Belfast and the Causeway Coast were recently rated one of the best regions to explore in the world for 2018 by Lonely Planet. After visiting Northern Ireland myself in 2017, I can agree that this region is one that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. Possibly many more times! I traveled to Northern Ireland as part of my two week long road trip around the Emerald Isle, exploring everything this beautiful island has to offer. From stunning coastlines to medieval castles, Northern Ireland is truly a unique and attractive tourist destination. There is something for everyone in Northern Ireland, and the perception of run-down and dangerous Northern Ireland is no longer an accurate one. There are just so many things to do however, that I couldn't visit them all on my own, and have had the help of some fantastic travel blogger friends to help me out. This post compiles all the incredible things to do in Northern Ireland.
Causeway Coastal Route
The Causeway Coastal Route is 120 miles of spectacular coastline, which takes you past many of the top sights in Northern Ireland. We love road trips and have done many all over the world, but since we drove this route in October, it has become one of our all-time favorites.
Hugging the coast from Belfast to Derry-Londonderry should technically take about four hours drive time, but be prepared to double or even triple that estimate. This is due to the abundance of photo-worthy views with many natural and historical sights along the way that will demand stopping time and again. Our suggestion is to break up the drive into two segments with an overnight in a charming BnB or guesthouse in Ballintoy or Bushmills.
From Sarah at Live, Dream, Discover
Kinbane castle was probably one of my favorite places in Northern Ireland, although it is tough to pick a favorite! The ruins of Kinbane castle sit on a headland protrusion of limestone, jutting out from the cliffs into the ocean. The headland has a sea cave through the center. This cave or hollow is known as “Lag na Sassenach” or Hollow of the English. It referred to an event in the 1500s when a garrison of soldiers was sent to capture the castle and got trapped in the cave – either by the sea, the cliff side, or those who they were trying to attack. They were all killed here. Not much of the castle is left, but it is a truly magical but haunting place in Northern Ireland to explore. It is dangerous though, and it is not advised to visit in bad weather (like we did). You do need your hiking shoes and to be reasonably in shape as the descent and ascent of the cliff, while paved, is hard work, and the walk up onto the headland is dangerous, muddy and windy. A few people have died here, and it is not advisable to take children, as there are no handrails or protection past the descent of the cliff.
Perched precariously on the edge of cliffs of the Antrim coast, Dunluce Castle was truly one of the highlights of our road trip in Northern Ireland. The MacQuillan family built the castle in the 1500’s. The castle was seized by the MacDonnell clan and has several exciting legends and stories around it. One such story is that the kitchen collapsed down the cliff one stormy night, although archaeologists have argued that this did not happen. Another story tells of the Banshee of Dunluce Castle, the ghost of Lord MacQuillan’s daughter who died in the seas below the castle. Her father had her arranged to be married, but she was in love with another man and refused to marry her father's choice. Her father imprisoned her in the tower, and her lover came to rescue her. They left via boat out of the caves below the castle but unfortunately wrecked and died. Her ghost is said to haunt the prison tower on stormy nights.
Despite the legends and stories, Dunluce is a fun place to explore where you can imagine yourself as a resident of this castle with the ocean and cliff side views! The remainder of the Dunluce Town is still being studied, with only 5% of it excavated. It truly is an exciting snapshot of history in a beautiful setting.
The Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge
The Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge in Northern Ireland is an absolute must do. While it is a bit touristy, there is definitely a reason why so many people flock to this one of a kind attraction. Salmon fishermen have been crossing this bridge to this tiny island for over 350 years! It is no longer used for that purpose. Now, brave souls can pay a small entrance fee to cross the bridge just as so many people have done for hundreds of years. Count yourself lucky though as the netting and mesh didn't used to be there.
I would suggest getting here right when they open as they cap entry and having some flexibility in your schedule. Like so many things in Ireland, weather can heavily alter plans. If your weather isn't just perfect like ours was, they could close the entrance to the bridge. High winds are nobody's friend on a rope bridge. For a little fun, pay the small price to get a certification of completion at the end. You can pick one up on the way out for only one pound.
From Ashley at A Southern Gypsy
Ireland and Northern Ireland boast some of the most stunning coastline views in the world. The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland has stood the test of time against one of the roughest seas, having been developed some sixty million years ago. These massive basalt columns, some 40,000 of them, are the result of volcanic activity in the area.
Or… you can believe the legend that they were built by giants! In Ireland lived a Giant called Finn MacCool. He was a relatively small giant, standing at 52 feet. Across the sea in Scotland, there was another giant – Benandonner. They yelled across the sea and challenged each other to a trial of strength. Finn built the Giant’s Causeway, as a pathway to Benandonner’s home in Scotland, Fingal’s Cave. Finn fell asleep with exhaustion from his efforts, and Benandonner approached across the causeway. He was monstrous, and Finn would be no match for him. Finn’s wife, Oonagh, realized this and quickly dressed the sleeping Finn as a baby. When Bennandonner saw the sleeping Finn, dressed as a baby, he panicked and fled, thinking if the baby was so large, Finn must be much larger than him. He ran back across the causeway, tearing it up as he went so that Finn could not follow him.
The Giant’s Causeway is truly a marvel to behold. If ever you thought that Mother Nature was, in fact, a person building her structures, then this is where you would believe that. Check out my guide to making the most of a visit to the Giant’s Causeway.
The Dark Hedges
The Dark Hedges has been made famous in Northern Ireland by the Game of Thrones series, but they deserve recognition as one of Northern Ireland’s best sights in their own right. These beech trees were planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century, as a way to impress visitors to their home, Gracehill House. I doubt the Stuart Family expected their beech trees to be one of Northern Ireland’s most visited tourist attractions. The sight is best visited early in the morning, before the crowds and tour buses. I was lucky enough to arrive with the rising sun sneaking through the tree branches, with only one other person around. The trees have taken a couple of hits over the years, with various storms, and some complaints of traffic from tourists but they still have an enchanting quality to them. Like many places in Ireland, there is just something magical about walking on the road, being dwarfed by these beautiful trees. It is well worth a visit.
Glens of Antrim
There are 9 Glens in Antrim County Northern Ireland, and each one is more stunning than the next. Names redolent of fairies, and wee folk; Glencloy, Glencorp, Glenballyeamon, Glenaan, Glendun, Glenarm, Glenshesk and Glentaisie. Glenariff or the Glen of the Plough but known as the 'Queen of the Glens,' with its surging waterfalls -one of which bears the name Tears of the Mountain. The pure, clean light of rain washed Irish skies and fell upon ladder farms running up and down the hills and valleys of Antrim with the lambs and sheep chewing through miles of green. An area often missed by tourists the Glens are a must see in the North.
From Faith at XYU and Beyond
Northern Ireland's capital city, Belfast, is seeing a huge revival and is quickly becoming a hot, new tourist destination. The city is well-known historically as a hub of industrializatoin and ship building, but also for dark periods of its history, the Troubles. The city has moved forward from these times and has undergone a period of peace and calm with growth occuring in the city center and in tourism. There are many different things that attract new visitors to Belfast as it tries to shake off its image from the past. While I didn't get a chance to explore this city myself, my friends have shared some of the best things to do in Belfast:
The Black Cab Tour
The Black Cab Tour in Belfast is a unique experience and something you shouldn’t miss when visiting the city. On this tour, local cab drivers take you around the city and show you the non-touristic and “not-so-nice”-areas of Belfast, with a focus on the religious clashes of Belfast’s troubled past (and unfortunately still present at parts). The cab drivers stop in several local communities and at the Peace Wall while telling their personal stories and experiences about life in the city. Despite the depressing and problematic topic, the guides are very enthusiastic, passionate and entertaining. This tour was probably the most exciting history class I ever had!
From Patrick at German Backpacker
The Titanic Museum
Everyone knows of the majestic Titanic that sunk on her maiden voyage on April 14th, 1912. However, did you know that the Titanic was built in Northern Ireland? Belfast is the birthplace of the Titanic.
Now you can go to the capital of Northern Ireland and experience the Titanic yourself at the beautiful Titanic museum and exhibition. The Titanic Museum, located in the fancy Titanic Quarter of Belfast is an interactive museum, taking visitors through the stages of the Titanic. From Belfast history to the building, and sinking of the ship the whole experience takes at least two hours to complete. Visitors can even walk around the area and see just exactly where the Titanic was constructed. It's one of the coolest things to do in Northern Ireland and has brought me back twice to the city of Belfast. Don't forget to check out The Dock Cafe around the corner!
From Natasha and Cameron at The World Pursuit
Other things To Do in Belfast:
- Visit the Peace Walls (if you don't do this with the Black Cab Tour above). The Peace Walls were erected around 30 years ago separating rival Catholic and Protestant communities.
- Explore and marvel at Belfast's City Hall
- Take in natural science, history and Takabuti the mummy at the Ulster Museum
- Get in some hiking on Cave Hill
- Shop, eat and be merry at the popular St George's Market
- Stroll through Cathedral Quarter - a haunt of historic poets, writers and artists, but now a trendy hub of restaurants, bars and galleries.
- Have dinner and a Guinness at the historic and beautifully decorated Crown Bar (Crown Liquor Saloon)
Explore the murals in Derry/Londonderry
Derry/Londonderry, in Northern Ireland, is home to a variety of emotional murals commemorating the dangers and trauma of The Troubles, a 30 year long Irish/British conflict in the late 20th century. Irish Republicans fought against British Loyalists for control of Northern Ireland, resulting in numerous deaths and international intervention.
The murals themselves are world renown and convey a deep emotional feeling. They tell the Republican story of rebellion, assassination attempts, and the brutal British crackdown that followed. Your best bet for viewing all of the murals and learning their history in the city is to hire a black cab. Tours last about 90 minutes and you’ll have a much better understanding of both side’s motivations and plenty of pictures to share.
From Scott & Hayley at International Hotdish
Castle Ward – Game of Thrones Starting Point
If Northern Ireland were famous for one thing out of many that would be because several scenes from Game of Thrones were shot here. If you head off on a road trip around the country chances are you'll come across many locations that will remind you of Westeros!
Belfast is where the Iron Throne sits but most of season one was filmed near Winterfell aka Castle Ward near the south of Belfast. Castle Ward, a National Trust property is where Winterfell was located. Situated near Strangford Lough, the grounds are massive and a lovely location to take a long walk. You could also do a 'Game of Thrones' walk, visiting some of the major sights from season one on the way. The Starks' farmyard was also located in Castle ward, and you can have an archery experience on the grounds.
While wandering around the grounds, you're sure to come across colorful houses and even catch seals and mussel farms. If you've still got time to spare, the pretty town of Strangford is worth a visit to enjoy fresh seafood. The Cuan is a great restaurant to visit too!
From Lavina at Continent Hop
Other points of interest close to Castle Ward:
- Downpatrick – stay at the Denvir’s Inn, the oldest coaching inn in Ireland
- Inch Abbey – another GOT film sight
- Ballynoe Stone Circle
Where to stay in Northern Ireland
The beauty of Northern Ireland and all of its wondrous sights is that they are not very far about. All of the sights included on this map are within two hours driving distance. I would recommend staying at the Ballylinny Cottages on the coastal causeway. The cottages are a five minutes drive from the Giant's Causeway, and many of these sights are less than 20 minutes away. The Ballylinny Cottages are in a tranquil, picturesque setting, and make for the perfect base to explore Northern Ireland. For more information on the Ballylinny Cottages, check out my post on Where to Stay in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is really one of the most spectacular places I've been able to visit. From the history to the stunning landscapes, there is something for everyone here. But especially the history and landscapes! I fell in love with this part of the Emerald Island, and I would love to return in the summer to explore it without freezing! Thank you to all the bloggers who contributed to this post.
See the Google Map below if you are looking for a bunch of places to see when you travel to Northern Ireland. I have tried to include all the spots of interest I wanted to see, even though I did not have time.
Pin this guide to Northern Ireland for later!