A country foremost famous for alcoholics, terrorists and a sinking ship. Northern Ireland, my home country, has a slightly depressing past. It is a country I completely failed to appreciate or admire in my time living there. It wasn’t until a short trip back as a tourist when I realised how much my home country actually has to offer. A country rich in culture albeit conflicting. Depressing stuff aside Northern Ireland is a truly amazing country; even more so from a tourist perspective. To me it makes the perfect fly and drive country with short distances, easy roads and many best bits hidden between attractions. World-renowned scenery, landscapes, local life and culture. On my return to Northern Ireland with Fanfan by my side (April 2013) we take in my Top 10 Northern Ireland Attractions. I (now) love my wee country.
1. Best City in Northern Ireland – 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 join 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 skeptical 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 the city.
2. Best Coastline in Northern Ireland – 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 attractions. It is also well covered by Tour Buses leaving Belfast so is easily accessible. The obvious attraction here the volcanic basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway the Unesco World Heritage site. Other 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.
3. Best Mountains in Northern Ireland – Mourne Mountains
In April we trek through snow covered mountains; a rare sight at any time of year in Northern Ireland. Amazing scenery. We take on my preferred trek from a quieter entrance leading to the Hare’s Gap (Trassey Track) located a short drive from Newcastle. Not such an easy starting point for visitors however. For tourists the easier entry point to the Mourne Mountains is the seaside town of Newcastle. From Newcastle treks leave to Slieve Donard Northern Ireland’s highest peak and a number of less strenuous danders. Quick fact, Belfast born C.S Lewis was inspired by the Mourne Mountain when writing the Chronicles of Narnia.
4. Best Forest Park in Northern Ireland – Tollymore Forest Park
Perfect for the adventurous with walking trails, rapid rivers and a whole lot of trees and wildlife. Found at the foot of the Mourne Mountains the two attractions are best visited on the same itinerary. Make a weekend of it. For the less adventurous there are parks, gardens, picnic and camping areas located next to the main entrance at Tollymore Forest Park. The entrance is found at Bryansford Village located a short drive (or bus) from Newcastle.
5. Best Island in Northern Ireland – Rathlin Island
My first ever trip to Rathlin Island was in April. I am clueless to why. This island is a must for a visit to Northern Ireland. A little tricky to reach but well worth the effort. Countless bird colonies, unique island life, rugged coastal views, scenic walks, cute seals and a local bar for the boozy. As a bit of a bird nerd I was excited to meet the Rathlin puffins. No luck I’m afraid. For puffins the summer months are best. Either way the panoramic coastal views, rugged cliffs and thousands of nesting Kittiwakes fail to disappoint. Kittiwakes nest just meters from the viewing platform. For travel to Rathlin Island take the Rathlin Ferry from Ballycastle Ferry Terminal. The island is found 40 minutes from the Causeway Coast.
6. Best Castle in Northern Ireland – Carrickfergus Castle
Sorry Tayto lovers my number one Castle in Northern Ireland is Carrickfergus Castle. Admittedly not the most exciting of attractions. Also slightly off track with not much of interest nearby. If planning to visit Carrickfergus Castle the best option is to join the Causeway Coast tours which include it in the itinerary (first stop).
7. Best Beach in Northern Ireland – Portstewart Strand
Chances are you won’t be visiting Northern Ireland for the beaches. Sandy shores and pristine waters mean little when it’s too cold to leave the car. That’s where Portstewart Strand comes in handy. This lengthy stretch of sand serves as a drive-on beach. Grab a fish supper from nearby Portstewart and enjoy beach views from the comfort of your car.
8. Best Lough in Northern Ireland – Strangford Lough
This coastal bay is undoubtedly one of the most scenic areas of Northern Ireland. Picturesque villages to abundance of wildlife. It is also well off the beaten track so is best taken in on a fly and drive. If planning to cross the lough there are regular boats leaving Portaferry en route to Strangford and vice versa. The photo below was taken from Scrabo Tower near the town of Newtownards (note Newtownards not worth visiting).
9. Best Seaside Town in Northern Ireland – Bangor
Slight bias here. My beautiful hometown of Bangor, Northern Ireland. While sweet ol’ mum pressures me to promote “Aurora the new Olympic sized swimming pool, the Walled Garden, and Pickie Fun Park”, these attractions are more geared towards domestic tourism in Northern Ireland (happy mum?). That being said Bangor is definitely worth a mention. Found by a quick train journey from Belfast and offering some of the most scenic coastal paths in Northern Ireland. Not so much a fishing village these days as trawlers have been replaced with an expensive Marina and fancy yachts. Bangor has always been a tourist town. A place for coastal walks, seaview restaurants and youthful nightlife. For a glimpse into local and Northern Irish heritage Bangor Castle and North Down Heritage Museum are well worth a visit (opposite the train station).
10. Best Bar in Northern Ireland – The Crown, Belfast
Or to be specific 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).