Welcome to Ireland’s revitalized North and Northwest, a region whose natural beauty and proud traditions beckon the traveler. The Lonely Planet Bluelist recently proclaimed Northern Ireland as the hot new destination and cited Belfast as one of the top cities on the rise.
This popularity comes as no surprise to regulars who have long known the area as one of the most beautiful and interesting in Europe. Discover the sights and sounds of the region, which includes the famous ancient castles and battlements as well as the lesser-known farms that were ancestral homesteads to 15 Presidents of the United States. Who knows where the adventure will take you.
Day One (Belfast, County Down)
Belfast is a city reborn, where old merges with new, a booming retail center with a rich and historic Victorian streetscape. Saint Anne’s Cathedral is the center of the oldest quarter, an area packed with cobbled streets, historic pubs and superb restaurants. Enjoy street theater at Custom House Square, or chat with locals at Kelly’s Cellars, one of Belfast’s most ancient pubs. See other historic locations such as Rosemary Street Church and the “Entries.” With the help of a local guide organize a customized tour of Clifton House, Mary Ann McCracken’s House in Donegall Street and City Graveyard off Clifton Street.
The ship RMS Titanic is synonymous with Belfast. The transformation of the storied docklands of Harland & Wolff, where the ship was built, into Titanic Quarter is the largest urban development in Northern Ireland.
Other must-see stops include Queen’s University, near the restored Ulster Museum; and downtown, where you can visit City Hall and stop at the Crown Bar across from the landmark Europa Hotel. Don’t miss the designer boutiques and cafes of Lisburn Road. Just outside the city is The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum with its Titanic exhibition. Revel in a perfect museum setting, nestled on a lush 178-acre parkland overlooking Belfast Lough in the Cultra area.
Day Two (South East: Counties Down and Armagh)
South of Belfast, the scenic Ards Peninsula offers tranquility, rural landscapes and pretty seaside towns and villages. At Groomsport trace the story of Eagle’s Wing, the fabled ship North America bound with early Scots-Irish emigrants.
Then pop into the Bangor Heritage Centre and Bangor Abbey. Gardeners and architectural enthusiasts will enjoy Mount Stewart House and Gardens. The nearby village of Greyabbey is noted for its antique shops. Visit the Greek Revival Presbyterian Church at Portaferry, and take a five-minute ferry ride to Strangford village. Visit nearby scenic Castle Ward.
It’s a quick step from here to the St. Patrick’s Trail, which leads to Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland. This dignified city boasts Saint Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral and Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral. At Downpatrick visit St. Patrick’s Grave and St. Patrick’s Centre and Down County Museum. Nearby scenic villages include Dromara, Hillsborough, Moira, and Banbridge.
The Craigavon area around Portadown and Lurgan features important landmarks associated with the Ulster-Scots. At Lurgan Park, you can learn how English linen barons designed their estates. The National Trust maintains an 18th-century gentleman’s farmhouse at Ardress. Nearby is the site of the Battle of the Diamond and the cottage where the Orange Order is said to have been founded, still run by the Winter family down through all the generations.
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Day Three (South West: The Lakelands of County Fermanagh)
Fermanagh offers stunning lakeland scenery and an abundance of castles. The twin lakes of Lough Erne cover one-third of Fermanagh. Visit the Marble Arch Caves European Geopark, a fascinating natural underworld of rivers and waterfalls. Here one finds a number of the country’s Anglo-Irish family homes. Florence Court, built in the mid-eighteenth century, is noted for its rococo plasterwork, while Castle Coole, completed in 1798, is one of the best neo-classical homes in Ireland.
Eniskillen’s famous Portora Royal School, founded in 1608, boasts such literary alumni as Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. You can stay with the Brooke Family at Colebrooke; the Duke of Abercorn, a member of the Hamilton family, has opened Belle Isle School of Cookery where visitors prepare lunch with local produce, and can stay overnight. A visit to Fermanagh would not be complete without shopping at Belleek Pottery. For a luxurious stay follow the road to Lough Erne Golf Resort, a stunning new resort located between Lough Erne and Lough Castle Hume, with spectacular views over rippling lakes and green landscapes.
Day Four (North West: County Tyrone)
About an hour’s drive from Fermanagh is the Ulster-American Folk Park. Give yourself a few hours to appreciate a living history experience; the installations and reenactments tell of the formidable contribution that generations of Scots-Irish made to American frontier history. Costumed performers carry out everyday tasks in the traditional manner in Old World and New World buildings.
From Omagh, drive through the glorious Sperrin Mountains, which span Counties Tyrone and Londonderry. Learn how many of the Scottish settlers became engaged in the production of linen. Enjoy shopping at Moygashel. Drive through Tyrone to Cookstown and the Wellbrook Beetling Mill. The Springhill Costume Collection is one of the foremost exhibits of 19th and early 20th century Irish costume and textile history. Stop in Dungannon, with its exquisite Tyrone Crystal; here the art of crystal making has been going strong since the 18th century.
Day Five (The Medieval Walled City of Derry)
Few places can boast a greater sweep of history and culture than ancient Derry City, one of the few completely walled cities still standing in Europe. Dating from 1618, the walls were built by the city’s residents as a defense against native Irish chieftains. Stroll the magnificently engineered walls, and marvel at the intact watchtowers, cannons and gates. Visit Saint Colum’s Cathedral and the Apprentice Boys Hall.
At the heart of the city is the beautiful Guildhall, a popular venue for concerts, plays, and exhibitions. A visit to the Craft Village will take you back as far as the sixteenth century. Nature lovers will enjoy the parks around Derry; At Ness Park visit Brackfield Bawn and Ballykelly Bawn. Beachgoers will seek out Benone Strand and Magilligan Strand, two of Europe’s finest.
Day Six (Nearby East County Donegal)
Derry is a stone’s throw from picturesque County Donegal. The northernmost county in Ireland, Donegal is bounded by 120 miles of Atlantic coastline and the most beautiful golden beaches in Ireland. Northeast Donegal was a stronghold of the Scottish Presbyterians who migrated into Ulster. The founder of the first Presbyterian congregation in America, located in Maryland, was Francis Makemie from County Donegal. U.S. President James Knox Polk, Frontiersman Davy Crockett and Edmund McIlhenny of the Tabasco fortune are just some descendants of the many Scots-Irish families who emigrated from these parts.
To learn more about the Scots-Irish of Donegal visit the Monreagh Ulster Scots Heritage Centre and meet the members of the East Donegal Ulster Scots Society. The date 1644 is proudly displayed above the local church door. For more information visit www.eastdonegalulsterscots.com.
Day Seven (North West: County Antrim)
Leave via the Causeway Coastal Route, rated as one of the world’s Top Five Road Trips. The Giant’s Causeway is a World Heritage Site and draws as many as 600,000 visitors each year. The Causeway’s hexagonal columns were formed by volcanic activity over 60 million years ago.
Continue to Belfast through the Nine Glens of Antrim. Enjoy afternoon tea at 18th-century Glenarm Castle and learn about the McDonnells and the migration of earlier Scots into the Glens. Ballygally Castle was built by Shaw of Greenock in the Scottish Baronial style. Admire stunning views across to Scotland and learn about the history of the area from the time of the Plantation of Ulster. Just down the coast is the Londonderry Arms, once owned by Sir Winston Churchill and now a popular seafood restaurant. Continue the drive to Andrew Jackson Centre and Carrickfergus Castle on your way into Belfast.
Try to schedule a half-day trip to Rathlin, home of the spider story of Robert the Bruce. On the Bushmills Distillery tour learn how whiskey was made hundreds of years ago (and today). Walk down to Dunseverick before returning to Belfast or heading to the airport for your journey home.
*Originally published in 2009. Updated in July 2023.