A look at the top things to do in Stirling
My “weekend in.…” tours of Scotland continue with a visit to Stirling in the Central Belt. Having spent some of my childhood in Stirlingshire, I know the area well and in my view it has an enormously opportunistic setting. Stirling ticks logistical boxes for Scots looking for an easily accessible change of scenery and equally for international travellers keen to stay within reach of the airports. Here is my go at selecting the top highlights, putting together the attractions to fill a weekend, or longer. The following are unapologetically history packed as Stirling has long been at the heart of the most significant moments in the country’s war-riddled past. But with a backdrop like the Ochil Hills there is plenty of opportunity to sneak into the great outdoors and make some memories of your own.
There is only one place to start in Stirling and that’s at its fabulous Castle. Firmly in my top 10 castles in Scotland Stirling Castle makes for one of the best days out to be had anywhere in the country. Strategically vital for centuries, the imposing fortress has overlooked a staggering amount of momentous historic moments. From William Wallace’s epic victory at Stirling Bridge to Robert the Bruce’s decisive smashing of the English at Bannockburn, this is a castle that has witnessed more than its fair share of slaughter and jubilation.
Amongst the highlights are the Great Hall – host of many a banquet – and the colourful interiors of the recently refurbished Royal Palace. A massive investment, the aim was to replicate the Castle’s 16th Century decoration and is, in my experience, incomparable with any other historical restoration I’ve seen. A long wander around the battlements is also richly rewarded in all directions. From the battlefield sites to the Ochils, it is clear that this was more than the gateway between the Highlands and the Lowlands – Stirling Castle was for centuries the heart of all Scotland’s military might. You can find more details in my Stirling Castle blog.
When you fall out of the Castle you will find yourself in the city’s Old Town. Gothic and a tad on the spooky side at night, the Old Town is easily my favourite part of Stirling. Argyll’s Lodging is a lovely addition to your Castle ticket and well worth fitting in as is the curiously named Church of the Holy Rude. For those looking for shopping opportunities, accommodation and food and drink head down the hill into the centre for plenty of options.
The history packed day continues with suggested visits to the nearby Bannockburn Heritage Centre and the distinctive Wallace Monument. The former has undergone a transformation in the last year or so and now provides visitors with a 3D extravaganza depicting the famous battle of 1314 that cemented Robert the Bruce’s name in history as King of Scotland and military genius. A fantastic attraction it superbly puts the battle into context before, during and after from the perspectives of all involved.
The Wallace Monument completes the trident of superb historical attractions in, or close to, Stirling. Protruding out of the top of Abby Craig, the testament to Scotland’s Guardian gives the full low-down on William’s rise to prominence, and his eventual grisly demise. Highlights include Wallace’s gigantic broadsword and the wonderful views from the Crown Spire at the top. Word to the wise, hang onto your hat up there as the winds can blow fierce. My last visit saw a couple of very happily misguided unfortunates armed with a selfie stick have the thing swept from their grip to (luckily) land on a lower level. By the reaction of the owner to its safe retrieval I suspect she’d have gone clean over the edge after it if need be. Is there some sort of emotional attachment one acquires to these things? Like some sort of spiritual appendage for travel memories or something? I’ve not caught the bug yet. But I digress, my apologies. Access to the Monument requires a steep climb both from the visitor centre to the monument entrance and also up the narrow spiral staircase to its summit, so be prepared. The exertion is very much worthwhile though and you are rewarded with terrific views in all directions.
For those with the means and the time to travel a little further afield, Stirling is perfectly situated for some exploration of west central Scotland. Nearby Dunblane, childhood home of Andy Murray and his golden postbox, is a lovely side attraction where the star of the show is the impressive Cathedral. Notably there are also another two of the country’s top castles within 20 minutes or so of the city by car. Doune Castle to the north west of Stirling seems to be our most popular on the big screen and has featured in Monty Python, Game of Thrones and Outlander. In the other direction, Castle Campbell is one of our most picturesque and is superbly located in the Dollar Glens. The latter makes for another great leg stretching opportunity – starting in the town of Dollar you can follow the leafy pathway up to the castle, encountering the odd waterfall along the way.
Continuing the outdoor theme, the Ochil Hills do add enormously to the visual appeal of Stirling and, as an optional bonus, can be climbed. Probably my favourite of the easier routes is Alva Glen. 15 minutes from the city centre you can find astonishing solitude on this easy to moderate walk from the town of Alva snaking up to the end destination of the Smuggler’s Cove. Dams, gorges and waterfalls accompany you along the way, ensuring a consistent cacophony of racket and plenty of character. Incredibly green in summer due to the amount of water in the area, you can be lucky enough to have this ascent all to yourself outside of weekends. As you stand proud gazing back down the glen it is a rare opportunity to be master of all you survey. Reminiscent of Rocky Balboa and that mountain in Russia. Except not really.
A weekend wouldn’t be a weekend without a dram of something nice in your glass and my final suggestion – for those with an interest – is the Deanston Distillery. Previously a cotton mill, Deanston’s handcrafted process makes for a lovely whisky. Sweet and subtly spicy but with a late-in-the-day bang, it dispels any myths about only Speyside and Islay knowing what they are doing with the stuff. Deanston can be found aside the River Teith beside Doune and they run daily tours year round. For more on whisky take a look at my Review of Speyside Whisky Distilleries blog.
As it seems to have been a popular addition to my Weekend in the Trossachs blog, here’s all the above in another one of my interactive maps. Click each attraction to get directions and I’ve thrown in some of my favourite eateries to fit round those busy schedules as a wee bonus.
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