Given the contrasting reputations of Edinburgh and Glasgow, any travelers who haven't examined a map of Scotland might be forgiven for thinking that they are separated by hundreds of miles. In fact, Scotland's two primary cities are only about 74km (46 miles) apart, but almost everyone who visits them will be struck by their differences.

Both cities contribute mightily - and equally - to the cultural vibrancy of the nation. With this in mind, the country is improving the public transportation links between the two cities, first by increasing the frequency of trains and second by contemplating a high-speed rail link between them.

To the east, Edinburgh offers a famous and almost fairytale-like setting, with an imposing castle high on one of many hills. Built on ancient volcanoes and first established because of its secure and defensible position, the capital of Scotland has become a crossroads. Practically everyone who comes to Scotland today spends some time in Edinburgh - and its midsummer international arts festival is one of the biggest in the world. Edinburgh is the second most popular tourist destination in Great Britain after London, and it's not hard to see why. Compact and tidy, it is more of a big town than a small city.

In the west, Glasgow, on the other hand, is not a place that anyone might call precious. Glasgow was settled earlier than its cross-country rival because it was an ideal place to ford the mighty River Clyde, and later gained a reputation for shipbuilding and industry. For all its ancient origins, today Glasgow resembles nothing so much as a modern, cosmopolitan city, with a growing population. It has overcome its 20th-century associations with grime, grit, and gangsters - and now it is arguably more vibrant than Edinburgh, with a vigorous music and art scene. Without a picturesque castle or flamboyant palace, it exemplifies urban Scotland: Dynamic and attuned to the world. In 1990, it was named European Culture Capital; in 1999, U.K. City of Architecture and Design; and in 2014, it will host the Commonwealth Games.

Edinburgh and Glasgow have a lot to offer individually, and taken as a duo, they are more impressive still. Both cities are among Europe's most dynamic centers. Edinburgh is the seat of Scottish royalty and government, and Glasgow boasts lively urban culture mixed in with Victorian splendor. Whilst the latter may not have the fairy-tale setting that Edinburgh does, it compensates with a lively culture, metropolitan feel, and gregarious locals.

Glasgow's origins are ancient, making Edinburgh seem comparatively young. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of Roman settlements. In the 6th century, St. Kentigern (or St. Mungo) is believed to have begun a monastery at the site of Glasgow Cathedral, a hillside along a burn (creek) that feeds into the River Clyde. The site was logical for a settlement, as it was at an opportune point to ford the mighty Clyde before it widens on its way to the sea some 30km (20 miles) away. According to some translations, Glasgow, or glascau, means "dear green place."

Aside from the Cathedral itself, practically none of this once-important medieval ecclesiastical center (including a university) remains. That's a shame, as Glasgow was considered one of the prettiest towns in all of 17th-century Europe. And much of its historical records (kept at the Cathedral) were swept away and lost during the Reformation.

The city became an economic powerhouse in the 18th century and quickly grew to be Scotland's largest city (as well as the fourth-most populous in the U.K.). The boom began in earnest with the tobacco trade to the New World, where Glasgow outpaced rivals such as London or Bristol. The city then became famous worldwide for shipbuilding and docks that produced the Queen Mary and other fabled ocean liners. It was the Second City of the Empire. But postindustrial decline gave Glasgow a poor reputation - particularly in contrast to the enduring charms of Edinburgh.

In the 1980s, the city reversed its fortunes, becoming Scotland's contemporary cultural capital and drawing talent from across the U.K., whether in art or rock 'n' roll. Decades of grime were sandblasted away from its monumental Victorian buildings, and one of Europe's best collections of art - the Burrell - found a permanent home. In 1990, the city was named European Capital of Culture.

That said, Glasgow is not a metropolis without flaws. Pockets of poverty remain in the city's peripheral housing projects (estates or schemes). A major motorway cuts a scar through the center of town - and, not learning the lessons of its harmful effects, the city has another new freeway slashing its way through Glasgow's Southside. Although the city still appears to prefer knocking buildings down and erecting new structures at the slightest opportunity, the splendor of what architectural critics hailed as "the greatest surviving example of a Victorian city" is still evident. The next big event to come to the city is the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

On Glasgow's doorstep is the scenic estuary of the Firth of Clyde, with attractive coastal peninsulas and atmospheric islands only short drives and ferry rides away. In addition, Glasgow is a good gateway for exploring Burns Country in Ayrshire to the southwest. From Glasgow, visitors can easily tour Loch Lomond and see some of the southern fringes of the Highlands or travel less than an hour away to Stirling and the Trossach mountains.