For those of us in the know (i.e. those of us who grew up there!) Northern Ireland (or the North of Ireland) is more than just a location scout’s dream. We’ve known about the wow factor of our beautiful countryside for years and now it appears the rest of the world is beginning to catch on.
There are so many spots to mention, I could fill pages and pages and pages. But I won’t. I’ve chosen a few spots I try to visit when I’m back.
It’s likely most visitors to the North arrive in Belfast, so it would make sense to start there on a tourist guide to Northern Ireland. However, being a Derry woman, I’m going to push the idea that there’s more to the North of Ireland than just Belfast. So, we’ll start in Derry!
One of the things I love most about Derry is its location. It’s a beautiful setting where the river Foyle sweeps and stretches out to the Atlantic straight through the middle of a city fringed by the greenery of farmland. Growing up, there were times I’d stand on the riverbank and gaze out across the city’s spires to the Derryveagh mountains, imagining myself in an Alpine town.
But Derry isn’t just about the scenery. It’s also got a lot of history – most of it fascinating. Thanks to its important strategic position, it’s seen a fair amount of conflict, from the famous siege to World War II (the German U-Boats surrendered here). The story of the city is told in the excellent Tower Museum, which takes visitors on a tour of the city’s history in a detailed and interesting way – it’s 100% worth a visit. Another thing Derry is famous for are its walls – take one of the excellent tours or meander round yourself and admire the views (and the history!).
It would be remiss of me not to mention the nightlife. The word most frequently used about Derry’s nightlife? ‘Buzzing’. At the weekends (and a number of weeknights, especially round Christmas), it’s standing room only as the bars are heaving with people getting the craic going. I’d recommend one of the many bars on Waterloo Street (Peadar O’Donnell’s does regular trad sessions if that’s what you’re after) or Sandino’s, a really popular spot next to the bus station. It’s always busy and is a quirky wee spot – last time I was there there were posters selling Left Bank olive oil…
I can’t comment on food options (what’s the point in going home if you don’t spend your time stuffing your face with home-cooked food?) but three things are on nearly every menu: chicken goujons, garlic potatoes (these are like square chips in garlic butter and always amazing) and tobacco onions (a type of really caramelised onions).
Once you’ve had your fill of Derry, it’s time to jump in the car and head East. Driving along the North Coast can take a long time as you could easily spend days visiting every little spot. So I’ve cut it down to a few of my personal favourites.
Situated on a cliff edge near Castlerock, this ‘temple’ was built as a summer library in 1785. Run by the National Trust, the views are absolutely spectacular. Open all year round, there’s a small entry fee, but it’s definitely worth it as you also get access to the extensive grounds.
Further along the coast towards the East sits the famous Dunluce Castle, teetering on the edge of the cliffs. The eagle-eyed might spot that this is the location for the seat of the Greyjoys in Game of Thrones. Built in the 1500s, its history is a tumultuous one, filled with stories of banshee sightings and parts of the castle dramatically falling into the sea.
The last stop before Belfast along the coast is an attraction so breathtaking it dominates most Northern Irish tourism brochures.
The Giant’s Causeway. Northern Ireland’s first UNESCO world Heritage site, these 40,000 year old basalt rock formations are the stuff of legend – literally. The Visitor Experience centre operated by the National Trust tells the story of how the causeway was formed. According to legend, it was built by Irish giant Fionn MacCool who used it to trot across to Scotland (there are similar formations on the Scottish island of Iona) until one day, a Scottish giant came to confront Fionn. Thanks to some quick-thinking and trickery on the part of Fionn and his wife, the Scottish giant Benandonner fled back to Scotland in fear, smashing the causeway as he went to make sure Fionn wouldn’t follow…
By this point, you’ve probably had a very healthy dose of sea air and are ready for an early night. Tough. Belfast beckons with its revitalised nightspots. But where to start?A trip to Belfast’s pubs HAS to start in the Crown.
Owned by the National Trust, this 19th century drinking hole is a must-see for any visitor. Situated right in the centre of town, it’s a great place to get the night started before heading over to the Cathedral Quarter, Belfast’s oldest area. Cobbled streets wind between pubs and cultural hubs – it’s also pretty compact, so easy to navigate after you’ve had a few. Top pubs include the cosy, rum-loving The Spaniard and the lovely Duke of York. Special mention also goes to the tiny but authentic Bittles Bar near Victoria Square for a cheeky day time pint away from the shopping.
Next morning, blow off the cobwebs (and the hangover) at the beautiful Murlough Bay next to the town of Newcastle. An hour’s drive south of Belfast, this beautiful beach stretches 6km along the coast with the Mourne mountains a dramatic backdrop to the Nature Reserve.
Interested in more? Check out this article on how to visit Northern Ireland as a Game of Thrones geek… or check out the excellent discovernorthernireland.com. And Failte!