Are you thinking about exploring the enchanting land of Northern Ireland, where captivating landscapes, rich history, and warm hospitality combine?
Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, a history buff, or simply seeking adventure, there is no shortage of things to do in Northern Ireland for everyone who visits.
From breathtaking coastal drives to ancient castles steeped in legends, to old-world pubs and endless pints of Guinness, it’s time to get ready to immerse yourself in the beauty and charm of this captivating side of the UK.
Linda shares with us her insider tips on attractions in Northern Ireland for those looking for the best places to see, eat, stay, drink, and explore.
- Why Visit Northern Ireland?
- Things to Do in Northern Ireland
- 1. Drive the Causeway Coast Road
- 2. Admire Carrickfergus Castle, Glens of Antrim and Ballycastle
- 3. See Old Bushmills Distillery, Dunluce Castle and the Giant’s Causeway
- 4. Check Out Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock
- 5. Visit The Walled City of Derry
- 6. Learn About Irish Emigrants at Ulster Folk Park
- 7. Admire Fermanagh Lakes and the Mourne Mountains
- 8. Visit Titanic Belfast
- 9. Wet Your Appetite At Delicious Irish Restaurants
- 10. Explore The Enchanting Irish Pubs
- 11. Visit the Local Farmers Markets
- 12. Attend A Festival in Northern Ireland
- 13. Take a Game of Thrones Tour
- 14. Walk Across the Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge
- 15. See The Mussenden Temple
- 16. Visit The Folk Museum
- 17. Check Out The Transport Museum
- 18. Try Irish Whiskey
- 19. Be Enchanted By Glenariff Forest Park
- 20. Visit Crumlin Road Goal
- 21. Step Back In Time At Castle Ward
- Best Time to Visit Northern Ireland
- Where to Stay in Northern Ireland
- Getting To and Around Northern Ireland
- Final Thoughts on Things to Do in Northern Ireland
- More Inspiration For Ireland and the UK
Why Visit Northern Ireland?
Of all the places I have travelled in the world; all the different cultures I have experienced and people I have met, I can honestly say there’s nowhere quite like Ireland.
Beyond being welcoming, friendly and funny, the people will totally win you over. You’ll find complete strangers striking up a conversation in the street, which is perfectly acceptable; scratch that, inevitable.
Although it may feel strange to those used to avoiding eye contact at all costs. It’s not just about the people, of course, this was once the land of the giants; myth and legend are attached to every nook and cranny.
Castles and various Celtic ruins are perched along the coast and hidden inland. Mountains and lakes, glens and river valleys make this small province seem almost enchanted; you just need to ignore the old media stories and see the country with your own eyes.
Things to Do in Northern Ireland
Considering Northern Ireland takes less than two and a half hours to cross, there’s a lot packed into this little province.
It is steeped in history, oozes character and has some pretty spectacular natural landscapes, so choosing just a few things to see and do is difficult.
1. Drive the Causeway Coast Road
Heading north out of Belfast towards Larne, the Causeway Coastal Route hugs the coastline pretty much all the way to Derry, on the other side of Northern Ireland.
It has often been described as one of the world’s greatest road journeys, and at only 70 miles it may also be one of the shortest so shouldn’t eat into your trip if you’re short on time.
If you can, take a good week to explore the coast as there is so much to see just inland as well as what’s on the shore.
2. Admire Carrickfergus Castle, Glens of Antrim and Ballycastle
Visit the well-preserved 12th century Carrickfergus Castle on the edge of Belfast Lough, cycle through the glacial Glens of Antrim, before heading to Ballycastle, where you can get the ferry to Rathlin Island (weather permitting).
On a good day you should be able to see the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, only 16 miles across the Irish Sea.
3. See Old Bushmills Distillery, Dunluce Castle and the Giant’s Causeway
If you base yourself in and around the Giant’s Causeway, it’s easy to take in a trip to the oldest licenced distillery in the world, Bushmills.
Have a wee dram or two, then head off to see the ruins of Dunluce Castle, where although half of it has fallen into the sea still remains pretty impressive.
The Giant’s Causeway is easily Northern Ireland’s most visited attraction, and it’s not hard to see why. Even those people who hated geology and geography at school will be taken in by the natural wonder.
Formed by lava rapidly cooling and contracting, the many-sided, interlocking basalt columns are synonymous with the UNESCO World Heritage Site; as are stories of the giant Finn MacCool, where the area gets its name.
Although the Giant’s Causeway looks spectacular in any weather, sunny days are perfect for relaxing on one of the basalt columns while you dip your toes in the chilly Irish Sea.
And, the Giant’s Causeway now has a new sustainable visitors centre.
4. Check Out Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock
The seaside towns of Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock are all worth a visit, even if just to savour good ol’ fish ‘n’chips, or take a dip.
And, believe it or not, surfing is popular – even on the days when most people would need balls of steel to enter the frigid waters, men and women both!
5. Visit The Walled City of Derry
Ah the only place in the world with a handful of names. Derry, County Londonderry, Stroke City, the Maiden City; call it what you wish, but know that most of the residents from the city call it Derry, regardless of their political views. And very proud they are of their history.
Derry is the only completely intact walled city in Ireland, and one of the few cities in Europe to have never been breached, which is why it got the name “The Maiden City”.
The walls sadly fell into disrepair during the height of the troubles, but have now been given a great face lift in view of Derry being the first City of Culture in 2013, so walking around the walls today is a pleasure.
6. Learn About Irish Emigrants at Ulster Folk Park
Despite numerous school trips to the Ulster American Folk Park, I’ve never tired of it.
Created to tell the story of many Irish emigrants to America, the museum allows visitors to see what circumstances would have led to them leaving and how they would have made the journey, complete with a full scale sailing ship.
Characters in costume roam the park and will happily explain anything visitors want to know about the great migration.
7. Admire Fermanagh Lakes and the Mourne Mountains
These two beautiful areas are often left off people’s travel lists when visiting Northern Ireland and it’s a real shame, especially as nothing is too far away here.
Enniskillen Castle and the County Fermanagh Lakes area in the south west corner of the province are an outdoor enthusiasts dream.
A number of cycle routes take you past stately homes and castles, the Marble Arch Caves, with natural underwater river and waterfalls, as well as a number of essential liquid lunch spots.
Go sailing or cruising on the lakes or explore the many country parks and forests.
If trekking and hill walking is your thing, the Mourne Mountains in the south east will provide miles and miles of walking routes through moss ridden plains and granite out crops.
The nearby seaside town of Newcastle is a great base to further explore this area of the country.
8. Visit Titanic Belfast
And of course, you know there’s no way you can visit NI without seeing the new Titanic Belfast, a new visitor experience designed to enlighten all about the ill-fated ship and its maiden voyage. I have heard only good things.
9. Wet Your Appetite At Delicious Irish Restaurants
It’s easy to find coffee shops and cafes in any city in NI, but if you’re looking for some traditional foods then head to the markets in the towns you visit.
Northern Ireland also has numerous excellent restaurants, so it’s too hard to choose just a few. Instead I’ve chosen some I know and have been to:
Cayenne, Belfast – From the man who brought the first Michelin star to NI, Paul Rankin’s Cayenne serves great local produce at reasonable prices. It’s a great place to go if you’re fed up with fast food and looking for a treat.
The Potted Hen, Belfast – For a restaurant that was voted the best in Northern Ireland last year, The Potted Hen certainly doesn’t have the airs and graces you’d associate with the label. The menu is affordable for all – yep, even for those on a backpacker budget.
Clenaghans, Moira – If you’re looking for somewhere with an open fire to warm the cockles on a cold day, then head to Clenaghans in Moira, in between Lisburn and Lurgan.
This picture-perfect pub and restaurant has been in business for around 250 years, so oozes the charm and character many look for in an Irish pub. It also has accommodation so you can use it to explore the local area.
Café Maud’s, Lisburn Road, Belfast: Maud’s is legendary for serving the best ice-cream, ever. Now they’ve opened a café you can indulge in waffles, crepes and all things naughty.
Whatever you do, don’t leave NI without tasting Maud’s award-winning pooh bear ice-cream. It is an extra creamy vanilla ice-cream with chunks of home-made honeycomb blended through it.
10. Explore The Enchanting Irish Pubs
How can you possibly narrow down just a few places to drink when there are more bars than shops in some of the small towns in the north of Ireland; or pretty much anywhere in Ireland, really.
- The Crown Bar in Belfast is probably the most famous bar in NI. Standing on the same spot for 150 years, The Crown retains the old charm and character of a Victorian gin palace and still has the old snugs, where tables are hidden behind stained glass walls so customers could have a sneaky swift one, although they’ve since been renovated. It is always full, but is well worth the wait for a pint just to have a peek at the building itself.
- Peadar O’Donnells in Derry has got to be the best place for live traditional music. Even if you’re not that into diddly dee music I can guarantee your foot will be tappin’ by the time you finish your first pint. The adjoining Gweedore Bar has more run-of-the-mill music for when it all gets too much.
- Lavery’s in Belfast used to be one of my old haunts, and I still have fond memories of 50p vodkas on student nights. Ah, those were the days. I dare say a vodka would cost a wee bit more nowadays, but the crowd is still a great mix of students and locals. It’s also a great music venue, and often admission is free, so be sure to check it out.
- McHugh’s in Belfast is worth a visit just to see the building. It dates back to 1711, so the thick stone walls are fantastic. It’s manic at night here as it’s always so popular, but is ideal to visit during the day. Perfect place to read a book, catch up on your travel journal and sink a few.
Make sure you have a Harp, lager that is. It’s brewed in Ireland and tastes totally different than anywhere else in the world. Much better!
If a pub looks so small it could be someone’s living room, it just might be, but they’re the best places to meet the locals with a bit of a story.
You’ll find a lot of bars are opened until late and start charging a small fee after 10/10.30pm to get in. It makes it a pain if you’re only looking for ‘one more’ drink, but great if you’re set on being out for the night. Find a place that’s open late, make sure you’re in early and get comfy for the night.
Best Places for a Night on the Town in Northern Ireland
- The Odyssey Arena in Belfast is a massive sports and entertainment venue that can host big name artists, stage shows and ice hockey games all on the same night. As well as a selection of bars and restaurants, there is a 12-screen cinema, science exhibition centre and IMAX, so you’re bound to find something to keep you entertained for a night, or three.
- Mainstreet Omagh is always bustling. Four venues on the street, each with their individual slant make up the complex. Here you can enjoy pre-show dinner and drinks, enjoy a night out carnival-style, ‘ave it large in the Mantis nightclub or just sit and relax in front of an open fire with a pint.
- The Grand Opera House in Belfast always has something on, whether it’s a touring West End musical, panto or gig. The Millenium Forum is Derry’s GOH equivalent.
11. Visit the Local Farmers Markets
There are a number of Farmer’s markets on throughout the province every weekend, so be sure to ask where you’re staying when the next one is, or check on the Discover NI website, where they have the markets and days they’re on listed.
St George’s Market, Belfast, nominated as the Best Food Market in the UK, St. George’s Market has been a highlight of the NI food scene since 1890.
Set on a prominent corner plot on East Bridge Street near the city centre, this is the place you should try and get to above any other foodie joint if you want to savour the local produce, although it’s a popular place to buy international foods, too.
Belfast is probably the best place to shop in Northern Ireland. Here you’ll find all the big high street names, as well as some smaller boutiques.
Lisburn is also becoming known as a good shopping town with two large complexes to wander around, but if you’re looking for quaint and quirky, head to the Craft Village in Derry.
12. Attend A Festival in Northern Ireland
I’m sure most visitors to the north of Ireland know about the 12th of July, as it usually makes the headlines when marchers clash en route with protestors. It’s news like this that puts people off visiting the country, but it shouldn’t.
The Twelfth, as it’s affectionately known in NI, commemorates the Battle of the Boyne, when, in 1690, William of Orange conquered the Catholic King James. Protestant Orangemen march every year still to celebrate the victory – yep, even now.
The problems arise when they march through stronghold Catholic areas because that was the original route of the first marchers in the 1790s. As always, the trouble is generally confined to a few small pockets across the province, so unless you’re a staunch follower of the celebrations, don’t fret.
Auld Lammas Fair in Ballycastle has been held every year on the last Monday and Tuesday of August for around 400 years. If you go to this traditional harvest fair, you’ve got to try ‘Yellowman’, a NI version of honeycomb. Heaven. Halloween is huge in Northern Ireland, well, it is an old Celtic pagan festival after all.
And believe it or not, the biggest Halloween festival in Europe is held in Derry. Bands, fireworks and fancy dress parades draw crowds of up to 40,000 people every year.
Hillsborough International Oyster Festival is held the first weekend in September in the quaint village of Hillsborough. If you fancy your chances at becoming the next World Oyster Eating Champion, then you know where to go.
Hilden Beer and Music Festival is held at Hilden Brewery in Lisburn, County Antrim on the last weekend of August. Being the oldest independent brewery in Ireland it’s a popular drinking spot and when the sun shines the beautiful old 19th century courtyard is the perfect place to sink a few, festival time or not.
13. Take a Game of Thrones Tour
Game of Thrones fans will love exploring the filming locations of GOT dotted around Northern Ireland.
As you embark on an epic adventure through the mystical world of Westeros, you’ll not only see the location for this iconic series, but see some of Northern Ireland’s most enchanting destinations.
Step into the realms of Winterfell, King’s Landing, and Dragonstone as you explore the real-life locations that brought these fictional places to life.
Travel to the Dark Hedges, where Arya Stark made her daring escape, or visit the awe-inspiring Giant’s Causeway, a natural wonder that formed the setting for many pivotal scenes.
Guided by knowledgeable locals (some of whom may have been extras on the show) you’ll gain insider insights and behind-the-scenes stories that will transport you directly into the world of Game of Thrones.
Whether you’re a die-hard fan or simply captivated by the beauty of Northern Ireland, a Game of Thrones Tour is an experience not to be missed.
14. Walk Across the Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge
Perched along the stunning Causeway Coastal Route is the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.
Offering a thrilling experience and breathtaking views, this iconic bridge has become an emblem of Northern Ireland’s beauty and charm.
Spanning a 20-meter chasm, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge provides the opportunity to test your courage as you make your way across the swaying planks suspended high above the crashing waves below.
The adrenaline rush and sense of achievement upon reaching the other side are unparalleled.
But it’s not just the thrill that draws visitors to this site. The surrounding scenery is equally captivating, with rugged cliffs, dramatic coastlines, and panoramic vistas that will leave you in awe.
As you walk along the coastal path, take in the sights and sounds of the Atlantic Ocean, breathe in the fresh sea air, and marvel at the beauty of nature.
Originally built by salmon fishermen in 1755, the bridge stands as a testament to their skill and resourcefulness.
Learn about the local legends and traditions associated with the area, adding depth and intrigue to your visit.
15. See The Mussenden Temple
Perched dramatically on the cliffs near Castlerock in County Londonderry, Mussenden Temple is another captivating attraction in Northern Ireland.
This small circular building, overlooking the North Coast, provides stunning panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean and the picturesque landscape of Downhill Demesne.
One of the main reasons to visit Mussenden Temple is its rich history and architectural beauty.
Built as a summer library in the late 18th century, the temple’s design was inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy.
Aside from its historical significance, Mussenden Temple offers a tranquil atmosphere, inviting visitors to relax and appreciate the breathtaking surroundings.
Whether you’re taking a leisurely stroll through the landscaped gardens or enjoying a picnic with ocean views, this serene location provides a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Managed by The National Trust, Mussenden Temple is part of the larger Downhill & Mussenden Temple Estate, which also includes the ruins of Downhill House and other stunning landmarks.
16. Visit The Folk Museum
The Folk Museum is a wonderful place to visit for anyone seeking a unique and enriching cultural experience. It features immersive exhibits that tell the story of traditions, skills, and customs of rural Ulster’s past.
One of the main reasons to visit the Folk Museum is the opportunity to step back in time and celebrate the everyday skills that were once an integral part of Ulster’s heritage.
From craft demonstrations to exploring the folk collection, visitors can engage with the traditions that have shaped the region’s identity.
It serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving cultural heritage and encourages visitors to appreciate the value of these traditions in our modern world.
17. Check Out The Transport Museum
The Transport Museum has an extensive collection of locomotives, carriages, vintage motorbikes, and exhibits showcasing the history of ship and aircraft building.
From majestic steam locomotives to horse-drawn carriages, visitors can witness the evolution of transportation and gain a deep appreciation for the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the past.
Moreover, the museum offers insights into the social and cultural impact of transportation on the region.
The Transport Museum also serves as a source of inspiration for future designers, engineers, and adventurers.
By showcasing the achievements and innovations in transportation, the museum sparks curiosity and encourages visitors to imagine the possibilities for the future.
18. Try Irish Whiskey
One of the most unmissable things to do in Northern Ireland is to indulge in the rich flavors and heritage of Irish whiskey.
With its vibrant distillery scene, there are numerous places to savor this iconic spirit.
One notable distillery to visit is Bushmills, located in County Antrim. As the world’s oldest licensed distillery, Bushmills is renowned for producing exceptional single malt whiskey.
Visitors can take guided tours to learn about the distilling process and sample a range of their award-winning expressions.
Another must-visit destination is Echlinville Distillery in Newtownards.
Established in 2013, this distillery in the picturesque Ards Peninsula of County Down offers a unique experience.
19. Be Enchanted By Glenariff Forest Park
Glenariff Forest Park is an idyllic nature spot located in the stunning Glenariff Glen, known as the “Queen of the Glens.”
The park spans over 1,000 hectares and features breathtaking landscapes, planted woodlands, lakes, and conservation areas.
It’s renowned for its picturesque waterfalls, which form a series of stunning cascades along the trails.
The waterfall walk, spanning approximately 2.5 km, provides a tranquil and scenic experience for nature lovers and hikers.
20. Visit Crumlin Road Goal
Crumlin Road Gaol is a jail that was built in 1845. This iconic prison has witnessed significant events and housed individuals from various walks of life, including political prisoners, suffragettes, and children from impoverished families.
A visit to Crumlin Road allows you to gain an understanding of the rich heritage of Ireland and learn of the social and political struggles that shaped the nation.
The gaol’s architecture and design are also awe-inspiring, with its Victorian-era structure and hauntingly beautiful surroundings.
You can explore the wings, visit the condemned man’s cell, and witness the execution cell where seventeen men were hanged.
21. Step Back In Time At Castle Ward
Castle Ward is an eccentric mansion, located near the village of Strangford, that boasts contrasting architecture and interiors, making it a fascinating site to explore.
Wander through the mansion and immerse yourself in the grandeur of the past.
The mansion’s distinct styles, including classical and Gothic, create an intriguing atmosphere that will leave you marveling at its beauty.
Game of Thrones fans will recognize Castle Ward as the backdrop for Winterfell.
Best Time to Visit Northern Ireland
It really depends what you’re looking for. If you’re after some good times and general mayhem, then I would visit around Halloween; it really is great crack then.
There’s a good chance of a white Christmas in December, and if it’s sun you’re after, erm, well, you might have to pray to Lady Luck.
Northern Ireland’s weather is notoriously wet, but then that’s what makes it so green and such a beautiful country to visit. August and September are usually the sunniest months, but it’s hard to guarantee they’ll be dry. Still, as they say in Ireland, “It never rains in the pub”.
Where to Stay in Northern Ireland
If you’re not sure where to stay in Northern Ireland, here are some places we recommend.
Downhill Beach House Hostel, Castlerock – If you want to experience everything the Atlantic Ocean can offer, then seek out this little hostel sitting at the foot of the limestone cliffs, spitting distance from the north coast’s longest beach.
Derry City Hostel – Crazy, but true, if you decide to stay here there is no set fee, you can pay what you want. All they ask is that you stay for at least two nights so you can explore the area.
Belfast International Youth Hostel – Just across from Europa Bus Centre you’ll find one of Belfast’s more popular hostels. It’s open all year round, and has doubles with ensuite, twin rooms and dorm rooms accommodating up to six people.
The Causeway Hotel – An obvious choice if you’re planning to explore the Antrim coast and what it has to offer. Alternatively, stay in Portrush nearby where you’ll find at least a hundred or so BnB’s and guesthouses. Portrush is small, so just drive through the town to check for vacancy signs outside the houses. You’ll need to book in summer, though, when most of the rest of NI likes to pay ‘the Port’ a visit.
Belle Isle Fermanagh – If you can afford it, book a night at the Belle Isle. It is such a beautiful old 17th century castle, set in 470 acres of land on its very own island. You can stay in an apartment or cottage on the grounds and investigate the castle and surrounds.
Getting To and Around Northern Ireland
A number of cheap airlines fly into Northern Ireland daily from mainland UK and the Republic of Ireland.
The usual suspects are low-cost airlines Ryanair and Easyjet, although the cheapest flights are usually very early in the morning, which makes getting to outlying airports in connecting cities quite difficult – many of the first trains don’t depart in time for you to clear security at the airport.
There are a few ferries from mainland UK, too: one from Stranraer, in Scotland, to Larne, which is just outside Belfast, and one from Holyhead, in Wales, to Dublin. From Dublin it’s an easy two hour drive or train journey north.
The bus network across Northern Ireland is excellent, with many connections between the larger cities running frequently. The buses are very comfy too – most of them are coaches, and some double decker.
Driving is also easy due to the size of the country. It seriously only takes about a few hours to cross; about 1hr 30mins between the two main cities of Belfast and Derry. There are only two motorways – one between Derry and Belfast, the other from Belfast heading to Dublin, which is only two hours away. Click here for car rental prices and availability from our preferred partner, Discover Cars!
Local trains aren’t too bad, and although there are trains between Belfast and Derry because the line follows the coast it takes 2hrs 20mins – great if you have the time to travel, not so good if you’re on a tight schedule. Still, I would highly recommend doing it as the scenery is pretty spectacular. Book your train via Trainline.
Final Thoughts on Things to Do in Northern Ireland
I love Northern Ireland because it has an endless push-you-pull-you effect. The grey, wet days can get you down, but the people, the crack, the rugged beauty of the place has a way of outshining even the most miserable of days.
It has so much to see and explore, from the history and legacy of the Titanic at the world-class Titanic Belfast museum, or to the jaw-dropping nature of the Causeway Coast, which is even more impressive in person.
Northern Ireland’s lush green fields, dramatic coastline, and tranquil lakes provide an amazing outdoor playground for activities like cycling and hiking.
It offers a perfect blend of natural beauty, cultural experiences, and historical sites. I hope this guide helped you plan your trip and gave you some inspiration for what Northern Ireland has to offer!
BIO – Linda McCormick is the founder and editor of Eco Traveller Guide. Here she shares her passion for ecotourism, green travel and very cool travel pics. As a fan of slow travel Linda plans to spend the next few years getting to know Australia a bit better. She’s always keen to meet like-minded travellers who love nothing more than sharing a good story and a few bevvies, so if you’re in Oz get in touch!
More Inspiration For Ireland and the UK
Thinking of visiting other parts of Ireland and the UK? Then here are some other helpful resources…
- Ireland Travel Tips
- 10 Places to Visit in Ireland with Kids
- Things to do in Dublin from a local’s eyes
- Tarr Steps walk in the Exmoor National Park
- Where to stay in London – budget to luxury
- 7 Places to visit on a Dorset Road Trip
- 5 unmissable sights below London
- Best things to do in London – local’s tips
- 7 Amazing Stops on the way to Isle of Skye
- Things to do in Edinburgh – tips from a local
- 6 Hot Destinations in the UK right now