To many people, Northern Ireland is just somewhere they hear about on the news. But, behind this façade lies a welcoming and friendly place with spectacular landscapes and bustling, youthful cities. There are many things to see in Northern Ireland, with Belfast and the Causeway Coast being named 2018 Region of the Year by Lonely Planet. Despite this, the country remains relatively untouched by mass tourism. Here, I’ll share my tips on things to do in Northern Ireland, a great wee place that really punches above its weight!
Things to do in Northern Ireland outdoors and in the countryside
Northern Ireland has a stunning and varied landscape, with rolling hills, rugged mountains and white, sandy beaches. Even if the weather turns rainy, it’s worth getting out and about. You can always relax in a warm pub after!
1) Giant’s Causeway, Causeway Coast, County Antrim
These monumental volcanic rocks are made up of levels upon levels of hexagonal stone columns. They rise up out of the churning sea, looking like they’ve been carved by a huge mythical being! The walk around the Causeway is an attraction in itself, taking you down a winding path and up along rugged cliffs, with a gorgeous birds-eye view. It’s one of Northern Ireland’s best-known attractions, with good reason.
2) Ballintoy harbour, Causeway Coast, County Antrim
Just along the coast lies the coastal village of Ballintoy, where you’ll find a cute little harbour and beach nestled between the cliffs. If it feels a bit familiar, it might be because parts of Game of Thrones was filmed here. You can enjoy the peace and quiet with a cup of tea and cake at the little café, taking in views of Scotland on a clear day.
3) Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Causeway Coast, County Antrim
If you’re feeling daring, take the clifftop walk to this rickety little bridge. Stretching between the mainland and the tiny Sheep Island, it was once used by salmon fishermen. If you’re lucky you might even catch sight of a seal, and you’ll get a certificate to prove how brave you are!
4) Portrush and its Beaches, Causeway Coast, County Antrim
The traditional seaside town of Portrush is a popular spot for locals and visitors alike. It’s got two pristine white-sandy beaches, and great waves. You’ll find plenty of surf schools and shops where you can rent out boards and wetsuits. Surfers ride the waves no matter what the weather, but if you don’t fancy it, pop into a local café or grab an ice-cream at Morelli’s, a local institution!
Photo credit: Jane Irvine
5) Rathlin Island, County Antrim
Even though it’s only a couple of miles off the coast, this six-mile long island feels like another world. Tourists who jump off the ferry from Ballycastle are often greeted by the sight of grey seals lounging on the rocks. The best time to visit is in spring or early summer, when hundreds of cute little puffins nest on the cliffs.
6) Mussenden Temple, County Londonderry
This rotunda-shaped library sits perched on sheer cliff towering above a white-sandy beach. Built over 200 years ago, its beautiful architecture and idyllic surroundings make it perfect for peace and contemplation. Nearby, you’ll find the ruins of Downhill house and beautiful gardens full of flowers- all within walking distance of the town of Castlerock, which is accessible from Belfast by train.
Photo credit: Owen Williamson
7) The Mourne Mountains, County Down
Northern Ireland’s tallest mountains are located right on the Southeast coast, near to the town of Newcastle. In view of the sea, and they are coated in woodland and beautiful purple heather. If you’re feeling active, why not head out on a hiking trip. Climb up to the 850-metre peak of Slieve Donard and relax by the side of great shimmering reservoirs, nestled amongst the hills.
Photo credit: Allie Mairs
8) Marble Arch Caves, County Fermanagh
The Marble Arch caves are a hidden underground labyrinth, where you can explore tunnels coated in beautiful minerals, with stalactites hanging like giant icicles. There are even electric boats to take you down the hidden subterranean rivers. Just be aware that the caves are closed from January-February and may become inaccessible after heavy rain.
9) Castle Archdale, County Fermanagh
This country park lies on the green shores of Lough Erne, a huge lake that stretches out for miles, surrounded by dense forest. During the summer months, you can take a boat trip to discover the wildlife of the lake’s islands, and a church with mystical 6th Century figures. If you’re looking for something a bit more exciting, there are sports such as kayaking and water-skiing on offer.
Things to do in Northern Ireland: exploring cities on foot
Northern Ireland doesn’t have many cities, but the ones it does have seen an explosion in arts, culture and restaurants since the end of the conflict. They’re also relatively youthful and unscathed by mass tourism, giving them an authentic feel and meaning you’re bound to bump into friendly locals.
10) University Quarter, Belfast
The student hub of Belfast is full of great-value restaurants and lively bars. The pointed towers of its iconic main building are sure to conjure up images of Harry Potter. Wander from here into the lush Botanical Gardens, which house an ornate Victorian Greenhouse. You’ll also find the Ulster Museum, where you can learn more about the troubled history that has made Northern Ireland what it is today. Backpackers will be glad to hear that all of this is free of charge.
Photo credit: Owen Williamson
11) Cathedral Quarter, Belfast
The streets around St. Anne’s Cathedral are adorned with lights, murals and are full of pubs, restaurants and cultural venues. You can check out plenty of live music at bars like the Harp Bar and John Hewitt, ranging from traditional Irish sounds to rock and jazz. If it’s culture you’re looking for, then check out the modern art exhibitions at the MAC or the theatre and music events at Black Box. All this makes it one of the best places to visit in Northern Ireland.
12) City Walls
Built between 1613 and 1618, the walls enclose what is now the last remaining walled city in Ireland. They’re in excellent condition, meaning you can walk around the whole 1.5km loop, taking in the views. They also boast Europe’s largest collection of cannons, including the spectacular Roaring Meg.
Things to do in Northern Ireland on a rainy day
Northern Ireland’s weather sometimes sees four seasons pass in a day, so it’s good to have back-up plans where you can huddle up indoors. Here are the best things to do in Northern Ireland on a rainy day:
13) The Old Bushmills Distillery
There’s nothing like a nice glass of whiskey to warm your heart in cold weather! Whether you’re a cultured connoisseur or just want to find out more, this place is definitely worth visiting. It’s not called “Old” for nothing, Bushmills got its licence in 1608, making it the oldest continuously-running distillery in the world. A lot has changed since then, but you can still get a close-up view of this magical process and enjoy a wee dram afterwards!
14) Titanic Belfast and Nomadic, Belfast
Belfast is proud of its shipbuilding heritage, especially when it comes to The Titanic. Opened in 2012, on the ship’s centenary, the museum stands at the same height as its deck, housing recreations of the Titanic’s interiors and a ride that takes you on a virtual tour of the shipyards. The tickets include admission for the Nomadic, which once ferried passengers to the legendary ship.
15) Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast
Crumlin Road Gaol is a former prison that allows you to explore the history of crime and conflict in Northern Ireland. Tours run throughout the day and include a trip down an eerie tunnel leading from the prison to the courthouse. You’ll also see execution chambers and cells that housed everyone from paramilitaries to Eammon DeValera, who would go on to become President of Ireland.
16) St. George’s Market, Belfast
The beautiful, redbrick St. George’s market was built over 120 years ago is open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings. Here you can find an eclectic mixture of produce, including: fish, antiques, books and works from local artists. There’s also a variety of different food and baking stalls, from the local to the international. Look out for the delicious traditional baked goods, including Belfast baps, as well as soda, wheaten and potato bread.
17) Tower Museum, Derry/Londonderry
Right in the centre of the walled city, beside the historic redbrick Guildhall sits a reconstruction of a medieval structure that once sat on the same site. Its audio-visual exhibitions will take you through the city’s history, from 7000 BC, right through the siege, the violence of the Northern Irish “Troubles” and local band “the Undertones”- the writers and original performers of “Teenage Kicks”!
18) Sunflower Bar, Belfast
Walk through the security cage outside the Sunflower, a relic of Northern Ireland’s dark past, and you’ll be greeted with a colourful space filled with posters celebrating LGBT rights, feminism and racial justice. There’s a friendly and open local crowd here, with a beer garden and outdoor pizza oven. It hosts musical acts most nights of the week: ranging from traditional Irish sounds to gypsy swing.
19) Sandinos café-bar, Derry/Londonderry
Named after a famous Nicaraguan revolutionary, this pub is draped with activist memorabilia and attracts a welcoming and friendly alternative crowd. Choose from a wide selection of commercial and craft beers and soak up the quirky atmosphere of Sandinos Cafe-bar. The bar also hosts regular live music nights and DJs.
20) City Hall, Belfast
Good news for backpackers, everything in this historic building, City Hall, is completely free! There’s an exhibition guiding you from the city’s founding in the 17th century, through wars, revolutions and the blitz, right up to the present. Take a free tour around its gorgeous interior, with luxurious carpets, chandeliers and stained glass windows.
Getting around Northern Ireland
Belfast has two airports – the central George Best City Airport in the east of the city, and the International Airport in the north. Getting into the centre from either is easy: the number 300 bus service runs to and from the International Airport, with the same being true of the 600 service to the City Airport. If you’re doing a tour of Ireland, there are also regular bus and rail links to Dublin. The city itself is easy to walk around, and there are plenty of local buses, as well as a bike share scheme and reasonably-priced taxis.
There is a train linking Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, as well as bus services (running from the Europa Bus Station to Derry/Londonderry Bus centre). Train services also run to Portrush, but you’ll need to change at Coleraine, where you can also get buses to other places on the Causeway Coast (such as Bushmills and Ballycastle).
Getting to and around Fermanagh is a bit more difficult, and will probably mean hiring a car – the landscape you’ll see on your drive will make this worth it. Newcastle and the Mournes can be easily accessed by bus from Belfast.
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About the author:
I’m David Irvine, and I’m originally from Northern Ireland. I’ve got a passion for languages, other cultures, and learning about local history. I’ve previously lived and worked in Germany and in Portugal, and love nothing more than showing people around my favourite places, wherever I am. As well as being a translator, I’m also an occasional scribbler and a passionate (geeky) fan of jazz music. You can find out more about my translating and writing work on my LinkedIn profile.