Really special things to do when you visit Northern Ireland
Apart from all the famous ones that you already know about
There’s a reason why Lonely Planet has ranked Belfast & the Causeway Coast as their number one region to visit in 2018. Actually, there are loads of reasons, and I’m going to share some of them with you here. Like anything I write about the place we call home, this little insight will be far from exhaustive, but hopefully it will give you an incentive to visit if you don’t already have one or two.
I’ll do a separate post on exploring in and around Belfast, but I want to highlight some of the absolute gems that exist across the rest of the region. Most of them will be along the Causeway Coast (like I say, loads of reasons why Lonely Planet thinks it’s great), but I’ll try to include a couple of others for the sake of diversity. And I won’t even go into the Game of Thrones appeal (much) – if you’re into Game of Thrones, stop thinking about visiting Northern Ireland and just do it. You won’t be disappointed.
Growing up here, one of our favourite things as kids was when we got to jump in a car and head up the coast for an hour or two. As an adult, I love it even more. The drive from Belfast is an attraction in itself. The road hugs the coastline and (especially on a nice day) the views are just breathtaking. It will also take you through quaint little villages, loads of which are worth stopping off at. I’m going to try to stay away from telling you about the really well-known attractions (I said try) and focus on some places you might not have heard of that we really love.
Mussenden Temple & Downhill Beach
A really special place that we love to go back to over and over again. I would say around three out of five times we decide to go out for a drive, we end up at Mussenden Temple or somewhere near it. You can see why; it’s brilliantly picturesque. The setting is just stunning – everything comes together to create a cracking picture. The temple itself, framed by sea and sky, the sheer drop of the cliff, the beach that stretches out below it. Honestly, you should see this. You can also explore the ruins of Downhill House that sits just behind the temple, which is cool, but make no mistake – the temple is the main event here.
It looks like it should have a really interesting history, but it’s only half interesting. I think it was a small place of prayer for the family that lived in the now ruined house. I’m sure somebody has written a proper history of it. The point is, it doesn’t need an interesting history – it has everything else. There’s really nothing to see inside it, apart from some more views that are absolutely worth pausing over.
The beach below is definitely worth visiting too – Downhill beach connects on to the massive stretch of sand and sea that is Benone beach. If you have a couple of hours, it makes for a great walk, but be warned – it’s longer than it looks.
The National Trust owns the two gates that act as main entrances to Downhill – the Lion’s Gate and the Bishop’s Gate. It’s around £4.70 per adult to get in, but there’s another entrance in Castlerock that you can enter for free. It’s about a 25-minute walk, but it’s a walk worth doing, so if you have time on your side, it’s worth considering seeing it this way.
Like anywhere, come early or late to avoid crowds. It tends to be fairly busy most weekends, especially in the Summer, but it’s never unbearably crowded. Leave it until early evening, and you might find that you have the entire place to yourself, and you might find a little spot of magic.
Glenariff Forest Park
Another little magic place that you could really easily miss. The Glens of Antrim are a series of nine valleys that run up the Antrim Coast. They are well worth taking some time to drive through – the scenery is excellent and it’s a really easy drive that won’t take all day. Glenariff is quite rightly known as the Queen of the Glens, and she is mighty.
Glenariff Forest Park features a number of walks and hikes of varying length. None of them are really difficult if you’re reasonably fit, and there are short and longer ones, so something for everybody. The most well-known – and the one most worth doing – is the Waterfall Trail. It’s not too short and not too long, and the scenery is class. It takes you through different parts of the forest, and of course, introduces you to a couple of different waterfalls. None of them are huge, but they’re absolutely worth the walk since it’s a really nice walk anyway.
I have a bit of a thing for waterfalls. I can’t really explain it, it’s just that I could sit and watch them all day. Maybe because they sort of seem like they’re alive. Which they are, I guess. So I was always going to love this trail, but even if you’re not a waterfall weirdo, it’s worth doing – it’s a good length and there’s plenty of variety in the scenery. Make sure you stop off here for a few hours if you’re on the Antrim coast.
The Dark Hedges
Okay, so you’ve heard of this one. But it’s gorgeous, especially if – and it’s a huge if – you can stop by when there aren’t swarms of visitors. Because there always are.
Made famous by Game of Thrones of course, the Dark Hedges are just trees really. But they’re seriously photogenic trees. They looks so dramatic, especially if you catch them when the sun is coming up or going down, and the light plays with the trees to make them look a bit mad. Or if it snows, or if you picture yourself having your own Games of Thrones style adventure. Minus all the murder, hopefully.
It’s only an hour and a bit of a drive from Belfast, so I visited a few times before it really blew up, and I’ve visited a few times since. They’re dramatically old, so some rough weather over the last year or two has taken a few of them down (leading to the equally dramatic and beautiful Games of Thrones doors being made from the felled trees). It really is difficult now to get a great picture, as it gets so many visitors, including swarms of people stepping off tour buses.
The council have had a hard time recently of trying to regulate traffic and tours visiting the Dark Hedges. The trees sit on a public road, so it’s kind of hard to regulate. The road that they’re on has officially been closed to traffic, but that isn’t stopping people from driving and parking on it (again, including coaches full of visitors). It’s an ongoing process, so this could all be changed by the time you’re reading this. There is a recently opened Dark Hedges car park nearby that nobody uses – because it’s not nearby enough. Your best bet is heading up the road first thing – I mean sunrise really, and finding a safe space to park on the adjoining road – and taking it all in with a dramatic sunrise included. I would say it’s worth it, but I’ve never done it, so let me know if it is please.
Antrim Castle Gardens
Only about a half an hour of a drive from Belfast, so if you’re looking for an hour or two outside the city, this is a great shout. There’s not much to the castle itself (although it takes a good photo), but the gardens are well worth a visit alone.
There’s plenty to see in and around the gardens themselves, and a coffee shop for when you’re ready for a rest. There’s also a really nice walk along the Six Mile Water river. It’s about a mile long and will take you to the edge of Lough Neagh, which is worth another coffee and a few photos over the lough. Nice for a sunset too, if you’re into that sort of thing.
This is one of our favourite places to be if we just have a couple of hours to spare and we want to get outside and slow things down, without challenging ourselves with anything like a more serious hike. It’s not likely to change your life, but it’s worth stopping off if you want to spend some time outside of Belfast.
You know all those Pinterest pins you’ve ogled over about sleeping under the stars? Well, here you go – County Fermanagh offers its own under-the-stars experience with a whole lot more. You’re unlikely to catch any sightings of the Aurora, like those igloos in Finland that everyone is dying to go to, but in terms of unique experiences, this is right up there.
There are ‘regular’ accommodations on offer here, but let’s be honest, who wants regular? The real action is at the bubble domes, and this is where we stayed. You have your own space in the middle of a forest, and each dome is gated, so there are no real worries over privacy. The setting is just so unique – your own dome has everything you need for the night; comfy bed, heaters and electric blankets, a couple of chairs that you won’t use because the bed is awesome, a coffee machine that you will use because coffee, and your own bathroom. And of course, an incredible view of the forest and the night sky. Everywhere you look, there is something else to see. You really feel like you’re right in amongst nature, because you are really.
You might not bother spending much time outside of the bubble dome because it’s so unique, but if you do, there’s plenty to take in. There are spa facilities and a bar, neither of which we used, simply because we enjoyed everything else so much. There is a short walk that takes you down to the edge of Lough Erne. We must have sat admiring the view for over an hour. Again – the sunsets – totally special. Make sure and spend some time here if you do visit.
The restaurant is a bit special too. One of those restaurants that pride themselves on using local, seasonal produce, so everything is super fresh, and most of what is on the menu sounds a bit mad. It nearly forces you to order something you would never order anywhere else, but that’s a good thing. The quality of everything that we had at the restaurant was top-notch and worth every penny. A delicious cherry on an already delicious cake.
The whole experience comes together perfectly. A word of warning – it’s not cheap. We were really kindly gifted a stay here as a wedding present, and we’re so grateful because if we hadn’t have received that, the price may have put us off. But we’re so glad we got to experience it – it really is unique and something that everybody should get the chance to try. If you’re looking for something really special, it’s probably worth pushing the boat out to give this place a go.
Whiterocks & Portstewart Strand
The North coast has some amazing beaches – including Downhill and Benone that I wrote about earlier – especially if you’re lucky enough to get some weather that resembles something akin to Summer. We’ve been spoiled this year. Whiterocks (Portrush) and the Strand at Portstewart are two absolute gems.
They’re not too far from each other, and also very close to some of the more well-known tourist spots (Giant’s Causeway & Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge), so it’s definitely worth spending some time in and around this area. Portstewart Strand is owned by the National Trust, so there’s a charge to park the car, but it’s worth it.
Despite their close proximity, each beach will offer something unique – Whiterocks has – well – white rocks. Loads of little rocks pools and rock formations that are well worth exploring. And of course, a brave stretch of actual beach. The Strand is just stunning, and has a backdrop of sand dunes that you could spend all day exploring if your thighs would allow it. If you manage to make it towards the top end of the Strand, you’ll get a nice view of Mussenden Temple from another angle too. Well worth it.
If you’re into golf, it’s worth looking into golf courses in the area too. I’m not into it, so I’m not going to pretend to know anything about them. But somebody said they were good once.
The Mourne Mountains
Another one I’m not going to pretend I have explored much – mostly because they are absolutely massive. But we’ve done enough to know that they’re worth getting into. The Mournes are about an hour of a drive South of Belfast; depending on where you access them from. They include the highest mountains in Northern Ireland – the highest of which is Slieve Donard – so if you’re into serious hiking, this is where you want to be.
There is something for everything in the Mournes though – small peaks, big peaks, short hikes, long hikes, reservoirs, rivers, and of course the Mourne Wall. The Mourne Wall is a 22-mile long wall that links fifteen of the peaks. The idea being that if you’re a bit lost, you find your way to the wall, and that should be able to guide you either up or down. It’s not built terribly high, but it’s mighty impressive to see.
Our most recent forage into the Mournes took us to the Blue Lough. It was a hatefully warm and sunny day, so it made a fairly straightforward 6-mile hike actually quite difficult. We were glad we brought so much water. But the reward when we actually made it to the Blue Lough was worth it. It kind of comes from nowhere and just opens up a lovely cool body of water that you can have a quick dip in to cool down. Honestly, if you didn’t go looking for these places, you’d never know they’re there. Totally worth visiting.
Lusty Beg Island
I had to squeeze this one in. It’s a beautiful place well worth taking the time to stay for a couple of days, but it’s properly special for us because we got married here. So I’m a bit biased, but hear me out.
Lusty Beg takes you away from the rest of the world. It’s a small wee island that you have to take a ferry over to (it only fits two cars at a time), and once you’re on the island, you kind of forget about what’s going on in the rest of the world. In a good way. They have a load of different accommodation options, from single rooms to massive cabins that sleep six people. We’ve visited loads of times in the run-up to the wedding, and have stayed in most of the accommodations, and they’re all great.
The island also offers a bar, a spa, charming walking trails, as well as outdoor activities like kayaking and clay pigeon shooting. Honestly, if you’re talking about getting off the map for a couple of days, what else could you want? This place is the perfect place to do so, and the staff will look after you really well. It’s a good two-hour drive from Belfast, but well, well worth it.
So there you go. There are loads and loads of other places here that you might stumble across that will be great. And of course, there are the really big and obvious tourist attractions – I sort of felt like there’s enough written about those on the internet. I’ll do a bit on Belfast too in another post. But honestly, one of the best things about visiting Belfast is visiting the places that aren’t Belfast. If that makes any sense.