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Due to its troubled past, many travelers overlook Northern Ireland, but it offers just as much when it comes to natural beauty, history and culture as its southern counterpart. Even its large cities of Belfast and Derry, which were the stages for the majority of sectarian violence during The Troubles, with the Good Friday agreement and ceasefire declared in 1998, are safe enough to travel through, only experiencing rare, sporadic incidents, are well-worth visiting.
When putting together your itinerary, be sure to include at least some of these especially amazing things to see and do in this beautiful region.
Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Holywood
This interesting living museum set on over 170 acres of rolling landscape overlooking Belfast Lough, is just 15 minutes from Belfast city center. It was designed to provide a glimpse into Ulster life over a century ago, through rebuilt laborers’ cottages, rural schools, village shops and working farms all as they once were. Discovery Farm at the Folk Museum provides a living history experience that portrays daily life on the farms of the time where visitors can meet the people who lived on the land, visit the blacksmith in the Forge, help feed the hens while wandering through the farmyard, cuddle up to donkeys, pigs and goats, and even enjoy a taste of what’s cooking in the farmhouse kitchen. Costumed visitor guides demonstrate traditional crafts for an even more in-depth look, including everything from spinning and horse grooming to spinning, sheep shearing and country cooking.
In the Transport Museum, which holds the largest collection of trains, vintages buses and cars in Ireland, you can climb aboard steam locomotives and check out the beautiful horse drawn carriages as well as other classic vehicles.
Dunluce Castle, Bushmills
Dunluce Castle is one of the most iconic historic monuments in Northern Ireland, perched on the north Antrim coastline on a dramatic rocky promontory. Situated on the Antrim Coast just west of Bushmills 100 feet above the sea, the roofless ruins are particularly breathtaking just before sunset, or in the sunshine with the striking white chalk cliffs nearby. The former home of the clans McQuillan and MacDonnell, it’s been the site of a number of historic battles, a tragic fable, and a movie – Jackie Chan’s “The Medallion.” It’s also thought to have been the inspiration for Cair Parvael in C.S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
With its location on a panicle of basalt rock, and isolated from the coast by a 20-foot chasm, Dunluce must have looked quite formidable to its attackers. Some of the castle’s remains may date back to the 13th century, though much of it was built in the 16th and 17th century, when extensive additions were made to the residential quarters and fortifications. Dunluce still belongs to the McDonnell family, however, it is currently managed under a deed of guardianship by the Northern Irish Environment Agency and open for public tours.
Glens of Antrim
The North Antrim coast is especially alluring, but inland, the nine Glens of Antrim are also rather beguiling too. Filled with cascading waterfalls, forest trails, tranquil lakes and lush, rolling hills, each of the Glens offers its own unique charms. The most famous, Glenariff, or “Queen of the Glens,” is known as the fairest of them all, with its wild beauty of tumbling falls and a trail that skirts a sheer plunging gorge in Glenariff Forest Park. Cushendall, the capital of the Glens, is a lively center of music, dance and craic. The Glens are just as famous for its festivals, including the Heart of the Glens festival that takes place every year in August. Here in Cushendall, everyone sings and dances from dawn through the wee hours of the night. Glenarm, Carnlough and Cushendun also have festival weeks in July.
The Giant’s Causeway, located near the town of Bushmills, sits at the edge of the wild North Atlantic as a landscape of soaring cliffs and a coastal area made up of about 40,000 basalt columns. Created by a volcanic eruption that took place some 60 million years ago, this incredible site has inspired many artists, stirred scientific debate and sparked numerous myths and legends over the centuries. One legend says it was carved out by the mighty giant Finn McCool who left his ancient home behind to battle his foe, Benandonner, across the water in Scotland. Many of the sites throughout the area, bear testament to this fascinating myth, like The Wishing Chair, Giant’s Boot, The Camel, The Giant’s Granny and The Organ, which sits high upon the cliffs, looking almost as if it could really be played.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Ballintoy
The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is not for those who are extremely afraid of heights, though it is much sturdier than it once was. While the original suspension bridge had just a single handrail, today, there are rails on both sides. Many who cross it remark that it’s undeserving of the anxiety it invokes and feel it’s well worth making the crossing for the breathtaking views, though others prefer to stand back and observe. If you dare look down, watch for passing dolphins and even the occasional basking shark. “Game of Thrones” fans note that a number of scenes from this area were shot for the hit HBO series.
Ballintoy Harbour, Ballintoy
Ballintoy Harbour is another must-stop for “Game of Thrones” fans, though everyone will appreciate this picturesque, mostly undiscovered gem along the Causeway coastal route. The small fishing harbor can be found at the end of a short, narrow and steep road down Knocksaughey Hill, just west of the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. There are rock formations along the harbor that form tide pools with especially colorful moss in unique fiery reds, golds and greens growing everywhere. Set at the edge of the brilliant turquoise waters, it makes an especially idyllic sight. It was used as another filming location in the epic HBO series as the Port of Pike, where Theon Greyjoy sets foot back on the Iron Islands, admires his ship and has some trouble with his crew. There is also a charming stone café onsite serving up homemade fare, with especially delicious desserts and scones.
Stay at Whitepark House, Ballintoy
Whitepark House, perfectly set between the rope bridge and Giant’s Causeway in Ballintoy, and just a few miles from Bushmill’s Distillery, offers an ideal place to base your stay while exploring the Causeway coastal route. Built in 1730, this magnificent home overlooking White Park Bay and the expanse of the glistening North Sea beyond, is beautifully decorated with items from the owner’s exotic travels and also features a lovely garden and lavish conservatory.
Bob Isles, an especially gracious host, welcomes guests in as if they were longtime friends with afternoon tea and biscuits – and even helps you plan each day from start to finish to help you make the most of your stay. Large, comfy beds in rooms with gorgeous interiors will ensure a good night’s sleep. And, enjoying his especially delicious breakfasts by the window, makes for a fabulous start to the morning and fueling up for the day’s events.
Central Wine Bar, Ballycastle
Some of the best meals in Northern Ireland can be found in Ballycastle, a short drive away from Whitepark House. This charming, family-run business owned by Phillip and Gemma McHenry makes for a great night out with outstanding dining, impeccable service and fabulous entertainment. The restaurant/night club/bar has a warm, welcoming atmosphere – and, you’re likely to be greeted by Phillip McHenry or his hard working son Aaron, who will make you feel right at home while assisting you in choosing the perfect dish – and truly, you can’t go wrong with anything here from the superfood salad to the practically endless bowl of fresh mussels and the sticky toffee pudding for dessert.
Bushmill’s Distillery, Bushmills
Ireland is known for its Irish whisky, so a trip to a distillery is really a must. Bushmills Distillery is located just a few miles from the Giant’s Causeway, making it an easy stop along the way. Stop in for lunch at Bushmill’s Inn just down the road before you go so you can really relish that free sample at the end. It’s interesting to see how the whisky is made, and your guide makes it an especially entertaining tour, though most really look forward to tasting the spirits as the grand finale. If you don’t like it straight, you can choose to sip a hot toddy instead – wonderful on a chilly day, or if you’re feeling under the weather. The Irish really know how to do it right.
The Dark Hedges, Ballymoney
The Dark Hedges, a spectacular avenue of ancient beech trees, is one of Northern Ireland’s most photographed spots. Planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century, it was intended as a compelling landscape feature in order to impress visitors as they approached the entrance to Gracehill House, their Georgian mansion. This magical, unique stretch of trees remains an incredible sight after more than 250 years, and it’s also been used as a filming location in “Game of Thrones,” when Arya Stark escapes King’s Landing with the latest recruits heading for The Wall. As you walk down Bregagh Road, it feels as if the trees have some kind of magical power that draws you right in. For the best experience, and to capture photos without loads of tourists, arrive early.
Titanic Museum, Belfast
Even if you’re not a fan of museums, this is one you won’t want to miss. Titanic Museum is absolutely fantastic, and truly different for the rest. You could easily spend two full days, or more, browsing its many exhibits that include a display of artifacts from the ship, with letters, clothing and rooms that have been re-created. There are virtual reality rooms, multi-media displays and even live cameras from the team that discovered the wreck, revealing the underwater salvaging and research that’s being done today. If you’re wondering, “Why Belfast?” The RMS Titanic, which sailed on its maiden voyage on April 10, 2012 as the largest and most luxuriously appointed ship ever seen at the time, was built in Belfast.
Black Cab Taxi Tour, Belfast
These quirky, offbeat tours taken in traditional black cabs, will bring you on a fascinating 90-minute journey through Belfast, including its wall murals, the so-called Peace Walls that keep Protestants and Catholics apart, the university, the docks, Catholic Falls Road and Protestant Shankill Road. You’ll hear about the infamous “troubles,” get political insights and much more, all from your driver’s perspective for a unique historical and cultural experience. Your driver can pick you up from your hotel, or other location, anywhere throughout the city.
Derry’s Walls, Derry/Londonderry
Derry, nicknamed the “Maiden City,” as its walls have never been breached by an invader, is home to the only intact city walls that remain in Ireland, and one of only a few in all of Europe. The historic walls were built in the 17th century as a defense for early settlers. Completed in 1619, they’re over 26-feet high, nearly 30-feet thick and approximately one-mile in circumference, forming a walkway among the inner city. The four original gates were rebuilt in the 18th and 19th centuries, when three new gates were added. Taking a walk around the walls will reveal a lovely city that’s jam-packed with history, heritage and a vibrant cultural scene.
Slieve Donard, Newcastle
Known as the place where the “Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea,” the 2,700-foot-high Slieve Donard is Ireland’s highest peak. Both the mountain and its surrounding 27 peaks, offer a natural playground with glistening lakes and scenic trails that make up Northern Ireland’s highest and most dramatic range. If you can manage the challenging climb, you’ll be rewarded with vistas over Murlough Bay and the small town of Newcastle. Another option is the Mourne Way Walk, a 26-mile, off-road trek that winds through the foothills from Newcastle to Rostrevor, providing a spectacular display of the impressive Mournes.
Devenish Island, Lough Erne, County Fermanagh
This island in Lough Erne, about three miles from Enniskillen, is home to the most extensive remains in Northern Ireland of early Christian settlement, complete with a round tower, monastery and shrines. It was founded in the 6th century by Saint Molaise, and during its history, was raided by Vikings in the 9th century, burned in the 12th, and flourished during the Middle Ages as a parish church site and St Mary’s Augustine Priory. The ruins date from different time periods, with the earliest including the 12th century St Molaise house and round tower. You can take a ferry, run by the DOE (Department of Environment), between Trory Point and the island, or a commercial boat tour on Lower Lough Erne which includes Devinish, operating from the Round O in Enniskillen and from The Manor House Hotel in Killadeas.
Marble Arch Caves Global GeoPark, Enniskillen
While in the Enniskillen area, be sure to visit one of the best show caves in Europe and the longest known cave system in Northern Ireland. In this series of natural limestone caves, named after the nearby Marble Arch, a natural limestone arch, you’ll be guided through a fascinating natural underworld of waterfalls, rivers, passages and chambers while magnificent formations, including stalactites and stalagmites, glisten all around. The tour begins with a short underground boat ride to a path where you’ll take an easy stroll through the narrow passageways, though there is a steep climb up 160 steps toward the end.
St Patrick’s Grave and the Saint Patrick Centre, Downpatrick
One of the most famous saints of all time, there are few who aren’t familiar with the story of Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, along with Brigid of Kildare and Columba. If you want to find out more, visiting Down Cathedral, which stands on the site of an 1183 Benedictine Monastery, should be on your itinerary. It is here in the graveyard that Saint Patrick’s remains are said to be buried. According to legend, Saint Patrick died in nearby Saul, and from there, angels descended and told those in charge of his body to put it on a cart and bury it in the first spot the oxen stopped. After lugging him up the hill, it’s not surprising they chose the place they did. Magnificent stained glass windows, a beautiful organ case and box pews in the cathedral make it worth seeing as well.
The Saint Patrick Centre is an exhibition that explores the legacy of the saint, in ancient and modern times, recalling Patrick’s story in his own words. A series of interactive displays allow visitors to learn more about how his legacy developed in early Christian times, and reveals incredible artwork and metal work produced during this “Golden Age.”