Things to do in Northern Ireland
Looking for something to do beyond Belfast? There is so much to see and do outside of the City limits and beyond the magnificent Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland but most visitors don’t get time to see beyond Belfast. If you have been here before and are hoping to see more of the North past the Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-rede the areas outside of Belfast are well worth taking a look at.
From castles to nature walks, neolithic sites and St. Patrick’s Trail, the Sperrin Mountains, and fishing in the loughs. Hiking up the Gobbins, caving in Fermanagh standing in awe of Neolithic monuments. Northern Ireland has everything from mystical haunted castles to jaw dropping scenery.
Day Trips from Belfast
Castles to see in Northern Ireland
There are probably hundreds of castle ruins in Northern Ireland and if you rent a car and drive around the countryside you are bound to stumble across ones that you never heard of. Stop and take in the sights and sounds of these ruined castles and hauntingly beautiful sites you won’t be sorry.
Belfast Castle is located in the Cave Hill area of north Belfast. It was built in the 1860s and is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. The location of the castle is named for the five caves located on the side of the cliffs. The Cave Hill’s most famous feature, is called Napoleon’s Nose, and it is believed to have been the inspiration for Jonathan Swift’s novel, Gulliver’s Travels.
Entrance to the grounds and the castle are free and you can wander around at your leisure – take a camera the views are stunning. The park is home to the Cave Hill Adventurous Playground, archaeological sites, Visitor Information Area in Belfast Castle, ecotrails, walking and orienteering routes.
Enniskillen Castle, situated beside the River Erne in County Fermanagh, was built almost 600 years ago by the ruling Gaelic Maguires. Guarding one of the few passes into Ulster, it has been strategically important throughout its history. Today, the historic site houses two museums, Fermanagh County Museum and The Enniskillen Museum.
Carrickfergus Castle is a Norman castle in Northern Ireland, set in the town of Carrickfergus in County Antrim, on the northern shore of Belfast Lough. Besieged in turn by the Scots, Irish, English and French, the castle played an important military role until 1928 and remains one of the best preserved medieval structures in Ireland. You can wander the grounds and climb the tower and it’s an interesting castle to visit. There are often displays in the Castle and currently the display is all about the Ulster Scots Trail.
It is believed that Kirkistown Castle was built by Roland Savage of Ballygalget in or around 1622 and it is debated whether or not there was a castle on the site, which he built his domain on.
The castle consists of a three-storey tower house within the remains of a bawn (fortified enclosed space) and a later barn. Because the castle was built upon a marsh in the late 19th century buttresses and two iron braces were added to prevent the walls from shifting. The tower was extensively remodeled in a neo-gothic style in the early 19th century.
Dunluce Castle clings to the side of a cliff on the Causeway Coastal Route of Northern Ireland. The castle kitchens collapsed from the rest of the building taking the entire kitchen and servants with it. Their screams are said to be heard on foggy stormy days. This is a really evocative site as it rises up when you go round the Causeway bend in the road.
Castle Hotels in N. Ireland
Fancy staying in a castle in Northern Ireland for a night or two? Well anything is possible and here are some of the loveliest castles to stay in when you visit Northern Ireland.
Originally called Ballymacmanus, Belle Isle Castle in County Fermanagh was once home to the old MacManus and Maguire families, and later the residence of generations of nobles. It has been inhabited since the 12th century. Now, extensively refurbished, you can stay in the castle, coach house and a variety of Belle Isle cottages.
Crom Castle is a romantic nineteenth century Victorian castle set in a 1900-acre estate and one of Northern Ireland’s most important conservation areas. The stunning castle estate, overlooking the waters of Lough Erne, is surrounded by acres of parkland and its West Wing is available for guests on a self-catering basis.
A privately owned home, Narrow Water Castle is a luxurious self-catering property located in Warrenpoint, Co. Down. Dating back to the fifteenth century, the Elizabethan revival style castle was built next to the existing home, Mount Hall (1680) and completed in 1836. The self-catering apartment is in the original hub of the castle (Mount Hall).
Only 26 miles from Belfast and set on the spectacular Causeway Coast Ballygally Castle faces the sandy beaches of Ballygally Bay. The hotel has a host of amenities and a Door of Tours carved door from the Dark Hedges along with its resident ghost.
The Ghost of Ballygally has been around for the best part of 400 years. Locals believe that the ghost is that of Lady Isabella Shaw, wife of Lord James Shaw.
The stunning Belle Isle Castle is nestled in the grounds of Belle Isle Estate. Rooms are tastefully decorated in a style that bears all the characteristics of a majestic stately home. The Estate has been designated a Special Area of Conservation and the award winning castle is a stunning 17th century country house offering lake views.
Helen’s Tower is hidden on the edge of a winding lane on a beautiful hillside in County Down. It is a 3 storey, stone tower with accommodation for two guests for that perfect romantic getaway.
Built in the 12th century by Norman knight, John de Courcy, Killyleagh Castle is the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland today. It is located outside Belfast in the County Down area. It is a unique self-catering hotel where the two towers have been converted in self-contained apartments for short-term rentals. Guests can have use of tennis courts and swimming pool as well as the roof top patio. The towers can sleep up to 15 people and offer modern facilities including central heating.
Along the Causeway Coastal route, this charming gate lodge sits on the end of a stone bridge over the Glenarm River. The Barbican Gatelodge comes complete with gothic windows and a stone turret staircase. For a special view, head up to the roof garden in early evening for some spectacular views of the coastline.
This self-catering accommodation is the perfect romantic hideaway and the ideal starting point for taking a road trip to discover the drama of the Causeway Coast.
Folk Museums in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland has a history that goes back thousands of years and archaeologists are constantly finding new wonders and updating information on our prehistoric and recent past. These two living Museums in Northern Ireland are fascinating places to wander and experience the past up close and personal.
The Omagh Folk Village is found on the outskirts of Omagh near the Donegal border. It contains the story of the emigrants who made the journey across the dangerous Atlantic to make a new home in America hundreds of years ago.
You can wander through the thatched cottages, log cabins and meet the characters who will demonstrate traditional crafts, tell a few Irish tales. Follow the path to the full-scale replica of the ships that brought the emigrants to America and then pass through the ship into the new world.
From post offices to shops, the village contains over 30 buildings and exhibits to explore and immerse yourself in the Irish experience.
Another brilliant folk museum is located on the Eastern side of N. Ireland near Cultra around 25 minutes outside Belfast. The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum includes both a folk museum where you can experience what life was like in N. Ireland over 100 years ago with costumed guides and hands on displays. The Transport Museum has one of the most comprehensive transport collections in Europe. The collections include horse-drawn carriages, vintage cars, motorcycles, and some amazing steam trains.
Neolithic Sites in N. Ireland
Court tombs or ‘horned cairns’ are the most common Neolithic structures in the north of Ireland. The court tomb at Creggandevesky, near Carrickmore in Co Tyrone is one of the most impressive. Probably in use around 3500 BC, the Creggandevesky court tomb was excavated from the bog in the 1980’s. Cremated bones and grave goods were found in the interior chambers and 11 other court tombs have been discovered within a 10-mile radius of this site.
There are more than 150 tombs or dolmens in Northern Ireland. The Legananny dolmen stands on the slopes of Slieve Croob in Co Down is another impressive site. Three upright stones support a large capstone, beneath which would probably have rested the skeletal remains of one or more people. Originally, a stone cairn would have covered the Neolithic tomb, but few traces of this remain.
Other portal tombs in include the Ballylumford dolmen in Islandmagee, Co Antrim and the Ballykeel dolmen in Co Armagh. Elsewhere in Co Down, there are dolmens at Annadorn, Goward and Kilfeaghan.
On the southern outskirts of Belfast, the Giant’s Ring is vast circular enclosure known as a ‘henge monument’. This structure encloses the remains of a passage tomb. Probably dating from around 2000BC the site’s social or ritual function is unclear, but excavations and aerial photography show that the Giant’s Ring is part of a complex landscape of tombs, standing stones and other circular enclosures in the area.
Near Cookstown in Co Tyrone, the Beaghmore stone circles were excavated from a blanket bog in 1965. This site is a complicated arrangement of cairns, rows of stones and stone circles. These remains seem to be orientated towards the midsummer sunrise.
The most important and impressive of Ireland’s ancient monuments, Navan Fort is identified with Eamhain Mhacha, the capital of ancient Ireland. A few miles west of the historic city of Armagh. It is believed that the ditch and bank surrounding the fort was built in the late Neolithic period whilst the larger mound within the henge has been used as a protective “fort” in later years.
Daytrips outside Belfast
The Lisburn Linen Museum’s goal it to collect and interpret artifacts from the Irish Linen industry. The exhibit from ‘Flax to Fabric: the Story of Irish Linen’. Trace the history of linen production in Ulster, from the earliest times to the present. You can see samples of the earliest linen production in N. Ireland and trace the history of this fascinating fabric.
There are free guided tours and demonstrations of the weaving of linen that are incredibly informative.
There are over 31 filming sites for Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland and most can be visited either with an organized tour or it’s pretty easy to self-drive and see the particular sites you want to see. Game of Thrones has changed Northern Ireland irrevocably for the good, bringing in hundreds of thousands of tourists a year you can get pretty bogged down at these sites in season. I would highly recommend if you want to do a Game of Thrones Tour in N. Ireland try April to May and Sept to October once school is back in many of the tourist sites calm down a lot.
The Glens of Antrim in Northern Ireland are some of the most beautiful places in the world and the drives will mesmerize you from start to finish. There are 9 Glens of Antrim, each and every one with its own story and its own type of beauty.
The Mourne Mountains are the highest and most dramatic mountain range in Northern Ireland. Crossed and re-crossed by a phenomenal network of paths and tracks and voted the Best Walking Destination in Northern Ireland by WalkNI. The Mournes are divided into 2 very distinctive areas – the Eastern or ‘High’ Mournes and the Western or ‘Low’ Mournes, each with its own distinctive hike or walking routes.
The Mourne Wall, which is now a famous landmark running through the mountains was finished in 1922 after 18 years of work. The stonewall which stands up to feet high and 3 feet wide was originally built to keep cattle and sheep out of the water in the Silent Valley reservoir.
During the 18th and 19th Centuries illegal cargo ships, stocked full of tobacco, wine, spirits, leather, silk and spices docked at the foot of the Mournes in Newcastle. Smugglers then loaded up donkeys and ponies and trekked through the Mourne Mountains to Hilltown. Trade was so popular and the route so widely used that the hooves of the heavily laden ponies soon created a track. The track stills exists and today is known as the “Brandy Pad” route.
The Slieve Gullion Scenic Drive runs through 10am of woodland and mountain heath, which turns the mountains a luminous purple in the summer months. There is a marked trail, which leads from the scenic drive up to the ancient passage tombs on the south summit of Slieve Gullion and a Bronze Age tomb on the north side of the Mountain. Plenty of places to rest grab a great coffee or tea and just enjoy the beauty of these mountains.
Slieve Gullion Forest Park offers the opportunity to experience tranquil woodland trails, stunning views across the Ring of Gullion, Mourne Mountains, Cooley Peninsula and Armagh Drumlins and top class facilities for walkers and families.
Play in the Adventure Play Park; explore the Giant’s Lair in the wonderful Hawthorn Hill Forest Nature Reserve and woodland trails, or take a turn in the ornamental walled garden, where you will find picnic benches, an outdoor performance stage, an al fresco coffee bar (open in the summer) and a wildlife pond with covered seating areas.
The Gobbins experience is not for the faint hearted or unfit and if you are mobility challenged you won’t be able to do this walk. Proper gear is required and safety helmets are required and supplied. You must be wearing good solid hiking boots and rugged outdoor clothing it can get very cold with the winds and the waves out there. If you can’t climb 50 stairs, you can’t do the Gobbins. It’s a narrow path hugging the cliff face that takes you around the Gobbins. Staring into the North Channel, taking in hidden tunnels and caves that were once home to smugglers and pirates the Gobbins is immensely challenging.
The Irish railway engineer, Berkley Dean Wise as an incredible tourist attraction, masterminded the Gobbins Path. The path originally opened in 1902 and was later abandoned in the 1960’s until an investment of over £7.5 million brought about its rebirth in 2015.
The Sperrin Mountains are Northern Ireland’s most extensive mountain range and can be found along the border of counties Tyrone and Derry The Sperrins span over 40 miles, and they are described in National Geographic’s. List of the world’s 101 scenic drives. The Sperrins are wild, untouched and raw and there are four scenic driving routes through, around and over the Mountains to be enjoyed.
Look for the following sites when traveling through the Sperrins.
The Barnes Gap is situated on the Central Sperrins Driving Route; the glaciers driving through the mountains caused this deep groove in the ridge of hills lying to the south of Glenelly Valley.
Pigeon Top is located on the South Sperrins Route to the west of Omagh, this popular viewpoint and picnic area offers some fantastic views of surrounding hills such as Bessy Bell, and further afield.
Slieve Gallion is just off the East Sperrins Route near Moneymore, this mountain lies at the eastern edge of the Sperrins with a road leading much of the way to the top. Take in the stunning views over Lough Neagh, the Sperrins, Antrim Hills and Mourne Mountains.
Dominated by the twin lakes of Upper and Lower Lough Erne, Fermanagh has some of the most scenic forest drives including the Lough Navar Forest across the lower expanse of Lough Erne. Touching five of Northern Ireland’s six counties, Lough Neagh is the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles and boats a variety of attractions and some great, unspoilt scenery.
In Fermanagh you can explore the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark which was home to the rebels that captured Arya in Game of Thrones. Check out Carnmore Viewpoint, which is, located in the Slieve Beagh hills with outstanding views of the countryside’s drumlins and small loughs.
While in Fermanagh check out the Maghery Country Park, which you will find, tucked away in the S.W. corner of the lough, Located in the village of Maghery, on the shores of Lough Neagh. The park covers thirty acres, includes five kilometres of woodland walks and picnic areas, and is used for bird watching, fishing, and walking.
The park is located on both the River Blackwater and Lough Neagh Canoe Trails with jetties on site.
The park has some great views of the shoreline and out to Coney Island. Visit Cranfield Church and Holy Well, which is located in a secluded location on the northern shore of Lough Neagh, the medieval church, occupies a picturesque setting overlooking the shore.
This is just a start on the beauty of Northern Ireland outside of Belfast. Many folks never get to see beyond the city and the Causeway Coast but there is much to see beyond Belfast and this is just a tiny portion. Rent a car, start driving and get yourself lost only then will you see the real beauty of Ireland.
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