This article was first published on myitchytravelfeet.com. Access here.
Stirling surprised me. As a tourist, I expected to find a quiet university town teeming with students and little else. Sure, there are students here – what with the University of Stirling being right in the middle of town. But then Stirling has so much more.
Known as the heritage capital of Scotland, Stirling lies in Central Scotland. Some celebrated historical battles were fought here like the Battle of Stirling and the Battle of Sauchieburn. Important royalty is buried here too – the ruins of Cambuskenneth Abbey, are the resting place of King James III of Scotland and his queen, Margaret of Denmark.
Where to Stay in Stirling, Scotland
First off we stayed at this beautiful three bedroom villa (Airbnb) on Henderson Street, a short walking distance from the little Victorian Spa town of Bridge of Allan. It was spacious and comfortable, had a modern kitchen and cost us just $500 for four nights.
On the first day, as I was making a cup of coffee, it started snowing and I watched in delight as our kitchen window framed the most beautiful picture postcard Christmas scene I had ever seen. Now, watching snowflakes from your kitchen window is no big deal for someone who witnesses it on a regular basis, but I’ve lived as an expatriate in the Middle East for most of my life, so this was heaven. I clicked pictures, shot videos then rushed to open the front door, jumped around a bit in the snow and rushed right back in. So yeah, following in love with Stirling after that was pretty easy.
The National Wallace Monument
Located on the outskirts of the city, on the Abbey Craig hill, this monument is a national landmark to Scotland’s Guardian and Patriot, Sir William Wallace. At the bottom of Abbey Craig is the Legends Coffee House, a warm and cozy place which sells the most delicious cheesecake.
Free shuttle buses are available to take you up the hill, but if you’re fit and love walking then that’s the best way to go. Nippy air, wooded foliage with tall trees on either side, the sun’s rays slicing through the leaves – what’s not to like? By the time you reach the base of the monument at the top, you’re all set for the gorgeous views.
To ascend Abbey Craig there are three main trails to choose from –
The Wallace Trail – A path that has unique wood carvings (20 min walk)
The Stirling Trail – A woodland walk leading to a viewpoint overlooking Stirling (35 mins)
The Abbey Trail – A path that goes around the Abbey Craig (45 mins).
I chose to hike up the non-tar Wallace way, admiring all the pretty wood carvings on the way. The Stirling trail is a tar road that runs adjacent to the Wallace way. Both paths meet at some point on top and this is where I stopped to click photos of the panoramic views overlooking the river Forth.
The Wallace Monument is 220 ft (67m) tall. A winding staircase of 246 steps leads to the ‘Crown’ from where I enjoyed the views as far as Loch Lomond, Fife, Ochil Hills and Forth Valley. The climb up is steep but doable as at every level you can stop at the dedicated exhibition galleries – the Hall of Heroes, the Hall of Arms (which has the famous Wallace Sword) and the Royal Chamber.
After checking out the Wallace Monument, I descended the mountain by the Stirling trail.
Stirling’s hiking trails are for everyone, some are well traipsed on and some undiscovered. All you need is a little bit of time. Hiking on these trails can be satisfyingly rejuvenating – the air is fresh and the scenery so breathtaking that you’re obliged to stop every now and then. The trails can be short, steep, long or winding. Pick one that suits your fitness level. The shorter walks are centered around the Wallace Monument, Gowan Hills, Hermitage Woods at Stirling University, King’s Park, and around Bridge of Allan. The steeper hikes can be done in the Ochil Hills.
We parked close to the city center and walked up to Gowan Hill all the way to the top. Here we saw the old cannons and the famous beheading stone which is thought to have been used for capital punishments in the 15th century. Sober thought that. On the way back, we took the extremely scenic Stirling Castle back walk trail. It took us around the old town walls of Stirling.
Going Local in Stirling
I found Stirling less crowded when compared to Edinburgh and Glasgow. This included the restaurants we visited – no waiting in line for tables and service was quick. Even the historical places and monuments had none of the hectic tourist activity found in most places. The whole town had a laid-back charm that was very appealing.
Had some great food all over Scotland and some of it was right here in Stirling. One of the places we visited was a popular Australian restaurant called ‘The Kilted Kangaroo’ which had all things Aussie and some Mexican on the menu. We were also regular visitors at the Bayne’s Family Bakery, in Bridge of Allan. It had the most amazing home-baked goodies – Haggis Pies, Mince Pies, Sausage and Bacon Rolls and so much more – all tasty and super cheap. Another well-known restaurant in Bridge of Allan is the Allanwater Cafe – famous for Fish n chips & homemade ice cream – a must-have one is the Ferrero Rocher Ice Cream.
For shopping, we headed to the Stirling Thistles Centre. It is ideal and has almost everything under one roof. Other shopping stops are The Stirling Arcade, House of Henderson and the Stirling Whisky Shop.
Visit Stirling Castle
All roads in town lead to this ancient castle, a place of historical power and beauty. Rivaled in beauty and grandeur only by the Edinburgh Castle, the Stirling Castle easily won hands down as my complete castle experience. The Argyll and Sutherlands Highland Museum is housed inside the castle. I could easily imagine Knights and Nobles walking about in the beautiful gardens or sitting down to sumptuous feasts in the banquet hall. This feeling was intensified as I toured the Exhibition Hall where there was a generous display of Scotland’s royal past dating back to nine hundred years. The armories and the old royal kitchens have carefully preserved weapons, artifacts, and utensils. Close your eyes and you might just hear the clinking of silver spoons against crystal glasses, the soft rustle of silk gowns, or the murmuring voices of the dignified gentry.
We walked up the cobbled roads to get to the castle. Between the Castle and the 14th century Church of the Holy Rude lies the Old Cemetery which is beautifully landscaped and very gothic in appearance. The ‘Ghost Tour’ is a popular tourist attraction here. Though the dead seem to be at peace, it does get a bit spooky when the sun sets and darkness sets in, especially if you pass by the tombstone that reads “Not Dead but Sleeping.”
Enjoy the Views
The views all over in Stirling are spectacular – hills, mountains and flat plains that are a bright emerald green. The clouds hang really low, brushing against the top of the mountains and lazily move away to display patches of blue skies. As the day progresses the mist clears and the plains become more visible.
Some view-points to set up your tripod are – The crown of the Wallace Monument, The top of Gowan Hill, The Old Stirling Bridge and the Valley between the Old Cemetery and Stirling Castle.
Visit the University of Stirling
The 400-year-old university was founded in 1967 and has a beautiful campus located in the foothills of the highlands. The 360 acres include an Innovation Park, a Loch and ample walking paths. Says the Guardian University Guide – “Where else can you study on the shores of a loch, by an 18th-century castle, beneath rolling hills? The Stirling Court Hotel is located in the center of Stirling University and is an ideal place to stay with perfect views of the Ochil Hills and the Wallace Monument.
The campus also has Swans, Ducks, Geese and other birds. The University not only takes special care of its student’s safety but also cares for its migrating swans. The local people walk their dogs along the path that loops around the loch. This area is fenced in, in order to protect the swans and their eggs.
Use Stirling as a base to explore other parts of Scotland
Stirling’s location makes it an ideal base for visiting other parts of Scotland, including the Highlands and the Trossachs. Stirling is right in the middle of Glasgow and Edinburgh, easily accessible to both places by ScotRail, Scotland’s very efficient railway system. The train station is a mere 5 minutes from the town center.
- From Stirling to Edinburgh – 1 hour. By train – 50 mins.
- From Stirling to Glasgow – 40 mins. By train – 45 mins.
Other places that are conveniently accessible from Stirling are Aberdeen, Inverness, and Perth.
Falkirk is just 24 minutes away and is home to the Helix Park, the center for cycling, walking, and watersports. The park also has the ‘Kelpies,’ the two 30 meter high horse head sculptures, designed by Glasgow artist Andy Scott. Their size makes them visible for miles around, especially while driving on the M9 highway. (The ‘Kelpies’ in Scottish legend were shape-changing aquatic creatures, that supposedly resembled horses.)
Stirling is also the ideal starting point for your Highland tour. Also known as the ‘Gateway to the Highlands’ it holds the highlands and lowlands together and is only a short drive away from Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.
As any visitor would affirm, Scotland is very modern, yet its historic past lies like a comfortable cloak over all its modernity. This becomes very evident as one explores Stirling.
It is a city that, despite being open to the outside world, leans very comfortably on its own historic past, treating it almost as a relic – and therein lies its charm – because Scotland’s history today is its most intrinsic part. No other city showcases this to the outside world as much as Stirling does.