Having just returned from my assignment, I can assure you that the rumors are true: Glasgow is the United Kingdom's Hippest and Most Happening City—as of this writing. By the time you actually read this, it might not be anymore. So quickly does the title get passed around the Merry Olde Kingdom that just in the time it took to write this story—and for an editor to correct my spelling and grammar and rush it into the magazine—some other place could have been declared the HMHC. There's an almost endless supply of post-industrial cities in the United Kingdom with photogenically decayed urban cores, and each gets its turn. To see Glasgow while it's still the hippest, put down this magazine and call your travel agent now.
That's the problem with what's hip, the thing that's so aggravating about it. Hip doesn't sit still—which is what makes so many people (myself included) give up on it. Just when you finally get your hair right, or your living room right, or your trendy travel plans right, you pick up a magazine and learn that bangs are out, Barbra Streisand is selling off her Arts and Crafts furniture, and Kirkwall, not Glasgow, is the United Kingdom's Hippest and Most Happening City.
TRENDY BARS IN THE STATES MAKE ME UNCOMFORTABLE, as if I'm having a bad-hair life (and I am), or the bartender can tell I'm wearing underwear my mother sent five birthdays ago (and I am). My fashion-senselessness once got me and four more-stylish friends tossed out of Idlewild, a bar in New York City that was, at the time, so hip it hurt. I'm still traumatized by the experience. Now I avoid bars with guest lists and bouncers and velvet ropes, opting to drink in dives and average-Joe places where I can get a cocktail the old-fashioned way: by paying for it, not dressing for it. So I'm more than a little nervous about hitting Glasgow's ultracool watering holes, even in my H&M hipster disguise.
We start at Strata, a weather-themed restaurant and bar on Queen Street. It's early, but the place is packed with students—and even a few tourists soaking it all up. Huge weather charts on the walls not only give Strata its theme but also capture the swirling energy of the room with striking visual imagery. Thankfully, there are no velvet ropes, so we're quickly seated and served. Our next stop is only a few doors down. Yang, with its Blade Runner-esque theme, attracts a crowd that's mostly wearing cargo pants and puffy down vests. The music is so deafening we can't talk. I stand and sip my beer while my kidneys vibrate to the beat.
From Yang, we head to Glasgow's Merchant City neighborhood, dropping by what has to be the most stunning restaurant and bar in Europe. When you've had your fill of minimalism—and you'd be surprised how quickly you can fill up on minimalism—the Corinthian is a tonic. Built on Ingram Street as a bank in 1842, it represents opulent maximalism. The interior is all soaring ceilings and richly detailed plasterwork, with stuffed chairs and huge private booths larger than my hotel room.
The industrial history of Glasgow—once largely shipbuilding, coal, and manufacturing, back when it was known as the Second City of the Empire—has left behind a collection of almost absurdly ornate red and white sandstone banks, warehouses, and markets. Many of these house bars and clubs today, transforming Merchant City into a virtual entertainment district. Unlike Edinburgh, downtown Glasgow is not a photo op for tourists, but a shopping zone and, at night, a playground for its own citizens. Tourists are welcome, but on Glasgow's terms. That means no baseball caps.
LEAVING MERCHANT CITY, WE HEAD TOWARD THE CITY CENTER and Spy Bar. With its reddish-wood floors and red and silver everything else, this is Glasgow's most happening spot (at least, it was when I was there). To make it into Spy Bar, we even have to get past bouncers. But you're not supposed to call them bouncers. "We're stewards," Nicole, Spy Bar's 20-year-old boun—. . . er, steward . . . says to me on the sidewalk. "Bouncer conjures up the wrong image: meaty guys with shaved heads in a bad mood. We're not like that."
Indeed, Nicole is nothing like any bouncer I've ever seen. Slim and pretty, with a professional rather than a menacing air, she explains that it's her job to keep things fun, not to keep people out. Unfortunately, to keep things fun in Spy Bar this night, she does have to keep someone out. As we talk, an obviously drunk hipster approaches the entrance. Nicole smilingly turns him away, suggesting that he try the chip shop down the street.
"Go have something to eat," she suggests, "and when you're a little firmer on your feet, maybe you can stop in." The guy isn't angry; instead, he takes Nicole's advice and weaves off down the block. She turns to me and winks.
"He won't find his way back."
AFTER A FEW COCKTAILS AT SPY BAR, it's late enough to start hitting the clubs. We've been out for hours, and at this point my notes get just a little blurry. I know we went to Archaos, a hugely popular dance club with a slightly sinister circus motif, spread over three floors on Queen Street; then we dropped into the Arctic-themed Alaska, where we kicked back vodkas in an ice-white lounge. Toward the end of the night we stopped by the Sub Club, one of Glasgow's oldest, loudest, darkest, and most crowded dance spots. It's also the place where I reached my limit. Bleary-eyed, smelling of smoke, and still pulsating from the bass, we trudged out of the Sub Club at three in the morning and headed to a late-night café for chips with curry sauce.
EVEN AT THE PEAK OF ITS HIPNESS, Glasgow is so thoroughly overshadowed by nearby Edinburgh that most tourists can't be bothered with the 45-minute train ride between the two cities. This means you basically have Glasgow all to yourself. Edinburgh may be prettier, but like a homely stranger at the end of the bar, Glasgow gets better-looking with each drink—which may explain why there's a bar on practically every corner.