The Falkirk Wheel is situated in the heart of Stirlingshire, around 23 miles from Edinburgh and Glasgow. As the world’s only rotating boat lift, it has become a popular tourist attraction since opening in 2002.
The wheel lifts boats 115 feet into the air between Scotland’s Forth & Clyde and Union canals, and visitors can experience it in action on a 60-minute journey across both waterways.
|The Visitor Centre is open 7 days a week, 9.45 am – 5.30 pm
|Free to visit the site.
Concession £12.00 (anyone over 60, holding an Access Card, full-time Student or Falkirk Council Tax Payer
Child (5-15yrs) £8.00
Child (under 5) Free
Registered Carers Free
|Free car park on-site
|0870 050 0208
|Shop, restaurant, food kiosks, disabled access, boat trips
The Falkirk Wheel is a popular tourist attraction near Falkirk that has the distinction of being the world’s only rotating boat lift. This impressive example of Scotland’s world-leading engineering skills lifts boats over 115 feet into the air between the Forth & Clyde and Union canals, and since opening in 2002, it has seen over 1.5 million people take a ride on it.
Taking cues from the shape of Celtic axes, the Falkirk Wheel can lift up to six canal boats in a full rotation that takes just five minutes to complete – much faster than the 24 hours it used to take boats to transit the original canal locks. It’s an incredible feat of engineering, but it’s not until you take a trip on the wheel that you appreciate the size of it.
The ‘wheel’ (it’s not actually a wheel as you can see from the photos, but it does move in a circular motion), consists of two arms extending from a central axle with water-filled gondolas hanging off each end.
Each gondola carries a combined weight of 500 tonnes and holds as much water as an Olympic-sized swimming pool, yet they’re perfectly balanced thanks to a system of computer-controlled valves and pumps that syphon off the same weight of water as the weight of the boat that sails onto it. It then only takes as much energy to rotate the wheel as is used to boil eight kettles of water. Mind-boggling stuff.
If you want to experience a ride on the wheel, you can purchase an ‘original tour’ or a ‘revolution tour’ ticket from the visitor centre, with the original tour costing a few more pounds but lasting twice as long. Admittedly, it’s not exactly a white-knuckle ride (don’t have visions of Alton Towers before you arrive), but it’s gentle, sedate fun, and all ages will enjoy the views on the way up.
While the journey between the canals is the highlight of a visit, there are lots of other activities for families to enjoy including a children’s activity zone, a water play park, a mini canal, canoeing, bike hire, and woodland walks.
1: The standout experience at the Falkirk Wheel is the boat trip that allows visitors to ride the lift. The wheel raises boats by 24 metres (79 feet) in a matter of minutes. This feat of modern engineering is a spectacle to behold, and being on a boat as it’s lifted smoothly and efficiently is a unique experience.
2: The visitor centre is excellent and includes food and drinks stalls, information panels, and interactive displays aimed at both adults and children.
3: There are some really nice walks and cycle routes in the area. One trail I personally recommend is the Sustrans route 76, which runs from Edinburgh to Stirling.
1: The boat trip on the Falkirk Wheel is a must-do activity to fully appreciate this engineering wonder. These boat trips can be very popular, especially during the peak tourist season, so to ensure you get a seat it’s advisable to book your tickets in advance.
2: Before planning your visit, check the Falkirk Wheel’s operating times as they can vary with the seasons and may be affected by maintenance periods or special events.
3: The area around the Falkirk Wheel has much more to offer than just the wheel itself. Combine your visit with other nearby attractions such as the impressive Kelpies sculptures at Helix Park.
The highlight of a visit to the Falkirk Wheel has to be taking a ride on the purpose-built barges that sail between the canals, and it’s only by taking a tour that you’ll really get to appreciate this world-class example of ‘big engineering’ in action.
It doesn’t take long to get from ground level to the top of the next canal, but there’s a good view once you’re up there and I enjoyed watching the mechanism as it completed its turn. The only thing I’d have liked to have been able to do is take a closer look inside the central axle as it’s easily big enough to walk inside, but as far as I’m aware, the attraction doesn’t currently offer this as part of a tour.
That being said, the visitor centre has lots of informative displays that explain exactly how it all works and how the sections of the wheel fit together. As visitor centres go, the one at the Falkirk Wheel is excellent and you’ll find lots of gifts and souvenirs in the shop while the food stalls outside serve delicious food (I had an awesome wood-fired pizza), but they’re a little overpriced in my opinion, so you might want to take a picnic instead.
You’ll have plenty of opportunities to eat al fresco thanks to the lovely walkways along the canals, and if the weather’s warm enough, you can cool down in the water park near the visitor centre which has lots of valves, pressure pumps, and water wheels for children to play with.
If you fancy going a bit further out onto the water you can climb into a giant inflatable zorb ball and roll your way around it, or you can paddle across the canal on a stand-up paddleboard. Both activities have an additional fee (see the Falkirk Wheel website for details), but they’re good fun, which leads me to another family activity that might be worth paying extra for.
The Scottish Segway Centre provides off-road tours around the woodland paths that surround the Falkirk Wheel on gyro-controlled two-wheeled scooters. They look like they’re unsteady, but I have to admit that after a brief ride I felt right at home trundling along the paths near the wheel. Young and old can use them because they’re simple to operate, and gliding up to the viewing platform at the top of the Falkirk Wheel was the highlight of my visit, so I heartily recommend hiring one.
The Segway Centre also do a 50-minute ‘Segway Safari’ that follows the nearby Antonine Way which ends at the remains of Rough Castle, the former northernmost outpost of the Roman empire in ancient Britain. The only negative I have is that the tours are a wee bit expensive even though they’re great fun, with the safari costing over £110 for two adults and children.
The history of the Falkirk Wheel goes back almost a century to the time that a network of locks connected the Clyde and Union canals, long before it reached the design stage in the late 1990s.
Due to the 115-foot difference in height between the two canals, boats that wanted to sail between them had to pass through a total of eleven locks, each of which would have to be filled with water before the boat could move to the next in a process that could easily take the best part of a day. By 1930 the locks were no longer used and they were eventually dismantled in 1933, rendering water-based travel between the two canals impossible.
The final nail in the coffin of this once-important route across Scotland was the closure of the Forth and Clyde Canal in 1962, with the Union Canal being completely cut off from Scotland’s waterways in the mid-70s when it was blocked off at both ends.
Luckily for us tourists, the link between the two bodies of water was deemed worthy of re-opening thanks to the funds offered by the National Lottery and in 1999 a design was made that would allow boats to be transported vertically in a one-of-a-kind lift. This replacement for the old system of locks was built over the next three years and involved over a thousand people in its construction.
The amount of work that went into building the Falkirk Wheel is pretty amazing, with 8.8 million cubic feet of soil having to be excavated and over 2,000 feet of access roads having to be installed, not forgetting the 520-foot canal tunnel and 66-foot aqueducts that were also built.
It finally opened in 2002 at a cost of more than £17 million, and it has since become the highlight of Scotland’s remaining canal network, with more than 5 million people visiting it since its opening day.
Things to Do
Boat Ride: Experience the marvel of engineering as you take a boat ride on the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s only rotating boat lift. The 50-minute journey lifts you 35 meters above the ground, offering spectacular views of the surrounding landscape.
Explore The Visitor Centre: Visit the Falkirk Wheel’s state-of-the-art visitor centre to learn more about this engineering marvel. The centre offers interactive exhibits and informative displays that explain the history and workings of the wheel, making it a fantastic educational experience for both children and adults.
Water Activity Zone: For those looking for more adventure and excitement, the Falkirk Wheel offers a water activity zone. You can rent bumper boats, paddle boats, and even zorb balls, as well as go crazy in the Splash Zone – the perfect antidote to a hot summer’s day.
Walking and Cycling Routes: Beautifully landscaped paths that are suitable for both walking and cycling surround the Falkirk Wheel. These routes feature lovely views from start to finish and are a great way to spend an afternoon whether you’re an avid cyclist or a casual stroller.
Picnic with a view: Bring a picnic and relax in the green spaces around the Falkirk Wheel. With plenty of seating areas, it’s the perfect spot for a family lunch. Don’t forget to bring your camera – the wheel makes for an incredible backdrop for photos.
Things to Do Nearby
The Kelpies. Visitor Centre The Helix FK2 7ZT. 14-minute drive.
Two 30-metre steel artworks of Kelpies, mythical seahorses that are found in many Scottish folk tales. The artworks sit alongside a canal which joins the River Carron and there are a variety of trails heading out into the countryside in all directions. The Kelpies visitor centre includes shops and a café.
Rough Castle. Falkirk FK1 4RS. 13-minute drive.
The best-preserved fort on the Antonine Wall offers walking trails around the Roman earthworks that have been a feature of the landscape for more than 2,000 years. There are information panels dotted around the area and the walk to the Falkirk Wheel is a firm favourite with locals.
Helix Park. The Helix, Falkirk, Grangemouth FK2 7ZT. 11-minute drive.
Helix Park is a large recreation area outside Falkirk that features a network of cycleways, canal-side walkways, a large pond with water sports activities and a café.
Callendar House. Callendar Rd, Falkirk FK1 1YR. 12-minute drive.
14th-century Scottish baronial country house complete with a working Georgian kitchen, a children’s play park, picnic area, permanent exhibitions and a tearoom. The grounds include part of the Antonine Wall.
Falkirk. 9-minute drive.
Falkirk is a large town in central Scotland that offers a wide variety of shops, pubs and restaurants in a traditional high street. There are a number of historic landmarks in the town centre including the Falkirk Steeple and the Tattie Kirk as well as two modern shopping centres – Howgate and Callendar.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is the Falkirk Wheel famous?
The Falkirk Wheel is the world’s only rotating boat lift. The wheel lifts boats 35 metres from one canal to the next while using only as much power as required to boil 8 kettles of water.
Do you have to pay to see the Falkirk Wheel?
There is no fee to see the Falkirk Wheel in action, only for boat rides on the wheel. Visit the official website for the latest entry prices.
Can you walk from Falkirk Wheel to the Kelpies?
There is a footpath along the Firth and Clyde Canal which allows walkers to visit both attractions. The walk is 4 miles each way which takes approximately 1.5 hours (3 hours return).
How long does it take for the Falkirk Wheel to rotate?
The Falkirk Wheel rotates at 1/8 of a revolution per minute, with one full rotation taking 4 minutes in total.