Northern Ireland is blessed with vibrant cities, beautiful countryside and a stunning coastline. We visited this lovely country as part of a road trip around much of the island of Ireland. We flew into Belfast airport and hired a car which gave us maximum flexibility to explore. Here’s a Northern Ireland road trip itinerary for spending two to three days in this lovely country. It can be extended or compressed, depending on how much time you have and how long you wish to spend at some of the attractions.
Belfast is the capital city of Northern Ireland and is probably one of the liveliest places we’ve visited. The city’s name derives from Béal Feirste which means ‘mouth of the sandbar’. Although there have been settlements in the area since Neolithic times, Belfast town was established in the 17th century by Sir Arthur Chichester. It grew rapidly over the years as a trading centre and industrial hub. Most of Ireland seceded from British rule in 1921 to form the Irish Free State but six counties in the north of the island remained part of the UK and Belfast become the capital city of these.
Arriving in Belfast
We flew into Belfast airport, picked up our car and drove the short journey into the city. We arrived at at 4 pm on a Saturday evening, and the place was already throbbing – bars were full, and everyone was dressed up and ready to go out. A walk through the city was interspersed by raucous mobile bars filled by revellers and fuelled by boozy pedal power.
The following day we spent some time in the city. Belfast is a great place to explore on foot and has a number of impressive buildings:
The City Hall in Donegall Square council building is the civic building of Belfast City Council.
Belfast Cathedral, the Cathedral Church of St Anne, dates from 1899. In the background of the picture below you can see a very thin spire. It’s so slim it looks like a spike. It’s called the Spire of Hope and was designed to be extremely lightweight because the cathedral is suffering from subsidence into the silty mud it was built upon. Hence, with no chance of it having a full spire or bell tower, this elegant, svelte and minimalist spire was installed in 2007.
The Albert Memorial Clock Tower was built in 1869. It was designed by WJ Barre who won a competition to design a memorial to Queen Victoria’s late husband, Albert the prince consort.
Belfast also has an impressive street art scene.
Things to Do in Belfast
The Titanic Experience is Belfast’s most popular tourist attraction. It’s worth setting aside a few hours to spend in this area.
Housed in a gargantuan building located in the Titanic Quarter on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard, visitors can embark on an extensive and highly interactive tour which shows the history of possibly the world’s most famous ship.
The tour depicts the story of the ship from its conception to the discovery of the wreck in its watery grave. It sets the narrative in the social context of Belfast’s history, notably its industries and particularly its shipyards. It also shows the construction process and includes a gentle theme park style ride through a mock-up of the shipyard.
There are detailed displays showing how the ship was fitted out. It was interesting to learn about the facilities that were available for the different classes of passenger.
It provides information about the launch and the Titanic’s disastrous maiden voyage as well as the search for the elusive wreck, which was discovered many decades later, and the depiction of the disaster in the media and on film.
Included in our ticket price was a visit to the SS Nomadic which is located in a dry dock outside the main building. This was another White Star Line ship (the last surviving in the world), built at the same time as the Titanic but exactly one quarter of the size.
She was the tender ship which transferred passengers from the docks in Cherbourg to the Titanic. Because of its size the Titanic itself was moored in deep water away from the shore.
Since our visit, the Titanic Experience has been revamped and the reimagined experience, with an emphasis on telling the story of many of the people involved with the Titanic, launched in March 2023.
While you’re in the area, the Maritime Mile on the waterfront has a lot to discover, from historic attractions showcasing the area’s maritime history, art installations and a bunch of restaurants and shops.
Other Belfast attractions include the Crumlin Road Gaol, a prison that was operational between 1845 and 1996. It has been renovated and is now open to visitors.
Ulster Museum offers an extensive collection of artefacts, covering history, science and the natural world, as well as an art gallery.
Game of Thrones
With so many beautiful locations, it’s easy to see why this country has a thriving film and television industry. Northern Ireland offered one of the primary settings for the filming of the popular TV series Game of Thrones. Producers HBO hired Titanic Studios, a building located just behind the Titanic Experience, for much of the filming and they also used exterior locations dotted all over Northern Ireland.
If you are looking to see all the Game of Thrones locations there are several tours available in Belfast or, if you are driving yourself, you will spot loads of brown tourist signs on the roads indicating where to visit. Just south of Belfast is the Game of Thrones studio tour for fans of the show.
The Titanic Quarter has some Game of Thrones stained glass windows located along the waterfront as a tribute to the series.
Driving To The Antrim Coast
We decided to spend a day on our Northern Ireland road trip driving from Belfast to Derry visiting many attractions along with way.
We headed out from Belfast to the Antrim coast, taking a quick detour to the Dark Hedges. This is an avenue of gnarled and twisted beech trees which were planted in the 18th century, one of many locations made famous by Game of Thrones. The trees are located on the Bregagh Road, Stranocum – follow the brown road signs to a car park which is very close by.
The Antrim Coastline is a place of great beauty and it’s a pleasure to drive along it. There are two locations that are unmissable.
Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge
The Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge was originally constructed by salmon fishermen over 350 years ago, it links the mainland with the teeny island of Carrickarede. The bridge has been rebuilt several times over the years. The current bridge is 20 metres across and is at a height of 30m above the sea.
The car park is located on the North Antrim Coastal Path, just under a kilometre from Ballintoy village. Visitors need to prebook in order to cross the bridge. There is a car park (a fee applies) and the island is located along a coastal path – just follow the signs.
Sometimes the bridge is closed so it’s worth checking the National Trust website before visiting. Even if you can’t use the bridge it’s a stunningly beautiful walk along the coastline.
Around 11km along the coast from Carrick-A-Rede, the Giant’s Causeway was one of the attractions we had most wanted to visit on our trip. Mitch’s Geography A-level is entirely to blame, as it has been for all sorts of geographical attractions that we’ve visited over the years, from glaciers to oxbow lakes. Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO heritage site, the Giant’s Causeway is a wonder of nature.
It comprises some 40,000 basalt columns, largely in hexagonal shapes, that all interlock. They formed over 60 million years ago following volcanic eruptions which forced the layers of molten basalt to develop and then solidify on the chalk beds. As the lava cooled it contracted to form the columns, the relatively even rate of cooling determining that the liquid basalt settled into the characteristic shapes. But the cooling wasn’t totally uniform, so while most of the columns on the causeway are hexagonal, there are a few with more sides.
The causeway really is marvellous and, unsurprisingly, this is the most Instagrammed spot in Ireland. It’s possible to walk on the basalt columns themselves and there are a number of short hikes in the area that will take you to and from the visitor’s centre. Make sure you wear suitable walking shoes, the causeway can get slippery.
But alongside the geological wonder lies a legend. The giant of the eponymous causeway is Finn Macool who built it in order to take on rival giant Benandonner from Scotland. But Macool later learned that Benandonner was a much larger giant and would have presented a real challenge in a battle. So Finn’s wife had a very clever idea.
When they heard about the imminent visit from his rival she wrapped Finn up in baby clothes and placed him in a giant cradle. Benandonner arrived and was informed that Finn was not at home. And he was so shocked at the size of a ‘baby’ giant, he figured that the adult Macool must be enormous so he fled Ireland, destroying the causeway behind him to ensure that Finn wouldn’t follow.
Further Finn Legends
Finn was also the giant reputed to have scooped out a large portion of soil in Northern Ireland to chuck at his Scottish rival. Unfortunately he missed and it ended up in the sea, forming either the Isle of Man or Ailsa Craig. The scooped out hole in the earth became Lough Neagh.
There are all sorts of other legends about the various rock formations in the area. Finn’s giant camel, which was apparently his only form of transport when he wanted to cover long distances, can be seen on the approach to the causeway. Sadly it was turned to stone. There is most definitely a camel-shaped rock in the picture below.
And apparently he used to play the organ – there are organ pipes on the headland overlooking the causeway, which are also basalt stacks.
The Giant’s Causeway is a National Trust site, so members can visit and park for free. It’s advisable to pre-book tickets online, especially if you want a space at the local car park if travelling by car. The visitor’s centre has lots of information about the site and runs free guided walks for visitors – you are provided with a headset, because it can get very windy, and this ensures you can hear the commentary. We recommend a tour as the guides provide loads of geological information as well as stories of the giant’s legends.
Moving inland, Bushmill’s is Northern Ireland’s best known whiskey distillery and the oldest working distillery in the world. It dates from 1608 when King James granted a licence and is named for all the mills located on the nearby River Bush. It offers distillery tours and tastings.
If you’re looking for a bit of beach time, head back to the coast and then travel west to Portstewart or Portrush which are both popular locations. Portrush offers amusement parks and arcades whereas Portstewart enjoys a long beach with promenade. Portstewart also boasts Morelli’s ice cream parlour, established in 1927, which has a fantastic reputation for really good ice cream.
Continuing in a westerly direction we arrived at Derry – also known as Londonderry. It is the second largest city in Northern Ireland.
This is the only city in Ireland to have retained its original walls and is considered to be amongst the best walled cities in Europe. Walking the city walls is an essential activity in Derry.
The walls were built in the 17th century by the Irish Society in order to protect the city from English and Scottish settlers. The Siege of Derry started in 1689 when apprentices locked the gates against invading forces loyal to James II. Eventually, the king himself arrived to demand a surrender but the citizens refused. The siege lasted several months and the walls were never breached – ships on the river Foyle eventually managed to get supplies to the hungry but stubborn Derry folk.
The city walls are around 1.5km in length and take around 20-30 mins to walk around. There are seven gates: Shipquay Gate, Butcher Gate, Bishop’s Gate and Ferryquay Gate are the four original gates, with New Gate, Castle Gate and Magazine Gate being added later. Many defensive cannon can still be seen.
St Columb’s cathedral is is dedicated to Saint Columba who was an Irish monk who set up a Christian settlement to the area and then brought Christianity to Scotland after being exiled from Ireland. Construction on the cathedral started in 1628 and it is the first cathedral to have been built following the Reformation in the UK.
Derry’s beautiful Guildhall is where the city council meet. Completed in 1890 the design of the distinctive clock tower was influenced by the Elizabeth Tower in London, more commonly known as Big Ben (which is actually the bell of the great clock).
Derry has a history of sectarian tension and is the place where the conflict known as the Troubles began. The Battle of the Bogside took place in 1969 and this area was also the location of the Bloody Sunday incident in 1972. The Museum of Free Derry is dedicated to the struggle for civil rights in the region in the context of the creation of Free Derry in the 1960s and 1970s.
The street art has a political edge.
Free Derry corner is a landmark in the Bogside area where nationalists declared an autonomous area in the 1960s and 70s. Originally graffiti on the gable wall of a terraced house, the houses were demolished in later years but the wall remains.
The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 ended a significant amount of the violence associated with the Troubles. It acknowledged that that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wished to remain a part of the United Kingdom and that a substantial section of the people of Northern Ireland, and the majority of the people of the island of Ireland, wished to bring about a united Ireland.
The Derry Peace Bridge was opened in 2011. It’s a bicycle and footbridge which crosses the River Foyle and links the Waterside area, which is mainly unionist, with Cityside, which is largely nationalist.
Browns in Town
A recommendation for foodies is Browns in Town, a sister restaurant to the fine dining establishment Browns Bonds Hill, a Michelin-starred restaurant with an excellent reputation. Located on Strand Rd, Browns in Town offers modern Irish cuisine – fine dining at exceptional prices. We enjoyed pan seared scallops with smoked beef, celeriac and a red wine jus, a pork wellington with jus, and pressed beef, served with a side order of champ – an Irish dish comprising creamy mashed potato with spring onion (and lashings of delicious butter).
We visited Northern Ireland as part of a longer road trip where we also followed much of the Wild Atlantic Way in the Republic of Ireland. We can highly recommend this beautiful area with its very friendly people as a great place to enjoy a few days.
Belfast is just a couple of hours’ drive from Dublin. This blog post by faheyjamestravel has a list of things you can do there.