Look up. That’s the one rule to stick to in Scotland’s fourth largest city. Why? Because lofty cupolas and bell towers adorn the Victorian buildings, often lit dramatically in the evening.
As locals will tell you, Dundee, perched on the east coast between extinct volcano the Law and the silvery Firth of Tay, has always punched above its weight. A 19th century history of jute mills, shipbuilding and railways has morphed into its spirited latterday role as the home of video games, comics and the wider arts. And since 2014 it’s been the UK’s only Unesco City of Design.
While small, it takes a moment to find your bearings. So start at City Square with its vast piazza, and colonnaded Caird Hall, where a statue of Desperate Dan reminds you of the city’s contribution to publishing and journalism (thanks to DC Thomson, who own key regional papers as well as kids’ faves The Dandy and Beano).
The other ‘j’ in the city’s oft-quoted three famed industries is for jam: in the 19th century marmalade was commercially manufactured here for the first time.
The Shiny New V&A
Now head straight to the waterfront, where a 30-year £1billion redevelopment has been in progress since 2001. The flagship V&A is the first and only one outside London: take a moment to gawp at architect Kengo Kuma’s cliff-face design. Perched right on the water, it’s photogenic from every angle (do walk all the way round); within its echoing internal chambers is a permanent collection dedicated to luminary Scottish designers from Charles Rennie Macintosh to Alexander McQueen.
It’s attracted half a million visitors since opening last year, a fact to consider over a local gin at its Tatha bar, with views over the neighbouring 1901-built RRS Discovery, the restored ship commandeered by Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton to sail to the Antarctic. On our visit the elements were suitably challenging, as the rain and winds lashed while we were on deck, making the fascinating tales of polar expedition that bit more real.
Get Your Beans
A hop from the V&A is the chipboard-chic confines of Sorbus at Dock Street Studios, where a smooth espresso is served by friendly bearded owner Scott. Or try nearby Simpsons on Exchange Street, run by three generations of the same fam. Up on Nethergate is ex-footballer Phil Donaldson’s Bubu (also the man behind Draffen’s, see below). One more central tip? New Zealander-owned cafe The Bach (31 Meadowside), right by the McManus Gallery, with its soft brews, cake stands and capacious, high-ceilinged space and cosy nooks aplenty.
More Arty Attractions
Three must-sees? Why, the DCA, Verdant Works and McManus Gallery. This year Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) is celebrating 20 years, its design-led building and white-space galleries free to enter and calming to roam. Current show is painter, sculptor and film-maker David Austen’s Underworld (until 9th June), all dark, limbo-like, existentialism. Afterwards, escape to basement Jute Café for an unpretentious brasserie-style meal (it was packed on our Friday evening visit).
Ten minutes’ walk is magnificent Gilbert Scott-designed masterpiece the McManus Gallery, in whose restored Gothic spaces – all turrets, steeples and pitched roofs – you can learn the stories behind Dennis The Menace, Timex, Grand Theft Auto and Dundee’s Unesco status, as well as admire the extensive art collection (don’t miss the brilliant tale behind Two Auld Wifies by Ron Sternberg).
Finally, get up to speed on the city’s textile history with a stroll to expansive jute mill Verdant Works, a cathedral-like former factory.
A Pub Crawl…
From a weekend spent successfully boozing our way through the city, we rate craft beer house Dynamo, a newish opening from Aberdeen-based Six Degrees North Brewery, and 71 Brewing, slightly off-the-beaten-track up in the Blackness Industrial Quarter, for a citrusy IPA. And fans of glossier brewery bars may like St Andrew’s showroom-esque space down on Shore Terrace.
Meanwhile, on lively Perth Road is the unmissable multi-roomed Speedwell, with its panelled Edwardian interior, and over the road, the George Orwell pub with its gentlemen’s club vibes. Nearby is The Braes – fun and busy, with river views and a big vegan menu – right opposite the university.
For cocktails, our top tip is Draffens, a dimly lit speakeasy accessed via an unmarked door down Couttie Wynd beneath the eponymous former department store; a street or two away is the more contemporary King of Islington (from the same owners). We also rated the Wine Press, housed in an imposing waterfront building, for a perfect negroni, and riotous half-hidden hideaway Abandon Ship, with its mural outside, steampunk interior and slogans like ‘Not Everything Sucks’.
For LGBT visitors, the Salty Dog is a quirky bar full of nick-nacks, from rainbow flags to skull and crossbones, amidst a seemingly permanent fog of dry ice barrels beams and loud, banging jukebox. And for late-night choons you could end up at Reading Rooms.
Walk It Off
Hungover? It’s worth the half hour hike up to the summit of former volcano and Iron Age fort, the Dundee Law (known to locals as Law Hill); the last section is composed of fairly steep steps, but the view is panoramic, taking in epic aspects over the Tay’s railway and road bridges. It was a shame it was all under a grey duvet of sky on our visit.
Two areas stand out for indie purchases: Downtown Dundee, with its sloping Union, Commercial and Exchange Streets, and the studenty neighbourhood where Nethergate leads into Perth Road. Take a Saturday afternoon mooch, as we did after lunch at Castlehill, for everything from hip menswear at Cartocon to acoustic instruments, secondhand records and books (Le Freak and This Way Up are recommended).
Only ten minutes’ cab ride away is historic seaside resort Broughty Ferry: slow-paced and picturesque, wander the tangle of streets behind the seafront, studded with maritime pubs and mostly independent shops, galleries and restaurants. We ambled along the atmospheric stretch of promenade past the 1495-built castle to the sandy beach – where it’s often possible to glimpse an oystercatcher.
You could eat at Tayberry (owned by Castlehill), or, as we did, the bustling, cavernous Forgan’s, with its atrium-style dining room (top tip is confit duck shepherd’s pie). Grab a post-prandial pint at the seafront Ship Inn or the popular cosy Fisherman’s Tavern.
A highlight for us was the self-guided Open/Close street art trail (buy a map for £1 from the V&A). Created by a local student, it explores the underbelly of the city down a sequence of obscure alleyways and lanes. Of the 19 works, the best stretch comprises the four on Couttie’s Wynd (see Suzanne Scott’s Whimsical Lush door), while another highlight is a playful work by Detroit’s Thing Thing studio on Sugarhouse Wynd. Openclosedundee.co.uk
For more info on the city see Dundee.com or follow @dundeecity. Main image: V&A Dundee. Photo: Hufton Crow