Depending on your personal preferences, your hobbies and interests, you may know of Northern Ireland for a variety of different reasons; Perhaps for historical and political reasons with the Northern Ireland conflict, known as ‘The Troubles’ in the latter half of the 20th Century, or pop culture aficionados will know it for its spectacular, other-worldly ‘Game of Thrones’ sets and yet others simply have a wonderful wish to see the famous Giant’s Causeway with their own eyes.
Clearly, Northern Ireland has its own special draw for all who visit. No matter your hankering, whether for countryside or cityscapes, for quiet or crowds, the birthplace of famous author C.S. Lewis, is as vast and rich as the author’s imagination.
1. Giant’s Causeway
Have you ever witnessed 40,000 interlocking basalt columns spanning almost five kilometers, along a windy, craggy, rocky coast, with wave upon wave crashing against the stones? The Giant’s Causeway, as it is known, is a sight you won’t soon forget! Cast from a volcanic fissure eruption, these tall columns, with curiously shaped hexagonal and pentagonal faces, lead from the foot of cliffs and disappear — some almost 12 metres tall.
2. Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
The name just rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it? The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is exactly as it sounds — except that you’ll be suspended almost 30 metres above sea level, making your way between the cliffs of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a pathway carved by salmon fishermen almost 350 years ago. There’s plenty of wildlife to spot here; on your walk, you’re sure to see seabirds, basking sharks and maybe even dolphins and porpoises.
While the coastline is open from dawn to dusk, access to the bridge runs from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm, every day. Note that the last tickets to cross the bridge are sold 45 minutes before site closure.
3. Belfast City
There’s just so much to do in Belfast City, a mere day simply won’t do.
Plan to spend at least a day on an expansive tour of Belfast City with a Black Taxi Tours being a must do. These tours will take you around the city, setting the scene with their own personal stories, the histories of the locations you’re visiting and let you know what real life in Belfast was like then and now.
If you’ve got the afternoon to yourself, take a tour of the majestic Belfast Botanic Gardens, a local favourite, with its lush flora and lots of places to sit, as well as an incredible greenhouse structure known as the Palm House conservatory.
If you’re visiting on a Friday, make sure to check out the St. George market, one of Belfast’s oldest attractions. This Friday market runs into Saturday and Sunday and has become somewhat of a traveller-favourite, with people flocking from all over to find unique gifts and souvenirs, chat over a local cup of coffee, speak with Belfast’s traders and listen to local musicians.
4. Witness the Titanic Experience
As you can imagine, Northern Ireland’s heritage as a maritime power is a long one. But visiting the Titanic monument, open since 2012, is an experience unto itself. The former shipyards of Harland & Wolff are where the RMS Titanic was built.
Through the series of nine interpretive and interactive galleries, visitors can explore the shipyard, walk the decks, travel to the depths of the ocean and witness a recreated experience of the sights, sounds and even smells that those working on the ship, as well as those boarding the ship, would have experienced. It’s an entirely new way to put you in the shoes of those who travelled with her on her maiden — and final — voyage.
Tickets for the experience are £18.50 for adults and £8 for children from 5 – 16 years of age. Children under 5 get in for free and there are a variety of ticket packages to choose from.
5. Game of Thrones Film Locations
Remember our recommendation to plan to spend more than a day in Belfast? Well, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, add this item to your itinerary for sure! If you have the time, our ultimate 6 day Game of Thrones tour allows you to step into the worlds of George R. R. Martin, as we take you on an incredible journey to the most iconic of the series’ locations, from Winterfell, the home of the Starks, to the scenic Strangford Lough, location for the Narrow Sea and the Iron Islands.
Don’t miss a single second as your guide will take you trekking through old growth forests, along wild sea cliffs, across rocky beaches, into caves and crumbling medieval ruins.
6. Portrush and Dunluce Castle
Cropping out at the edge of the basalt cliffs in County Antrim (yes, the same place as the Giant’s Causeway) sits a craggy but majestic medieval Dunluce Castle. Located just five kilometres east of Portrush, a mere one hour walk along the coastal path and you’ll have arrived — but not before you brave the journey along a narrow bridge with extremely steep drops on either side. Just getting here is an adventure!
Once you’ve arrived, the views will capture you and the histories will set your imagination soaring. So incredibly picturesque and yet forlorn is the main fortress and the landscape it’s set against, you may spy a wedding party or two committing their vows with the castle as a backdrop. The price of admission is £3.50 for children and seniors and £5.50 for adults.
Make your way to Dunluce from the sleepy seaside resort town of Portrush, where there are plenty of fun things to do for the day. Head to Barry’s Amusements for a day and have a go on the wildest roller coaster. Or, if it’s particularly warm and your family fancies a dip, head to Waterworld, a water park with splashy slides and warm pools.
You could also visit the scenic and mysterious Portrush Whiterock Beach caves for a little picnic and exploration. Pack a change of clothes and good shoes for this experience of Northern Ireland!
7. Downhill Beach and Mussenden Temple
There is something wild, melancholy and yet beautiful about the rugged North Coast. And if you think it’s particularly familiar, you’re not wrong: Downhill Beach was used in the filming of Game of Thrones, the location of ‘Dragonstone’. When you visit, however, you’re likely to see 11 kilometres of sand and surf, where you can undertake various water sports, take scenic walks and explore all that nature has to offer.
Between Downhill Beach and Benone Complex lies the Ulster Wildlife Nature Reserve, a protected area of sand dunes and rife with flora and fauna like butterflies, moths, bees, rare orchids, adders’-tongue, moonwort, skylark, mistle thrush and more.
From Downhill Beach, you can walk up to Mussenden Temple, one of the most photographed structures in the North. The temple itself looks more like an observatory and, indeed, you’ll be able to witness the stunning views of the beach below and the horizon above. The grounds also include access to the fading but beautiful Downhill Castle, open all year long from dawn to dusk.
8. Derry (The Walled City)
Sitting on the River Foyle, Derry is best known for its 17th-century Derry’s Walls with its seven gates, spanning 26 feet high and 30 feet wide. The Walled City, as it’s known, is a historic site and you’ll be able to learn all about it at the Tower Museum, spread over five floors, with its uppermost level dedicated to stunning panoramic views of the city.
From here, you can spy the Peace Bridge or head there yourself. Right on the River Foyle, the modern cycle and footbridge sits like a handshake between a historically divided community in Northern Ireland. If gothic spires and stone-faced architecture is more your thing, don’t miss a visit to the stained-glass beauty of St. Columb’s Cathedral.
A much-loved attraction for literary aficionados, the Seamus Heaney Centre in Ballaghy, County Derry celebrates the life and legacy of the late poet, playwright and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who was born in Derry. “Deeply moving and inspirational” and “Simply beautiful” are words from previous visitors about this cultural and truly inspiring stop for your Derry visit.
9. Rathlin Island
Just about 10 kilometres wide, Rathlin Island is tiny but absolutely brimming with wildlife. The touches of natural beauty here are simply unmistakable and your trip is sure to include plenty of seabird-watching. Visit any time from April to June, in particular, and you’ll be right in the midst of puffin season.
You can also explore working lighthouses on the island, or one of the best ways to tour the island yourself is to rent a bike. There are plenty of cycles for hire and you’ll be able to bike along the shore to Mill Bay, where more than a few resident seals play. You can also head to the Boathouse Visitor Centre and learn all about the history of Rathlin Island, including artefacts from shipwrecks
10. Whiskey Tasting in The Old Bushmills Distillery
Can a trip to Northern Ireland ever truly be complete without whiskey tasting at the Old Bushmills Distillery? We thought not. It is the oldest working distillery in Ireland and when you embark on a tour of its factory, taking sips of your whiskey all along, you’ll understand why. Bushmills has always specialised in producing small batches of handcrafted, smooth tasting whiskey, a process that has been passed down for generations.
The distillery is open to the public and tickets cost £8 for adults and £4.50 for children. Children under 8 are welcome on site with their parents but are not permitted on the tours.
11. Northern Lights
This is one of those natural phenomena you probably have on your bucket list — so why not cross it off in Northern Ireland? When trying to get a good view of this majestic light show put on by nature, the key is to avoid light pollution. The Northern Lights are probably dancing above your head the whole time, but it’s hard to see them. So, head up to Donegal along the northern headlands and hopefully with a bit of luck, you’ll be able to get a really good glimpse.
The best viewing time is from November to February, between 9 pm and 1 am.
12. Drive the Causeway Coastal Route
So, you want to see it all, even if you don’t get to do it all, and you’re looking for a route that will help you stop, get out and take it all in? Explore some of Northern Ireland’s most iconic spots, along the most scenic of routes: the Causeway Coastal Route. Load up your car at Belfast and travel the 190-kilometre route, all the way to Lough Foyle, and expect to meet historic little castles, golden sand dunes, beautiful golf courses, quaint little fishing villages, silent glens, craggy cliffs and serene, unspoilt beaches.
13. Ulster American Folk Park
Open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm, the Ulster American Folk Park is an unforgettable experience. Here, you can actually partake in the journey of those who, hundreds of years ago, set out on the long and difficult journey from the Atlantic coast to America. Wander through the quaint villages, with their thatched cottages and log cabins, and meet the villagers (in costume, of course!) who are proud to tell you more about the traditions, ways of life, and histories. Break bread with the locals, witness a militia parade, and explore the more than 30 buildings and exhibits.
Northern Ireland is well-connected and many of the activities and trips on this list can be undertaken in a day or so. The counties all slip into one another and the locations like Mussenden Temple, Giant’s Causeway and Derry are all easily accessible. Make sure to pack a poncho or some rain gear, however, as the maritime weather can change quickly.
As well as our popular Game of Thrones tour, many of our other tours take in the wonderful sights and sounds of the North of Ireland. Depending on your preference, choose from private escorted tours, coach tours or self-drive tours.
Our 7 Day Great Northern Ireland tour is available as a private tour or as a self-drive option. Our 6 Day Northern Ireland Small Group Tour is also a very popular option, where you can meet fellow travelers and share stories during your discovery of beautiful Northern Ireland.
A lot of our Private Tours of Ireland and Self-Drive Tours of Ireland include a night in Derry and a night in Belfast. We can tailor any of our self-drive and private tours to include Northern Ireland on your travel itinerary should you wish.
Our expert guides can escort you and tell you about the history and modern-day life of Northern Ireland, showing you historic sites and hidden treasures along the way. Or make your own way with our self-drive option.
Contact us and we can help you decide on the best tour option for you.