Heidi McAlpin and family take the short flight to experience Scotland’s most upcoming urban destination….
Finding a new place to visit from Belfast, within easy reach but far enough to feel different, can prove a challenge for the seasoned traveller. But one city that fits the bill is – get this – Scotland’s sunniest, birthplace of seasoned scallywag Dennis the Menace and home to the UK’s newest design museum. With direct Loganair flights from Belfast City Airport, Dundee has just the right amount of pull and proximity. And with a Beano-mad son, it’s a no-brainer for a cheeky wee half term family city break.
As the short flight hopped across the scheugh and followed the river to dinky Dundee Airport, a duo of dramatic landmarks dominated the waterfront and set the scene for our three-day trip. Collectively V&A Dundee and RRS Discovery span more than a century of industry and innovation and have created a cultural and historic hub for visitors to this emerging city escape.
Opened in 2018, V&A Dundee is the spirited ingenue of its London sibling and home to the best of established and emerging Scottish design. Its £80m concrete edifice seems to defy gravity as it juts out across the silvery Tay. Inside several galleries celebrate everything from the art and architecture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh to Scottish fashion’s iconic Paisley shawl… and there’s even a nod to a certain Master Menace. Its impressive open plan interior is bathed in natural light and the first floor Tatha Bar & Restaurant is the perfect spot to enjoy delicious gourmet grub (we loved the Buttermilk Chicken Brioche Rolls) with a side helping of those resplendent riverfront views.
We started out at the Night Fever: Designing Club Culture exhibition, deep diving into the world’s most genre-defining dance floors from NYC’s Studio 54 to Manchester’s Hacienda and, of course, Scotland’s own distinct clubbing scene. Neon lights, seminal sounds and a riot of fashion fusion brought each heady decade to life. Throw in a full screen Travolta strutting his Saturday Night Fever stuff and even dad dancers were magically transformed into full-on disco divas (kids, look away now). This particular V&A party may be over but keep an eye on the website for the latest equally euphoric exhibitions taking centre stage.
Next up on our Dundee hit list was RRS Discovery, the Dundee-built masted steam ship that delivered Shackleton and Scott to the relentless Antarctic. Their stories are told in an excellent interactive exhibition that meticulously recounts what became known as the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration. The trail guides visitors through the perilous journeys that cemented their places in history, and tragically took the life of Scott, before emerging at the ship itself. Inside are the cabins of both men who shared their inaugural trip to the end of Earth onboard this mighty vessel.
Walking around this tangible testament to man’s desire to explore, you can literally feel Shackleton and Scott’s determination to challenge themselves and discover this most inhospitable part of our planet. It’s amazing to think this resilient ship cut through those icy seas and returned unscathed to become a truly authentic maritime visitor attraction.
This epic sightseeing is all good and well, but Beano-mad Fred is craving his comic fix. DC Thomson HQ –home to the world’s longest running comic – is currently closed to visitors but the neighbouring McManus Art Gallery & Museum includes a nod to Dennis, Minnie and their peashooter-wielding cohorts. It also explains how Dundee acquired its three Js moniker of Jam, Jute and Journalism. Jute and jam factories kept locals working through the decades, and remnants of these red brick edifices remain dotted throughout the cityscape. Our base was one such former jute factory which has been repurposed as a contemporary overnight combining Hotel Indigo’s en-suite bedrooms with the more spacious and family-friendly Staybridge Suites – each of whose exposed vaulted brick interior perfectly embodies Dundee’s industrial DNA.
The on-site Daisy Tasker bistro is named after a young mill worker who organised social activities for her fellow colleagues. No doubt she would approve of the elegantly presented trad classics, from The Baxter pulled pork burger to Perthshire Duck Breast, and with plenty of meat and gluten free options for 21st century tastes. The hotel also pays homage to the city’s contemporary story, with yet more Beano merch and a display of gaming devices showcasing Dundee as the birthplace of Grand Theft Auto and epicentre for the global games industry.
The third ‘J’ – Journalism – encompasses DC Thompson’s century-straddling publishing empire, including such iconic comics as Jackie, Bunty, The Dandy, Oor Wullie and, still crazy after all these years, The Beano. Statues of Oor Wullie, Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx can be spied lurking around the city centre, and there’s even an actual Bash Street, unveiled in 2014 in honour of the Beano gang. All of which creates the perfect pilgrimage for Fred and, to be fair, his big sis Scarlett and mum and dad. You’re never too old for a good old giggle.
Dundee is imminently walkable and, should you require a wee bit of help, the city has rolled out a flotilla of hireable ebikes. We chose an even more relaxing way to venture further during our three-day stay with an xplore Dundee bus pass. Just four miles east of Dundee, the seaside resort of Broughty Ferry was once home to many of the city’s successful jute barons. We took the swift journey along the coast and wandered around its cute gift shops before exploring Broughty Castle whose Museum tells the story of this gentrified fishing village. Pizza and ice cream at the Visocchi’s Café, a local landmark since 1954, rounded off our unexpectedly pleasing detour.
Back in the big city, our final day was spent at Dundee Science Centre. Much like Belfast’s W5, it provides a real hands-on approach to science that kids of all ages – and curious parents – will love. Inventing, Exploring and Discovering Zones allow children to get up close to everything from erupting volcanoes to a Teddy Bear’s Hospital. Our two channelled their inner Spielberg (or should I say ‘Beano’) creating their own blockbuster at the Animation Station, while we parents were mesmerised by the Medical Marvels exhibit where a Covid autopsy table laid bare the grizzly reality of this relentless virus.
This reminder of the global pandemic made us relish our brief holiday, and first flight since Covid struck, all the more. Dundee was a city I’d longed to visit since the opening of its very own V&A. It took a while to get here but, as we took our final glimpse of the waterfront landmarks and nibbled on an oh-so-Scottish in-flight Tunnocks, we all agreed it was well worth the wait.