When you think of Scotland, what do you picture? Perhaps you imagine rolling hills covered with purple heather, deep lochs hiding a prehistoric monster, highland cows grazing casually as a large man in a kilt walks past playing the bagpipes, plenty of rain. When thinking of a Scottish city, however, many probably picture Edinburgh and its mighty castle, the cobbled streets of the Royal Mile, or the imposing Arthur’s Seat looming above. Many may not think of Glasgow, Scotland’s so-called second city, but that would be a mistake.
Glasgow is a unique town—its evocative nickname is the Dear Green Place—and it has much to recommend it. Several universities, a shipbuilding legacy stretching back hundreds of years, not to mention some glorious architecture and stunning street art. Billy Connolly, Scotland’s funniest man and effective poet laureate, was born here, as were globally influential popsters Belle And Sebastian, which is reason enough to visit. You can spend days wandering its alleyways and gardens, or touring the numerous museums and galleries, and evenings checking out the city’s vibrant live music scene. And that’s before you consider the hospitality and friendliness of the local population. All in all, it’s a city that deserves to be explored.
This extends to its coffee scene: from sleek downtown espresso bars and minimalist design havens to cozy neighborhood roaster-retailers, and popular local wholesale roaster Dear Green Coffee, Glasgow has something for everyone. Here are five of its best coffee spots.
One of the newer cafes to grace Glasgow’s bustling West End, Kaf is a sliver of a place sitting comfortably at the end of Hyndland Street, opposite Mansfield Park. Even though it’s only been open a short time, Kaf has immediately jumped to the top of most people’s must-visit coffee spots in Glasgow, as much for its impeccably understated atmosphere and Scandinavian-inspired food as its coffee.
A tiny cafe, taller than it is wide, Kaf can accommodate about 10 people at any one time. The white walls and house plants give it a fresh feel while the large window at the front of the shop lets light stream in, making the whole place feel big and airy despite its small size. A La Marzocco Linea Classic and Mahlkönig EK43 grinder dominate the counter, producing coffee from a rotating lineup of the best roasters around, from Bath’s Colonna Coffee to Foundry Coffee Roasters of Sheffield.
Kaf is a calm, refined, and exquisitely focused cafe, staffed by knowledgeable and friendly baristas. The coffee is meticulously crafted, the attention to detail apparent in each swivel of latte art. This, combined with its peaceful mood, makes Kaf an ideal place to ease into the day, enjoy a coffee, and ponder your next move.
Staying in the West End, Papercup Coffee Company is about a mile and half north then east from Kaf. Located on the busy Great Western Road, Papercup is a definite local favorite. Always bustling, always welcoming, it’s a narrow, galley cafe with a line of tables on the right, a long counter on the left, and a tiny kitchen at the back. The decor is pared-back and uncomplicated, with one major exception: on the right-hand wall overlooking the counter is a mural by the famed Australian street artist Steen Jones (the only one in the UK). A coffee at Papercup is a visceral experience; the slender nature of the space and low tables brings you face-to-face with your drink as it is being prepared.
Papercup roasts its own coffee, just around the corner on Belmont Lane, and offers drinks made via Hario v60, AeroPress, and the ever-present La Marzocco Linea Classic. The baristas work at a tireless pace to ensure the near-constant demand is met, while the tiny kitchen at the back provides an extensive brunch-focused food menu, featuring local, ethical, and sustainable produce wherever possible.
Papercup is a clear choice among the locals and students who populate the West End, meaning it is never quiet, but even if you have to wait for a seat, the end result is more than worth it.
Heading now into Glasgow’s busy downtown, Laboratorio Espresso is situated at the foot of a sleek office building on West Nile Street, just around the corner from Queen Street train station. A stylish, award-winning cafe design matched with a commitment to showcasing outstanding roasters from all over Europe, Laboratorio exudes sophistication in its aim to bring Milanese espresso culture to the people of Scotland.
It’s a compact space, decked out in concrete and wood paneling, but its huge windows and high ceilings make it feel bigger than it is. There are a couple of tables inside as well as a fairly sizable outside seating setup (for those long, hot Scottish summer days). Of course, the best seats in the house are the stools in front of the windows, perfect for people-watching while you sip your third espresso of the day and pretend that you’re in Milan.
Their La Marzocco Linea Classic pumps out espresso from a rotating lineup of Europe’s best roasters, including the Barn and Five Elephant from Berlin and London’s Union Hand-Roasted Coffee. Laboratorio takes great care in choosing its collaborators, ensuring that customers get to sample only the best in-season coffees.
Another central Glasgow favorite, Spitfire Espresso is about half a mile east of Laboratorio, near the campus of Strathclyde University. An open-plan cube on the corner of Ingram Street and Candleriggs, its big windows let in lots of natural light to highlight the red, white, and blue interior. There is a distinctive World War II theme, with model airplanes everywhere, ’50s rock ’n’ roll on the stereo, and the aforementioned color scheme (the colors of the Royal Air Force) extending to the cups, espresso machine—a bright red La Marzocco FB70—and counter.
Spitfire serves Thomson’s Coffee, one of Glasgow’s oldest coffee roasters, using a custom blend fittingly named Gunnerbean. The cafe also offers soups, sandwiches, and house-made cakes, for those looking for something hearty to accompany their coffee, as well as an extensive craft beer menu for a post-work indulgence. Outdoor seating runs the length of the cafe on both streets, and on a nice day is usually filled with customers and their dogs (Spitfire is extremely “dug-friendly,” as locals might say).
The spot is also people-friendly, of course, and the staff is hugely welcoming and engaging, making Spitfire an obvious gathering point for the many students and professionals who live, work, and study in the surrounding neighborhoods.
It All Started Here
It All Started Here is another of the new kids on the Glasgow coffee block, opening in May 2017 in Shawlands on the south side of the city. A permanent home for the successful pop-up stall that has been making appearances at events and markets around town for the past few years, It All Started Here keeps to that pop-up ethos by only being open Friday through Sunday. This is due to owner William Heenan also working a full-time job during the week, but he has plans to hire some staff and slowly expand opening hours, which has just begun with the aforementioned Friday opening.
The menu, for both coffee and food, is simple and carefully considered. It All Started Here’s coffee lineup showcases two coffees—one on espresso, one on batch—supplied by a different roaster each week from all around the UK (and occasionally farther afield). Using a Nuova Simonelli Aurelia two-group, Heenan crafts elegant, delectable drinks; I’m still haunted by the flat white made with Ethiopia Wegida Blue from Strangers Coffee in Norwich, England.
Its location means that those visiting Glasgow to sample the coffee will need to travel slightly farther away, but Heenan’s hospitality and excellent barista skills make It All Started Here a worthwhile coffee destination, as well as a chance to visit a sometimes-overlooked area of the city.
Fionn Pooler is a journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the publisher of The Pourover. Read more Fionn Pooler on Sprudge.