glasgow
One word comes to mind when thinking of drinking in Scotland: Scotch. Or, perhaps two words: Scotch Whisky. Or, maybe, four words: Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
Scotch Whisky and Irish Whiskey (note the “e” in Irish Whiskey) are different. Scotch Whisky is made using malted barley while Irish Whiskey uses unmalted barley. Scotch Whisky is distilled twice (double distilled) while Irish Whiskey is distilled three times (triple distilled).
Single Malt Scotch Whisky means that the whisky comes from a single distillery.
There are lots of ways to sample Scotch Whisky in Glasgow.
You might be tempted to get a car and drive to several distilleries to sample the product on site. This can make for a fun day, but keep a few things in mind. Most importantly, don’t drink and drive! Laws are strict and punishments are severe! Have a designated driver. Next, unlike wineries in grape growing regions, the distilleries are rather spread out. Visiting more than two in a day can be a big undertaking.
To my thinking, a better way is to take the bus to Glengoyne Distillery. The No. 10 bus from Glasgow drops you right in front of Glengoyne. Be sure to book your tasting tour in advance. Or, you can book a half day tour from Rabbie’s. With the Rabbie’s tour, in addition to a trip to Glengoyne, you’ll also visit Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. And best of all, you don’t have to do any of the driving.
The only problem with visiting distilleries is that you’re limited to that particular establishment’s products. But, if you visit a good whisky bar in Glasgow, you can sample as many as you like. Pot Still has the largest selection with 700(!) whiskies. Bon Accord is slacking with only 350 (jk). Ubiquitous Chip is another excellent choice and Ben Nevis has great music to accompany a wee dram.
While Scotch Whisky rules the day in Glasgow, cocktails are becoming more popular. Adventurous drinkers should try Soba where concoctions like the Mango Tango (served in a skull glass) and the Apple & Ginger Mojito are interesting choices.
Meanwhile, Lebowski’s has a variety of White Russians. The Dude abides.
The best gin bar in Glasgow is The Finnieston. They have over 60 brands of gin and a creative cocktail menu.
Things to do in Glasgow
You’re not going to find bagpipers on every corner in Glasgow (head to Edinburgh for that), but there is a lively music scene. Some traditional Scottish music, but mostly indie rock, singer songwriters, and club DJs. Best of all, there’s a plethora of choices every night and much of it is free!
King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut
By 1993, Oasis had been banging around for a year or so, playing gigs but failing to break through. That is until they played a gig at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow.
How the events of that night exactly unfolded are not clear, but legend has it that Oasis, who had driven from Manchester, forced their way onto the stage at Tut’s and played a fiery set that caught the attention of Alan McGee. Band manager and owner of Creation Records McGee offered them a contract on the spot, which the band ended up signing a few months later. And the rest, as they say, is history. In the case of Oasis, a history of overindulgence and debauchery.
Over the years, King Tut’s has had bands like Coldplay, The White Stripes, Beck, Radiohead, and The Strokes grace their stage. But, the club has hardly rested on their laurels. Up and coming and established acts still play almost every night.
Other great club venues include Òran Mór, a beautiful space in a converted church and the Barrowland Ballroom, an iconic venue that has played host to The Clash, The Smiths, U2, and, more recently, Wilco. Stereo has a vegan cafe upstairs and stage downstairs.
Many Glasgow pubs offer free live music to draw patrons. One way to find a place is to wander Merchant City, pop into a place or two and find your favorite. Many of these places usually have good indie, singer-songwriter, and/or eclectic artists performing. And, as a bonus, most have excellent food to keep you filled while you’re being entertained.
One of the best spots to see live music is Ben Nevis. They’ve got a great whisky selection and offer traditional Scottish music three nights a week. Sunday night is especially popular.
The Howlin’ Wolf is named after the classic Chicago bluesman. They offer all styles of live blues 7 nights a week. And best of all, it’s always free admission.
Bloc+ is famous for the wide variety of musical artists who play there including their popular Sunday night open mic. Shows are free and Bloc+ has a nice menu including lots of veg. options.
An Irish pub in Glasgow? Sure, when it’s Jinty McGinty’s. Grab a Guinness and enjoy live music every night.
Glasgow isn’t called The Green Place for nothing. Outdoor parks are a big part of the city. There’s over 90 parks and gardens, but, many of them are outside the city center. Unless you’re a Glaswegian, you’ll never get to visit them all, but here are three of my favorites.
Glasgow Botanic Garden
There’s no getting around it. It rains a lot in Glasgow. In fact, Glasgow gets more rain than Seattle. Over half of the days in The Dear Green have rainfall. So, you might be inclined to look for indoor activities.
One of my all-time favorite spots in Glasgow is the Botanic Garden. While there are plenty of outdoor exhibits and green space for relaxing or having a picnic when the sun shines, the best part of the botanic garden are the tropical gardens in the greenhouses. A perfect spot to hang on a rainy day.
The biggest greenhouse is the Kibble Palace which features a huge glass dome. In addition to the plant exhibits, the Kibble Palace has several statutes.
My favorite was done in 1927 by George Henry Paulin. It is called King Robert of Sicily, and is based on the Longfellow poem of the same name in which a king loses his throne to an imposter and becomes a pauper with only a monkey for counsel. I like it because the monkey looks even more thoughtful than the former monarch.
A twenty minute walk from the botanic garden is Kevingrove Park. At 85 acres, there’s plenty of room for a nice stroll and in the summer there’s concerts at the bandstand.
In the park is the free Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. In addition to the extensive galleries, there is also a daily organ recital at 1pm.
A short walk from the city center, Glasgow Green was established in 1450. In 1756, James Watt was taking a walk along the green when he came up with an idea for a separate condenser in steam engines. His invention greatly improved the engine’s efficiency and is credited as one of the main instigators of the Industrial Revolution. There is a rock in the Glasgow Green commemorating his discovery. The park also hosts many sporting events and concerts.
Keeping it Coney
Duke of Wellington Statue
I love the Glaswegian sense of humor. Self-deprecating and fatalistic, these folks can laugh at themselves while not hesitating to take someone down a notch; especially the powerful.
I learned that quickly when I saw the statue of the Duke of Wellington (a famous soldier and Prime Minister from the empire days), proudly sitting astride his faithful steed, outside the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) with a traffic cone perched on his head.
Some smart alack decided to take the pish out of the Duke of Welly back in the 80’s and climbed the statue to place a traffic cone on his noggin. Now, keep in mind that the statue is at least 20 feet high and there is no easy way to get up there.
As soon as the local government removed the cone, another would appear. This game of cat and mouse continued for years until 2013 when the town council talked about raising the height of the statue. This was ultimately determined to be a bad idea because everyone knew Glaswegians would try to climb the statue anyway and someone was bound to be hurt. So, while the city doesn’t condone the punters climbing the Duke, it seems that for now they are willing to turn a blind eye to the coney practice.
In a way, the ole Duke of Wellington and his pointy hat have become a symbol of a city that doesn’t take itself, or former Prime Ministers, too seriously.
There is a facebook page called “Keep the Cone.” Originally started to oppose the City Council’s efforts to raise the height of the statue. Today, it’s a funny page talking about all things Scottish. Follow it for a good laugh and remember their motto “Keep it Coney.”
Glasgow can seem a bit gloomy at times. All the overcast weather and rain, not to mention the Gothic architecture helping to set the mood. But, a colorful mural can brighten things up. Glasgow has done a great job embracing the trend of street art. Since 2008, murals, many commissioned by the city, have been popping up all over.
There’s a free map with the locations of 25 murals you can download here.
Sometimes I think the language barrier is greater in Scotland than Italy or France. It seems that most people, especially those under 40, speak English in western Europe. But, the Scottish accent is so heavy that understanding them is quite difficult. Add to that the very particular slang of Glasgow and a Swally (alcoholic beverages), and it seems like a translator is necessary.
Some of the terms you may encounter in Glasgow are:
Glasgow Kiss – A head butt
Bolt ya Rocket – Go away, immediately. Rocket is another term for idiot.
Mad Wae It – Had way too many Swally.
Away and Bile Yer Heid – A command to leave and boil your head. Used when someone is talking B.S.
Dinghied – When someone leaves you, often without notice.
Gallus – A character with swagger. Can be positive or negative, depending on the person.
So remember, have a Swally but don’t get Mad Wai It or your friends might tell you to Away and Bile yer Heid before they Dinghied. Or worse, they may give you a Glasgow Kiss.
Scotland is filled with castles and one of the most historic and classic is Stirling Castle. Best of all, it’s within easy reach of Glasgow. A 35 minute train ride from Queen Street Station drops off in the town of Stirling. From there, it’s less than a 20 minute walk to the castle.
The first castle was built here about 1,000 years ago, but most of the current structures date to the 1500’s. Both William Wallace (Braveheart) and Robert the Bruce won battles here; there’s even a statue of Robert the Bruce at the castle.
But, why is part of the castle yellow? Roman Mars answers that question on his excellent podcast 99% Invisible.
Isle of Mull
Lots of folks want to visit the islands of the Inner Hebrides (Skye, Mull, Islay.) It is possible to see the Isle of Mull as a daytrip from Glasgow, but it would be a long day.
You can drive 2 1/2 hours from Glasgow to Oban and then take a 50 minute ferry ride to Craignure on Mull. Or, you can take the train from Glasgow to Oban and then take the ferry.
To my mind a better way would be to spend a couple days checking out the Inner Hebrides and maybe even a couple islands in the remote Outer Hebrides.
For a daytrip, I recommend taking a tour from Glasgow through the Highlands to Oban. You won’t visit any islands (see below for an island daytrip to Arran) but you will get to see Loch Lomond, the town of Oban (where you can see Mull from McCraig’s Tower), and the town of Inveraray. That’s a packed day for only 50 Euro.
Isle of Arran
The Isle of Arran is often called “Scotland in miniature” because of its rugged landscape “Highlands” in the north and “Lowlands” in the south. It’s easily accessible, making Arran popular with tourists.
The top sight is Brodick Castle, built in 1510, but was the site of fortress for at least 1,000 years before. Here, Robert the Bruce’s troops took the site in the 14th century.
After closing for a couple of years, the castle has been renovated and is open for visitors.
Trains to Ardrossan are frequent and it only takes 50 minutes to get there from Glasgow. From Ardrossan, the ferry to Arran takes less than an hour.
To see the island you’ll need to bring a car or book a tour. Or, rent a bike. Driving around the entire island by car will take at least four hours, more with stops. So, plan for a long day if visiting from Glasgow on a daytrip.
Edinburgh can be done as a daytrip from Glasgow. However, to truly appreciate Scotland’s capital, a few days are needed. But, if you’ve only got a day, the train leaves Queen Street and in less than an hour, you’re in Edinburgh.
For a packed day in Edinburgh, I suggest taking the free walking tour (not really free, be sure to tip your guide) at 10am. This gives you a nice overview of Edinburgh and her history.
Finally, take the Edinburgh Old & New Town food tour at 5pm (Mon-Thur only) before heading back to Glasgow.
Portobello is seaside suburb of Edinburgh. It has a fun little boardwalk, but not much else to recommend it. I just like strolling the boardwalk and petting dogs that are out for a walk with their humans. It was a chilly day (are there any other kind in Scotland?) when we were there so we got a hot drink from a couple of nice gentlemen from Turkey who had a pop up coffee stand near the beach.
I only mention Portobello because it gives me the chance to post a picture of this dog. He was digging a hole in the sand at Portobello and barking, trying to get someone’s attention. No one paid him his due, so he filled in the hole and trotted off.
I love that dog.
Transportation in Glasgow
International airport with direct flights to much of Europe, Toronto, and seasonal service to some U.S. cities.
The bus is the easiest way to get to and from the airport (the closest train stop is a mile away and requires and bus connection.) Taxis and Uber are readily available. Rideways also offers airport pickup/dropoff.
Train links to all of Scotland, England, and Wales.
Uber operates in most of Scotland, but Glasgow cab drivers are known for their friendly demeanor and gift of gab.
SPT is the local public transportation. They operate buses and a single-line subway. Getting a Smartcard (£3) might save you some money if you’re going to ride quite often, otherwise it’s £1.75 per ride.
Ovobikes has 41 bike stations around Glasgow. Rent a bike for £1/20 minutes.
Index of Things to Do in Glasgow
City Centre Tour and Street Art Tour on offer for £10
Food and drink tour of Glasgow.
3-4 hour walking tour of Glasgow cuisine.
Whisky walking tour visits six bars.
Two Glasgow whisky tours available.
The City Council of Glasgow has created a free walking app.
Download the interactive map to find the best street art and murals in Glasgow.
Glasgow’s oldest building and final resting place of the city’s patron St. Mungo has frequent free concerts. Beautiful example of Scottish Gothic.
Victorian cemetery is the final resting place for 50,000 souls. Walking tours are scheduled a couple of times per month. Located behind the Glasgow Cathedral.
Beautiful botanic gardens with expansive greenhouses.
Large park with free summer concerts.
Extensive art galleries covering Scottish and International Art. Free organ recital daily.
Large park, sporting facility, and concert venue a short walk from the center of Glasgow.
Excellent museum of modern art. Free admission to main gallery, special exhibits require paid admission. “Coney” Duke of Wellington out front.
Design fans must see the house of architect Charles Mackintosh and his artist wife, Margaret.
Houses a collection of Charles Mackintosh materials. Climb the stairs for a spectacular view of the city.
World’s oldest surviving music hall was once the home of a vaudeville theater and freak show.
Famous club has hosted everyone from Oasis to Radiohead to Coldplay back when they all were up-and-comers.
Spectacular live music space in a converted church.
Live music venue with an excellent menu (including a veg. menu)
Pub with live music 7 nights a week. Free admission.
Irish pub in Glasgow with live music six nights a week.
Iconic music venue has hosted a who’s who of music luminaries. Think The Waterboys, or Wilco.
Museum houses a collection of Chinese, Islamic, and stained glass art. 10 minute train ride from Central Station to Pollok Park.
Oddball museum filled with sculptures made of reclaimed junk moving in synch with light and music. Enter with an open mind.
One of the best and most picturesque whisky distilleries. 30 minutes from Glasgow.
Half day tour includes a stop at Glengoyne and Loch Lomond.
Not really free, be sure to tip your guide. Great way for an overview of the city.
Spectacular Medieval castle dominates the city’s skyline.
Great food tour of Edinburgh.
Gorgeous castle was the site of battles won by William Wallace (Braveheart) and Robert the Bruce.
Recently reopened castle on the Isle of Arran.
Index of Food & Drink in Glasgow
Cool concept (six courses, menu changes every six weeks) that delivers on the food.
Seasonal menu with many ingredients from their garden. One of Glasgow’s very best.
Michelin recognized restaurant. Several veg. options.
Fresh Vietnamese food with lots of veg.options.
Well-known upscale eatery. Good wine list and a “wee bar” with plenty of whisky, too.
Well done Malaysian cuisine.
Vegan restaurant and music venue.
Interesting dishes give Scottish cuisine a twist. Has a veg. menu, too.
One of the best Indian restaurants in the U.K.
Another excellent Indian restaurant. Several veg. options.
Vegan cafe and live music venue.
Cool bar and vegan cafe with live music. Owned by the same folks as Mono.
Top spot for Brekkie (Breakfast).
Cozy boho teahouse. Veg food, too.
Elevating donuts to new heights. Several locations.
Cafe serving several vegan options including a vegan Scotch Pie.
Historic Victorian bar famous for their Scotch Pie and beans.
Dive bar is a great spot to watch the game and get a Scotch Pie.
Friendly bar with Clapshot (Neeps and Tatties) on the menu.
Nice cafe where you can get a deep fried Mars Bar.
Pub with excellent Scotch selection and live music.
Industrial-chic bar with adventurous cocktails.
Check out their gin bar.
Largest whiskey selection in Glasgow.
Over 350 whiskies to choose from.
Five star hotel also has a classy star bar.
Brewery and bar in the city center.
Tired of grey skies and need some Aloha? This is the place.
Bar upstairs from the cafe is a bit of a secret hideaway.
Need a White Russian? The Dude abides.
Nice outdoor beer garden.
Underground bar with lots of vegan food.
Cocktail bar with a fun and friendly atmosphere.
Index of Shopping in Glasgow
Homemade Tablet from a secret recipe.
Candy shop since 1903 with great Tablet.
The place to get that bottle of scotch to take home. Multiple locations.
Charming little gift shop.
Crazy bookshop with tomes piled floor to ceiling. Chaos.
Index of Places to Stay in Glasgow
Hotel is actually in the train station. Doesn’t get any more convenient than that.
Beautiful row of Victorian townhouses converted into a boutique hotel.
Nice apartments near Argyle Street.
Modern hotel with a stylish bar.
Modern hotel in the city center.
Boutique hotel in the city center with wallet-friendly prices.
Cool hotel in a former Greek Orthodox Church.
Clean and inexpensive.
About the Author
Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.