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The ultimate Northern Ireland travel guide

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The ultimate Northern Ireland travel guide

It’s home to a dramatic coastline, expansive Lakelands and one of the most striking Unesco World Heritage sites in Europe. But despite its many attractions, Northern Ireland is still distinctly off the radar for a lot of travellers. All the more reason to head there now, so you can explore its lively cities, pretty countryside and picture-perfect beaches without finding yourself elbow to elbow with crowds of jostling tourists. Whether you‘re tempted by a wild weekend in Belfast or hop around the area’s Game of Thrones filming locations, there’s sure to be something to get your travel juices flowing.

Travel restrictions and entry requirements

There are currently no restrictions when it comes to getting into Northern Ireland. On the ground, there are no mask mandates in place, though it is still recommended you wear them indoors or in crowds. As such, you may still see some people wearing them on public transport or in busier shops.

Best time to go

May is the absolute best time to go – it’s the sunniest month for the country and you’ll get to see the bigger attractions, like the Giant’s Causeway, without the summer traffic. Belfast is also a great city break for December, when the Christmas lights and market stalls around City Hall illuminate the old stone buildings and bring a festive glow to the streets. Otherwise, the climate is delightfully unpredictable – as with the Republic of Ireland, you can expect to see all four seasons in a day.

Top cities and regions

Belfast

The entry point for most visitors to Northern Ireland, Belfast is a cracker of a city with ramshackle old pubs, a thriving food scene and intriguing sights like Titanic Belfast and the Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC). If you visit over a weekend, don’t miss a trip to the 19th-century St George’s Market, where you can sample the best of the local produce, from goat bacon to potent Young Buck blue cheese. While Belfast has worked hard to emerge from its tumultuous past, that doesn’t mean its history should be ignored. Take a drive around the city on one of the infamous Black Cab Tours, which are led by locals who lived through the Troubles and tell their stories in a captivating way.

Derry-Londonderry

This city has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, which is down to a few things: a flurry of exciting new restaurants and breweries, creative festivals, and a cult small-screen gang known as the Derry Girls (who have their own giant mural in town). Set on the northwestern tip of the country, Derry-Londonderry is encircled by 400-year-old city walls, which are completely intact. Take a walk along the top of them and you’ll get a great view of the landscape – even better, go on a guided walking tour to learn about the complex history of the area.

Causeway Coast

Named after the aforementioned UNESCO World Heritage site, this stretch of coastline is known primarily for its star attraction, the Giant’s Causeway. These surreal stacks of hexagonal basalt rocks appear out of nowhere on an otherwise regular (though beautiful) stretch of shore, and you’re free to clamber all over them when you visit. But do so at your peril – the seas here are notoriously ferocious, as are the winds. Instead, follow the walking trail along the clifftop, for a better view of both the rock formation and the rest of the coastline.

The Causeway Coast isn’t a one trick pony, either. Its 130-mile coast road starts in Belfast and winds its way along the sea all the way to Derry-Londonderry, with some cool stop offs along the way, making it a great road trip sandwiched between cities. Pause at The Gobbins, a cliff path that clings to the edge of the rocks and gives you an incredible vantage point of the water – it dates back to 1902, and while some of the reconstructed bridges feel quite modern, they were designed to replicate the original Victorian structure. It’s also a birder’s paradise, with resident razorbills, cormorants and puffins to boot. If you have a solid constitution (and no fear of heights) then the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is another thrill, swinging gently over waves crashing 30 metres below.

“Westeros”

OK, so it’s not actually Westeros. But huge swathes of Northern Ireland served as filming locations for the ludicrously popular TV show Game of Thrones, so walking the areas around Castle Ward feels a lot like walking in the footsteps of the Starks. While you can take guided tours of the region –complete with faux fur shawls and visits from the Northern Inuit dogs who played the “direwolves” on screen – you can also plot your own route around the locations, from Castle Ward (the real life Winterfell) to the Dark Hedges, which served as Kingsroad in the show. Be warned though: this spot gets busy, so arrive as early as possible, before the coach tours arrive. The Game of Thrones Studio Tour is the latest attraction on the scene, set in the Linen Mill Studios near Banbridge, 35 minutes from Belfast. This is where much of the show was shot, with sets and costumes on display.

Best under the radar destinations

Fermanagh

With almost a third of the county covered in lakes, Fermanagh is a great spot for a nature-packed, inland break by the water. Take a water taxi around Lough Erne to visit ancient monastic settlements on one of the hundreds of lake isles; or just sail by the swaying rushes and tree covered islands.

Strangford Lough

It’s only half an hour from Belfast, but Strangford Lough feels like a different world. This giant lake is surrounded by thick forests, historic country houses and ancient towers, some of which you can even rent for a night or two. It’s best seen from the water — be it on the ferry between Strangford and Portaferry, or by kayak as you paddle past tiny islands and lakeshore homes. It’s also an excellent location for food, from woodland tipis serving their own Dexter beef burgers by the fireside or country pubs with Michelin-level chefs.

Mourne Mountains

While you might not have heard of the Mourne Mountains, you’ve likely read about the landscape. It’s said that C.S. Lewis drew inspiration from this location for Narnia when he was writing The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Home to the highest peaks in Northern Ireland, the Mournes are an excellent spot for hiking, whether you want to take a gentle stroll or tackle the tallest mountain, Slieve Donard. It’s a great place for mountain bikers, too.

Best things to do

Go stargazing

The first of its kind in Northern Ireland, the OM Dark Sky Park is set within Davagh Forest, in the Sperrin Mountains. The lack of light pollution means it’s top notch for stargazing, and the visitor centre will teach you all you need to know before you head out into the inky darkness. Bear in mind that in the summer months it doesn’t get dark until very late in these parts – at least 10.30pm in June and July.

A beautiful train ride

One of the most scenic train journeys in Europe, the train from Coleraine to Derry-Londonderry may be short, but it sure is special. Hop onboard to travel on tracks set right on the sands of Benone Strand and Downhill Beach, with Binevenagh Mountain on the other side. Michael Palin called it “One of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world”.

Visit the distilleries

It’s not just the food scene that’s strong here. This is a land of world class and boutique spirits, where you can visit centuries-old distilleries as well as doing tastings in some more modern new kids on the block. Just a few miles from the Giant’s Causeway, Bushmills is the world’s oldest licenced working distillery, where the whiskey is still stored in handmade barrels from family coopers. Armagh is the county of cider making, and the Shortcross gin and whiskey brewed at Rademon Estate Distillery is excellent.

Getting around

If you’re sticking to the larger towns and cities, public transport should suffice – the train system is fairly efficient. If you want to explore the countryside, like Strangford Lough or the Causeway Coast, you’ll need to rent a car. You could cycle the 200km Causeway Coast, staying at some lovely hotels along the way, but plenty of cycling experience is advisable, as it is a steep route in parts.

How to get there

If you’re travelling from Scotland or the North of England, it’s easy to get to Northern Ireland by ferry. You can sail from Cairnryan to Larne with P&O Ferries, or from Liverpool to Belfast with Stena Line. There are also direct flights to Belfast’s two city airports, and some to Derry-Londonderry, from all over the UK.

Money-saving tip

If you want to do an epic train trip, travel on a Sunday. The Sunday Day Tracker ticket covers unlimited train travel on Translink services in Northern Ireland for just £8.

FAQs

What’s the weather like?

Comparable to the north of England and Scotland, in terms of temperature and rainfall. Whenever you go, bring a good raincoat.

What time zone is it in?

GMT.

What currency do I need?

Sterling. Most places accept contactless card payments, but it’s always handy to have a bit of cash for the places that don’t.

What language is spoken?

English.

What plug sockets are used?

Type G.

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