How the Scottish City of Glasgow Morphed from Post Industrial Gloom to Top Global Visitor Destination


The Scottish city of Glasgow has undergone a successful metamorphosis from unappealing post industrial gloom to a popular global tourist destination.  How was this achieved?  What lessons can be learned for other cities keen to make themselves more attractive to potential visitors with so much competition from other possible destinations.


Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland, located on the River Clyde, in western central Scotland.  It was home to the famous Clydeside ship building industry which fell into terminal decline in the second half of the 20th century turning swathes of the city into industrial wasteland and leading to high unemployment among the blue collar workforce. By the late 1970s the city’s reputation was one of grime, crime and deprivation. However plans were afoot to change this.

Landmarks in the lead up to 1990s

Glasgow’s regeneration started in the early 1980s. The specially commissioned Burrell Collection building in Pollok Park opened in 1983.

Burrell Collection

That year also saw the launch of Glasgow’s Smiles Better campaign to counteract the negative image of the city.

In 1985 the Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre (SECC) opened on the site of the Queen’s Dock at Finnieston Quay on the northern bank of the Clyde.  In 1998 the Glasgow Garden Festival was held on the site of the former Princes Dock in Govan on the southern bank of the River Clyde.

1990 The Year of being European City of Culture

The 1990 European City of Culture encompassed 3,400 events throughout Glasgow, from large international to small local events over the the whole year. There were 60 world premieres, performers from 23 countries and over 150 sporting events. Glasgow City Council judged Glasgow’s year of being the European City of Culture to have been very successful partly because the definition of culture was wide ranging not merely focussing on music, theatre and visual arts but also sport, design and education.

Dr Beatrix Garcia asserts that Glasgow’s stint as European City of Culture in 1990 was the first successful, high profile use of arts as a catalyst for urban regeneration. This was partly due to the fact that there was grassroots involvement from local communities in the 1990 event and the observation that the arts can make a difference even in socially and economically disadvantaged districts. There is feeling that cultural legacies have a longer term, deeper effect on a city’s psyche as they can attain a deeper level of involvement and meaning in the resident’s lives than economic or physical projects.

Post 1990 Landmarks

However Glasgow’s cultural regeneration didn’t run out of steam after 1990, continuing with the 1996 opening of the Gallery of Modern Art and in 1997 the Glasgow Auditorium, as an extension to the SECC.  In 1999 the city was crowned the UK’s City of Design and Architecture. The Glasgow Science Centre opened in 2001 close to the site of the 1988 Garden Festival. In 2008 Glasgow was named as an UNESCO City of Music. The 2014 Commonwealth Games will be held in Glasgow.

Crowne Plaza Glasgow from south bank of River Clyde

Clyde Auditorium (on right) and Crown Plaza Glasgow (on left)

Other Factors

However Glasgow’s cultural identity doesn’t hinge only on showcase events and the opening of new cultural venues, there are many other factors too.  Moving towards a new cultural identity also means embracing what is good from the past.

Architecture is an important aspect of Glasgow’s heritage. There is a plethora of grand Victorian buildings such as the City Chambers and the University of Glasgow.  The Willow Tea Rooms, Scotland Street School and School of Art are three examples of early 20th century work by Charles Rennie Macintosh.

Scotland Street School

Glaswegian writers such as James Kelman winner of the 1994 Booker Prize, Alasdair Gray author of “Lanark”, poet and playwright Liz Lochead and Ian Pattison, creator of Rab C Nesbitt the sting vested philosopher, all make their mark on the city’s cultural identity. The famous Glasgow sense of humour, exemplified by Billy Connolly, contributes to the local resident’s reputation for friendliness.

Glasgow is the second biggest shopping city of the UK after London. From the traditional weekend open air Barras Market in the city’s East End, the 1827 Parisian style Argyll Arcade (the first covered shopping mall in Scotland) and one of the oldest in Europe, to the trendy Princes Square and Buchanan Galleries, you really can shop till you drop in Glasgow.

Music has always been a strong part of Glasgow’s cultural identity, famed for its diverse range of tastes said to be helped by its status as a thriving port, absorbing influences from Europe and the US as well as its industrial background and lively arts scene.  This has given rise to many interesting bands and artists over the years, from the Jesus and Mary Chain’s riotous 1980s performances to worldwide commercial successes such as Texas and Travis. Also its proliferation of universities and colleges, including the aforementioned School of Art and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, have helped fuel the scene with fresh new talent. Our son Simon Bryan is part of the Glasgow music scene as a DJ.

Simon Bryan Glasgow DJ
Our son Simon’s gig at the Lite Club by subcityphotos

The opening of the SECC, the Clyde Auditorium and the Royal Concert Hall provided large spaces in which to house performances ranging from pop to classical music. At the opposite of the spectrum the city boasts many small pubs which provide a breeding ground for many local acts such as King Tuts, The 13th Note, Nice & Sleazy, and the Captain’s Rest. Those preferring more traditional tunes can find plenty of live jazz and folk bands in pubs all over the city, often with no admission charge. Meanwhile the Barrowlands Ballroom, famous in the mid 1900s as one of the city’s most popular Dance Halls, is now a 2000 capacity venue and along with the Academy and the ABC is a frequent stop of many international bands’ touring schedules.  Glasgow’s music scene goes from strength to strength and it is recognised as by far the best city in Scotland for music.

Evaluation of Glasgow’s cultural transition

Glasgow certainly now enjoys a reputation as a hip city to visit, probably best known for it’s shopping and nightlife. It’s a popular short break destination for UK residents and is the fifth most popular UK tourist destination for overseas visitors. Glasgow was riding high in travel guide headlines in 2006. Conde Nast proclaimed Glasgow to be the UK’s top city destination after analysis of a readers poll where Glasgow’s strengths were listed as its people, hospitality and vibrant nightlife. Glasgow was listed as the only “Top 10 Must See” destination in Europe in the Frommers Guide and the Lonely Planet Guide labelled Glasgow as “one of Britain’s largest, liveliest and most interesting cities”. Fodor’s commented on the city’s friendly atmosphere and amazing shops and National Geographic was impressed by “innovative design, eclectic boutiques—and unpretentious attitude”.

River Clyde Walkway

So it looks like it’s mission accomplished in the transition of Glasgow from the dark days of post industrial gloom to top global tourist destination in a couple of decades – no mean feat, propelled by the catalyst of being European City of Culture in 1990.

So if you’ve never visited Glasgow or haven’t been there for a while, you should try to visit soon.  There are lots of things to do in Glasgow, including many free options such as the  Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.