Northern Ireland is beautiful, wonderfully scenic and packed with attractions both historic and contemporary. The landscape is rejuvenated and the people, warm and welcoming. Here are the top ways to experience Northern Ireland, past and present.
The world’s most famous shipwreck was built in Belfast (‘she was fine when she left here’ is a popular quip) and the head of the slipway where Titanic was built is now a multimedia visitor experience charting the history of the city and the world’s most famous ocean liner through a range of interactive exhibits. It opened on the centenary of its sinking, in April 2012, and has since become Northern Ireland’s most popular tourist attraction.
The grand geological centrepiece of the Antrim Coast is the Giant’s Causeway, a spectacular rock formation composed of countless hexagonal basalt columns emerging from the sea that look to all the world like they could be the handiwork of mythical giants attempting to build a footbridge between Ireland and Scotland. Not true, unfortunately, but it’s a nice story. Visiting the Giant's Causeway itself is free of charge but you pay to use the car park and the Giant's Causeway Visitor Experience (giantscausewaycentre.com).
Black Taxi Tour
West Belfast, the neighbourhood that for three decades was at the heart of the conflict known as ‘the Troubles,’ is now perfectly safe to visit, and the best way to do so is on a black taxi tour. The cabs visit the more spectacular murals as well as the Peace Line (where you can write a message on the wall) and other significant sites, while the drivers provide a colourful commentary on the history of the area. There are a number of companies offering tours, including Harper Taxi Tours (harperstaxitours.co.nr) and Official Black Taxi Tours (belfasttours.com).
Old Bushmills Distillery
One of the most popular spots along the Antrim Coast is the small village of Bushmills, site of the world’s oldest (legal) distillery. King James I granted a license in 1608, and the whiskey is made with Irish barley and water from St Columb's Rill, a tributary of the River Bush, and matured in oak barrels. Following the distillery tour you get the chance to taste what the fuss is all about.
Ulster American Folk Park
One of the best museums in Ireland, the Exhibition Hall explains the close connections between Ulster and the USA (the American Declaration of Independence was signed by several Ulstermen) and includes a genuine Calistoga wagon. But the real appeal of the folk park is the outdoor museum, where the 'living history' exhibits are split into Old World and New World areas, cleverly linked by passing through a mock-up of an emigrant ship. At least half a day is needed to do the place justice.
Northern Ireland’s second city is full of historic interest, from walking the 1.5-km-long, 17th-century-walls – they’re the only city walls in Ireland to survive almost intact – to visiting the Bogside Murals that decorate the gable ends of houses along Rossville St, near Free Derry Corner. Mostly painted between 1997 and 2001, these 12 murals commemorate key events in the Troubles.
Belfast’s Victorian Pubs
Belfast has a handful of beautiful pubs that seem not to have changed a jot since opening in the 19th century. The most famous of these is the Crown Liquor Saloon, a mass of stained and cut glass that was declared a national monument. Also worth a visit is the Duke of York, where Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams once worked as a barman; and the absolutely wonderful John Hewitt Bar & Restaurant, another Victorian classic that serves good food and has music nightly.
Ulster Folk & Transport Museums
Really two museums in one, the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum is one of the region’s finest. Farmhouses, forges, churches and mills, and a complete village have been reconstructed at the folk museum, while across the road the Transport Museum is a sort of automotive zoo. In captivity is the stainless steel-clad prototype of the ill-fated DeLorean DMC, made in Belfast in 1981. The car was a commercial disaster but achieved everlasting fame in the Back to the Future films. The Titanica exhibit includes the original design drawings for the Titanic and its sister ship Olympic, as well as photographs of their construction.
Mount Stewart House & Gardens
The magnificent 18th-century Mount Stewart House & Gardens is one of Northern Ireland’s grandest stately homes. Treasures include the chairs used at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (embroidery added in 1918–22), and a painting of the racehorse Hambletonian by George Stubbs, one of the most important paintings in Ireland.
Set in lovely wooded grounds in the shadow of Cuilcagh Mountain – and not to be confused with the nearby, single-worded village of Florencecourt – Florence Court is an 18th-century baroque country house built by William Willoughby Cole (the first Earl of Enniskillen) and famous for its rococo plasterwork and antique Irish furniture. The house was badly damaged by fire in 1955 and much of what you see on the one-hour guided tour is the result of meticulous restoration, but the magnificent plasterwork on the dining room ceiling is original.
This article was published September 2014 and updated February 2016.