Unlike the Republic of Ireland (with its images of endless green fields, fountains of Guinness and melodious ballads with haunting tin whistle solos), Northern Ireland’s recent history (from the past 90 years) has left it with an unenviable reputation: riots, terrorism, military misbehaviour and the like. Nevertheless, there are a lot of interesting things to do in Northern Ireland.
Hence, Northern Island can be a pleasant surprise – even though, in fairness, it shouldn’t be. The fields are just as green, the music is just as haunting, the leprechauns are just as non-existent (which is good, as I couldn’t imagine anyone so annoying), the accents are just as impenetrable (though very different), and most of the violence ended years ago.
- 1 Northern Ireland
- 1.1 Things To Do In Northern Ireland
- 1.1.1 1- Explore the Giant’s Causeway
- 1.1.2 2- Drink Whiskey in Bushmills
- 1.1.3 3- Discover Derry
- 1.1.4 4- Explore Armagh
- 1.1.5 5- Wander The Streets of Belfast
- 1.1.6 6- Explore Medieval Ireland at Dunluce Castle
- 1.1.7 7- Search for Shipwrecks on Rathlin Island
- 1.1.8 8- Visit Scrabo Tower
- 1.1.9 9- Climb Slieve Binnian
- 1.1.10 10- Explore Carrickfergus Castle
- 1.1.11 11- Surf at Whiterocks Beach
- 1.1.12 12- Marvel at Glenoe Waterfall
- 1.1.13 13- Go on a Game of Thrones Tour
- 1.1.14 14- Visit Dark Hedges
- 1.1.15 15- Experience the life of Seamus Heaney at HomePlace
- 1.1 Things To Do In Northern Ireland
Things To Do In Northern Ireland
1- Explore the Giant’s Causeway
Negotiating your way along the narrow and winding (but wonderfully smooth) roads of the Antrim coast, the waterfalls, emerald hills and mighty cliffs make it clear that the south of the island has no monopoly on Irish beauty.
In the north, the Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s answer to Uluru or the Grand Canyon – a natural wonder, millions of years old, that is so unique that it looks like a scene from a fantasy novel: thousands of basalt stone columns, facing the crashing waters of the North Channel.
You’ll soon see why it’s one of the most famous landmarks in Ireland.
2- Drink Whiskey in Bushmills
Nearby is the village of Bushmills, famous for the whiskey of that name. (Unlike the Scottish, the Irish insistently spell ‘whiskey’ with an E.).
The distillery has operated since 1608, and now holds regular tours and tastings, where you can compare the smooth taste of Bushmills single malts with the smoky, vastly different flavour of Johnnie Walker.
It’s part of Northern Irish life and you can drink whiskey in Dublin, Belfast or anywhere else but having a wee dram in Bushmills is an experience you’ll always remember.
Hotels have bottles of Bushmills Original on the breakfast buffet, suggesting that you add it to your porridge.
3- Discover Derry
Driving west (if your whiskey-tasting allows), you can reach Northern Ireland’s second-largest city, Londonderry – just Derry, or ‘Legen-derry’, to its denizens.
It has been designated the first UK City of Culture for 2013 – 400 years since a wall was constructed around the city centre to defend against English and Scottish settlers.
The wall still stands, sturdy and magnificent, though it has offered surprisingly little protection against centuries of upheaval, culminating in the civil rights movement of the late twentieth century.
It was the scene of Bloody Sunday in 1972 when 13 unarmed civilian demonstrators were shot dead by British paratroopers.
How does this city carry the weight of its past?
The same way that any sane people would do: they joke about it.
They can laugh about their violent history, without pretending that it never happened. Large and dramatic murals painted on the walls of estates outside the walled city, show scenes from the conflicts of the recent past.
Of all the things to do in Derry, I was strongly advised to do a ‘warts and all’ tour, walking along the one-mile circumference of the walled city with local legend Martin McCrossan, who has shown people the sights for decades.
He is older now, gradually losing his red hair, but his weathered face suggests that he clearly hasn’t had a life of relaxation.
After all, he’s spent most of it in Derry. But he is now friendly and constantly smiling, happy to be living through the peace.
To prove that he has none of the traditional regrets, he’s a Catholic, married to a Protestant. “We’ve been married for 28 years,” he says. “It only seems like 50, but that’s beside the point.”
Leaving Derry, the centre of Northern Ireland is filled with quiet towns and beautiful churches, both Catholic and Protestant.
4- Explore Armagh
In Armagh, the dominant buildings are both Saint Patrick’s Cathedrals – one of each.
Both have stood there for hundreds of years.
Next to the Protestant St Patrick’s, separated by a gate, is the Uluru Bistro, winner of numerous awards in Northern Ireland (including Restaurant of the Year).
Uluru promotes itself as Northern Ireland’s only Australian restaurant, which didn’t really surprise me.
Yet my waitress, bubbly and efficient, has a distinctly Northern Irish brogue.
She is Sara Coppard, co-owner of Bistro with her husband, chef Dean.
Now he’s an Aussie. The two of them met at Bondi Beach.
I’m not sure what ‘Australian cuisine’ is supposed to mean, but the menu reads well. Crispy squid with Asian vegetables and lime mayo. Char-grilled venison with wilted baby spinach.
Naturally, there is kangaroo on the menu – marinated and served with braised red cabbage, kumara chips and a red wine jus.
Sara says that, while lamb or beef is seasonal, the imported kangaroo is the only meat they can rely on throughout the year.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is the dessert menu. No pavlova.
“We took it off the menu for now,” smiles Sara.
That’s fine, as pavlova is so common in Northern Ireland eateries that anyone with a craving (or homesickness) can probably get some at the local pub.
5- Wander The Streets of Belfast
After staying a night in one such pub, in the nearby town of Moy, I return to discover a raft of fun things to do in Belfast.
Northern’s Ireland’s capital and largest city.
Belfast has also had a restless past, but it is one of those major cities – like Beirut or Berlin – which has survived war and conflict to become a vibrant, agreeable city.
After returning the Peugeot 207 to the rental place, I meet a black-cab driver called Billy Scott, a cheerful bloke who can talk non-stop about his home city.
As we drive through the streets, he shows me the sights.
He shows me the factory where Sir Hans Sloane invented milk chocolate.
We continue past Ulster Hall, where Led Zeppelin first played Stairway to Heaven, and stop at the Duke of York, decorated with labels and bottles from whiskey brands throughout Ireland (some of which haven’t been produced for over 70 years).
As we drive past colourful murals, reminding us of some of Belfast’s more notorious history, Billy points out that the city has now turned a corner.
“Belfast was recently surveyed as the second safest capital city in the world for tourists after Tokyo,” he says. I couldn’t find any such survey results, so I’ll take his word for it.
A few blocks away is the Northern Bank headquarters, scene of the UK’s greatest bank robbery in 2004, in which thieves ran away with £26.5 million (sterling).
You can still get robbed in Belfast.
At the Merchant Hotel, for example, you can purchase a Mai Tai, the world’s most expensive cocktail, at £750 a glass.
It’s the only bar in the world with a bottle of the original J. Wray & Nephew rum, a crucial component of Mai Tai.
But Belfast’s pride and joy is on the shore of the River Lagan.
Titanic Belfast, a museum and oceanography centre of the same dimensions as the ill-fated passenger liner (but remaining safely on land) was built to celebrate the RMS Titanic’s centenary in 2012.
Of course, the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, taking 1,523 people with it.
Before the tragedy, however, it was the most impressive ship of its time, a marvel of engineering.
In Belfast, you can buy a T-shirt saying: She was all right when she left here.
Since Titanic Belfast opened, more than a million people have visited, and dozens of couples have been married in the ballroom (diligently modelled, like the movie set, on the original ballroom).
Titanic Belfast celebrates a time when Belfast was a bustling, wealthy city, better known for boat-building than bombs. It’s a reminder of Belfast ingenuity.
But also, by making light of a great tragedy, it’s a tribute to Northern Ireland’s positive outlook.
Perhaps nothing deserves more celebration.
Exploring the UK? Here are some posts about England and Scotland
6- Explore Medieval Ireland at Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle was built on the coastal cliffs of northern Country Antrim by the MacQuillan family in the early 1500s.
The castle has a tumultuous history, as the MacDonnell clan seized it in the 1550s during an era of blood and violence at Sorely Boy MacDonnell’s hands.
Dunluce Castle later became Antrim’s earls’ seat and saw the long-abandoned Dunluce Town built around the castle.
Dunluce Castle is filled with legends; from the castle, kitchen falling into the sea during a storm, to a banshee who terrorised its halls.
Dunluce Castle is at 87 Dunluce Road, Bushmills, Co. Antrim.
7- Search for Shipwrecks on Rathlin Island
Rathlin Island is the closest Irish island to Scotland. The island is surrounded by a large number of shipwrecks in its waters.
One of Rathlin Island’s most famous wrecks is HMS Drake, the flagship boat of the British Navy during World War One. The ship was torpedoed and sank to the bottom of Church Bay.
The island is also home to the UK’s largest seabird colony, including a large colony of puffins. The puffins live on the island between April and August to breed and raise their young pufflings.
Rathlin Island is reachable by ferry from Ballycastle, Co. Antrim.
8- Visit Scrabo Tower
Scrabo Tower is visible across most of North Down and was built in 1857 as a memorial to Charles Stewart, the third Marquess of Londonderry.
Charles Stewart was a general of the Duke of Wellington during the Napoleonic Wars, and was nicknamed ‘The Fighting Marquis.’
The tower was designed to replicate the Scottish watch-towers that were built along the border centuries ago.
Scrabo Tower is 41m (125ft) high and features a central turret, surrounded by four smaller ones. Scrabo Tower was built from dolerite rock, and the stairs built from Scrabo sandstone.
Scrabo Tower is at 203A Scrabo Road, Newtownards, Co. Down.
9- Climb Slieve Binnian
Slieve Binnian is the third-tallest mountain of the Mourne Mountain range, with a summit of 747 m (1555ft) above sea level.
The mountain was formed during the last ice age and is known as the most distinctive peak in the Morne Mountains.
The mountains’ landscape inspired CS Lewis’s Narnia, as it receives the highest snowfall in Northern Ireland. The winter landscape of Slieve Binnian is home to many winder birds including peregrine falcons.
Prepared and experienced climbers can reach the summit in four hours.
Slieve Binnian is at Co. Down.
10- Explore Carrickfergus Castle
Sitting on Belfast Lough’s shore, Carrickfergus Castle is one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Northern Ireland.
Built during 1177 and 1195 the castle has a violent history, as it was besieged by the Scots, Irish, English and French.
During World Wars I and I, the castle was used as an armoury and air-raid shelter.
Today, it’s a museum filled with historical displays about the castle’s rich history and the surrounding landscape’s history. 17th and 19th-century cannons are displayed on the castle walls.
Carrickfergus Castle is at Marine Highway, Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim.
11- Surf at Whiterocks Beach
Whiterocks Beach is a stunning coastal landscape that offers a quiet escape from Northern Ireland’s bustling cities, a popular place for water sports and frequented by surfers year-round.
Walks are also popular along the coast as part of a longer stretch of lang between East Strand and Whiterocks along the cliff paths.
The cliffs surrounding the beach are limestone, eroded over time into caves and famous arches including Elephant Rock and Lion’s Paw.
Whiterocks Beach is at Dunluce Road A2, Portrush, Co. Antrim.
12- Marvel at Glenoe Waterfall
In the leafy glens of County Antrim is Glenoe Waterfall. The waterfall is often described as one of the most picturesque in Northern Ireland.
The falls are 9m (30ft) high and are owned by the National Trust, who protects and cares for the falls and the surrounding landscape.
The walk to the falls is short yet beautiful and leads visitors to a bridge where the falls can be viewed close up. The falls are most prevalent after rainfall.
Glencoe Waterfall is at Waterfall Road, Glenoe, Co. Antrim.
13- Go on a Game of Thrones Tour
The popularity of Game of Thrones is attracting travellers to Northern Ireland as many of the HBO series’ filming locations are in Northern Ireland and can be visited on a Game of Thrones tour.
Visitors can trek through Winterfell in Stark cloaks as they explore ancient ruins and forests, visit the Iron Islands in Iron Born costumes, and even head to The Haunted Forest north of the Wall.
Tour lengths vary, with forest treks lasting around 2 hours, to full 11 hour days searching for the North’s secrets.
Game of Thrones tours are available from Belfast, Newcastle, Derry and Ballycastle in Northern Ireland, and Dublin in Ireland.
14- Visit Dark Hedges
Made famous as the Kingsroad in Game of Thrones, Dark Hedges is an avenue of beech trees planted by the Stuart family.
The 18th-century avenue of trees was planted to welcome visitors to the Stuart’s Georgian mansion, Gracehill House.
Dark Hedges is now a popular tourist destination for Game of Thrones fans and is often extremely busy with tourists and tour busses during the day.
Visiting early in the morning or at dusk will allow for a quieter scene, where the most spectacular photographs can be taken.
Dark Hedges is at Bregagh Road, Stranocum, Ballymoney, Co. Antrim.
15- Experience the life of Seamus Heaney at HomePlace
Seamus Heaney HomePlace is a celebration of Seamus Heaney, poet and Nobel laureate’s life and works.
Heaney is one of Irelands greatest writers, and HomePlace provides literary fans with an opportunity to immerse themselves in Heaney’s writing.
Heaney was born in Bellaghy and spent his life as a poet and lecturer at both Harvard and Oxford Universities. Following his death in Dublin in 2013, his final resting place was Bellaghy.
HomePlace is an interactive exhibition of Heaney’s personal effects, extracts from his poems, and personal stories.
The collection is a recreation of Heaney’s study as it would have been when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.
Seamus Heaney HomePlace is at 45 Main Street, Bellaghy.