How to Spend a Week in Northern Ireland

The North Coast, Ballintoy | © Mike Norton/ Flickr
The North Coast, Ballintoy | © Mike Norton/ Flickr
Photo of Niamh McGovern
26 June 2018

It’s fast becoming one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations, but why is Northern Ireland gaining esteemed recognition? It’s incredibly inexpensive and most of the top destinations are within a thirty minutes’ drive from each other. Most of this green-covered jewel is made up of coastal towns, lake views, and natural preserves, so check out our guide to the perfect week in this region.

Day 1: Derry—Binevenagh

You’ll start your vacation in the city of Derry (which is also called Londonderry, so don’t get confused!), where the water stretches into the horizon under the famous Peace Bridge in the center of the city. Derry is a previous City of Culture winner and hosts some of the most exciting festivals year round, particularly around the Hallowe’en period. It’s full of art and history, so don’t miss out on museum exhibits, public art sightings, and panoramic shots of the River Foyle at dusk.

Before you make your way to Binevenagh, you can travel a short distance to see the natural beauty of Roe Valley Country Park, about 20 minutes inland. Or stop at Magilligan point, home to Benone Beach and some of the largest sand dunes in the United Kingdom, along with a stunning view of Martello Tower and the entire strand.

A view of Binevenagh mountain | © John Purvis/ Flickr

Day 2: Downhill Strand—Dunluce Castle

The Downhill Strand is a recognizable location from HBO’s Game of Thrones, as well as a beautiful stretch of beach beneath a 120-feet cliff. Atop the remote downhill demesne sits Mussenden Temple, an 18th-century tower built by Frederick Augustus Hervey as his summer library—probably the most romantic library setting in the world. From one kingdom of Westros to another, Dunluce Castle will excite most fans of Game of Thrones as a frequent appearance as Greyjoy’s Kingdom of Pyke. You’ll be able to walk around the grounds and if you have time, cross to the other side of the coast and get some stunning views of the Mermaid Cave below, a mysterious cavern some 80 feet below the castle ruins.

Mussenden Temple on the Downhill Strand | © Greg Clarke/ Flickr

Day 3: Bushmills—Ballintoy—Carrick-a-Rede

You will probably count this route as the main attraction of the entire destination, as it passes through the town of Bushmills and visits the UNESCO-listed and crowd-pleaser, the Giant’s Causeway site. Take time to explore Bushmills and pop into the old whiskey distillery, for which the town was named, for a tour of Northern Ireland’s famous distillery and mill. You can park your car in this small village and hop on a shuttle bus to the Giant’s Causeway site, which is easier in the busy summer months and take your time exploring this phenomenal natural site—buses back to the village will run into the evening.

When you’ve snapped your selfies, continue your drive east to Ballintoy harbor, a quaint and wonderful Irish village that will take you away from modern life and submerge you in nature and wildlife for an entire afternoon. The last stop is not for the fainthearted. Carrick-a-Rede island is only reachable by a small, steep walk, followed by crossing an almost-30-foot rope bridge above the stunning blue waters of the coast.

The Giant's Causeway | © Nico Kaiser/ Flickr

Day 4: Armoy—Cushendun

Day 4 will take you further inland to the area of Armoy, where you can drive through The Dark Hedges, a strange curtain of serpentine beech trees planted more than 300 years ago. They are referenced almost everywhere, from literature to TV to film, and are rumored to house a mysterious ghostly woman at night known as The Grey Lady.

The Glens of Antrim is next on your agenda—but don’t rush to explore the quickest route—there are many inland routes through these beautiful landscapes. One of Northern Ireland’s best-kept secrets lies on this section of the coast. The town of Cushendun is a wonderful Cornish-modeled town built for Ronald John McNeill, then Baron Cushendun, as a gift to his wife who originally came from Penzance, Cornwall. The National Trust has kept the village in most of its original condition, and you’ll get some romantic photographs on the Knocknacarry Bridge.

The Dark Hedges in Armoy | © horslips5/ Flickr

Day 5: The Gobbins—Glengormley

Today’s day trip might be short, but you’ll want to pack and prepare for your Gobbins adventure, in Islandmagee. Pack for wet and windy weather, and be sure to pre-book a slot on this coveted experience, which will take you on a guided-only two-mile walk along the rocky cliffs of Islandmagee—the closest you’ll get to Northern Ireland’s beautiful shores. On your way to Belfast, you’ll pass Carrickfergus, one of Northern Ireland’s best seaside towns which includes its own Norman castle and moat, Carrickfergus Castle.

The Gobbins Cliffs | © Rossographer / Geograph

Day 6: Belfast

You might not fit in the entire city, but you can cover the cultural favorites in Day 6, which takes you into the capital of Northern Ireland, famed as the building site of the RMS Titanic and a favorite for traditional food, talented musicians, and iconic venues. As a quick guide, try exploring the Titanic Quarter first, which may help you skip the afternoon’s long lines. Make sure to grab a bite to eat in the award-winning St. George’s Market, a sight of heritage and culture that is revered by locals and visitors alike. Take a look around South Belfast in the afternoon, stopping by the Ulster Museum and Queen’s University campus, before making your way back to city center for dinner. Spend your night in the lively Cathedral Quarter to experience the nightlife along the historical cobbled streets at Duke at Queen’s, where the public art and music is sure to make this city capture your heart forever.

Belfast Waterfront | © William Murphy/ Flickr

Day 7: Bangor—Strangford

We may have saved some of the best destinations for the last day, taking you up Mount Stewart for an early hike (or afternoon stroll, if you’re feeling the stretch of the week).

From there, you’ll head south to the beautiful town of Bangor, just outside Belfast. From Bangor, you’ll travel down to Strangford in County Down and hop on the short ferry ride to Portaferry, where you can snap beautiful photos of the Strangford Lough on your trip over. Portaferry’s maritime tradition is a treat—they also host Northern Ireland’s best aquarium, Exploris, with otters, a seal rescue program, and more beautiful fish than anywhere on the island! Be sure to spend this last day taking in the shores of Portaferry and visiting the fabulous seafood restaurants in the area.

Portaferry on Srangford Lough | © Quichot/ Wikicommons

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