Northern Ireland for me is the perfect road trip destination, with short distances between close-knit tourist attractions, well-maintained roads, and just so much sightseeing in between. A good itinerary would be starting out from Belfast City Airport, where there ideal bases nearby at either Belfast (10-min drive) or the seaside alternative of Bangor (20-min drive). However, for this post, I will be staring out from Bangor as I prefer to avoid big cities when on roads trips, and Bangor is infinitely easier to navigate, with lots of free parking, and it’s just one of the main tourist attractions when it comes to places to visit and things to do in Northern Ireland. A quick 30-minute direct train line (the Gold Coast Trainline) then reaches the central tourist attractions of Belfast. From here I’d then follow the tourist attractions in likely the same order as below, at least when exploring on a road trip, although almost all Northern Ireland tourist attractions will be accessible by public transport as well. Anyway, here are our favourite things to do in Northern Ireland as modelled by Fanfan because she’s the more photogenic and enthusiastic of us bunch.
Best Coastal Walk: North Down
Another good reason to stay in Bangor. The North Down Coastal Path leads along the coastline from Bangor, where the ideal starting point will always be Bangor’s seafront, and continues for roughly 10km until the small town of Holywood. It also runs parallel to the main Bangor to Belfast train-line making it easy to hop on, or off, at various stations along the route. And you won’t need to double back along the same path you came from (stations include: Carnalea, Helen’s Bay, and Holywood). Along the way you will also pass many of the regions better-known attractions, such as the scenic Crawfordsburn Country Park and Helen’s Bay Beach, as well as more culturally and historical tourist attractions at Grey’s Point Fort, and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum (slightly further inland). With lots of serene scenery along the way; with forest parks, beaches, and just the contrasting seascapes of this rather magnificent coastline. But again the real highlight will be the coastal town of Bangor for those that did not choose to stay there. Anyway, see for yourself in our video below, and our full guide and write-up here.
Best City: Belfast City
Without a doubt, Belfast is the best city to visit in Northern Ireland. And while it has somewhat of a depressing past, as tourism and tourist attractions have been focused on alcoholics, terrorism, and a sinking ship. These days it does feel more modern and rejuvenated, and it’s just a rather exciting city to explore. But it is still relatively tiny on a global scale, so the main tourist attractions could easily be covered by foot in a day or two. To start I’d maybe join the rather mundane Belfast Bus Tour, which generally shares the city’s depressing past. Then I’d explore the more modern central attractions; such as the Laganside, with the Beacon of Hope, and other bright new signs of a modern Belfast. Then there’s Belfast City Hall, a central location, that hosts much of the excitement in the city. And there’s the nearby Victoria Square which is now central to the city’s shopping district. And I’d maybe give half a day to the Titanic Quarter as well. Then in the evenings, it would be the cobbled streets of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter for bars and local craic (Northern Irish word for banter).
Best Pub: The Crown, Belfast
It would be wrong of me to share things to do in Northern Ireland without a mention of the small nations most popular pastime. Boozing in bars. And the best bar in Northern Ireland would have to be the Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast (below left), a beautiful Victorian pub decorated in impressive mosaic, tiling and stain glass. It’s not so expensive either. The Crown is also the perfect place to sample some of Northern Ireland’s lesser-known tipples; with many locally produced beers and ciders sold on tap. I would also advise on getting in early, and to steal into a snug, which is like an enclosed room for more private boozing sessions. Anyway, the Crown is easily found opposite the Great Victoria Street train station and the famous Europa Hotel, which is apparently the world’s most bombed hotel. I should also mention a second contender; as I’d definitely go with the Duke of York on a pub, where it’s found in the old Cathedral Quarter as mention before (below right).
Best Museum: Ulster Folk Museum
We really are not museum enthusiasts, at all, so this is definitely not our strength in tourism. We have never been to the Titanic Quarter for example (Titanic Belfast) which is no doubt one of the better-known museum attractions in Belfast where obviously the Titanic was built (update: we have now been). But there is one museum we would pop into with visitors, to share our closer heritage, and that would be the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, although it has been a while since I called into the Transport side (to see the Back to the Future Delorean – another Northern Irish invention). Otherwise the folk museum is set in a 20th-century village and showcases the old world traditions, lives, and crafts of Ulster and Northern Ireland. You can poke through the houses, visit the church or bank, or just explore the surrounding rural houses and water mills. It is a bit far out from Belfast (a walk from Cultra Station, towards Bangor), but it is also relatively empty and amiable, unlike the busier museums and tourist attractions.
Best Coastline: Causeway Coast
Sandy beaches, cliff edge castles and a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Causeway Coast is home to many of Northern Ireland’s iconic landscapes and tourist attractions. It is also well covered by Tour Buses leaving Belfast so is easily accessible. The obvious tourist attraction here the volcanic basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway the Unesco World Heritage site. Other tourist attractions on the typical Tour Bus itinerary are Cushendall Villages, Dunluce Castle, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and my personal favourite Bushmills Distillery. If travelling independently to Bushmills Distillery don’t drink and drive – guaranteed to be pinched leaving the car park. There is a lot to this coastline, and I will share a full post on it down the line.
Best Island: Rathlin Island
It may seem like a far stretch to visit this island on a quick trip to Northern Ireland but we did manage to squeeze it into a full days itinerary including the Giant’s Causeway and more. The excursion to Rathlin Island, and back, can sound like a full day trip, but it can also easily be added to a full days itinerary along the Causeway Coast. Taking the Rathlin Ferry, from the Ballycastle Ferry Terminal, it takes between 25 minutes to 40 minutes to Rathlin Island. You will arrive to a small village harbour which the beginning of some scenic walking. To speed things up however there is the offer of bike rental and a bus service to the RSPB Seabird Centre (£5 return for adults). But even a walk along the harbour coastline is intriguing with the remains of old stone houses and seals basking on rocks and beaches. Note I wrote a full article on Rathlin Island for those interested. This off-the-beaten-track tourist attraction wins for best island excursion in Northern Ireland.
Best Beach: Downhill Beach
Downhill Beach which is found slightly further along the Causeway Coast next to Mussendun Temple, and it is cut off from the main tourist stretch by the mouth of the River Bann. Otherwise it seems like no more than a stone’s throw from the Portstewart Strand, the other potential drive on beach, when following the coastline. So to reach Downhill Beach it is best first to find Mussenden Temple which is across the River Bann, through Coleraine which is the main town in the region. Mussenden temples is another National Trust tourist attraction, meaning there will be an entrance fee to access the temple itself, but views from below at Downhill Beach, are almost on par. Otherwise the Downhill Beach is free of charge. That being said, there are some magnificent views from above, and there are other walks and attractions at Mussendun Temple, so they should really be done on the same outing (Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne). This area is also nice for a stay (nearby hotels here).
Best Lough: Strangford Lough
This off-the-beaten-track tourist attraction can be approached from many directions but a good start would be from Scrabo Tower, near Newtownards, and circling either way from there. There are some fantastic views from above at Scrabo and many more scenic stops along the way. The full circle route actually isn’t so much a circle, as it’s more of an inlet, but there’s a simple boat crossing for cars between Portaferry and Strangford which is an attraction in itself. A number of these off-the-beaten-track tourist attractions in Northern Ireland will be found along the route, including Mount Stewart and Castle Ward, and a great place to eat is at Daft Eddy’s on Sketric Castle. This off-the-beaten-track tourist attraction wins for best road trip itinerary.
Best Gardens: Mount Stewart
This lesser know tourist attraction is found not so far from Newtownards and, in parts, overlooks the Strangford Lough and Ards Peninsula. It was also completely unknown to me before Fanfan joined us with her new perspective of tourism. Fanfan, like many from Asia, is obsessed with flowers and the gardens at Mount Stewart are really quite impressive. I would say of all these tourist attractions that this was the biggest surprise. There is an entrance fee for this tourist attraction, with the National Trust, which includes a tour around the stately home (where some of the family still live) and, while I expected it to be a quick in and out attraction, we ended up spending a good half day on the grounds. It’s perfect for a picnic. Anyway, this off-the-beaten-track tourist attraction wins for the best gardens in Northern Ireland.
Best Castle: Castle Ward
Sorry Tayto lovers. My number one Castle in Northern Ireland is Castle Ward, aka Winterfeld from the Game of Thrones, this off-the-beaten-track tourist attraction is again found on the banks of Strangford Lough on the opposite side of the ferry crossing (or alternatively drive the inner route towards the nearby town of Downpatrick. The grounds and scenic walks here are quite expansive and it is easy to get lost, as we did. It’s all part of the fun. Castle Ward, like Mount Stewart below, is another National Trust attraction, and if you plan on visiting all the Causeway Coast tourist attractions it may be worthwhile buying an annual pass. With lots of famous filming spots and activities like archery on Winterfeld, this off-the-beaten-track tourist attraction wins for the best Game of Thrones experience.
Best Mountains: The Mournes
The route from Strangford Lough then passes through Downpatrick, burial town of Saint Patrick (here for Saint Patrick’s Day in Downpatrick), and onwards to Newcastle which is like the gateway to the Mournes. Along the way you’ll pass some lesser-known spots, like Tyrella Beach and Dundrum Castle, which are worth a stop if you have time. So the seaside town of Newcastle would be the simplest starting point for Mourne rambles and there’s a direct path from a central carpark right to the summit of Slieve Donard which is the highest point in Northern Ireland. However there are alternative starting points including the Bloody Bridge and my usual start on Trassey Road to the Hare’s Gap, which begins just after our next, lesser-known tourist attraction of Tollymore Forest Park. This off-the-beaten-track tourist attraction wins for best mountain trails. Quick fact, Belfast born C.S Lewis was inspired by the Mourne Mountain when writing the Chronicles of Narnia.
Best Forest Park: Tollymore
Tollymore Forest Park is found on a road out of Newcastle where the main park entrance is located just before the small town of Bryansford. This is where the welcome Centre is along with parks and the beginning of many Forest treks through the foothills of the Mournes. Similar to the Trassey Track and Mourne Mountains I have many childhood memories here crossing stepping-stones and rivers, going off track through the seemingly endless evergreen forests, playing poo sticks on bridges and waterfalls, and just getting lost. It is also a popular Game of Thrones filming location and there are a number of scenes dotted through the forests. This off-the-beaten-track tourist attraction wins for best Forest walks.
Best Historical Town: Enniskillen
I have already covered Bangor with the coastal path, so this spot goes to Enniskillen which is not only a fascinating and historical lakeside town, but it is the ideal entry point to the more far-flung southwest region of Northern Ireland. But Northern Ireland is a relatively tiny country, and few journeys would ever be more than a couple of hours, so nowhere is really far-flung. Anyway, Enniskillen and Lough Erne are roughly two hours from Belfast or the Causeway Coast, and it is a region well worth exploring by road trip, or for the more adventurous, by boat. And Enniskillen will always be the gateway town to Lough Erne and the Fermanagh Lakelands.
Best Caves: Marble Arch Caves
This well off-the-beaten-track attraction is a good 2o-minutes out from Enniskillen, near the Irish borders at Cavan. It is however well worth the drive alone for its hilly rural backdrop, the forest walks surrounding the visitor centre, before even reaching the caves themselves. My recent visit to the Marble Arch Caves was in fact my second, although my first visit was back when I was around 6 yo, and the caves were flooded and closed. So it is best to check the weather etc before arrival. Fortunately our more recent visit was a success, as the caves really are fascinating to explore, although it is more of a guided group tour (around 8 people each time), along with a short boat trip through a lower part of the caves. But we could easily sneak off and skive, to capture some photos on our own.