Admittedly Northern Ireland does have a slightly depressing past, as a country foremost famous for alcoholics, terrorists and a sinking ship. And it is also a country I completely failed to appreciate during my time living there. But during a short trip back as a tourist, I realised just how much Northern Ireland actually has to offer. As it is a country rich with culture, albeit conflicting at times, as well as captivating scenery, landscapes, and local life. But it is also the perfect road trip destination, with short distances, decent roads, and many of the best sightseeing stops are found between tourist attractions. So a good itinerary would be looping along the Northeast coast, crossing the Ards Peninsula to the Mourne Mountains, then onto the southern borders. Past some of the more far-flung and off-the-beaten tourist attractions in Northern Ireland shared below. Before covering the more popular tourist attractions along the northwest Causeway Coastal Route which are also easily accessed by tours and public transport. Anyway, summer will always be the best time to visit Northern Ireland, although I would see it more in winter with returns for Christmas. But the rugged and wild landscapes are quite fascinating all year round. For example my hometown of Bangor in the snow below.
1. Best City: Belfast City
Without a doubt Belfast. A city easy to navigate, a central hub for transport and the ideal vantage point for exploring Northern Ireland. On a world scale however it is tiny so don’t hold up much time for exploring. Belfast (for most) could be covered in a day or two. The Belfast Bus Tour in the morning and Belfast bars at night. In April we joined the Belfast Bus Tour. It was ok… It didn’t quite compare to Rome the previous week (snigger). As expected the tour focuses on the country’s troubled past and current struggles to keep them there. Most tours work as a figure 8; split into 2 halves. The first half covers central Belfast and the peace line; murals and conflict areas. The second half pushes further to the Titanic Quarter, Parliament Buildings (Stormont) and returns through more conflict areas. My personal interest on this trip was the rejuvenated city. I was sceptical of it but it does exist. Mostly riverside by the Lagan where you are welcomed by the Beacon of Hope and other bright new signs to a modern city. (Check here for our up to date guide to Belfast).
2. 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, so I have shared a list of our top 10 Causeway Coast Attractions here.
3. Best Mountains: Mourne Mountains
The route from Strangford Lough then passes through Downpatrick, burial town of Saint Patrick, 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.
4. Best Forest Park: Tollymore Forest Park
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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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).
8. 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.
9. Best Coastal Walk: North Down, Bangor
This off-the-beaten-track track tourist attraction is likely one of the most scenic coastal walks in Northern Ireland and is quite probably the closest attraction to Belfast which goes unnoticed to most visitors. Just a couple of stops on the train to Bangor will find this coastline where it more-or-less runs the entire way from Holywood to Bangor Pier, and further. It is possible to start at almost any of the stops, given a bit of direction, but a more scenic start would be the stretch from Helen’s Bay through to Crawfordsburn Country Park. Or, alternatively, just go to Bangor and start at its Marina and Pier area. I put together the video below to show some of the more scenic spots along the way. This wins for best coastal scenery in Northern Ireland (bar the Causeway Coast). Also, although slight bias here given it’s my hometown, but Bangor is definitely worth the visit alone, for its seafront marina and pier, as well as the Castle Park area, and just all of it.
10. 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.
11. Best 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 idea 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.
12. 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.
13. The 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). 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.
14. Best Pub: The Crown, Belfast
It would be wrong of me to share Northern Ireland tourist attraction without mentioning the popular pastime of all of them. Boozing in bars. And the best bar in Northern Ireland would have to be the Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast, a beautiful Victorian pub decorated in impressive mosaic, tiling and stain glass. Not so expensive either. The Crown is the perfect place to sample some of Northern Ireland’s lesser-known booze with many locally produced beers and ciders sold on tap. Get in early and you can steal into a snug, an enclosed room for more private sessions. The Crown is easy to locate opposite Great Victoria Street Train Station and the Europa Hotel (the world’s most bombed hotel). In second place I would then go with the Duke of York (below: left and right).