When we started traveling in earnest, we took a group tour of Scotland (see a post from that trip here), both our first trip to the country and our first (and to date, only) extended overnight group excursion. In order to cover all the requisite tourist sites in a 10-day period, the tour only spent a few hours in Stirling, focusing on the castle. I imagine that this might be the case for others who are on a tight timeline to see all of beautiful Scotland.
When we returned on an independently-planned excursion, we realized what we had missed. Stirling Scotland is more than its castle.
Where we stayed
My husband and I traveled with my sister and his sister, so our search for a perfect place to stay was centered around finding two rooms with appropriate beds and convenience to sites. Walkability to transportation was a plus. We stayed at the Munro Guest House on Princes Street in Stirling which hit all these points. It deserves its 4.8 out of 5 rating on Google. While the rooms were small, the view out my bedroom was stunning. as you can see from the photos. Our second room didn't have this view, but our party loved the place--from the breakfasts, the quirky decor in common areas, the location, and the amenable host and staff. While he normally has a cook, the owner cooked us a beautiful breakfast plus had great suggestions for a whiskey bar and quick bites (more on that later).
Getting to the Castle
Castles were built on high points for defensive reasons, sometimes making walking to them a challenge, particularly if you are of a certain age or have health issues. This one is not as bad as the climb straight up to the castle in Edinburgh, Scotland. Our group of four had three of us over 60 (and my field hockey days long gone) and the remaining one with some health challenges (lupus), so I wondered how the climb would be and considered taking a taxi or bus up.
We decided to walk up the back way, wanting a different experience than we had on our previous visit. We walked up hill from Munro's, finding our way to Kings Stables Lane, stopping to take photos and/or admire homes and gardens (a great excuse to take your time, catch your breath, and no one is the wiser). We took a right on Upper Castle Hill road, then found the walkway up to the Castle which gave us an inkling of the views we would eventually see from the top.
Stirling Castle is the keystone of the historical attractions in Stirling, and well worth the visit. More Scottish monarchs have resided and been coronated here than anywhere else in Scotland, including Mary, Queen of Scots. The view of the surrounding countryside is spectacular. The castle gives a glimpse into castle life, from the throne room to the kitchens (I still have pix of their recipe for Golden Steamed Custard from my first trip here).
Whether you choose to investigate the castle on your own (easy to do with their map and posted info), use their audio guide, or take a guided tour, you can take it all in in about an hour. More info here.
Since this was my second visit and because we were here in August, I skipped touring the castle to focus on The Queen Anne Gardens. The laughter of families with young children romping across the grass was the first thing I noticed as I took the stairs down to the garden. I could easily imagine tea parties and evening balls on these grounds.
Eating at the Castle--They have a truly excellent little cafe, with just about anything you'd want, from baked goods, daily soup specials, sandwiches and entrees.
Leaving the Castle, Taking in the History
As you leave the front gates, hang a right in the parking lot and look for a pathway and stairs that will take you down through an historic area of town, pausing (I hope) to take in the view.
The Stirling Cemetery is spread out between the castle and the historic old town. Aside from the spectacular view on the way down to it, the cemetery contains several unique features, detailed here, which includes the Ladies' Rock where purportedly women of the royal court would watch sporting spectacles held on lower ground--sort of like box seats--and the Star Pyramid, a 19th century addition honoring martyrs of Scottish civic and religious causes.
But me, I just like to wander old cemeteries, getting a sense of history and culture.
The Church of the Holy Rude
At the bottom of the cemetery is a relatively small but amazing church. With six centuries of history, it's difficult to say what might be the most interesting event that happened here. Here, King James, son of Mary Queen of Scots, was coronated at 13 months old. Whether you refer to him as James I (of England) or James VI (of Scotland), he's the one who sponsored the translation of the Bible into English (yes, the King James Bible). Here, the church tower was used to shoot guns at Stirling Castle during Cromwell's uprising.
By the way, Holy Rude means holy cross. This church is the only one still standing in Scotland at which there was a coronation.
Mar's Wark in Old Town
After exiting the church, we meandered through some of the nearby streets, which were filled with historic buildings and sites. Mar's Wark was the first, most notable historic site. Now represented by a few ruins and an informational historic marker, it was the site of a townhouse owned by the keeper of Stirling Castle, the Earl of Mar, who built it in the mid-1500s. What remains of the original structure gives a glimpse at both Renaissance architecture and the Earl's attempt to show off his position.
Among the other sites in the area: The Old Jail (which not only has tours but an Escape Room) and Cowane's Hospital. We admired the architecture and history, but didn't enter these sites, instead enjoying a leisurely walk down the hill to the main part of town for lunch. Also in the area is The Sterling Smith Art Gallery & Museum.
Stirling is not Edinburgh (no Royal Mile) but it does have a lively downtown and a surprising number of eateries, many of which get great reviews on Google and Tripadvisor. We wandered further down the hill, to the center of town and chose No 2 Baker Street. It's a small pub with relatively inexpensive but good food. If we go back to Stirling, I'd love to try some of the restaurants by the River Forth that seemed to have a great vibe (and also get good reviews).
We went back to our rooms for a rest, then some of us enjoyed an early evening whiskey (or three) at Curly Coo Bar, recommended by our host.
On our second day in Stirling, we took a taxi to The National Wallace Monument, although we could have taken a bus. While the monument itself is the draw, we did miss the opportunity to explore the Abbey Craig trails--the outcropping on which the monument sits. Honestly, I think I was among several in our party who wondered about the climb to the top of the 220 foot tower and were saving our energy for that.
TIP: Even if you are mobility impaired, it might be worth coming up to the base of the monument for the views. They do have a film for those who can't make it up. For questions on accessibility, including details on where there might be a few steps, see here.
The climb up the narrow, winding stairs ended up not being too tough for us. Thankfully, the climb to the top is interrupted by three galleries, giving one enough time to recover from the stairs before the next flight. The first--The Hall of Arms-- has information on William Wallace, his actual sword, and a video on the Battle of Stirling Bridge. All galleries are a bit interactive, but the real fun (and accomplishment) is getting up to the "Crown" of the monument where you get a 360-degree view of the countryside.
After returning from this excursion, we had to get ready to move on to Inverness by train, but we stopped by (for the 2nd time) an award-winning bakery/coffee shop--Vera Artisan Bakery. It was recommended by our host at the Munro and all in our party enjoyed it, whether we were gluten-free, focused on delectable baked goods, or (in my case) up for some Scottish fare (that day it was minted pea soup and steak and haggis pie). The kitchen at their bakery location is small, but they now have a new location that includes an extensive menu, on Kings Street.
Transportation -- We don't rent cars when we travel to Europe, preferring to take trains from city to city, and walking, public transportation or taxis in towns. You may have other preferences. For getting around Stirling (including up to the Castle and out to Wallace Monument) see the Stirling tourist site here.
Bottom line on Stirling:
Can you see a lot on a day trip? Yes, but you'll have to keep a good pace, and miss some of the local vibe and sights. Still, it's worth doing if that's all your schedule allows.
Can you see enough in two days and one night, like we did? Yes, we started our tour of the castle in late morning, having come directly from the US to Edinburgh, then train to Stirling. We took our time to check out a local whiskey bar, day trip out to the Wallace monument have, a leisurely breakfast at our BnB, as well as a few very delightful snacks/small meals at an award-winning bakery.
Is there more to do if we stay two nights? Yes. If we had stayed two nights, our trip to the Wallace Monument would have included exploring the trails on Abbey Craig. In addition, we'd have seen the art museum, perhaps the Jail, but definitely would have eaten in one of the restaurants on the River Forth. The Battle of Bannochburn and spa town of Bridge of Allan would also be on the itinerary, especially if we were driving.
If you will be visiting Scotland, consider our post on the Applecross Peninsula.
Do you know about Scotland's midges? Click here for our experience.
Have any questions or want to share your experiences? Feel free to comment.