25 Best Things to Do in Northern Ireland

Written by Alex Bird
Updated on
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To get the most from Northern Ireland’s world famous seascapes and historic cities you’ll need to be organised because there’s so much to get through.

On the road you can follow itineraries like the Causeway Coastal Route, which will get you to volcanic landmarks like the UNESCO Giant’s Causeway, but also epic beaches, glens, cliffs and castles.

Fans of Game of Thrones may already know that Northern Ireland is one of the show’s go-to filming locations for outdoor scenes at Winterfell and the Iron Islands.

Castle Ward has been used several times alone, and puts on an annual Game of Thrones Festival in September.

Real life sieges took place at Derry, encased by 17th-century walls, while an array of stately homes like Mount Stewart and Castle Coole testify to the wealth of Northern Ireland’s landed gentry.

Let’s explore the best things to do in Northern Ireland:

1. Giant’s Causeway

Giant's Causeway, Bushmills, UKSource: flickr
Giant’s Causeway, Bushmills, UK

Photos can never do justice to the scale and strangeness of these interlinked red basalt columns, formed after a volcanic event 60 million years ago.

The sea adds to the spectacle, constantly crashing over the rocks and receding, while multilingual audioguides will conduct you around the site.

A new visitor centre unveiled in 2012 has cutting-edge exhibits to fill you in on its geology, and the legend of the Irish giant who built the causeway to get at his Scottish rival.

The Giant’s Causeway has 40,000 columns in all, mostly with perfectly hexagonal cross-sections, climbing to a maximum 12 metres.

Behind are cliffs of solidified lava up to 28 metres thick, as a matching, brooding partner to the causeway.

There are several tours available online.

2. Castle Ward

Castle WardSource: shutterstock
Castle Ward

Lord Bangor and his wife Lady Ann Bligh had diverging tastes in architecture, so when they rebuilt this property in the 1760s they did so in two different styles.

The southwest facade and main entrance is in the Lady Ann Bligh’s favoured Palladian style and has Iconic columns supporting a triangular pediment.

But come round to the northeast side, and the ogival windows, pinnacles, crockets and merlons all testify to Lord Bangor’s taste for the Gothic Revival.

The house is on the south shore of Strangford Lough, and the waterside was used as a shooting location for Game of Thrones, as was the historic farmyard, which doubled as Winterfell in Season One.

You can go on a guided tour of the house, and visit the grounds which have a glorious, formal “Sunken Garden” from 1864, an operating corn mill, a neo-Gothic tower house (Winterfell Tower) and a laundry from Victorian times.

3. Castle Coole

Castle CooleSource: shutterstock
Castle Coole

A far cry from Northern Ireland’s desolate historic ruins, Castle Coole is a Neoclassical stately home in a 490-hectare estate.

The property was built at the end of the 18th century for Armar Lowry-Corry, the 1st Earl Belmore and was designed by the prolific English architect James Wyatt.

The facade is made from white limestone brought here from Portland in Dorset, and has a portico with four Ionic columns and Doric colonnades on its wings.

Like the exterior the house’s Regency-period decoration is splendid but also understated.

You can join a guided tour to see an 80-metre tunnel built between the stable yard and house, to keep staff out of sight.

Also on the tour is a state bedroom, furnished in 1821 anticipating a visit from King George IV, who never showed up.

4. Causeway Coastal Route

Causeway Coastal RouteSource: shutterstock
Causeway Coastal Route

Clinging to the Atlantic and North Channel coast between Belfast and Derry, the Causeway Coastal Route winds through weather-beaten seascapes, linking scores of natural and man-made monuments.

All you have to do is stay on the A2 road and you’ll come to widescreen beaches, lofty cliffs, valleys coated in gorse, sleepy hamlets, windswept ruins, Neolithic standing stones and fishing villages.

No sooner are you back in the car you’ll want to stop again for more photos, or to wander another cliff-top trail edged by wildflowers.

Many of the sights in this article are on the route, and you’ll need as long as five days to feel like you’ve experienced it all.

There are also nine shorter loops on the way, cutting to picturesque countryside inland.

5. Titanic Belfast

Titanic BelfastSource: Nataliya Hora / Shutterstock.com
Titanic Belfast

Opened in 2012, Titanic Belfast is an award-winning attraction at Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard where the RMS Titanic was assembled and launched in 1912. Few vessels in the history of the world pique people’s interest like this ill-fated passenger liner, and the nine galleries here recount the history of this ship and its fleet-mates HMHS Britannic and RMS Olympic.

These are immersive and interactive, plunging you into all the activity of early-20th-century Belfast’s dockyards, and then the opulence of the Titanic’s reconstructed cabins and famous stairway.

The building, with textured cladding and profile resembling ships bows is constructed around an enormous atrium, as is intended to have a “Guggenheim” effect on Belfast as a tourism magnet.

Recommended tour: Belfast: The Titanic Experience with SS Nomadic Visit

6. Ballintoy Harbour

Ballintoy HarbourSource: shutterstock
Ballintoy Harbour

One of many obligatory stops on the Causeway Coastal Route, Ballintoy Harbour by its namesake village, eight kilometres west of Ballycastle.

The harbour is natural, in a long, narrow recess in the coast skirted by imposing chalk and basalt formations.

The dark rock and crashing sea lend the harbour a moody atmosphere, just right for the Isle of Pyke, one of the Iron Islands in Game of Thrones.

Scenes with the character Theon were shot here in 2011. There’s an enticing cafe close by, while the village is a kilometre away and has a beautiful whitewashed church on the cliff-top.

7. Mount Stewart

Mount StewartSource: Amanda Slater / flickr
Mount Stewart

The influential Marquesses of Londonderry had their family seat at Mount Stewart on the east shore of Strangford Lough.

In its current Neoclassical form the property was built in the 1820s and 1830s, and opens a window on the Vane-Tempest-Stewart family, whose descendants still have a role in political and social life in the United Kingdom.

In 2015 the National Trust reopened the house after a full restoration that returned the interior to its 1920-1950 era.

You’ll shuffle through the Billiards Room, Central Hall, Dining Room, Sitting Rooms, Breakfast Room and stately Bedroom Suite, where the Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald would stay.

But the standout attraction has to be Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart’s luxuriant Spanish, Italian, Shamrock and Sunken Gardens, planted in the 1920s and part of a world-class ensemble that has been mooted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

8. Derry City Walls

Derry City WallsSource: Rolf G Wackenberg / Shutterstock.com
Derry City Walls

Derry is known as the Maiden City for a good reason.

In the 1610s a system of walls 1.6-kilometres in circumference was built by ” The Honourable Irish Society” to protect English and Scottish settlers in the Renaissance inner city.

These walls are still standing today; in fact, they were never breached, even after facing a number of sieges, like one that lasted for more than 100 days in 1689. The ramparts have four main gates adorned with Renaissance reliefs, as well as a walkway with views of the inner city, which still has its early-17th-century street plan.

On the way you’ll be left in no doubt about the amount of firepower defending the city; poking through the embrasures are 24 cannons, all of which were restored in 2005 and can be traced back to their original foundries.

9. Ulster American Folk Park

Ulster American Folk ParkSource: LunaseeStudios / Shutterstock.com
Ulster American Folk Park

In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries hundreds of thousands of people left Ulster for America.

This open-air museum has 30 historic buildings telling the story of Irish emigration and offering a snapshot of daily lives on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Old World area has a bank, school, printing press, and the real childhood home of Thomas Mellon, founder of Pittsburgh’s Mellon Bank.

In the New World section is a full-size replica of an immigrant ship, and an American street scene with a genuine shop interior from Virginia.

There’s also an Appalachian log cabin from Pennsylvania and a plantation house from Tennessee.

The park is full of curious characters in period dress, giving you historical snippets, demonstrating old-time crafts or offering food from the time.

10. Crumlin Road Gaol

Crumlin Road GaolSource: Mick Harper / Shutterstock.com
Crumlin Road Gaol

The roll-call of people to have been “banged-up” at this 19th-century jail is like a microcosm of Northern Ireland history in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Among the 25,000 inmates were murderers, republicans and loyalists, and suffragettes.

Crumlin Road Gaol was used from 1846 to 1996 and is linked to the eponymous courthouse in North Belfast by a tunnel.

You’ll be shown around that tunnel and the cells, and will hear about the hunger strikes, riots and escapes that took place inside these walls in that time.

Your visit takes an eerie turn at the Condemned Man’s Cell, where 17 inmates were hanged.

Apart from welcoming curious visitors by day, the jail is also a venue for live music, company dinners and weddings.

11. Castlewellan Forest Park

Castlewellan Forest ParkSource: Mcimage / Shutterstock.com
Castlewellan Forest Park

Northern Ireland’s National Arboretum was begun on this 450-hectare park in County Down.

The park has formal and free-flowing gardens, with sculptures, fountains and flower borders as well as an ornamental lake 1.6 kilometres in length.

At its core is the walled Annesley garden (1850s), with maples and conifers shipped over from Japan, along with rhododendrons from China, eucryphias from Chile, athrotaxis cypresses from Australia and Giant sequoias from North America.

The Peace Maze, planted in 2000-01, has 6,000 yew trees and was the largest permanent hedge maze in the world until 2007. Another centrepiece is the Gothic Revival Castlewellan Castle, built in the 1850s by the landowning Annesley family.

12. Ulster Museum

Ulster MuseumSource: Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com
Ulster Museum

A delightful miscellany, the Ulster Museum in Belfast has treasures from a host of fields like archaeology, fine art, applied art, ethnography and natural history.

The museum is at the northwestern corner of the Botanic Gardens and was given a major makeover a decade ago.

Needless to say, there’s much to see, whether it’s a hoard of polished Neolithic axes, the Egyptian mummy Takabuti or the Kildare Toilet Service dating to the 1720s and made up of 28 pieces of gilt silver including small caskets and perfume bottles.

Also not to be missed is the Girona Salamander from a Spanish Armada shipwreck, a cross-section of the Seymchan meteorite, the skeleton of an Edmontosaurus dinosaur, Bronze Age gold jewellery and pieces by the master glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.

13. Dunluce Castle

Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle

Ruins don’t come more beautiful than this 16th-century cliff-top castle in northern County Antrim.

On a sheer basalt outcrop, Dunluce Castle was raised by the McQuillans, and then taken over by the MacDonnells who took control after winning two battles between the clans in the 1500s.

The MacDonnells continue to own the property today, but abandoned the site after the Battle of Boyne in 1690. When the MacDonnells became the Earls of County Antrim in the early-1600s a small town cropped up behind the castle.

This was razed by Cromwell after the Irish Uprising of 1641 and excavations have started to reveal its grid of cobblestone streets.

14. Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Carrick-a-Rede Rope BridgeSource: shutterstock
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Maintained by the National Trust, this bridge made from Douglas fir and wire cables was erected in 2008. But it is just the latest in a long line of bridges to span the gap between the mainland and the tiny volcanic island of Carrickarede.

The first were put up by fishermen in the 18th century, to catch the salmon that would pass through in summer to spawn in the rivers Bush and Bann.

The bridge is hoisted 30 metres above a romantic seascape, and if you can handle heights you can look back to the line of dark basalt cliffs on the mainland.

The island was created by a violent volcanic event 60 million years ago, and standing on this volcanic plug you can make out the coast of Scotland and the closer dark outline of Rathlin Island.

15. Carrickfergus Castle

Carrickfergus CastleSource: shutterstock
Carrickfergus Castle

County Antrim’s Carrickfergus Castle is seen as the most complete example of Norman military architecture in Northern Ireland.

Founded in 1170, the castle has an easily-defendable location on the north shore of the Belfast Lough, and was once bounded on three sides by water.

To control this castle was to control a key port, and over 850 years the stronghold has faced attacks by English, Irish, Scottish and French forces, and was involved in a skirmish with the American commander John Paul Jones in the War of Independence.

On a tour you’ll venture down winding tunnels and stairways, and see 13th-century defensive architecture like a murder hole, a passage with a ribbed vault and portcullis.

Later modifications like cannon embrasures were constructed with the arrival of artillery in the 16th and 17th centuries and are still armed with cannons.

16. Slieve Gallion

Slieve GallionSource: Daragh Burns / flickr
Slieve Gallion

In County Londonderry, on the eastern flank of the Sperrin Mountains is a mountain rated as an area of “High Scenic Value” by the Northern Ireland Planning Service.

Slieve Gallion is a volcanic plug with two peaks, rising suddenly from an otherwise flat and lush landscape of spruce forest and small farms delineated by hedgerows and dry-stone walls.

The highest point is to the southwest at Glenarudda Mountain and Tintagh Mountain, at 528 metres.

You don’t need to be any sort of mountaineer or hiker to surmount this peak, as there’s a car park near the summit.

At the top you can linger over a view that takes in the Glens of Antrim, Lough Neagh and the Belfast Hills, as well as thousands of grazing sheep.

17. Marble Arch Caves

Marble Arch CavesSource: Gary Henderson / flickr
Marble Arch Caves

In County Fermanagh, the limestone Marble Arch Caves are up there with Europe’s finest showcaves.

Diving to 94 metres and 11.5 kilometres in length, this is the longest cave system in Northern Ireland and the most impressive karst formation in Great Britain.

It’s a thrilling subterranean world of serpentine passages, soaring chambers, rivers and waterfalls.

Overhead you can spot stalactites and calcite formations, all pointed out by fun and enthusiastic guides on a 75-minute tour on a trail 1.5 kilometres long.

The caves are part of a UNESCO Global Geopark across a large swathe of County Fermanagh and County Cavan, and made up of more than 50 sites like wetlands, waterfalls, forests and scenic vantage points.

18. Enniskillen Castle

Enniskillen CastleSource: shutterstock
Enniskillen Castle

The Gaelic Lord of Fermanagh Hugh Maguire built Enniskillen Castle next to the River Erne in the 16th century.

The castle’s setting is no accident as it defends the Sligo Road on one of the only passes into Ulster.

Modelled on Scottish fortresses, Enniskillen Castle has a curtain wall reinforced by bartizans and turrets, all encircling a tower keep.

When the castle became an English garrison fort in the 17th century barracks were built in the bailey.

The castle reopened in 2016 after a restoration holds two museums.

The largest is the Fermanagh County Museum, going into detail on the Maguires and showcasing the county’s natural history, prehistory rural traditions and crafts.

The Inniskillings Museum is military oriented, displaying the medals, flags, uniforms, weapons and other regalia from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, an infantry regiment in the British army between 1881 and 1968.

19. Glens of Antrim

Glens Of AntrimSource: shutterstock
Glens Of Antrim

An “area of outstanding natural beauty” in the namesake county, the Glens of Antrim are nine deep valleys issuing from Antrim Plateau to the coast.

The glens have been immortalised by songs and poetry, and each one has its own charm and story to tell.

Within an area of just 50 square kilometres there’s an astonishing diversity of glacial valleys, bogs, mountain streams, tundra plateau, waterfalls, deciduous and coniferous forest and sky-scraping cliffs.

Signs of human habitation, both recent and prehistoric are everywhere, from adorable little villages to lonely cottages, dry-stone walls, cairns and menhirs.

20. Ballycastle Beach

Ballycastle BeachSource: shutterstock
Ballycastle Beach

Another much-loved stop on the Causeway Coastal Route, this sweeping, 1.2-kilometre sandy and shingle beach is next to the coastal village of the same name.

The beach is flanked by the pier of Ballycastle’s marina in the west and the craggy Pans Rock to the east.

On a calm sunny day in summer it’s a lovely place to dip your toes in the North Channel.

On the village side there’s a promenade with lawns, children’s playgrounds and pubs, all slightly raised with a view of the beach and as far as the Mull of Kintyre when the skies are clear.

Right behind is Ballycastle Golf Club, founded in 1890 and offering both gently parkland and tough links holes.

21. Old Bushmills Distillery

Old Bushmills DistillerySource: Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com
Old Bushmills Distillery

Ireland’s oldest functioning whiskey distillery is in County Antrim on the raw North Coast.

The landowner here was granted licence to distil whiskey by King James I, way back in 1608, and the Bushmills brand was born in 1784. Barring a fire in 1885 the distillery has been operating continuously for over 230 years and now produces five award-winning whiskeys.

Bushmills has single malts aged 10, 16, 21 years, while there’s a special 12-year reserve that can only be tasted and purchased at the distillery.

So clearly, aficionados will be in dreamland at Bushmills, touring the premises, soaking up the sights, sounds and aromas, taking part in a guided tasting session and poring over the range in the distillery shop.

22. Cliffs of Magho

Cliffs Of MaghoSource: James Stringer / flickr
Cliffs Of Magho

You can walk or drive to this heart-lifting viewpoint on the northern edge of the Lough Navar Forest.

The bluffs belong to a limestone escarpment overlooking the western shore of Lower Lough Erne, part of Ireland’s fourth-largest lake system.

If you decide to walk there’s a 200-metre climb from below, scaling 370 steps, but the path threads through magical woodland and there are plenty of benches for breaks.

The panoramas from the top are out of this world, taking in the lake and its islands, and even the Blue Mountains and Slieve League to the west in County Donegal if the skies are clear.

The wet calcareous rock in the cliffs have a type of black moss that exists nowhere else in the United Kingdom.

23. Inch Abbey

Inch AbbeySource: shutterstock
Inch Abbey

The Norman knight John de Courcy established this monastery just west of modern Downpatrick in Count Down in 1177. Inch Abbey was shut down during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-16th century and has been in a state of ruin for more than 450 years.

Despite this, there’s still a lot to see, and the crumbling abbey church and its monastic buildings have a photogenic location in a small valley between two drumlins (egg-shaped hills). Still visible in the former chancel are lancet windows and the remains of sedilias and a piscina in the south chancel wall.

Towards the river you can also make out the vestiges of outbuildings like an infirmary and bakehouse, recognised by its ovens.

On the Game of Thrones theme, Robb Stark camped here in Season One of Game of Thrones.

24. HMS Caroline

HMS CarolineSource: Attila JANDI / Shutterstock.com
HMS Caroline

Berthed in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast Harbour, HMS Caroline is a C-Class Light Cruiser commissioned in 1914. She is the last surviving vessel from the 1916 Battle of Jutland in the First World War, and for decades after the conflict was the Royal Navy’s headquarters in Belfast Harbour.

HMS Caroline wasn’t officially decommissioned until 2011, and after several years of preservation, reopened as a museum ship in 2016. On board you can watch a movie bringing to life the noise and confusion of the Battle of Jutland, while the cabins, mess and engine room have been restored down to the finest detail.

The signal school gives you a crash course in naval communication, and the torpedo school has interactive displays about weaponry and sea conflict, allowing you to design your own “dazzle camouflage”.

25. Kinbane Castle

Kinbane CastleSource: shutterstock
Kinbane Castle

Meaning “White Head”, Kinbane Castle is named for the narrow white limestone crag serving as its ppodium.

Another romantic ruin that will bring out the photographer in you, this pile was built in 1547 and lies five kilometres west of Ballycastle.

Its lord was Colla MacDonnell at a time the MacDonnell clan held sway over the coast.

No sooner had the castle been built it was under siege by the English, who attacked in 1551 and 1558. The hollow below the castle is known as the Hollow of the English, which may refer to a massacre that took place in the 16th century when a garrison of besieging English soldiers was killed by local clansmen answering a beacon.

The walk down from the cliffs is magnificent, and rugged rocks, swirling sea and the ghostly decaying tower are sure to capture your imagination

25 Best Things to Do in Northern Ireland:

  • Giant's Causeway
  • Castle Ward
  • Castle Coole
  • Causeway Coastal Route
  • Titanic Belfast
  • Ballintoy Harbour
  • Mount Stewart
  • Derry City Walls
  • Ulster American Folk Park
  • Crumlin Road Gaol
  • Castlewellan Forest Park
  • Ulster Museum
  • Dunluce Castle
  • Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
  • Carrickfergus Castle
  • Slieve Gallion
  • Marble Arch Caves
  • Enniskillen Castle
  • Glens of Antrim
  • Ballycastle Beach
  • Old Bushmills Distillery
  • Cliffs of Magho
  • Inch Abbey
  • HMS Caroline
  • Kinbane Castle