GLASGOW -- Approaching this city from the airport, well before crossing the River Clyde into the gritty heart of City Centre, one is struck by the number of building cranes protruding above the gray, mostly low-slung skyline.
Incongruous though they are, making one of Europe's oldest cities look like Dallas in the 1980s, these skeletal forms are an apt symbol for 21st-century Glasgow.
Ever since it came of age during the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century, following the country's unification with England, Glasgow has been a city of booms and busts, as the tobacco trade in the 1700s gave way to textiles during the Industrial Revolution, which shipbuilding then supplanted for most of the 20th century. As early as the 1720s, Daniel Defoe hailed it as ''the cleanest, most beautiful and best-built city in Britain, London excepted," and as recently as the 1950s it was dismissed as ''Razor City," a playground for blade-wielding gangs.
Now, as many times before, this city of sobriquets -- ''Second City of the Empire," ''Workhorse of the World," ''Scotland with Style" -- is remaking itself. Much of the construction is for mixed-use developments and luxury flats, a seeming oxymoron in a city once notorious for its high-rise tenements, but builders are struggling to keep up with the housing demand, particularly in the newly-desirable Merchant City neighborhood east of City Centre.
''Glasgow's on the up and up. It's getting as bad as Dublin," said Caroline Wright, manager of Jinty McGinty's pub in the city's West End. ''There are a lot of high-tech jobs now, and many more single people, and since there isn't enough land in the center of the city, they have to build up."
The high-rise flats, some going for nearly $1 million, are in demand because of the burgeoning activity in neighborhoods once populated by the tobacco lords, Glasgow's first upper class. Home furnishing stores, boutiques, and bars are sprouting throughout the 20 square blocks of Merchant City, but most conspicuous is a dizzying array of restaurants, featuring fare from Mongolian barbecue to tapas, Thai to modern Scottish.
What's always striking about Glasgow is the juxtaposition of old and new, the historic and ancient side by side with the modern and fashionable. Just northeast of Merchant City is the forbidding Glasgow Cathedral, still encrusted with the coal soot that once gave the city its distinctive sheen and aroma. Set off by a cobbled courtyard, the cathedral dates from the 13th century; its subterranean Lower Church contains the tomb of St. Mungo, Glasgow's patron saint.
West of Merchant City, the City Centre (''toon" in the local parlance) retains a premodern sensibility -- at least in the area immediately surrounding Central Station, an open-air, iron-and-glass canopied rail depot in the style of Paris's Gare Saint Lazare.
It's also the kind of place where a foreign accent can earn an invitation to join a table of friends, who will boisterously engage a stranger in all manner of conversation, all the while refusing to allow him to reach into his pocket to reciprocate rounds of pints.
''In Edinburgh, people are more reserved, but Glaswegians are more open and chatty," said Joanna Williamson, 24, a graphic artist who has lived in both cities. ''In Glasgow, people will speak to you. I think it's just the way this city is more outward-looking than the others in Scotland."
Because of its history as a commercial crossroads and Glaswegians' well-earned appetite for what's bold and original, Glasgow has a reputation as the most fashion-forward city in Britain next to London. In the last decade, opulent indoor arcades like Princes Square and Buchanan Galleries have sprung up along the ''Golden Z," comprising Argyll, Buchanan, and Sauchiehall streets, but local favorites still abound. The House of Fraser remains the ne plus ultra of department stores; the finest woolens are available at Pringle of Scotland; and for designer and antique jewelry, discerning shoppers frequent the Argyll Arcade.
More and more of the commerce conducted on Sauchiehall Street, the northern border of the ''Z," is moving to Merchant City, yet the Z remains the gateway to Glasgow's vibrant West End and home to two of the city's cultural treasures: the McLellan Galleries and the Glasgow School of Art, native son Charles Rennie Mackintosh's architectural masterpiece.
A progenitor of the ''Glasgow Style," Mackintosh's architectural and artistic influence on the city is inescapable. He designed schools, churches, industrial buildings, tea rooms, and private homes. Following the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Trail is the best way to sample his work, as well as canvass the city, as it will take you from the Martyrs' Public School in the East End to the Hunterian Gallery on the grounds of the University of Glasgow, where the rooms in the house he designed for his wife, Margaret, have been reconstructed.
The West End, Glasgow's most fashionable address since the mid-1800s, is the flip side of Merchant City: expansive, leafy, and collegiate. Though best known for Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the University of Glasgow, and Kelvingrove Park, its greatest pleasures can be simple ones.
Ashton Lane, off Byres Road below the university, is merely 75 yards long but presents a full evening's pleasures. Narrow, cobblestoned, and at night illuminated by tiny, twinkling lights strung overhead, it has the feel of an Old World alley leavened by Glaswegian bonhomie. Restaurants and pubs dominate, and the socializing spills into the street when the weather cooperates.
''It's just much more fun in the West End," said Wright, the bar manager, who calls herself ''a born-again Glaswegian," having returned to her hometown 25 years ago. ''And you get a nice class of people here."
Farther up Byres Road, where it meets with Great Western Road at the Botanic Gardens, stands perhaps the most fitting symbol of Glasgow's melding of old and new. After a $10 million renovation, the formerly derelict Kelvinside Parish Church reopened in June 2004 as OranMor. From its fine-dining brasserie to its contemporary bar, made cozier by the church's original stained-glass windows, to a glorious multifunction room in the basement worthy of a Highlands castle, OranMor celebrates Scottishness in its many forms.
No commentary on Glasgow is complete without a word about its notoriously fickle weather. The climate that makes Glasgow such a comfortable city to visit can turn nasty with little notice. The familiar scudding clouds will give way to sunshine, followed by a brief shower or a freshening wind -- all within a few minutes.
''Glasgow has the best climate in the world -- and the worst weather," said writer Scott Reid, 30, repeating a local aphorism.
Yet that restless weather is a reminder of what's compelling about Glasgow, an ever-evolving city that regularly offers a satisfying feast of sights and experiences -- even in the rain.
Contact Gary Santaniello, a freelance writer in Connecticut, at email@example.com.