The Giro d’Italia rolls into Belfast this week, but if truth be told, it’s just one excuse to head north. From Black Taxi Tours to Game of Thrones locations, from crumbling castles to cutting-edge food, here are 10 great reasons to visit Northern Ireland.
1) Giant Steps: The Causeway Coast
Wanna drive along the edge of the earth? That’s what Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route feels like – with its thrashing seas, cliff-hugging roads and myth-making rock formations. The highlight is the Giant’s Causeway, a patchwork of hexagonal basalt columns said to have been formed by Finn McCool (or volcanic eruptions, if you prefer). But don’t miss the wibbly-wobbly Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge (above), Old Bushmill’s Distillery or Dunluce Castle – teetering over the White Rocks like a vacation villa from Middle Earth – either. discovernorthernireland.com.
2) Fantasy Landscapes: Game of Thrones
The Seven Kingdoms exist beyond the TV screen, you know. Much of HBO’s Game of Thrones is filmed in Northern Ireland, with locations ranging from the 400-million-year-old caves at Cushendun (where a shadow was born amidst dramatic scenes in Season Two), to the Dark Hedges at Gracehill House – found along the fictional Kingsroad. Larrybane doubles for Storm’s End, and the sprawling estate at Castle Ward, Co. Down is home to both Whispering Wood and Winterfell. More locations and driving routes are suggested at causewaycoastandglens.com.
3) Food, Glorious Food: Ox, Belfast
An ex-tile shop on dreary Oxford Street didn’t seem the most promising location for a restaurant staking everything on artistry, ambition and local produce. Steven Toman and Alain Kerloc’h built it, however, and the customers came. White walls, splashes of duck-egg-blue and low-slung light bulbs mash up industrial chic and Nordic minimalism, but it’s the food that leaves a lasting impression. Dishes like halibut served with scallop, Parma ham, bouillabaisse and seaweed butter (£19/€23) or sprouting broccoli with Lough Neagh perch and crispy chicken skin (£16/€19.50) have made Ox the catalyst for an exciting foodie scene. oxbelfast.com.
4) The Second Coming: Derry/Londonderry 2.0
For decades, Derry/Londonderry was a city to avoid. Its success as the inaugural UK Capital of Culture has changed all of that, showcasing Northern Ireland’s second city as a weekend break with lots to offer. In the past, Derry’s 17th walls were crawling with security fences – today, you can walk an uninterrupted circuit of the old town. The Peace Bridge, tours of the Bogside murals, River Foyle cruises and a stonking Halloween carnival seal the deal for a city whose artistic exports range from Nadine Coyle and The Undertones to, erm… Phil Coulter. derryvisitor.com.
5) Water, Water, Everywhere: The Fermanagh Lakelands
One third of County Fermanagh is covered in water. That means you can cruise or kayak around shorelines and islands dotted with surprises – the ruin of Crom Castle here, a Hare Krishna community there, or Devenish Island with its crumbling abbey and 100-foot round tower. Don’t like water? Try venturing below ground into the spooky Marble Arch Caves, travelling through the golden age of big houses at Castle Coole or Florence Court, or make like President Obama and visit the five-star Lough Erne Resort near Enniskillen. fermanaghlakelands.com.
6) Take Three: National Trust Properties
The National Trust has a fab spread of properties, estates and events in Northern Ireland. Think of the exotic gardens of Mount Stewart in Co. Down, forest walks and architectural quirks (check the first-floor Venetian window) at Florence Court, Co. Fermanagh, or the Crown Bar in Belfast. Dating from 1885, the latter’s network of timeworn snugs, mosaic tiles, scalloped lights and beautifully burnished primrose ceiling combine to make a pub unlike any other. nationaltrust.org.uk.
7) Driving On: Black Taxi Tours
It’s one of the most unusual tourist experiences in Europe – a city tour taking in Belfast’s iconic sights, Peace Line and political murals in a traditional black cab. The stops are predictable – the Titanic Quarter, Botanic Gardens and politicised districts like the Shankill and Falls roads plastered in murals depicting the likes of King William of Orange and Bobby Sands – but what really makes the experience are the salt-of-the-earth drivers themselves. Many taxi drivers worked through the Troubles, know Belfast inside-out, and aren’t shy telling you about it. visit-belfast.com.
8) Mad Active: The Mourne Mountains
They’ve been admired from far and near, celebrated in song by Percy French, and on a clear day, are visible from the Dublin Mountains. But really, the only way to do the Mournes justice is to get stuck right in. Hiking options speak for themselves, but did you know you can brush up on your mountain biking skills, squeeze into a wetsuit to go coasteering (scrambling, swimming and cliff-jumping) around the fringes, and even try a Marshmallow Toasting Master Class? outdoorni.com.
9) A Day to Remember: Titanic Belfast
The star-shaped Titanic Belfast dominates the city docks, just as the original did during her construction over 100 years ago. Inside, state-of-the-art exhibitions take visitors on a journey from Belfast’s industrial heritage and Titanic’s construction, fit-out and launch, right through to her freakish sinking and storied aftermath. Despite a paucity of artefacts, the experience is world-class. titanicbelfast.com.
10) For the Birds: Rathlin Island
Rathlin is Northern Ireland’s sole inhabited offshore island; a boomerang-shaped beauty bursting with basalt cliffs, Viking history and smugglers’ lore. Ferries from Ballycastle take 20 minutes or so, a quick whizz across the Sea of Moyle transporting visitors to a place where spirited céilís and festivals enliven summer months. Rathlin’s star players are its seabirds, however – with thousands of squabbling fulmar, guillemot, razorbills and rainbow-beaked puffins making up Northern Ireland’s largest seabird colony. Spring and early summer are the times to see them. rspb.org.uk.
This article originally appeared in Image Interiors.