Cheeky Surprises in Bristol and a ‘Wee Look Around’ Glasgow

Posted July 17, 2018 8:01 a.m. EDT

Most travelers, whether they have been gone for a year or a week (or a week that feels like a year, on certain family vacations), have experienced a scientifically recognized phenomenon known as “museum fatigue.” It hit me, and hard, the moment I set foot in Britain to visit Bristol, England, and Glasgow, Scotland, after four months of speed-seeing the Americas, then Iceland, plus turning 40 in the middle of it. I wasn’t sick of traveling. On the contrary, every second I spend on this 52 Places journey has convinced me of the value of being out in the world, soaking up experiences. I just needed a breather that felt like a life lived beyond tourism. Meandering through these two charming cities provided just that.

— The Land of ‘Go With the Flow’

“Bristol gets it,” said Emma Gorton-Ellicott, a fashion blogger who works as a host at DeskLodge Bristol, a shared workspace that The Telegraph named one of “the 15 coolest offices in the world” in 2016. I’d found my way there through a tip from a friend when my otherwise lovely hotel, Brooks Guesthouse, turned out to have glacial Wi-Fi. For 3 pounds an hour, or about $4, with free coffee, I used DeskLodge’s lightning-fast connection on their indoor beach and inside their replica of Dr. Who’s police-box time machine, The Tardis. A Lego-themed meeting booth has an “Everything Is Awesome” button that activates music and a twirling disco ball. Gorton-Ellicott managed to pull off an outfit of a purple polka-dot crop top with red-and-white striped trousers, so I made sure to follow her to a streetwear fashion show of independent Bristol designers. Nonmodel types in handmade sequined bikinis plus a dog vamped on the runway. Proceeds went to a mental health charity for young people, OTR Bristol, which had also created one of the collections. The crowd ranged from their early 20s to late 60s. Anand Mavani, an Indian-African Londoner who recently moved here to run the music festival HogSozzle, put it this way: “This city takes all the great things in London that have started to erode and wraps it up in a sense of community.”

More than anything, being here reminded me of the time I’d spent in New York City in the early 2000s, hopping from a warehouse concert to a party in a stranger’s backyard.

One step outside my hotel and I was in a smorgasbord of ethnic food options at the terrific St. Nicholas Market. The falafel at Eat a Pitta, based on a recipe from the owner’s Algerian grandmother, was so good I nearly missed my train to Scotland waiting in a crowd of locals to get a second round.

A trip to do laundry brought me to Gloucester Road, purportedly the longest stretch of independent shops in Europe, where many merchants use and accept the city’s own currency, the Bristol pound, as a way of keeping money in Bristol. (It’s worth the same as a British pound, which you can also use, but it is designed by local artists in neon colors.)

Next door is Bishopston Fish Bar, which has been voted the top Bristol “chippy” in The National Fish & Chip Awards for the past five years. There, I met the owner, Nick Lomvardos, who had spent 24 years cooking with his Greek father. Now he’s working alongside his three employees, Seyed Mirabedini from Iran, Bernadetta Plesniak from Poland and Lucie Vranova from the Czech Republic, who told me that she thinks Bristol has “sex appeal.”

This is, after all, a city that has produced the pioneering trip-hop band Massive Attack; my favorite animated duo, Wallace & Gromit; and the ever-elusive artist Banksy, who seems a fitting native son for Bristol, where cheeky surprises keep popping up.

I took a “Blackbeard to Banksy Walking Tour” (8 pounds), expecting to learn about pirates and see some street art. I had no idea that our highly entertaining guide, Duncan McKellar, was a daring street artist too, responsible for tinfoil butterflies on pavement and a giant pineapple made of yellow plastic lifted from construction sites.

Afterward, I made sure to walk through the bohemian, street-art-filled neighborhood of Stokes Croft — direct your map to The Canteen — where students casually played Ping-Pong below Banksy’s “The Mild Mild West” mural. My favorite night, though, was my simplest. I was taking pictures outside BrewDog, a beer pub alongside the city’s Floating Harbor, and three guys invited me to join them. They were “away lads” from Somerset who spend their weekdays in Bristol working for a company that installs green rooftops on new buildings. (Bristol was named a European Green Capital a few years back.) Over many fun, boozy hours, we met a terrific magician from Spain, known as Magic Malka, and a waitress at Three Brothers Burgers, Antonia May Cross, who also runs sex-education talks. Along the way, she figured out that she knew my away lads: “Oh, so you’re the ones in the construction site waking me up every morning!”

— This Person Makes Glasgow

Plastered across buildings in Glasgow, you’ll see the city’s five-year-old slogan: People Make Glasgow. “What I like about it is that it doesn’t say if they make it better or worse; we simply make it,” said Jamie Lafferty, a 35-year-old Glaswegian freelance travel writer and a 52 Places Traveler finalist who offered to dive in and be my guide for four days.

“Let’s have a wee look around,” he said, after regaling me with tales of a wedding in Ireland from which he’d just returned, where he’d worn a kilt as he always does at weddings and spent 17 hours a day drinking. I learned a lot about him, and a lot to like about him, over noodle bowls at Ramen Dayo!: He grew up in public housing, travels extensively while managing Type 1 diabetes and takes his mom, a retired charge nurse at a nursing home, on trips whenever he can.

On our last full day together, Jamie took me to The Clydeside Distillery, the first to make whisky in central Glasgow in more than 100 years, and then to a place called the Crossbill Gin School, where you create your own spirits. The lovely owner, Jonathan Engles, served up delicious pineapple gin and talked about gathering Scottish juniper in Ikea bags, and the next thing I knew, my brain had turned to mush.

I recently called Jamie — who was in Norway after just completing a cruise through the Arctic to see polar bears, to help me remember our trip. Jamie, I can’t believe what a disaster I was at that gin school. I looked at my notes and they are illegible.

I do have to pass on Jonathan’s apology. He said, “I overserved the other night, didn’t I?” I love that guy. He’s one of those mad inventor types. But I’ve only met him once and not left drunk.

I did look up the gin school later and it sounds great. Three hours for two people for 120 quid and you get a bottle of gin you made to take home.

Jonathan makes award-winning gin. And that school, it’s brand-new and in a part of Glasgow that’s been in decline for a long time. It was the Barrowlands. It used to have a lively secondhand market that, but a lot like our profession, has been swallowed up by the internet. Now they are calling it BAAD, Barrows Art and Design. So it’s a bold project to replace the life that was before.

Speaking of antics, explain to these readers the phenomenon of that big bronze statue downtown that always has traffic cones on its head.

That is the Duke of Wellington, one of Britain’s greatest military heroes, and for some reason, the people of Glasgow — it’s basically seen as an act of defiance. There’s usually one cone on him and one on his horse. If you are walking by at night, especially if you’re a student, and you see him without his hat on, you basically shouldn’t go home until you’ve climbed up there and put it back on.

OK, let’s go through the trip. I loved your wee subway.

World’s third-oldest underground! One single loop. You’re either going on the inner or the outer line. The thing that got you was how small it is. And it curves in at the edges, so basically, I think if you’re over 6 foot 2, you either have to take a seat or bend yourself into the shape of the train. We certainly did not attempt a “sub crawl,” which is where you have to get off at all 15 stops and have a drink at the nearest bar to every stop.

The whole city is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s birth — the famous Glaswegian Art Nouveau architect and designer. We went up a tower he designed and got to see the renovation of his Willow Tea Rooms, which just reopened. Why are you so interested in him?

As soon as you move to Glasgow, you start hearing this name. If you lived your life and were an architect and could produce one building as beautiful as the art school, you would’ve been a success. If you could live your life as a typographer and could produce one font as iconic as the Mackintosh font, you would be a success. If you could live your life as a furniture designer and produce something as eye-catching as one of his chairs, you would’ve been a success. It’s very clear to me that he’s a proper genius. Two days after I left, you texted that the art school he designed, which burned down four years ago, burned down again!

Oh, it’s a tragedy. Glasgow is a very emotional city and people were heartbroken the first time. It’s his masterpiece; he never did another architectural project as big as that. But I did read it’s going to be rebuilt.

My favorite thing we did was that hike with a glorious view of, as you said, “the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.”

Conic Hill is the place we went up. We walked a very small, small section of the West Highland Way. And we caught that rarest of things, which is a sunny day in Scotland. We also got some amazing Scottish strawberries, which are the best strawberries in the world. Definitely write that down.

You seemed a little disappointed we didn’t make it to Edinburgh, but I wasn’t. Why did you want to show it off?

Edinburgh is set up to, like, show off to tourists. Glasgow is more a lived experience. In Edinburgh, I could take you to the castle, take you to the Royal Mile, take you to the gardens and blow you away immediately. I’m quite down on Edinburgh sometimes, but if somebody only had two days in Scotland, I’d tell them to just go to Edinburgh. If somebody is sending their kid to university or somebody’s thinking, “I want to go to Scotland and live for six months,” I’d 100 percent pick Glasgow. There are all these formerly gritty but dead-interesting and creative pockets where you can have a great time — but you maybe need somebody to hold your hand.

— Practical Tips

— I got around Bristol by Uber, walking or using YoBike, shared yellow bicycles (1 pound per ride) that don’t have docking stations; you just find your ride in a jumble of other people’s parked bikes. I loved the mobility and my wrong turns, which took me to the colorful houses in the Totterdown neighborhood and the Victorian gardens of Arnos Vale Cemetery.

— Warning: Bristol’s hills are no joke. Walk or take a cab to Cabot Tower and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, designed by Ismael Kingdom Brunel, for terrific views.

— In Glasgow, I thought I’d try out an Airbnb and wound up with a beautiful apartment — that was in a rather disturbing building. Dirty hallways, doors with broken glass. I arrived in the city close to midnight and picked up my key from a lockbox while a junkie swayed next to me. Might I suggest doing a thorough vetting before booking?

— Like Bristol, Glasgow is a lovely walking city, with supplemental Uber rides. We rented a car to get to the Highlands. Jamie drove exclusively; I wouldn’t get behind the wheel unless you’re comfortable with driving on the left side of the road.

— Among other fun times Jamie and I had in Glasgow: A pub quiz at The Sparkle Horse; whisky at the Potstill (where the main bartender has a foot-long beard and wears a leather kilt); wandering around Glasgow University, which looks just like Hogwarts; and visiting the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, which had an exhibition in which dozens of bald heads with varying expressions hung from the ceiling. The museum is built for the city, with free admission. We also listened to many clips from the beloved Glaswegian comedian Billy Connolly and the singer-songwriter Gerry Cinnamon. He does a tune called “Diamonds in the Mud” with a line that makes Jamie cry: “I’ve been all ‘round the world but there’s nowhere compares to my hometown / The mayhem of Glasgow is buried deep in my blood.”