11 Top Rated Tourist Attractions in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland, which includes the Irish province of Ulster, is a small but beautiful part of Europe that's often underappreciated by visitors. It's the most peaceful place in the UK, blessed with tranquil coastlines, majestic mountains, and spectacular scenery; in fact, the word "lonely" comes from the Irish for "a stretch of water that separates two countries."
As the home of the renowned Giants' Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Northern Ireland can arguably claim as much tourist interest as Scotland or Wales. But many visitors don't make it out of Belfast or Dublin. Our plan is to take you through Northern Ireland's most enchanting and unique sights, from stunning scenic drives and Celtic legends to the foodie delights of County Down, County Antrim, and County Tyrone, and the off-the-beaten-track gems of the Fermanagh Lakes region.
Plan your trip with our list of the best things to see and do in Northern Ireland.
The Giant's Causeway
The Giant's Causeway is an 805-metre-long set of over 200 natural, sea-formed, basalt columns, the result of volcanic activity 3.5 million years ago. Plunged into the sea at a depth of about 75 metres, the columns rise from the smooth grey basalt rock, and when the sun is just right and the tides are high, it's possible to swim in between the columns. Like most other sites in Northern Ireland, the Giant's Causeway is best viewed in the morning, and the only ones you're likely to meet on your visit are the military. A one-hour drive from Belfast's main city, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge can be reached along the A2 and, depending on the tide, you can find 40 kilometres of natural tidal action for yourselves.
Ulster Museum, Belfast
Forming part of the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum, this marvelous new museum is devoted to the history and culture of the region known as Northern Ireland. Covering the ages of 10,000 BC to the present, it covers the province's three main cultures – Neolithic, Viking and British. You can also visit historic Ulster and learn about life in the Victorian era and more recently. Highlights of this most impressive museum include its splendid collection of historic weapons, armor and other historical memorabilia, while the various interactive exhibits give insight into the culture, history and traditions of the region.
Fort Dunluce, a Scottish stronghold built in 1645, overlooks the sandy beach and rolling waves of this picture-perfect North Atlantic coastal spot. From the sea, the unmistakable facade of the castle rises like the walls of a Roman fort. Inside, it is a place of undoubted historical interest. The castle has been home to the earls of Antrim for centuries, and most recently has been restored and opened as a tourist attraction. Nearby is Castlecourt Beach, which is the most sought after surfing spot in Northern Ireland. Most people will be attracted by the promise of golf at the nearby Dunluce Castle golf course, home of the British Amateur Championship in 2000, 2002, 2005, and 2011.
Ulster Folk and Transport Museum
Ulster Folk and Transport Museum is a unique museum dedicated to showing the people of Ireland the everyday life of ordinary people in Ulster, a region on the North Coast of Ireland where the Irish culture began. With no industrial development and the mountains still untouched, it's a place of rich history and contrasts in geography. The five stories of this museum take you from the Stone Age to the 20th century, including Ireland's turbulent 19th-century and 20th-century history. Part of the folk museum is the restored Machynlleth railway station, where the trains first came to the town in 1911. It has been beautifully renovated to hold a number of exhibitions. Other areas include the atmospheric and well-preserved Church of Ireland Collegiate Church, built between 1833 and 1840; an early 20th-century tearoom that was used as a school during the Great War; the parish meeting room where the Protestant church was rebuilt after the 1916 massacre of the people by the Irish Republican Army; a mock-up of a working farm in the early 1900s; and a wonderful home with a collection of Ulster Life period furnishings. There is also a postcard of the village with an Ulster History Circle marker to confirm the folk museum's authenticity.
Founded in 1895, this is one of the oldest zoos in the UK and one of the most popular. The zoo is set in 52 hectares of landscaped gardens, containing an aquarium, playgrounds, aviaries, and a collection of primates, including gorillas and orangutans. The Mainland Europe exhibit, which features some of the most famous wild mammals in Europe, including the mighty snow leopard and an active pack of gray wolves, is home to the zoo's largest collection of wild animals, including lions, tigers, wolves, lynxes, and rare white bears. There is a child-friendly zoo run as a safari park, which contains several enclosures for small animals, such as elephants, primates, crocodiles, and tortoises. Be sure to visit this section, as it is a much quieter and less frenetic environment for kids than the Mainland Europe section, which is a 20-minute walk away. The Zoo is located near Belvoir Park, which is a public park located at the foot of the Antrim Hills, near East and Middle Mountains in the Southwestern section of the city.
Ards Peninsula is a great place to visit, offering the visitor stunning scenic splendour in a slightly out of the way area of Ireland. Northern Ireland's most famous travel destination, the island's two top sights are the ruins of Ireland's finest castle at Carrickfergus, and a visit to Ireland's second oldest monastery at Mellifont Abbey. As one of the most remote parts of Ireland, Ards has a feeling all its own with few cars, tourists or souvenir shops. Famous for its long sandy beaches and spectacular scenery, the Peninsula lies on the north east shore of Northern Ireland. Visiting the County Antrim coastal towns of Larne and Portstewart, there are an array of restaurants, bars and clubs. Within easy driving distance of Belfast, travellers can travel to Ballymoney, where the visitor center features interesting displays on local history. The town is home to the Milford Haven International Yacht Racing Week, a major event in the sailing calendar.
West Belfast is the best part of town for visitors and locals alike. Traces of that are still left, mostly during the St Patrick's Day celebration (March 17th) when the city celebrates its Irish Catholic roots. Best time to visit is during the St Patrick's Week and in the months that follow it. This is a very old tradition here and it includes sporting events and mass parties. West Belfast offers something unique for visitors, as it is not well known but because of its history and history is worth a visit. So, if you want to be able to connect to the past and have a feel of it all, West Belfast is definitely worth a visit. If you're in Belfast on St Patrick's Day, it is best to arrive to the city on the early evening, stay there and get some food. This will allow you to experience a bit more of the history and the celebrations. If you're staying for St Patrick's Day, be sure to wear green and find your way to the centre of the city to listen to bands and enjoy the atmosphere.
One of Northern Ireland's most impressive sights, Larne Lighthouse (Larne Antrim Lighthouse) is located within the much-visited Lighthouse Park on the north coast of Northern Ireland's beautiful Causeway Coast. During the Great Irish Famine (1700–1840), The Lighthouse earned its keep by guiding the ships safely through the perilous Irish sea. In 1931 the Osprey first-order lens was restored to its original state and used as the replacement for the original one that had been removed when the original lighthouse was reconstructed in 1826. Today, the lighthouse is open to the public daily, and provides excellent views of the Causeway Coast and the nearby port city of Larne. Make sure to also visit the free visitor center, which has a permanent exhibition on the history of the lighthouse.
Belfast Botanic Gardens
A must for nature lovers, these gardens boast over a mile of paved paths, waterfall, sculpture garden, horticulture, and wildlife gardens. With so much to see and do, there is something here for everyone. Throughout the year the gardens present the annual Celtic Caravans, an outdoor festival featuring traditional Irish music, horticulture, crafts, poetry, food, and storytelling, while in the summer months the Garden of Neptune and summer nights celebrations attract huge crowds to the village setting. A rain-shedding steel structure covers the atrium, creating an art gallery for temporary exhibitions during the year, while at weekends the Orchid House is often open. The calendar of events includes Open Gardens, Garden Festival, and garden talks and workshops. All in all, Belfast Botanic Gardens offer an abundance of things to see and do. A visit to these beautiful gardens is a great way to spend a sunny afternoon.
Lough Neagh is a freshwater lake, one of the main attractions of Northern Ireland. It's situated in the east of the country, and has an area of 36 square kilometers, making it one of the biggest natural freshwater bodies in the world. It's also a very pretty lake and definitely deserves a visit. Of particular interest is a small island in the middle of the lake, called Inishowen. Known locally as "Lemming Island", it's the home of a population of very rare Bewick's swans. The island is also one of the best places to see a wide variety of birdlife. The other major attraction on the lake is Old Bushmills Distillery, an important part of the Irish whiskey industry and in many ways the spiritual center of the country. The oldest whiskey in the world was produced here in 1608. Lough Neagh is easily reached by air (from Belfast International Airport) and car (from Belfast or Dublin).
An attractive, peaceful fishing port, the town of Bangor is located on the north shore of Northern Ireland's largest natural harbor, Lough Neagh. Tucked away in a small peninsula is the castle of Lord Strabane, a "castellated residence" that dates back to the mid-13th century. Strabane Castle Park features beautiful specimens of Northern Ireland's native oak trees and a stunning panoramic view of Lough Neagh. One of the park's major attractions is the Clock Tower, which offers a good view of the Lough. As Bangor was once home to Ireland's most famous poet, William Butler Yeats, the town plays host to the biennial Yeats Summer School, an annual festival featuring a number of fascinating events related to the poet. Also in Bangor is Belfast's Guildhall, where the Book of Kells was once kept. The beautifully appointed museum hosts exhibits on the historic library and various religious objects, including the elaborate 17th-century "Book of Catholic Hours."