24 Hours in Stirling

“They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”

Stand on the east bank of Old Stirling Bridge, looking across the stone gateway to the city with the castle perched high on the hill and you can imagine William Wallace addressing the troops as they prepared to fight the advancing English army back in 1297.  Wallace is still a revered character in Stirling, with a huge monument to him just a mile or so north of the city centre, which offers some outstanding views back to the city and the surrounding rolling hills.  You can reach the monument by bus 52 or UL from outside the main station every thirty minutes. If you fancy a bit more history then you can head south to Bannockburn where there is a visitor’s centre detailing the infamous battle.

Today the English get a more friendly welcome in Scotland’s 20th biggest city, seen as the “broach that binds the Highlands with the Lowlands”.  Just over 30 minutes from the centre of Glasgow and under an hour from Edinburgh, Stirling is a perfect addition to any trip north of the border.  Traditionally, this was the lowest bridging point on the Forth, which made it such a strategic point and a focus for military activity.

There’s plenty to keep you busy here for 24 hours – to get the best out of the city we’d recommend putting on your walking boots and starting at the main station.  Cross the footbridge just south of the station where you can grab some fantastic views of the surrounding hills and then head north along Forth Street, until you reach the river’s edge at Lover’s Walk. From here follow the river north and you will get to the Old Stirling Bridge where you can step back into the time of Wallace and the advancing English army.

From here it is quite a hike up Upper Bridge Street towards the castle but the views are certainly worth it.  At the top of Broad Street is where most of the action happens.  Here you will find the spooky Old Town Jail, the Church of the Holy Rude where the child king James VI was crowned and some fantastic views from the graveyard as well as Stirling Castle itself.

The walk back down is best saved for lunch time where you can pop into a few of the culinary highlights of the city.  The oldest pub in the city centre is the Nicky-Tams on Baker Street which serves some good home-cooked food and local ales, whilst just a few doors down in a branch of Brewdog which never fails to hit the spot.  Slap-bang next door to that is the Brea Restaurant which is highly recommended.

When the sun goes down then the locals come out, mixing with the students from the university and enjoying a decent range of pubs and bars.  The Cold Beer Company on Murray Street is worth a stop, whilst just up the road and opposite Brewdog is Number 2 Baker Street.

The Stirling Highland Hotel on Spittal Street and just a few hundred yards from the Holy Rude is one of the best addresses in town for the night, even closer is the Portcullis which is on Castle Wynd and has some charming rooms.  If you are looking for a more budget option then on the far side of the station you will find a Premier Inn, or a bit further down Forthbank Way near the football ground is the Holiday Inn Express.

Football you say?  Stirling Albion may not be playing Premiership football but it is a friendly place to visit with some excellent views of the surrounding hills.  It is a fair trek out of the city centre along Forthbank Way although there is a regular bus service from the train station.  Also on Forthbank Way is the new-ish Vue Cinema and a few more chain restaurants.  Also on this side of the railway is the interactive conservation space, The Engine Shed, which is worth a few hours of your time, especially for those with kids.

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24 Hours in Aberdeen

Welcome to the Granite City said the sign as you drive across the River Dee from the A90.   Aberdeen.  Home to Henry Cecil, Graeme Garden, Brewdog and Alex Salmond, winner of Britain in Bloom a record ten times and the 56th most habitable city in the world. That’s quite an introduction to a city that is often forgotten on the cultural map of Great Britain, one of the furthest outposts on the tourist trail of these wonderous Isles.

The city’s history has been tied to the sea and it is no different today.  The quayside still bustles with activity, day and night as the onshore home of the North Sea Oil and Gas industry.  The importance of the sea in the development of the city can be found in the Maritime Museum, located in Shiprow which also offers some fine views across the harbour area and is free to enter.  Another interesting museum in the city centre is the Tolbooth Museum which is one of Aberdeen’s oldest buildings and one of the best-preserved 17th century gaols in Scotland. It features displays on local history and the development of crime and punishment through the centuries and provides a unique experience in the form of its atmospheric 17th and 18th century cells, original doors and barred windows.  For something more hands on and educational then head to the Science Museum in Tramsheds – admission is £5.75 for Adults and £4.50 for Kids.

For those with a more criminal mind, you can follow the stories of crime writer Stuart MacBride who has used the city for the location of his Logan McRae thrillers such as Cold Granite and Dark Blood, with a self-guided tour around the places featured in his book.

The city features a number of parks and gardens such as the Hazlehead Park and Duthie Park and Winter Gardens, whilst the fine beach of Balmedie is within touching distance of the city centre.  A walk through Seaton Park down to Brig o’Balgownie, Scotland’s oldest bridge, is well worth the effort. Built on the orders of Robert the Bruce and restored in 1607, it served as the River Don’s main crossing point. Lord Byron, referred affectionately to the single span bridge in Don Juan.  If you are prepared to travel out of the city a bit then the Queen’s favourite country retreat, Balmoral, is open between April and July, located around 50 miles west.

Located just five miles outside the city centre is the state of the art home of the craft brewery craze.  Brewdog can quite rightfully sit back and say “we did that” when they see the hundreds, if not thousands of micro-breweries opening up around the world today.  The DogTap is located at the brewery and allows you to get up close and personal with the beer and the brewery process.  Tours are available Monday to Friday at 4pm and 6pm, and 12pm, 2pm and 4pm at weekends and costs £15 per person, which of course includes a few beers. Number 67 & 68 buses run regularly from Aberdeen city centre to Ellon Park & Ride which is a short, thirst-inducing, walk away.  They also have a bar in the centre of town in Gallowgate.

The nightlife in Aberdeen is often something that people often come to the city for and there is so many bars to choose from that it is impossible to scratch the surface in one evening.  The Howff in Union Street is one of the best rated bars as well as offering some decent food, whilst literally just down the road is The Pint of Cupid which is certainly a fixture on most nights out.  The Tippling House in Belmont Street gets very busy in the night as it offers an extensive food menu and whisky tasting.  Finally, The Illicit Still in Guestrow offers food, drink, pool and a good location.

I actually had my first ever Deep Fried Mars Bar back in 1999 in Stonehaven in The Carron Fish Bar, which used to proudly display a banner on the side of the building claiming they invented the snack, although today they’ve been forced to remove the claim.  However, there are still places around the city where you can try the “delicacy”.  Alternative, for a real unique snack, head to Pittordrie, home of Aberdeen Football Club where you can sample the Pittordrie Pie, so good that the football club are looking at trademarking the meat pie.

There are a number of good hotel options in the city, with the majority falling into the “reasonable” bucket.  Jurys Inn Aberdeen is right in the centre of the action, opposite the station and has the airport bus stop right outside, whislt the Premier Inn Aberdeen City Centre Hotel is just north of Union Street, in the heart of the main night time action. Holiday Inn Express Aberdeen City Centre is also in the area and good value if booked in advance.  If you really want to push the boat out then consider the Mecure Ardoe Hotel in South Deeside Road which looks like a Disney-esque castle.

Aberdeen’s Dyce Airport is located six miles northwest of the city centre and is served by BA from Heathrow, Easyjet from London Gatwick and Stansted, as well as FlyBe from London City.  The airport is linked to nearby Dyce railway station by the 80 Dyce Airlink shuttle bus which runs between the station, where you can get a train every 30 minutes to the city centre. Trains run on a regular basis up the east coast from Glasgow and Edinburgh via Dundee.

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24 Hours in Glasgow

“Ah Glasgow” said the man on the bus from the car park at Stansted Airport when I told him where I was going, “Edinburgh’s ugly little sister”.  Harsh it seemed, although he then regaled me of tails growing up in Cumbernauld, itself voted the second worst place to live in the United Kingdom back in 2003.  On my last two visits, albeit for the Olympic and Commonwealth Games in 2012 and 2014 respectively, the city centre had been spruced up and even bus drivers had been known to stop to let passengers on.  Glasgow was back on the tourist map.

The city centre is one of the easiest to navigate in Europe, laid out on a rough grid pattern and bookend to the west by the monolithic cheap hotel chains that seem full with hen parties every weekend, gaggling all night long courtesy of whatever luminous WKD is on special offer at the off licences on Argyle Street, whilst to the east are the refined, Victorian Winter Gardens.  The city’s history has been shaped by the River Clyde that used to act as the barrier between the industry of the docks of Govan and Ibrox to the south, whilst the mercantile district north of the river completed the contrast between brawn and brains.

Today, it is the cultural capital of Scotland, home to many fine galleries such as the Kelvingrove Art Museum, located in a stunning building on Argyle Street and home to Monet’s, Renoir’s, Picasso’s and Dali’s galore, whilst the Burrell Collection has its home in Pollock Country Park to the south of the city.  The redeveloped areas north and south of the river around the old Govan dockyards is a sign of the prosperity in the city.  Here you will find the Glasgow Science Museum, a fine place for the family to spend a couple of hours interacting with each other in the strangest of ways and also home to the Glasgow Tower where you can get some of the best views in the city, whilst on the north bank of the Clyde you will find the Riverside Museum plus the iconic Finnieston Crane.

For those who love their football, and let’s be honest, who doesn’t then a trip to Hampden Park is a must for the excellent tour of the National Stadium plus a visit to the National Football Museum, a bargain £29 for both for a family of four. Of course there are also options to take in a game at Celtic Park or Ibrox (plus a host of smaller clubs including Partick Thistle, St Mirren, Motherwell and Hamilton Accies). For something completely different, how about paying your respects to Saint Valentine?  His remains, so they believe, are held in the church of Blessed St Johns Duns Scotus.

George Square is the heart of the city, whilst just down the street in front of the Gallery of Modern Art you will find the iconic Duke of Wellington statue complete with a traffic cone on his head.  The city centre is a shopper’s paradise with chain stores littering the likes of Sauchiehall and Buchanan Street’s, as well as big retail parks on almost every point of the compass outside the central area.

All this culture is bound to make you thirsty so try one of the following bars to quench your thirst.  The Meat Bar, which also offers unsurprisingly a wide array of treats for carnivores, in West Regent Street is a popular location as too is Blackfriars Bar in Bell Street which changes its beers as frequently as Lady Gaga changes her costumes in a concert.  On the River Kelvin, not far from the Botantic Gardens Inn Deep offers a riverside setting and some decent beers. Finally, it would be wrong not to pay homage to Brewdog in its country of origin so head across the road from the Kelvinbridge Art Gallery in Argyle Street for some excellent brews from home and away plus some decent food.

Talking of decent food, want to try the infamous Deep Fried Mars Bar? The Blue Lagoon Fish and Chip Shop can satisfy your cravings.  The scotch pie should also be tried whilst in the city, which is a mutton spiced pie with pepper and can be served with Bovril or brown sauce, especially at football matches and other outdoor events. Pubs often hand them out for free at half time for key football matches. For some this is still not enough and they eat it in a buttered white roll.  For the really hungry try the Glasgow Salad, which is basically a box that typically includes kebab meat, fried chicken, pizza, chicken tikka, onion rings, pakora, naan bread, garlic bread, coleslaw, chips other fast foods and sauces.

For those wanting to head slightly further afield for culture and culinary delights then the beauty of Loch Lomond is just thirty minutes away by car but a million miles away in terms of beauty and serenity, whilst Stirling, home of William Wallace is the same distance away in a north-easterly direction.  Both well worthy of half a day of anyone’s time.

If you do end up staying the night then can I thoroughly recommend Malmaison in the quietish surrounds of West George Street where you can eat, drink and sleep in a former Greek Orthodox Church, whilst Citizen M continues to grab rave reviews for its approach to guest experience at their location in Renfrew Street.  If you like your toilet in the middle of your room, then this is the place to go. The budget chains such as Premier Inn, Travelodge and Holiday Inn Express can all also be found in central locations but expect to share with some raucous travellers at the weekend.

Glasgow is certainly a changed place.  The grittiness has been replaced by a polished finish, the chaos by order.  Well worth a weekend look in anyone’s book.