I belong to Glasgow...

Sam Williams discovers that Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, has much to offer tourists but has long been overlooked by travellers.

Think of a Scottish city offering a wealth of history, an enviable architectural and cultural heritage and a taste of luxury, and Glasgow may not be the answer that first springs to mind.

With its reputation tarnished by post-industrial decline and gang-ridden estates, Scotland's largest city has long been overlooked by travellers in favour of its glamorous smaller sister Edinburgh, the country's capital.

But with its impressive centre, upmarket shopping and thriving cultural scene Glasgow has a huge amount to offer as a tourist destination.

The journey by train from Norwich, via Peterborough, takes less than seven hours on the East Coast mainline, offering sights including Newcastle's bridges, Durham Cathedral and views of the coast near Berwick-upon-Tweed.


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Given that our trip starts at the tail-end of some of the worst snow and ice to hit the country in living memory, we are fortunate only to be slightly disrupted, changing to a two-coacher Scotrail service between Edinburgh and Glasgow, arriving into an icy Queen Street station after 10pm on a Wednesday.

Accommodation options in the city are plentiful, ranging from simple hostels to five-star luxury – and we are lucky enough to enjoy the latter.

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Described in our guide book as the destination of choice for celebrities, the Hotel du Vin at One Devonshire Gardens comprises five Victorian terraced houses knocked through into one, about a mile-and-a-half from the city centre in the leafy, fashionable west.

On arrival after 11pm, following an hour-long wait in sub-zero conditions for a taxi, we are shown to the comfortable, elegant lounge for the formalities before being shown to our room and treated on the way up the stairs to a view of the buildings' star attraction – startling stained glass windows, bearing different designs in each house, commissioned by their once owner, shipping merchant and philanthropist Sir William Burrell.

Our room, a spacious en suite with windows looking out towards the city, boasts ornate original features married with a sumptuous, modern d�cor, and all mod-cons.

There has also clearly been a great deal of attention to detail, with classical music playing softly on the radio as we arrive and a bowl of the hauntingly delicious chocolates, dusted in cocoa with a hint of anise, and we slide into a much-appreciated long bath.

After an excellent breakfast, we venture out in the snow to the Botanic Gardens, about 10 minutes' walk away, and worth a look for its series of glasshouses, some dating back to the 1880s, and thousands of tropical and temperate plants – a world away from the conditions outside – in about 50 acres of parkland.

The gardens are also close to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, reputed to be the city's finest art collection.

Returning to the hotel for lunch, we enjoy a real taste of fine-dining, kicked off with an amuse bouche, followed by three excellent courses and wine recommended by the friendly French sommelier.

After coffee, it is time to venture into the city.

With a population of about 1.2 million, Greater Glasgow is the UK's fifth largest city, but the centre is surprisingly compact and, based on a simple grid layout, easy to navigate on foot.

Overlooked by the majestic 19th century fa�ade of the City Chambers, from where Glasgow City Council operates, George Square seems the closest thing to the heart of the city, and when we arrive an ice rink is busy with skaters circuiting the Walter Scott Memorial Column.

Glasgow's Merchant City lies a few minutes' walk to the south-east of George Square, and is a delight to explore.

Made up of the magnificent warehouses and homes built by the tobacco magnates whose wealth helped the city prosper in the 18th and 19th centuries, today it is home to upmarket shops, galleries and theatres, evidence of the city's re-emergence from post-industrial decline.

And shopping is something the city excels in, with retail spend second in the UK only to London.

As well as all the top-end and high street names, Merchant City and the broad, pedestrianised Buchanan Street and Sauchiehall Street boast an array of jewellers and independents.

The Gallery of Modern Art, in the handsome Royal Exchange Square, is housed in a former townhouse of one of Glasgow's wealthiest tobacco traders, William Cunninghame of Lainshaw. It is a beautiful, neoclassical building fronted by a series of columns, although the collection inside seemed unimpressive compared to the architecture of the building.

Other highlights include the cathedral, the building of which began in the 12th century, and the adjacent shrine to St Mungo, the city's patron saint, impressively proportioned but slightly cut off from the city centre by the A8.

The River Clyde forms the southern boundary of the city centre, and while cold and bleak when we walk its northern bank, offers some welcome open space and help getting your bearings.

Also in the city centre, the Willow Tea Rooms and Glasgow School of Art building are both worth seeing, and examples of the architecture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose works have left an indelible mark on the city.

Our second night is at the Malmaison hotel in West George Street, an excellent city-centre option. It's a converted church with well-presented, immaculate rooms, flat-screen TVs and internet access, and excellent value dining.

As well as the city itself, Glasgow is also within easy reach of some of Scotland's natural beauty. On our second day, we take a train to Balloch, a small settlement on the southern-most tip of Loch Lomond, with stores and restaurants at the Loch Lomond Shores development, and a bus towards Balmaha, a tiny settlement on the loch's quieter eastern shores.

Alighting a couple of miles before Balmaha, we take a path through a plantation of pines before emerging near the foot of Conic Hill, which the path ascends and circuits.

Despite a few wrong turnings and a treacherous climb in the melting snow and ice – with the footpath resembling a stream as we ascend the steep climb – we finally emerge far above the loch on the far side of the hill, with spectacular views of the loch, scattering of islands and mountains beyond.

Longer walks are also possible, with the path linking up with the West Highland Way.

Descending a very steep drop to Balmaha, we enjoy a well-earned hot chocolate before beginning our return journey.

Even on a short trip, Glasgow's wealth of cultural and architectural highlights, upmarket shopping and easy access to areas of real natural beauty make it a great choice for a city break.

While comparisons as a tourist destination with Edinburgh will always see Glasgow take second place in some areas, its vibrancy and shopping arguably exceed its neighbour's.

But such comparisons are unhelpful and at best unnecessary – Edinburgh is, after all, just an hour away.

FACTFILE

Sam Williams travelled with East Coast between Peterborough and Glasgow, standard advance returns from �40.90. For times and fares Telephone 08457 225225 or visit the website at www.eastcoast.co.uk

Hotel du Vin at One Devonshire Gardens, Glasgow G12 0UX. Telephone 0141 3392001 or visit www.onedevonshiregardens.com

Malmaison Glasgow, 278 West George Street G2 4LL. Telephone 0845 365 4247 or visit www.malmaison.com

Scotrail (www.scotrail.co.uk, 0845 601 5929) runs services between Glasgow Queen Street and Balloch Central, with buses from Balloch to Balmaha operated by McColls (01389 754 321, www.mccolls.org.uk).

For more information on Glasgow log on to www.visitscotland.com/whiteinvite

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