DESPITE its fascinating history and enviable position at the heart of Scotland, not to mention the key role it played in the industrial revolution, Falkirk has long been overlooked by tourists.

I got a real sense of this in the flurry of emails from locals when I asked for recommendations: residents feel passionate about this town and want others to get to know it.

Two landmark out-of-town developments, the Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies, have recently put Falkirk firmly back on the map. But there’s lots more to explore in this easily accessible and welcoming town.

Historical highlights

Originating from the Gaelic for “speckled church”, which was then translated into the Scots “Fawkirk”, Falkirk’s history stretches back to Roman times. The Antonine Wall, which marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire and stretches westwards to Old Kilpatrick, passes through the town.

Falkirk’s strategic importance is highlighted by the two battles that were fought there, 450 years apart. William Wallace was defeated in 1298 by Edward I at the Battle of Falkirk, while in 1746, the Battle of Falkirk Muir saw the Jacobites, under Bonnie Prince Charlie, get the better of government troops.

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During the eighteenth century Falkirk made a huge contribution to Scotland’s industrial transformation. It was the earliest site of cast-iron making in the country, with James Watt using the Carron works to cast beams for his steam engine design in 1765.

The construction of canals was also important to Falkirk’s industrial and economic progress: the Forth and Clyde Canal opened in 1790, the Union Canal in 1820, linking Falkirk to Edinburgh, Glasgow and beyond. Falkirk was also the first town in the UK to have automated street lighting.

Like many industrial centres the town struggled in the latter half of the twentieth century. These days the retail, service and public sectors provide most jobs. The Ineos petrochemical site at neighbouring Grangemouth is also a big employer. Famous faces from the town include artist Dame Elizabeth Blackadder, TV presenter Kaye Adams, actor Forbes Masson and Robert Barr, founder of Scotland’s – other – national drink. Songwriters Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton – aka Arab Strap – are also from the town.

What to do:

Falkirk’s pedestrianised town centre has attractive streets and wynds, and some handsome buildings.

Just off the High Street is the Faw church (or Trinity, as is now known), built upon the site of the ancient place of worship that gave the town its name. The oldest parts of the current building – which belongs to the Church of Scotland – date back to the twelfth century. Notable tombstones in the graveyard include Sir John de Graeme, killed at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298. The striking tower was designed in the mid-eighteenth century by William Adam. The modernist St Francis Xavier RC Church on Hope Street is also architecturally eye-catching.

Dominating the Falkirk skyline, the 40m steeple on the High Street was built in 1814 to replace one that dated back to 1697 and served as the town’s tolbooth and prison.

South east of the town centre, Callendar Park and house is a must-visit attraction that merits a whole day of your attention. Covering more than 170 acres, and complete with its own wee loch, there are a multitude of beautiful trails and walks amid the grounds, which boast beautiful ornamental gardens and an Arboretum. There’s also a section of the Antonine Wall, which dates back to the 140s AD.

Inside the magnificent Callendar House (a star of the TV show Outlander) is a wonderful museum devoted to the Antonie Wall and Falkirk’s industrial heritage, not to mention a working Georgian kitchen and art gallery. The café is excellent, as is the children’s playpark.

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To the west of the town, you’ll also need at least a day to explore the aforementioned Falkirk Wheel. Opened in 2002, this engineering and architectural wonder links the Forth and Clyde, and Union canals, with a giant boat lift. Once you’ve finished gawping in amazement, you’ll want to take one of the hourly boat trips that can be booked in advance.

“There’s a great coffee shop and a gift shop with lovely staff,” adds Janet Foster. “You’ll hear accents from all over the world. The gift shop is currently staging an art installation called Urban Wolves, by local artist Heather MacDonald. I must admit to a bit of bias here – Heather is my granddaughter – but it’s a great exhibition and well worth popping into the shop for.” The three-mile circular walk of the site, taking in both canals and a short section of tunnel, is the perfect way to appreciate the scale and achievement of the project.

You’ll also need time to take in the scale and achievement of Falkirk’s other man-made wonder, the two 30m tall horse head sculptures known as The Kelpies. Created by sculptor Andy Scott, they look magnificent day or night. The Helix park in which they sit offers great walking, cycling, boating and kids’ play, too, not to mention a great café.

Muiravonside Country Park also makes for a fun day out, especially for youngsters and keen walkers. There are woodland trails, bridle paths and play areas galore throughout the 170-acre site, not to mention a sweet little farm with rare livestock and rescued animals.

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Where to eat

Falkirk residents Stewart and Jean recommend the Acoustic Café on Melville Lane. “The best café in the town,” they say. “The guitar-lined walls create a great atmosphere, and the soups, paninis and cakes taste great. There is regular live music, too, including weekly open mic nights.”

As well as delicious home baking, Tea Jennys in King’s Court, just off the High Street, serves each pot of tea in a bespoke tea cosy, while Pots in Cow Wynd makes for the ideal afternoon tea destination thanks to an enticing selection of cupcakes.

With its authentic bases, tasty toppings and range of vegetarian and vegan options, North Star Pizza on Vicar Street, next to Falkirk Grahamston station, is a favourite with locals.

For a tasty fish supper, you can’t beat Benny T’s, a sit-in and takeaway in the Laurieston district of town.

Where to Shop

Falkirk local Anne Stewart is keen to highlight independent shopping in the town centre. “Cow Wynd is a pretty street,” she says. “Quest ladies and menswear are definitely worth a look and Wild at Heart has affordable and quirky accessories, jewellery and handbags. Nearby Bean Row Pottery offers workshops, events and commissions, while Puddle Lane in Baxter’s Wynd stocks lovely gifts. Glebe Fashion, on Glebe Street, is always worth a looks, as is nearby Scarlett Ribbons. Finish a great day’s shopping with a gin and tonic or cocktail at the Jolly Gin and Craft in Wooer Street.”

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Where to stay

Central: The Orchard Hotel has overlooked Kerse Lane since 1786 and is within walking distance of countless pubs, cafes and restaurants. There’s also a cosy bar and bistro. Rooms from £60 a night.

Award-winning: The Kelpies Serviced Apartments in Newmarket Street offer comfortable modern accommodation, complete with cooking facilities. From £65 a night.

Loft living: For an elegant and contemporary feel, The Falkirk Loft is central and stylish. Sleeps two. From £60 a night. Go to Airbnb for details.

What to do nearby

Fans of the Antonine Wall will also want to visit Rough Castle, just outside Bonnybridge, the best-preserved fort anywhere along the route of the wall, complete with a surviving section of rampart. A unique insight into Roman life.

Thirty minutes’ drive from Falkirk is The Pineapple, the bizarre and much-loved folly erected in 1761 that has been amazing and amusing visitors for generations.

Rainy days are made for seeing films at The Hippodrome in Bo’ness, Scotland’s oldest purpose-built picture house, which has been wowing movie-goers since 1912.

Additional reporting by Kerri McGuire.

In the forthcoming weeks I'll be visiting Pittenweem, Dumbarton and Queensferry. Send your suggestions for things to do and places to eat, shop and stay to: