Dundee is enjoying a well-earned moment in the metaphorical sun, thanks to a transformative urban redevelopment project, the high-profile opening of the V&A design museum in 2018, and a recent place on Lonely Planet’s list of top 10 cities.
Beyond the glimmering new buildings along the redeveloped post-industrial waterfront area, the city has a rich cultural heritage and thriving creative scene. Add to this its location on the north bank of the Firth of Tay, with views across the river to Fife, plus plenty of great bars and restaurants, Dundee is a worthy contender for a city break with bags of character.
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What to do
Soak up some culture
The opening of the northern outpost of the V&A museum put Dundee on the map, and rightly so – its angular concrete structure cuts an impressive form as it juts out onto the river Tay. Wander around the inverse pyramid-shaped entrance hall, then up to the outdoor terrace to take in views across the water. The permanent collection, Scottish Design Galleries, is home to exhibits spanning Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s oak tea room to the Dandy and Beano comics still published in Dundee today. Open daily, 10am-5pm. Free entry, individual exhibition prices vary.
But it’s not all about the new kids on the block. Further down the river, Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is a buzzing cultural hub with art installations, workshops, a two-screen cinema and print studio, plus a lively bar and restaurant. Open daily, 10am-12am. Free entry.
The Dundee Rep Theatre and Scottish Dance Theatre, both housed in one venue in Tay Square, are continuing to mark a joint 80th birthday (the first part of which was celebrated in 2019), with a special anniversary season of Scottish dance, ceilidh-theatre and immersive visual arts. Book ahead or just pop in to visit the lively Rep Restaurant Cafe Bar. Open daily, ticket prices vary.
Look back in time
The 152-year-old McManus is Dundee’s original museum and art gallery, housed in an elaborate Gothic building designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott – the man behind what is now London’s St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. It’s a great place to delve into the city’s history, with relics of the former whaling industry (including an impressive humpback skeleton) and Tay Bridge Disaster. Open Monday to Saturday, 10am-5pm, Sunday 12.30-4.30pm. Free entry.
Next, climb aboard the RSS Discovery, the steamship which carried an intrepid team all the way from Dundee to the Antarctic in 1901, at the Discovery Point museum on the waterfront. Explore the restored living quarters and officer’s war room on the ship itself, and learn about the brutal journey the crew took.
Take a day trip
Broughty Ferry is a pretty fishing village five miles up the coast. It’s a great place to take in views of the newly redeveloped Tay Estuary in across the water in Dundee, wander around the 15th century Broughty Castle, and stop for a house-brewed beer in Forgan’s pub and restaurant. Trains from Dundee start from £1.60 ($2), and take seven minutes.
Where to stay
Housed in a beautifully restored linen mill on the edge of the city centre, the Hotel Indigo Dundee has charm, comfort and character in spades. Although the space, with exposed brick and polished concrete, may feel more Shoreditch than Scotland, there are local touches which prove a chain hotel doesn’t have to feel generic. Think vintage computer games in the lobby, rooms complete with Beano comics and Irn Bru (as well as comfy beds and luxe bathrooms) and Arbroath smokies for breakfast. Named after a former linen mill employee said to have organised socials for the workers, Daisy Tasker, the hotel’s restaurant, serves crowd-pleasing burgers and cocktails in a sleek dining room. Doubles from £47 ($60), room only. Breakfast from £10 per person.
If you fancy a place to call your own, try Staybridge Suites, a sister property adjacent to Hotel Indigo. These serviced apartments come equipped with kitchens and workspaces, as well as an on-site gym and pantry selling snacks and drinks. Doubles from £73 ($94), B&B.
In the leafy West End of Dundee – a pleasant walk along the Perth road peppered with independent shops and cafes – is Taypark House, a boutique hotel housed in a former Scots Baronial Mansion (there’s even a turret). As well as spacious rooms, some of which have fancy freestanding baths, there’s a gin bar with an array of Scottish gins and a light-filled garden restaurant. Doubles from £80 ($103), room only. Breakfast from £8.50 per person.
Where to eat
Castlehill has recently been taken over by young chefs Adam Newth and Lewis Donegan, one of a number of forthcoming ventures by the talented pair (a cookery school and seafood restaurant are also rumoured). The cosy low-ceilinged dining room is decked out with oxblood leather chairs and Scottish art on the walls. A regularly changing menu puts the abundant larder of Fife to delicious use, with generous plates of crisp-skinned pork belly with burnished-gold monkfish cheek, or Scrabster hake with buttery cockle sauce.
Tayberry, Adam Newth’s sister restaurant in Broughty Ferry, cements the young chef’s reputation as Dundee’s rising restaurant star. It serves tasty, modern plates made with local produce, in a pretty waterside location.
Sample a slab of Dundee’s famous cake at Palais Tearoom. Framed photographs of local 1960s sports stars, vintage comics and fat slices of cake served on doily-clad tables create a wonderfully nostalgic atmosphere. But the city isn’t short of trendy coffee shops – there’s antipodean-style weekend brunch, excellent coffee and craft beer at Bach; and stacks of syrup-drenched pancakes at Pacamara.
Avery and Co is a bright, airy eatery serving the usual salads and sandwiches, as well as some inventive vegan and veggie options, such as tofish and chips or halloumi tacos. For something a little fancier, V&A’s Tatha Bar and Kitchen has floor-to-ceiling windows, so you can enjoy panoramic views while tucking into Scottish venison with rhubarb or Loch Leurbost mussels.
Sample the best local seafood at Tailend, a high-end chippy and fishmonger serving all the classics – as well as cod and chorizo croquettes and seared scallops with haggis for the adventurous – plus Scottish craft beers and St Andrew’s Eden Mill gin with inventive garnishes.
Where to drink
St Andrew’s Brewing Company has just opened a cavernous space overlooking the newly developed waterfront. As well as a regularly changing selection of tap and bottle craft beers, both from its own brewery and further afield, there’s a glossy cocktail bar and dining room serving sharing plates and pub classics.
Once you’ve had your fill of beer, head to The Wine Press nearby, a much-loved local bar run by the folks behind Dundee wine merchants Aitken. There’s an extensive selection, as well as charcuterie and mezze boards to graze on, but the grassy vinho verde is a winner every time. If you’re feeling bold, try more unusual wines via the self-serve Enomatic machine – the choice changes every six weeks.
Find the city’s coolest cocktails hidden away down a narrow cobbled alley at Draffens, which is housed in what was the basement of the famous Dundee department store from which the bar takes its name. There’s no signage outside, adding to the speakeasy vibe, while friendly, leather apron-clad staff will shake you up something strong and delicious.
Where to shop
Grouchos record shop is a 40-year-old Dundee institution that’s still going strong. There’s a treasure trove of vinyl here, and knowledgeable staff (not unlike the characters in High Fidelity) will always be happy to recommend something.
Stock up on fantastic Scottish cheeses, chutneys and a jar of Dundee’s famous marmalade to take home at The Cheesery, a tiny shop on Exchange Street. Closed on Sundays.
Browse one-off prints, homewares and jewellery by local makers and artists at Dock Street Studios, a collection of independent shops which forms part of the new riverside development. From succulents to stationery, find unique gift inspiration aplenty at independent style and interiors shop Lovely Things.
Stock up on malt whisky as well as quality wines from around the world at Aitken Wines, a 143-year-old merchant where friendly staff will always be happy to recommend a bottle.
Both Overgate shopping centre and Taypark House are home to a UK retail first: fruit and veg vending machines selling in-season produce, veg boxes and free-range eggs from family-run Grewar farm, in Perthshire.
Tokyo architect Kengo Kuma’s design for the V&A was inspired by the craggy Scottish landscape which surrounds it. The building itself – some of which is built directly onto the water – is just as impressive as the exhibits inside.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
About 10-12.5 per cent is standard for eating out in the UK. There’s no need to tip for drinks.
What’s the time difference?
GMT; five hours ahead of New York.
Caledonian Sleeper (sleeper.scot) services run daily from London Euston, arriving into Dundee in the early morning. Single journeys start from £50 ($64). London North East Railway services run from London, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. Singles from London from £55.50 ($71).
Aer Lingus, Norwegian and Icelandair fly from New York to Glasgow with one stopover (in Dublin, Gatwick and Reykjavik respectively).
Dundee is compact enough that you can walk everywhere, but regular bus services also run throughout the city – routes and timetables at dundeetravelinfo.com
Take a deep breath and walk up to Dundee Law, the site of an extinct volcano with panoramic views across the city and River Tay, which extend to Fife and Perthshire on a clear day.
Wasps Studios are a creative hub for the city’s artists and makers, and regularly host open days which offer an fascinating insight into their processes. Check waspsstudios.org.uk for details.