Top 10 Things to Do in Northern Ireland

Hit the road on the Causeway Coastal Route, get down with Belfast's best musicians, and soak up the otherworldly scenery featured in Game of Thrones.


Northern Ireland blends centuries of history with an engaging modern vibe that shows time definitely hasn’t stood still. Mix in welcoming smiles and jaw-dropping vistas, and it all adds up to ten travel experiences that simply can’t be had anywhere else.



Belfast boasts a proud musical history and the beat shows no signs of slowing down. Modern bands that more than do their elders justice are on tap nightly at clubs and pubs all across town. The Oh Yeah Music Centre’s Belfast Music Exhibition proudly showcases memories and memorabilia of artists from Van Morrison to Snow Patrol. Take to the streets for a guided bus tour of musical Belfast including Ulster Hall, where Led Zeppelin first performed “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Van the Man’s” childhood home. Then dance the night away with an array of talented local musicians that you may not know yet, but will never forget. Culture Northern Ireland has the skinny on performers and shows from folk, rock, and reggae to techno and classical recitals.



Arguably the world’s most famous ship was born right here in the Belfast shipyards. (“She was fine when she left here,” some locals like to say.) Titanic Belfast is an engaging exhibition of reconstructions, special effects, and interactive features that help you experience the Titanic journey from the docks, to the decks, and even to the bottom of the Atlantic. Continue the adventure on a boat tour around Belfast harbor for a different perspective on Titanic history and the entire port of Belfast. During summer months, the city’s large breeding seal colony, often appear over the bow.



The Causeway Coastal Route is world-renowned. There’s a good reason—those who soak in this road’s dramatic seaside vistas and emerald glens can’t stop singing their praises. Stop at the ruined Dunluce Castle, perched on an ocean cliff so precipitous that the castle’s kitchens dropped into the sea one night in 1639. Test your head for heights by walking the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge above the waves from clifftop to island and back. And marvel at the Giant’s Causeway, a 50-60-million-year-old pile of basalt columns, stretching into the sea, that has inspired awe and legends in equal measure throughout the long centuries of Irish history. When the day is done wet your whistle at another famed attraction. Take a tour of the Old Bushmills Distillery, the oldest working distillery in Ireland, to get a behind the scenes look at small-batch whiskey production and sample a smooth dram for yourself.




Northern Ireland’s second city is vibrant, modern urban center with one of Europe’s youngest populations. But its heart is cloaked in 17th-century stone, an enduring engineering marvel of the age. Nearly a mile of stone walls, built between 1613-1618, encircle inner Londonderry (Derry) and provide a pleasant stroll around one of Europe’s very finest surviving walled cities. The ramparts are studded with seven gates and one of the continent’s greatest collection of cannons including Roaring Meg—famed for the terrifying sound she unleashed during the 1689 Siege. (The city never fell.) Learn more about the city’s fascinating history at the Tower Museum. Displays here include items salvaged from La Trinidad Valencera, which was one of the biggest ships in the ill-fated 1588 Spanish Armada before it came to grief just offshore.



The real world Westeros features landscapes every bit as striking and unforgettable as those seen in Game of Thrones—and you can enjoy them without fear of being beheaded. Visit spectacular sites from the show scattered around Northern Ireland on your own, or on specialized tours catering to fans of the Starks and Lannisters—some including choose-your-own costumes, bonfires, and feasts fit for a king. Visit the Winterfell film set at Castle Ward and try your hand at archery or meet the Direwolves Odin and Thor. Stroll the Dark Hedges, an avenue of 18th century beech trees more familiar to fans as the King’s Road. If you dare, head north of the Wall into the Haunted Forest itself with a visit to Tollymore Forest Park. Tourism Ireland has painstakingly mapped the Seven Kingdoms to help fans plan their own quasi-medieval fantasy trips.



With four major championships and counting, Rory McIlroy has raised Northern Ireland’s game in the golf world. You might not be able to play like Rory, but at least you can enjoy a round on the same courses he loves. Northern Ireland is home to some of the world’s best links courses and you’re welcome to play them even if your game isn’t quite world class. Royal County Down is a private club, but visitors are welcome to play the Championship Links (if reserved well in advance) several days a week. Royal Portrush Golf Club, which will be home to the 148th Open in 2019, also welcomes advance reservations from members of other recognized golf clubs. Although these two institutions enjoy global fame, don’t overlook a local favorite and Rory’s home club. Holywood Golf Club offers even duffers a scenic round set in the hills just a few miles outside of Belfast.



Some of the most rugged and inspiring scenery in the Mourne Mountains is found on the hike through Hare’s Gap, a moderately taxing jaunt of about 2 miles each way. As you climb to the pass imagine the ice sheets that once helped shape this range, and glimpse the inspiration for Belfast-native C.S. Lewis’s land of Narnia. Spare a thought for the smugglers as well. The gap was once a gateway for smuggled spices, coffee and other goods that were carried here from the coast along the Brandy Pad route for distribution into the Trassey River valley below.

For a more leisurely loop try the circular ridge trail around the top of Divis and the Black Mountain just outside Belfast. The moderate trail takes around three hours, and, on a clear day, it delivers incredible views of Scotland and the Isle of Man.



Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark is a celebrated UNESCO site that shows off 895 million years of Earth’s history both above ground and below. Today the landscape surrounding Cuilcagh Mountain is an appealing one of uplands, lakes and forests. But over the eons it has seen mountains rise and fall, deserts, and even tropical oceans. You can read these ancient stories in the enduring rock, thanks to surprises like the coral fossils found on the slopes of Cuilcagh Mountain. Below the surface an entirely different world awaits. Vast caverns, running rivers, waterfalls, and fascinating geological features are on display in Marble Arch Caves, one of the finest European caves open to the public. From March to October, take a 75-minute tour through this subterranean wonderland by boarding an underground boat ride that leads to a mile-long guided walk through and out of the cave.



Robert the Bruce is said to have been exiled on Northern Ireland’s northernmost speck of land in 1306. Once you visit Rathlin Island you’ll be tempted to linger voluntarily. So get away from it all. Take the local ferry from Ballycastle, which takes 25 to 45 minutes. Some 150 friendly locals call the island home, and their quaint port village soon gives way to quiet country best explored by walking or by bicycle, which can be rented on the island. Stunning vistas blend land, sea and sky. Many interesting birds call the island home, at least seasonally, including a colony of puffins. The experts at the RSPB seabird center are a terrific help to experts and would-be birders alike. Whether you stay a few hours or a few days, don’t forget to take in the view from the unique “upside-down” lighthouse before you head back to the mainland.



County Fermanagh may be landlocked, but the way to its heart is by water. Lough Erne, actually two connected lakes, is dotted with intriguing islands to explore. Devenish Island’s monastic site dates to the 6th century and its famed round tower was built in the 12th century. Curious ancient figures are found on White Island and on Boa Island where the two-faced Janus figure was carved by Celts circa 400 to 800 AD.

The local waters provide plenty of live action as well. The Erne system is famed for fine fishing of two distinct flavors; brown trout on Lower Lough Erne and pike on the Upper Lough. The lake’s scenic shorelines are home to a number of National Trust castle and great house properties. Celebrated inns, hotels, and restaurants serve up the culinary delights that are increasingly earning rave reviews in Fermanagh and across Northern Ireland.

The lake is friendly to paddlers with plenty of canoe and kayak rentals and a designated trail complete with camping. Non-paddlers can hop on a day cruise, or hire a boat and chart a course wherever they wish. If the lough only whets your appetite for more, consider moving on to the Shannon Erne Waterway. Thirty-nine miles of scenic canal, river and lake connect the lough with Ireland’s famed River Shannon—and hundreds more miles of adventure.




36 Hours in Belfast

Avoided, underrated or just plain forgotten, Belfast is a city that’s been fighting a bad reputation for half a century. A visit today, however, is an eye-opening experience in the best possible way. Belfast has been coming into its own in the last few years, developing a vibrant restaurant scene, award-winning architecture — the Royal Institute of British Architects gave the MAC, a sleek arts venue, a National Award in 2013 — and a new cosmopolitanism, although fried breakfasts and a heightened awareness of sectarian conflict are still an integral part of most residents’ days. The friendliness of the people is what’s most appealing in this small and very walkable city, from smiling servers to talkative bartenders to helpful strangers on the street. Visit Belfast to soak up good vibes, to eat well and to drink unstintingly. It’s a city that’s at its best when enjoyed from behind a pint glass.


1. Lunch with a view | 1:30 p.m.

Kick off the weekend with lunch at Robinson & Cleaver, a new restaurant housed in what was a 19th-century linen warehouse and department store. The “Taste of Ulster” sharing boards, with selections of smoked salmon, grilled mackerel, Oakwood cheese and wheaten bread, are perfect for sampling locally produced fare. Find a spot on the terrace, which looks directly out onto the ornate Edwardian City Hall. To its right is the imposing Scottish Provident Building, a late-Victorian sandstone edifice that’s currently metamorphosing into a high-end business center. Lunch for two around £30, or $44, at $1.47 to the pound.

2. Botanics and background | 3 p.m.

After lunch, stroll through Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, 28 acres of green lawns and trees near Queens University. Stop at the Palm House, an elegant Victorian greenhouse with a curved iron and glass structure that’s just as gorgeous as the abundance of exotic plants growing inside. Emerge from the gardens at the Ulster Museum (free admission), a well-designed space with exhibits on Northern Irish history, art and natural history, and one that offers a comprehensive background on the country’s heritage.

3. Crown jewel | 5:30 p.m.

The Crown Liquor Saloon is a treasure: a Victorian gin palace that’s been beautifully restored by its owner, the National Trust. Everything from the snugs — semiprivate tables sequestered by mid-height walls — to the red granite bar to the antique bell system for summoning staff looks like it’s straight out of a period movie. Order a pint of Guinness here (£3.90) and it comes with a shamrock traced in the head. The Crown manages to sit on the fence of sectarian feuds: While the name sounds decidedly Loyalist, there’s a mosaic of a crown decorating the ground outside the entryway upon which Republican clientele can happily step. Look up the street to see the Europa Hotel, known for a time as “the most bombed hotel in Europe.” The Europa was hit dozens of times during the Troubles, though it kept its doors open throughout.

4. From the sea | 7:30 p.m.

Though Ireland’s an island, all too often its best seafood is exported and the remainder overpriced at home. The Mourne Seafood Bar, though, has built a reputation over eight years on serving top-quality, locally caught fish and seafood that doesn’t cost the earth. Book ahead for dinner in this city center restaurant and feast on oysters brought straight from nearby Carlingford Lough, along with fresh langoustines, salmon, lobster and more elaborate tidbits like poponcini peppers stuffed with crab mayonnaise and watercress salad. Dinner for two, around £70.


5. Breakfast of champions | 10 a.m.

The debate over where to get the best “Ulster fry” in Belfast is never-ending, but Bright’s is a top contender. This no-frills restaurant serves up the basics (fish and chips, eggs and beans) to locals who crowd in, three generations to a table. Push past the herd of strollers in the entryway and order the “Bright’s fry” (£3.50), a plate packed with eggs, sausages, potato bread, soda bread, bacon and black pudding, along with grilled mushrooms and tomatoes as a (meaningless) gesture toward health consciousness. Pair this with plenty of tea from the ubiquitous workaday steel pots and you’ll be set up for the day, as they say.

6. Taxis and Troubles | 11 a.m.

While the Troubles may seem like a part of Belfast’s past, Troubles tourism is alive and well. Visiting the areas most affected is essential for understanding the city’s fraught history. Ninety-minute “black taxi tours” (around £30 for up to three people, additional fee for more) take passengers through the Falls and Shankill Roads, Catholic and Protestant, respectively, and still strongly sectarian. Drivers also deliver a running commentary on the Troubles, and explain the significance of the numerous political murals that so clearly divide the neighborhoods. The Irish nationalist Bobby Sands is a staple of the Catholic murals while terrifying images of paramilitaries in balaclavas holding machine guns are popular in Loyalist areas. Many companies run black taxi tours; stop by the Visit Belfast Welcome Center on Donegall Square for brochures. The companies are much of a muchness — they all cover the same areas and advertise themselves as impartial, although individual taxi drivers, most of whom were born and bred in one of these neighborhoods, will make their politics quite clear.

7. Cathedrals and craft beer | 1 p.m.

Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter is the trendiest neighborhood in town, its cobbled streets now home to bustling restaurants, pubs and arts venues. Begin with a visit to St. Anne’s Cathedral (admission, £5), a turn-of-the century Romanesque building with two quirky features: the 1,000 colorful hassocks hand-embroidered by churchgoing women since 1950; and the Spire of Hope, a 76-meter stainless steel spike that punctures the roof and was added in 2007. Nearby, tucked away on tiny Commercial Court, is Hadskis, which opened in late 2013 with a focus on local ingredients. Sit at the long bar overlooking the open kitchen for a lunch of pheasant, pearl barley and horseradish with a side of champ (an Irish spin on mashed potatoes), washed down with a Headless Dog or Titanic Quarter — both craft beers from the Northern Irish Hilden Brewing Company. Lunch for two, around £50.

8. Architecture and the arts | 4 p.m.

One of the shining examples of the new, more sophisticated Belfast, the MAC (Metropolitan Arts Center), which is free (performances require tickets), is a stunning asymmetrical tower of brick and volcanic stone housing seven stories of high-ceilinged galleries and cleverly designed reading nooks. It’s the ever-changing roster of exhibitions and live performances that’s the real enticement, however. Pop in to see the latest visual art exhibitions or check out the frequent experimental live performances (theater, music and dance). The MAC is well situated in the Cathedral Quarter overlooking St. Anne’s Square, which has emerged as a restaurant hot spot.

9. Drinks at the Duke | 5:30 p.m.

At the other end of Commercial Court from Hadskis is the Duke of York pub, where a young Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, tended bar in the 1960s. Outdoor drinking is a growing trend in Belfast, and the Duke claims a charming stretch of alleyway with brick walls, window boxes and benches. It’s a local haunt, and it’s worth walking across the alley to the parking lot to check out the mural of local celebrities. If the weather’s not conducive to sitting outdoors, take your Guinness (£3.70) inside, where the walls and ceiling are plastered with old-fashioned advertisements for stout and whiskey.

10. Seasonal Menu | 7:30 p.m.

Sitting pretty at the top of the Belfast culinary scene is OX, which opened in March 2013 to great fanfare. The former tile shop has massive plate glass windows that look out onto the River Lagan, and a menu that matches the décor in simplicity and modernity. Friday and Saturday nights are tasting menu only: five courses of seasonal dishes with a vegetable focus, like broad bean and radish leaf soup, and Mourne lamb with spelt, girolles and beetroot. With just 40 seats, it’s best to book in advance. Tasting menu for two, around £110.



11. Tour the Titanic | 11:30 a.m.

Allow several hours for Titanic Belfast (admission, £15.50), which is a 20-minute walk or short taxi ride from the city center in the recently designated Titanic Quarter. The museum’s four wings are designed to look like high-tech ships’ hulls, covered in silver anodized aluminum shards. It opened in 2012 to commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the Belfast-built ship (though the locals say, “It was all right when it left here.”). The exhibits are impressively detailed, from the recreated staterooms to the personal histories of builders, waitresses and guests. Don’t miss the compelling beginning exhibits, which describe life in Belfast’s linen mills at the turn of the century. Also essential are the interactive projection of the ship’s plans and the Shipyard Ride, a narrated, amusement park-style ride that’s entertaining and not just for kids.

Belfast - Titanic Belfast


A former seed warehouse, Malmaison (34-38 Victoria St.) is a boutique hotel with a funky atmosphere and an abundance of cushy couches, plush cushions and deep colors. Amenities include free wifi, king-sized beds and a bar popular with local luminaries.

The Merchant (16 Skipper St.) boasts a chic Victorian-meets-Art Deco aesthetic accented by bespoke furnishings and a gorgeous old-fashioned bar. Situated in the Cathedral Quarter, it’s a good base for exploring the city.