Stirling, commonly known as the Gateway to the Highlands, is a medieval town nestled in central Scotland. In case the cobbled streets didn’t give that away, the castle at the heart of the city certainly will. Rolling hills dot the surrounding countryside, and among them the National Wallace Monument stands tall above the local university. Who can neglect indulging in a little Braveheart when in Scotland? That said, there’s plenty more local history and charm to explore – from the architecture to the shops and cozy pubs.
Only thirty minutes by train from both Glasgow and Edinburgh, Stirling’s central location is part of its popularity. I paid a mere £8 for my return ticket, making it as budget friendly as it is day-trip worthy. Whether you’re taking a hike to soak in the natural scenery or pulling up a stool for a dram at the Curly Coo bar, there’s something for anyone’s tastes. Here are some of the highlights not to miss when visiting Stirling!
Much like its counterpart in Edinburgh, Stirling Castle is built into the rocky hilltop at the heart of the old town. You can’t miss it – just head up! Historically, it’s one of the most impressive and important fortresses in Scotland, with records dating back to the early 12th century. It was where a young Mary was crowned Queen of Scots. Where Bonnie Prince Charlie led an unsuccessful siege. Where the likes Robert the Bruce and the Stewart kings walked the halls.
At £15 for an adult ticket, it is a bit expensive to tour, but the views and history within the walls make it well worth it. Wander through the Great Hall or castle kitchens. Admire the roses that bloom in Queen Anne’s Garden. If you’re going to visit a castle in Scotland, this should be it.
Church of the Holy Rude
The original parish dates back to 1129, but the Church of the Holy Rude standing today was built in 15th century. After the castle, it is the second oldest structure in Stirling. As such, it was long associated with the monarchy and served as a popular site for baptisms and coronations. In fact, James VI was crowned King of Scotland here in 1567. The church is still in use today and is open to visitors, though a small donation is recommended. After, be sure to take a stroll through the expansive cemetery.
The Wallace Monument + University of Stirling
If you look north from atop the castle hill, you’ll see the Wallace Monument standing tall atop Abbey Craig. The monument was completed in 1869 to commemorate Sir William Wallace. A Scottish hero, Wallace led early fights for independence, defeating the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. Braveheart, of course, brought the story to the twentieth century.
It’s easy to hop a bus (or hail a cab) to take you across the River Forth to the outskirts of the town. Here you’ll find the University of Stirling campus and the Wallace Monument visitor center. From here, you can choose to take a shuttle or hike up the short wooded hill to the tower itself – and for a fee you can climb to the top.
Stirling Old Bridge
Like the castle, the Stirling Old Bridge has played an important role in the town’s history. In 1297, William Wallace and Andrew Moray led the charge that defeated Edward I’s army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge during the First War of Scottish Independence. While the bridge that stands today was built a few centuries later, this spot along the River Forth remains one of the most important crossings in Scotland.
All that remains of Mar’s Wark is the facade, but it’s an impressive example of the renaissance architecture you’ll discover strolling around the streets of Stirling. John Erskine, Earl of Mar, built this townhouse in the 16th century. Once keeper of Stirling Castle, the Earl held custody of Mary, Queen of Scots’ son James VI and later became regent. The mansion was later used as lodging during the 1715 Jacobite uprising.
The Old Town Jail
Along the road leading up to the castle sits Stirling’s Old Town Jail, a notorious Victorian jail once regarded as the worst prison in Britain. Visitors can take a tour of the jail’s dark history complete with reenactments and hear the stories of infamous executioner Jock Rankin and more.
Located just outside the castle grounds, this stunning townhouse dates back to the 17th century. Another example of grand architecture, it once served as lodging for the nobles of the royal court. Visiting Argyll’s Lodging is included in your Stirling Castle ticket, although it is currently under renovation.
I look forward to returning to Stirling when spring comes around to explore more of the countryside. The Darn Walk, for instance, stretches 4 km of beautiful woodland from nearby villages of Bridge of Allan to Dunblane. So while Stirling makes for a beautiful day trip, there’s plenty to keep one coming back for more.
What’s your favorite thing to do near Stirling?