The other day someone asked me where I would recommend they travel in Northern Ireland. It got me thinking that I haven’t ever put together a blog about where I grew up! And at this time of year, there is just no place like home. Here is a selection of our favourite spots on the northern part of the Emerald Isle, all day-trip distance from Belfast city:
The North Antrim Coast
This scenic drive hugs the rugged northern coastline through many beautiful villages, past stunning viewpoints and picnic spots and eventually towards the tourist must-sees of the Giants Causeway, Carrick-a-rede rope bridge and Bushmills Distillery.
At the Giant’s Causeway there is a selection of walking routes of various lengths to the different basalt rock formations, which are given all sorts of nicknames, according to google: the Shepherd’s Steps; the Honeycomb; the Giant’s Harp; the Chimney Stacks; the Giant’s Gate and the Camel’s Hump. They all come complete with tales of Finn McCool.
Carrick-a-rede rope bridge is not for the fainthearted and is quite a walk but is absolutely worth it. The rope bridge connects the mainland to a small island which you can explore the views. The only things you will find there are tourists and sheep and an amazing 360 view. I think they still issue you with certificates for bravery for getting there and back!
Tours at Bushmills Distillery are always a jolly affair! They explain the process of the whiskey making and allow you to sample a range of the whiskeys. Definitely try a Hot Toddy.
A beautiful beach along the coastline, just beyond Dunluce Castle ruins is White Park Bay, with sand dunes to race down, sheltered picnic spots and the freezing Atlantic, if you dare.
Belfast Castle and Cave Hill
Despite it’s name, Belfast Castle isn’t actually in Belfast city, it’s nestled into the nearby cave hill. We recently did the loop walking track up to the top of the hill, where the views of the city were amazing. The walk took a few hours and it was so windy at the top we were getting blown over!
There is so much to explore in and around Belfast City, a mixture of old and new buildings and plenty of history all within a relatively short distance, do-able in a day.
i) Queens University and Botanic Gardens
ii) Grand Opera House & Europa Hotel
iii) The Crown Bar (the oldest pub in Belfast, 1826)
iv) Belfast City Hall
v) Titanic Center, Victoria Square viewing platform
Carrickfergus Castle, which dates back to 1177, sits overlooking Belfast Lough. It was great fun to explore again recently. They have a super information center with games and dressing up costumes for kids.
Ulster Folk Museum
I never get tired of visiting the Ulster Folk Museum. From the old-fashioned sweet shop, to the peat log fires, from the weaving workshops to sampling freshly baked soda farls. You could take hours wandering around this outdoor museum, getting a taste for what life was like in Ireland years ago. I’ve been so many times and it is a trip down memory lane each visit. A great place to explore, get some fresh air and stretch the jet-lagged legs.
The Culloden Hotel
Jeremy and I had our wedding reception at the nearby Culloden Hotel, so we always pop in on our way home from the Cultra Folk museum for a cheeky refreshment in the grand drawing rooms overlooking Belfast Lough- only when my Dad’s paying, of course!
Another beautiful, very windy viewpoint at the end of a narrow country lane is Scrabo Tower.
Dundrum Castle & Newcastle Beach
Driving from Belfast to Newcastle you come across a little village called Dundrum, where you can explore these castle ruins and the views of the Mourne Mountains in the distance before reaching the seaside town of Newcastle. A lovely beach is Murlough Bay which is just before you reach Newcastle. It’s a long walk from the National Trust carpark through the sand dunes until you reach the shore, but when you do, you see the mountains of Mourne roll down to the sea, just like the song says.
Hillsborough is a lovely little village where my family grew up. Just off the cobbled streets there is a castle & gardens, a fort, a lake, a church and many quaint little pubs and shops.
Portaferry, Strangford & Killyleagh
Cut out the long journey along the Strangford peninsula by taking the ferry from Portaferry to Strangford, We always stop in at The Cuan. for a delicious lunch. Last time we were there, Olly Murs turned up (although I absolutely did not recognise him…). If you’re into the Game of Thrones, The Cuan even does a Game of Thrones banquet and some of the filming locations are not far from here. A drive through Killyleagh will bring you past the inhabited Killyleagh Castle.
My Mum recently treated us to a trip to the Puffin capital of the world, none other than Rathlin Island. In itself it is inspiration for the kids TV show Puffin Rock and was all things magical for Sophia who watches the show nonstop! We took the very rustic ferry, photographed below, from Ballycastle to Rathlin and spent a couple of days walking, exploring and puffin spotting. There is a lot of history on this rugged island too, apparently where Robert the Bruce sought refuge here and Richard Branson was rescued from a hot air balloon disaster.
Antrim Castle Gardens
A lovely daytrip near Ballymena is to Antrim Castle Gardens where kids can run, explore, and bike across the acres of forests and grassy patches as well as climbing up the castle ruins.
Galgorm Estate and Spa
Built around the River Maine, Galgorm Estate and Spa is a real treat. It has lovely restaurants, amazing spa facilities and walking trails around the grounds.
Castle Espie Wetlands Centre
Castle Espie was another lovely little day trip with picnic spots, woodland trails, sculptures, duck ponds and bird watching hideouts. The kids loved it.
Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park
Lady Dixon park is a longtime favourite spot of mine, bursting with scented rose gardens in the Spring and perfect for long wintry walks.
Lapland Express- Down Patrick & Country Down Railways
Depending on what time of year you visit, the Lapland Express steam train from Downpatrick to Santa’s grotto is just magical! Santa greets you as soon as you step off the steam train. There is mulled wine for adults as you wait in line for gifts from Santa. I cannot recommend this place enough.
Obviously there are loads of other amazing places and sights to visit. The ones I mention above are all day-trip distance from Belfast city and very kid friendly. Any questions, just email or comment below.