Planning a trip to The Emerald Isle? We’ve rounded up our picks for the best things to do in Northern Ireland to help you out. You can squeeze a lot into a Northern Ireland Road Trip exploring everything from famous Game of Thrones Filming Locations to visiting incredible castles and enjoying the great outdoors. If Northern Ireland is on your bucket list, keep reading because we have rounded up all the best places to visit and top tourist attractions to put on your list.
The Best of Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland is filled with beauty, friendly people, and heaps of history. There are so many places to visit in Northern Ireland, it will surprise you. The landscape changes before your eyes as you drive through the rolling coastline and the glens and plateaus that are so green and visit, you need to see it to believe it.
The Causeway Coastal Route
The Causeway Coast spans from Belfast to London Derry with most of Northern Ireland’s most famous tourist attractions. It is considered one of the best road trips in the world, and we recommend taking your time to go for hikes, hop on the water for some boat tours, and to enjoy all of the amazing Northern Irish hospitality. Compare car rental prices for Northern Ireland here.
While there are many famous sites to see, it is also a stunning drive that is worth visiting just to get out of the car to take in the high sea cliffs and breathtaking coast.
1. Giant’s Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway is one of the most famous tourist attractions in Northern Ireland. In fact, probably in most of Europe! Is something really that spectacular and deserving of the status of owning that top honor? The answer is a resounding yes! This UNESCO World Heritage Site is spectacular.
The basalt columns leading out to the sea were perfectly formed by a volcanic eruption millions of years ago. As the lava dried it created nearly perfect symmetrical hexagonal pillars in the form of a staircase. The Giants Causeway is one of the most extraordinary places to visit in the world at often at the top of many a bucket list by avid travelers, so it is not to be missed.
The Giant’s Causeway is Free to Visit, but you can also go inside the Visitor Centre which has interactive displays. There is also parking at the Visitor Centre.
If you don’t have time to explore both Ireland and Northern Ireland, this Giant’s Causeway tour from Dublin is a day tour that showcases the highlights of popular attractions in Northern Ireland including the Giant’s Causeway, Dark Hedges, Dunluce Castle, and some time in Belfast.
Legend of the Giant’s Causeway
The columns are so perfectly formed, that it is easy to believe the legend that the giant’s causeway was actually built by the Giant Finn McCool. Legend has it that Finn McCool built the Giant’s causeway to challenge the Scottish Giant Bennandoner who he was constantly bickering with.
It is an easy legend to believe because the 40,000 plus pillars resemble stone steps leading out over the sea. It’s so perfectly formed and beautifully crafted it makes it hard not to believe in the legend. We could easily imagine a bridge across the sea.
Tip: Stay at the Causeway hotel to explore the stones in peace. All tour buses arrive at mid day, but you can visit the centre from dawn to dusk. We explored at both sunrise and sunset and each time we shared the Giants Causeway with only two other people. Check reviews and rates on TripAdvisor
2. Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge
Once upon a time, fishermen walked across a precarious rope bridge to cross over to the island of Carrick a Rede to fish for salmon. It was a dangerous and difficult bridge to cross, but the salmon was plenty. Today there aren’t many salmon in the area, but the Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge has remained one of the most popular places to visit in Northern Ireland.
The Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge has been rebuilt and is an easy and safe cross, but some people found it to still be quite a thrill. If you aren’t afraid of heights, it’s not a very exciting walk. we didn’t care much for the bridge itself, but it was the views from the island that are worth the trip.
3. Ballintoy Harbour
This quiet village is now famous for being featured in Game of Thrones when Theon Greyjoy landed in the harbor of his homeland the Iron Islands. However, this is really worth the stop regardless if you are GOT fan, to walk out to the coast and witness the fearsome waves crashing against the large rocks and jagged coast.
The switchbacks and winding roads leading to Ballintoy Harbour are too tight for tour buses to make the turns, therefore, you won’t see many package tours in Ballintoy Harbour and will. have it all to yourself.
It’s also one of the best things to do in Northern Ireland for free. Why? because not only can you tour where the Game of Thrones was filmed, you get to see giant waves crashing against the most incredible coast. Make sure to rent Game of Thrones before you visit Northern Ireland.
4. Dark Hedges
The Dark Hedges is a short stop near the Giants Causeway, but we would have to say that they are one of Northern Ireland’s is must-see attractions. This lane of 90 beech trees line a country road creating a canopy of twisting branches overhead. It is a magnificent thing to see. Read more about them at The Dark Hedges of Northern Ireland – Tips to Visit and What you Need to Know
Built in the 18th century by the Stuart family to impress visitors as they approached their home, the Dark Hedges have endured and have become one of the staple stops for anyone visiting Northern Ireland. They have been pruned in recent years so you will see a different view than what you are used to, but they are still worth visiting. Make sure to go early in the morning to beat the rush of tour buses.
We highly recommend renting a car while exploring Northern Ireland to have the freedom to visit its top attractions off-peak times. It is the best way to truly appreciate its beauty. The Dark Hedges is one of the most photographed sights in Northern Ireland, making it one of the top things to see in Northern Ireland so if you go during mid-day, you will be with a crowd of people.
5. Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle is another great stop in Northern Ireland along the Coastal Route. It’s an ominous castle ruin overhanging on these cliffs and you can just imagine what life would’ve been like there when people were living there. Wandering the castle grounds lets you imagine what life was like in medieval times.
Dunluce Castle dates back to the 13th century and was built by the 2nd Earl of Ulster. It changed hands throughout the centuries and during the mid 16th century became the seat of the MacDonnell Clan. Its setting is extraordinary and it is no surprise that the Vikings were drawn to this area.
6. Marble Arch Caves Global GeoPark
The Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, situated just outside Enniskillen, County Fermanagh is one of Europe’s finest show caves. The Marble Arch Caves are not exactly a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but they were named a UNESCO Global Geopark due to the world importance of their geology and landscapes.
You start by taking a very short underground boat ride to a path that takes you through the narrow passageways of the caves. There are rivers, waterfalls and stalactites, and stalagmites. It’s an easy walk so you don’t have to worry about dressing for the occasion. However, be prepared for a steep climb up 160 steps at the end of the tour. Visit their website for tours and admission details.
7. Old Bushmills Distillery
Ireland is known for its Irish whiskey and a trip to the country would not be complete without visiting a distillery. The tour of the Bushmills Distillery is interesting, but you are not allowed to take any photos once inside. It was fun to see how the Whisky is prepared, but let’s be honest, it was tasting the spirits in the end that we all looked forward to.
Dave splurged and bought an expensive bottle of 16-year-old Bushmills Single Malt and I can guarantee that we’ll be reminiscing about the experience when we finally pop it open and have a taste over the holidays.
8. Torr Head Drive
If you take a detour off of the Causeway Coastal Route, you’ll discover a hidden gem known as Torr Head Drive. Located between Cushendun and Ballycastle, this route doesn’t see a lot of traffic because of its clinging cliffs and narrow roads. So the caravans tend to avoid this route. It offers a clear view of Scotland. As a matter a fact, it is the closest point to Scotland at only 12 miles apart!
While in the area, take a ferry to Rathlin Island to spend some time away from it all. It is the only inhabited island off shore of Northern Ireland with a population of only 150 people.
9. Castle Ward
The immensely popular HBO series, Game of Thrones was filmed in Northern Ireland. Its main studio and production office was in Belfast and there are countless locations throughout the country that you’ll recognize from the show. These are a few highlights of where to experience Game of Thrones in Ireland.
You can’t visit Northern Ireland without seeing at least one Game of Thrones site at the entire grounds of Castle Ward lets you immerse in an interactive experience. We found ourselves acting out John Snow teaching Bran archery in Winterfell. There are 11 filming locations in total on the grounds of Castle Ward where you can see many scenes from the series.
- Visiting Castle Ward lets you re-enact moments from the Game of Thrones.
- Clearsky Adventures ran the location when the Game of Thrones was filmed there and they have many stories to tell of what happened during the months that the HBO Production was based here.
10. Speedboat to Europe’s Highest Tides
We took an amazing speedboat ride out to the harbor of Strangford Lough to see the neighboring villages and the thrilling whirlpools created by the highest tides in Europe mixing with the seas. The tides here are the highest and fastest tides in Europe and the water is moving at a fast speed. So fast, in fact, they are harnessing the tidal water for hydroelectric power.
It was crazy to take the boat over the tidal pools. You could see yourself approaching the scary-looking foamy pools and our driver cranked the steering wheel twirling us around and around. What a thrill! You can book your speedboat adventures through Clearsky Adventures
Belfast and Area
Belfast is the capital city of Northern Ireland and the city has gone through many changes. It is worth spending a couple of fo days exploring Belfast. There are plenty of things to do in Belfast, but be sure to spend some time in the pub for a real taste of Irish culture. One of our favorite places to visit is The Historic Crown Bar, Belfast’s most famous saloon!
11. Black Taxi Tour of Belfast
The Black Cab political tours are an excellent way to learn about the history of Northern Ireland. Get in a taxi driven by a local driver who survived the troubles as he tells you about the Catholic and Protestant conflict. It takes you through the two neighborhoods where you’ll see the painted murals depicting pivotal moments in history at Shankhill road and the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Gardens at Falls Road that pays respect to the IRA volunteers who fought and lost their lives.
This tour is a must when visiting Northern Ireland. Take this bucket list tour with an expert guide as you learn the story of “The Troubles” and events in Northern Ireland’s tumultuous history. You’ll discover the Belfast murals and go through the former conflict areas of The Falls and Shankill Road.
12. Titanic Belfast Museum
When making a list of things to do in Northern Ireland, don’t rule out visiting a museum. We’re not huge fans of museums, but the Titanic Belfast Museum is something special. It’s a fascinating display of artifacts from the ship with letters, clothing and even rooms re-created.
There are multimedia displays, virtual reality rooms and even live cameras from the team that discovered the Titanic showing the underwater salvaging and research they are doing today. The Titanic Belfast Museum has certainly become one of the top things to see in Belfast. Visit their website for the latest exhibits.
13. Segway Tour of Belfast
A Segway tour is an excellent way to explore the Titanic Waterfront and other Belfast Attractions. Touring around on the electric vehicle is a ton of fun for an alternative way to learn about the shipbuilding history of Belfast. You even ride through a lifesize outline of the Titanic herself!
Plus you’ll get to see Titanic Studios (the studio where Game of Thrones was filmed) and the Titanic Belfast Museum.
14. Crumlin Road Gaol
A self-guided tour of the Crumlin Road Gaol (Jail) takes you through the only remaining Victorian-era prison. Located in Belfast, The Crumlin Road Jail closed its doors in 1996. There is an underground tunnel that connects the jail to the courthouse across the street.
15. Carrickfergus Castle
The Carrickfergus Castle is located in County Antrim just outside of Belfast. The medieval castle is one of the best-preserved in Ireland and is a must-visit when in Belfast. Chances are you will stop at Carrickfergus Castle as nearly every tour from Belfast makes its first stop at the castle.
Surrounded on three sides by the sea sitting on a high outcrop Carrickfergus Castle remained a strategic location to defend Ireland for centuries. It was completed in 1242 and saw 800 years of military operations. It’s a lovely walk around the 12th-century castle to see the stone walls and ancient harbor.
16. Londonderry Murals
Take a walking tour through Derry with Derry Bogside tours for information and first hand accounts of the Blood Sunday conflict. See the murals dedicated to those who were killed as you retrace the footsteps of the day of the march that saw many civilians killed.
17. Walls of Londonderry
The Londonderry walls date back to the 17th century and is one of the best preserved walled cities in Europe. A walk along the high and wide walls and take a walking tour to learn about the sieges and conflicts of its past. You can book both tours with Bogside History Tours
18. Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne
When I read about the Mussenden Temple I was really curious because you walk through remnants of an ancient settlement. Downhill House was once a grand Italian-inspired villa built by the Earl Bishop of Derry. It was devastated by fire in the 1800s but there are still remnants of its grandeur.
Once you pass through the Bishops Gate, follow a pather where you come to the end of a cliff where a very small stone temple stands more than 250 feet above the sea! The Bishop of Derry built the Mussenden Temple in 1785 as a summer library. I can imagine how peaceful it was to read books as the summer air swooped through the land.
Downhill Demense doesn’t take too much time to see but it’s an incredible scene to photograph. Other points of interest on the site include Lady Erne’s Seat, Downhill House, The Lion’s Gate, the Black Glen and the Mausoleum.
Note: To park at Downhill Demesne and Mussenden Temple, you must pay by phone, so make sure you have a data plan.
Portrush is a beach community on the County Londonderry border, that is known as the capital of the Causeway Coast! It’s a great place to make a base. From here you can easily visit Whiterocks Beach located on the Causeway Coastal Route to take in the beautiful sandy beach flanked by limestone cliffs.
Known for its surfing and watersports, there is a boardwalk that will take you down from the parking lot.
20. Portrush Sea Tours at Portrush Harbour
Take a tour with Causeway SeaTour at Portrush Harbour to discover the stunning coastline from the sea. This tour goes out to a cluster of rocky islands known as the Skerries . YOu’ll see a lot during this tour such as Dunluce Castle. Portbalintrae, Runkerry house, Giant’s Causeway, Ballintoy, and Carrick-a-rede Rope bridge.
This is also a great way to visit Rathlin Island to do some hiking. Check out their website for bookings.
21. Ride a Horse on the Beach
One of our favorite things to do in Northern Ireland and Ireland is to go horseback riding. Horse culture is a huge part of Irish history and taking a ride is an amazing way to explore the countryside. We loved the ride that took us through the Irish countryside and then ended with a gallop along the beach. I can’t remember who we rode with, but Tourism Northern Ireland has a great list of stables here.
23. Glens of Antrim
Located in County Antrim, the Glens of Antrim are Northern Ireland’s most beautiful locations. Consisting of 9 valleys (glens), the Glens of Antrim is located in Country Antrim. They are an extraordinary landscape of green farmland and rolling hills. The Glens aren’t simply one place to visit they span all the way from Larne to Ballycastle so while you explore many of the attractions in Northern Ireland, you’ll be right in the middle of the Glens of Antrim.
The Nine Glens of Antrim span an area of 50 square km and consist of:
- Glenarm (valley of the army), Glenariff (valley of the ploughmen), Glencloy (valley of the dykes), Glenaan (valley of the fords), Glencorp (valley of the dead or bodies), Glendun (the brown valley), Glenballyemon, Glentaisie (namesake of Princess Taisie of Rathlin Island), Glenshesk (valley of the sedge)
There are beautiful lookouts that you can drive to and there are plenty of hiking trails. If you have time, getting out into the Irish countryside is a must!
24. Glenarriff Forest Park
Known for its waterfall walks, Glenarriff Forest is located in Glenarrif, one of the nine Glens of Antrim. It is known as the Queen of the Glens and is a wonderful place to spend some time outdoors. This conservation area spans 1000 hectares with walking trails, horseback riding and viewpoints. It is also a great place to spy wildlife. There is a boardwalk that has been reconstructed through the river gorge and the glen. When you are finished stop in at the teahouse.
25. Hiking in the Mourne Mountains
The Mourne Mountains are home to Northern Ireland’s highest peak, Slieve Donard. The Mourne Mountains are also the premier place in Northern Ireland for rock climbing. You can also ride the Mourne Mountain Cycling Route if you are ready to tackle an epic climb. We saw a lot of cyclists on the roads of Northern Ireland during our road trip.
For more information on outdoor activities at the Mourne Mountains, visit the Northern Ireland Tourism Website here.
26. Ulster American Folk Park
And finally, Ireland has become popular for North Americans to retrace their roots and heritage to see where their ancestors have come from. Ulster American Folk Park and Folk Museum is dedicated to the Irish who made the journey across the Atlantic seeking a new life. We traced our heritage to Ireland and it was one of the best travel experiences we’ve ever done. For more information and tickets visit their website here.
27. Watermill Lodge
This article is called The Best Things to do in Northern Ireland and we feel it wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the best meal we had in the country. The Watermill Lodge in Lough Erne was hands down the best meal we’ve had in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. We really felt the Northern Irish hospitality in this cozy restaurant.
The Watermill Lodge is a Michelin-rated restaurant and we can understand why. The food was exquisite and the atmosphere was quiet and romantic. I know you’ll find this strange, but it’s a French fine dining restaurant with an incredible menu designed by Chef Pascal Brissaud.
We had a delicious meal with a wine pairing recommended by our well-informed server. Everything he suggested went beautifully with our set menu £25. Even the wines were reasonably priced. Book your stay at the Watermill Lodge here.
Getting Around Northern Ireland
Renting a car is a perfect way to explore all there is to see and do in Northern Ireland.
You can also book a tour of Northern Ireland with Vagabond Tours who we used on one of our trips and had a hoot! Get Your Guide, also offers tours of Northern Ireland with easy cancellation and last-minute bookings.
Where to Stay in Northern Ireland
Slieve Donard Resort and Spa is one of Northern Ireland’s most luxurious resorts. It is located on the beach on one side and Royal County Down Golf Links on the other. It’s a great place to start exploring the Northeastern Coast.
Ballygally Castle Hotel is located on Causeway Coastal Route, Ballygally Castle, a 17th Century Castle overlooking Ballygally Bay. Ballygally Castle Hotel is a great base for exploring the Causeway Coast.
Causeway Hotel – We loved staying here because it was so close to Giant’s Causeway. We could walk down at sunrise and at sunset avoiding all the tour buses and crowds.
Watermill Lodge – Besides eating at Watermill Lodge, we also stayed overnight. Located on Lough Erne, it is a wonderful and luxurious country retreat.
An Old Rectory Guesthouse was originally a Church of Ireland rectory. It was built in 1896 to house the rector of St John’s, Malone. The Victorian-era property is situated in South Belfast, close to all transport links and onsite parking.
Fast Facts About Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland is small a small land, with a population of only 1.8 million people and an area of only 14,130 km². (Canada is 9.9 million square km). But it packs a huge punch!
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and is separate from the Republic of Ireland.
On May 3, 1921, Ireland was split in two after the Irish War of Independence, where all but six counties gained independence from Britain.
The six counties of NI have been a part of the UK ever since. And it is a fascinating place to visit as Northern Ireland has its own distinct identity from both Britain and Ireland.
And there you have it, that’s our suggestions for the best things to do Northern Ireland by Dave and Deb. Do you have a favorite site to see in the country?
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For more information on visiting Northern Ireland check out Ireland Tourism Canada.