Northern Ireland may often be overlooked for its southern neighbor, but with its striking natural beauty, rich culture and history, opportunities for outdoor adventure, and vibrant food and music scene, it really shouldn’t be missed.
What are the best things to do in Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland has tons to offer visitors besides the usual and expected. Try one of these unique excursions or visit one of these destinations in Northern Ireland:
- Giant’s Causeway
- Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
- The Dark Hedges
- Ballintoy Harbour
- Bushmills Distillery
- Dunluce Castle
- The Titanic Museum
- Belfast Black Cab Taxi Tour
- Belfast Castle
If you’re touring the U.K. or the Republic of Ireland, it’s well-worth making time for in addition to being a fabulous destination on its own.
Discover Giant’s Causeway
You can’t visit Northern Ireland and not see Giant’s Causeway. This coastal area along the North Atlantic is one of the most stunning places in the region, made up of some 40,000 basalt columns.
It was created by a volcanic eruption millions of years ago, though legend tells that it was carved by giant Finn McCool, who angrily started throwing boulders into the sea toward his enemy over in Scotland, using them as a bridge so that he could challenge his rival to a duel.
Many of the sites you’ll see here bear testament to the myth, with unique rock formations like The Camel, Giant’s Boot, and the Wishing Chair, which is especially popular for selfies as you can sit right down in it.
Look high atop the cliffs to spot The Organ, which almost looks like it can be played.
The key to an enjoyable experience here and great photos is to arrive early, a few minutes before the visitor center opens at 9 a.m., to avoid the crowds that file in from the big tour busses.
Walk the Heart-Pounding Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Just 7.5 miles from the Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge offers the chance to take in some of the most magnificent views along the northern coast. It’s not for the faint of heart, especially those who are afraid of heights who might want to stand back and observe others make the crossing.
While the bridge is safe, linking the mainland to the little island of Carrickarede, it hovers about 100 feet above the rocks and the sea below. If you can look down without feeling queasy, you might see dolphins or the occasional basking shark pass by.
Experience the Magic of the Dark Hedges
The Dark Hedges is a magical tunnel of ancient beech trees along a spectacular avenue that leads toward Gracehill House, a Georgian Mansion. It was planted in the 18th century by the Stuart family, intended to impress visitors as they approached the entrance.
The unique avenue of trees has done just that for over 250 years now and it was even used as a film setting in season two of the hit series “Game of Thrones.” If you’re a fan, you might recall it from the first episode of the season when Arya Stark escaped King’s Landing by disguising herself as a boy in order to join the Night’s Watch.
As this has become a popular stop on Northern Ireland tours, if you want to capture the best photos without hordes of tourists, plan to arrive before 9 a.m.
Stop for a Photo and Dessert at Ballintoy Harbour
A must-stop for any fan of “Game of Thrones,” and worth a visit for anyone who wants to take advantage of a great photo-op, Ballintoy Harbour is a mostly undiscovered gem that sits right along the Causeway Coastal route just west of Carrick-a-Rede bridge.
You’ll descend a short but steep road to the little fishing harbor where rock formations covered with colorful moss in shades of green, gold, and red, form tide pools.
Contrasted by the turquoise water of the sea, it’s a beautiful sight. This was also a filming location for the popular series, used as the Port of Pike. After capturing your photos, you can enjoy a homemade desert and coffee in the stone café.
Tour Bushmills Distillery
If you have any interest in Irish whiskey, be sure to tour Bushmills Distillery. Located only minutes from Giant’s Causeway, you’ll be able to see how the drink is made on an entertaining tour and then enjoy a sample as a grand finale.
Tasting options include hot toddies which is fabulous on a chilly day.
Afterward, you might enjoy lunch at nearby Bushmills Inn, a 17th-century lodge that hosts one of the best restaurants around, complete with roaring peat fires and dishes made from the area’s finest produce.
Visit Dunluce Castle
Located just west of Bushmills, Dunluce Castle sits on a rocky promontory 100 feet above the Atlantic, creating a jaw-dropping scene.
There is still much that remains of the roofless ruins that are even more impressive just before the sun goes down, highlighted by the myriad of colors in the sky. This Irish castle was once the home of the McDonnell and McQuillan clans and has been the site of a tragic fable and multiple historic battles.
Some of it dates back to the 13th century, although most was built during the 16th and 17th centuries. It still belongs to the McDonnell family, but it’s managed by the government and open to the public for tours.
The castle is believed to have been the inspiration for the magnificent citadel that served as the capital of the Kingdom of Narnia in the Chronicles of Narnia. It was also used as Castle Greyjoy in “Game of Thrones.”
Spend a Day at the Titanic Museum
The Titanic Museum in Belfast is unlike any other you’ve ever been to. The RMS Titanic was built right here in the city as the most luxurious and largest ship at the time, making its infamous voyage in 1912.
Even those who don’t enjoy museums are likely to find this one fascinating with more than enough to see and do here to fill an entire day, or even two. It includes a wide range of exhibits that showcase ship artifacts, including clothing, letters, and full rooms that were re-created to look just as they did on the ship.
What makes it unique are the virtual reality rooms, multi-media displays, live cameras that reveal underwater salvaging and current research, and a ride. The Shipyard Ride is an educational ride that travels around a replica of Titanic’s massive Rudder.
Explore Belfast on a Black Cab Taxi Tour
One of the best ways to discover Belfast is by taking one of the offbeat Black Cab Taxi tours. These excursions are provided in traditional black cabs that will bring you to view city highlights like the docks, Protestant Shankill Road, Catholic Falls Road, the university and the “Peace Walls,” which were built in 1969 to keep the Catholics and Protestants apart.
Constructed following the “The Troubles” outbreak, they were meant to be temporary, but multiplied over the years until a total of 40 stretched for more than 13 miles.
Visitors were encouraged to add their names and comments to the now graffiti- and art-covered walls – today, you’ll see quite a few high-profile signatures, including the Dalai Lama and President Clinton. Your driver/guide will fill you in on the “troubles” while providing unique local insight.
It’s a cultural and historical experience that’s truly not to be missed.
Take in the View from Belfast Castle
If you want the best vantage point for a spectacular view and a photo over Belfast, head to Belfast Castle.
It sits atop Cave Hill and can be seen throughout the city, providing the chance to capture Instagram-worthy pics. In the castle basement you’ll find the visitor center which includes a free museum to learn more about the castle and its history, while the grounds are picturesque with lush gardens for additional photo-ops.
The most famous feature of the castle, “Napoleon’s Nose,” as the locals call it, is believed to have provided the inspiration for the novel Gulliver’s Travels.