Highlights of Northern Ireland
Most first time visitors to Ireland focus their attention on the Republic of Ireland, leaving its interesting, picturesque and less crowded neighbor to the north for a “later visit.” It is understandable as there is enough to keep one busy in Ireland for months on end; however, Northern Ireland deserves just as much attention as it has interesting cities, rugged coastline and many historical sites based on its complicated history.
Many of today’s travelers grew up during times of turmoil in Northern Ireland and avoided the destination altogether. If you have skipped over Northern Ireland in your past travels, now is the time to circle back and see all that it has to offer. A vibrant population with substantially less tourists than other destinations in Europe combined with a blend of Irish and English cultures make it a very enjoyable place to visit. You do not need as much time as you do to visit the Republic of Ireland as the land mass of Northern Ireland is considerably smaller, but 4- 5 days should be allocated in order to do it properly (inclusive of Belfast). Here are some of the top experiences to make the most of your time here!
Drive along the beautiful coastline
While the cities are often the main draw for visitors, the rugged and rural coastline of Northern Ireland is reason enough to visit. Once you are here, it will come as no surprise that the Antrim Coast is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The highlight of the coast is the UNESCO World Heritage site, Giant’s Causeway. Volcanic activity is responsible for creating the hexagonal shapes of basalt rock formations; however, those in favor of legend over science claim that the mighty giant, Finn McCool, is responsible for carving out the formations before he left for battle in Scotland. Whichever way you tend to lean, the site is worth a visit for the uncanny parallels in the formations and a peaceful spot on the coast. Don’t let the hordes of visitors drive you away, the further down you walk, the more likely you are to find quieter spots.
The seaside town of Portrush is a good place to stop in between Derry and Belfast as it is conveniently located near many of the attractions and its location on a mile long peninsula provides unobstructed views of the Atlantic Ocean. It is known for great golf courses right on the water as well. We stayed at The Bayview Hotel and were lucky enough to snag an oceanfront room – the perfect spot to watch the sunset.
When leaving Portrush and heading toward Belfast, make sure to take the Causeway Coastal Route into Belfast for the scenic views!
Visit many interesting attractions
While Belfast gets much of the attention as Northern Ireland’s largest city, its second city of Derry (Londonderry) is worthy of a stop. The historical city was named as the UK City of Culture in 2013 and draws crowds partially due to the fact that the entire city center is encircled by 17th-century walls which you can walk along. Its riverside location also makes it an enjoyable place to visit and with the unveiling of the Peace Bridge in 2011 Ebrington Square is now connected with the rest of the city center. The bridge was built as a physical symbol peace in an attempt to bridge the long-standing dissent between Catholics and Protestants. We stayed at the City Hotel Derry, conveniently located a short walk outside the walled city with views of the river Foyle.
Located near Giant’s Causeway, the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge links the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickarede and allows visitors to walk across the 20 meters. It is not for those with a fear of heights as the water crashes against the rocks 30 meters below, but it is not as rickety as people describe and is actually quite safe. The attraction can get crowded and people will queue as the attraction controls how many people go across at a given time so I recommend early in the morning or late afternoon. The scenery is really beautiful and is worth a visit even if you do not want to cross the bridge!
Previously part of the estate of Bishop Frederick Augustus Hervey, Mussenden Temple is perched atop a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Its precarious location provides incredible views, but was almost the detriment of the temple which was almost lost to see due to erosion. The National Trust has since stabilized the cliff which houses the temple. Mussenden Temple was never on my radar – this was something Max found in his search for good photography spots and I’m so glad we stopped by. We had the most beautiful morning there!
You will see your fair share of castles in Ireland and Northern Ireland, but one of the highlights is Dunluce Castle, a ruined medieval castle perched on a cliff over the Antrim Coast. The castle has a tumultuous history which the ruins speak to and is worth a stop in your drive along the coast.
A large number of people visiting Northern Ireland these tend to be fans of the HBO-hit Game of Thrones. Many attractions, tours and GOT-specific maps exist in order to guide fans to the filming locations throughout Northern Ireland, but one of the most famous spots is the Dark Hedges. While I don’t watch the show, Max does and he was adamant about finding this spot (warning: it can be tricky to find, look up directions ahead of time)!
The unsung hero of our Northern Ireland travels was the Glenariff Forest Park. Located just over an hour outside Belfast, we had had a long day in the car and were looking for somewhere to stretch our legs and do some hiking. With over 1,000 hectares of wooded areas, Glenariff is the perfect place to spend the afternoon (or longer, we didn’t want to leave). There are many different trails of different lengths, but our favorites were the Viewpoint Trail, Scenic Trail and Waterfall Walk Trail which leads you to exactly what you would think – impressive waterfalls. It is an incredibly peaceful place, we could not get over how empty it was!
Try the famous whiskey
As you travel along the Antrim Coast, one of the best places to stop is the small village of Bushmills which is also home to the oldest, legal distillery of the same name. The Old Bushmills Distillery was founded in 1608 and tours are available daily. The tour is very informative and shows you the distilling process along with the amount of whiskey lost along the way. You are also given a chance to taste your whiskey of choice at the end of the tour – and they even offer a tasting of some varieties which are not sold commercially.
Partake in the food culture
Northern Ireland is part of the same farm to table movement occurring in the Republic of Ireland. We had delicious food in Belfast, but also had a stellar meal in Bushmills at the Tartine at Distiller’s Arms. The beautiful dining room matched the incredible food and a vibrant atmosphere. Make sure to make reservations in advance as the dining room was full the whole time we were there!
These highlights of Northern Ireland exclude everything related to Belfast, which I have previously covered here. For those traveling from Donegal through Northern Ireland, these attractions can all be visited on your way to Belfast. For those traveling from Belfast, you should allow extra few days to visit these gems of the Antrim Coast.
Have you ever visited Northern Ireland? Is it somewhere you have an interest in visiting?