An exploding food scene, hip cities and the stunning Causeway Coast: there's plenty to pull visitors to the North. When you cross from the Republic into Northern Ireland you'll notice a couple of changes: the road signs are in miles and the prices are in pounds sterling – you're in the UK. At the time of research, there was no border checkpoint and not even a sign to mark the crossing point.
Brexit may change all that, as border towns brace themselves for the possible return of a 'hard border' with passport and custom controls. It's a bitter pill to swallow for a province that voted to remain in the EU. The issue brings renewed uncertainty but nobody wants to see a return to the violence of the Troubles that ended with the Good Friday Agreement two decades ago. An atmosphere of determined optimism remains.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Northern Ireland.
The stunning, star-shaped Titanic Belfast is the city's number-one tourist draw. Standing majestically at the head of the slipway where the Titanic was built, the museum is a state-of-the-art multimedia extravaganza that charts the history of Belfast and the creation of the world’s most famous ocean liner. Take a ride through the shipyard, walk the decks, get to know the passengers and learn about the wreck. Tickets and tours Titanic Experience The self-guided Titanic Experience tour lasts about an hour and extends over nine galleries. Cleverly designed exhibits enlivened by historical images, animated projections and soundtracks chart Belfast’s rise to turn-of-the-20th-century industrial superpower, followed by a high-tech ride through a noisy, smells-and-all recreation of the city’s shipyards. You can explore every detail of the Titanic’s construction, from a computer ‘fly-through’ from keel to bridge, to replicas of the passenger accommodation. Perhaps most poignant are the few flickering images that constitute the only film footage of the ship in existence, as well as family letters, the final messages sent to nearby ships and the stories of survivors. Tickets cost £19.50 per adult; £8.75 per child (aged 5 - 15); £15.50 per senior/student. Tickets include entry to the SS Nomadic. Saver tickets (adult/child £10/8) are available for speedy visits without the shipyard ride one hour before the museum closes. Titanic Discovery An add-on to the Titanic Experience, this award-winning, one-hour guided tour is an opportunity to learn about the Titanic Quarter. It takes visitors to the Harland & Wolff Drawing Offices, the Titanic Slipways and the Docker's Rest mural. Tickets cost £10 per adult and £5 per child (aged 5-15). Accessibility Titanic Belfast is fully accessible; though dimensional and weight restrictions on the Shipyard Ride may mean some wheelchairs and mobility scooters will not be accommodated in the accessible car. What's nearby? Titanic Belfast is located in the heart of Titanic Quarter, where you'll find other Titanic-related sites. Pause for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake at the Dock Cafe. For lunch, dinner or a cocktail in a historic setting, head to Drawing Office Two. For accommodation, try Titanic Hotel Belfas t - it's located in the building where the Titanic was designed. How to get there Bus: G2 bus from Donegall Square. Train Titanic Quarter station on the Belfast to Bangor line.
Why you should go This medieval castle ruin is perched on top of a dramatic cliffside overlooking the glorious Causeway Coast. With steep drops on either side, the remains of Dunluce Castle are straight from a fantasy epic; it was the filming location of the Greyjoys’ dilapidated Pyke Castle in Game of Thrones. A narrow bridge leads from the former guest lodgings and stables on the mainland across a dizzying gap to the main part of the fortress. Below the castle, a path leads down from the gatehouse to the Mermaid's Cave. The castle lies between Portballintrae and Portrush and can be reached by Portrush along a 5km coastal path. It’s a six-minute drive to Old Bushmills Distillery. History: facts and legends There is evidence of settlements on this outcrop from the first millennium, presumably helped by its very defensible position. The ruins left there now date from the 16th and 17th century when the castle became the seat of Clan McDonnell, who displaced their rivals the McQuillans. The McDonnells had ties to Scotland’s Stewart kings and later pledged allegiance to England’s Queen Elizabeth I. In the early 17th century, a town was built adjacent to the castle. It was destroyed by fire more than 50 years later but, upon its rediscovery in 2011, is thought to be one of the most advanced towns of its time, even featuring indoor toilets. The McDonnells’ fortunes dissipated after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and the castle began to fall into disrepair. At some point in the 18th century, the north wall of the castle collapsed into the sea. The site continued to be passed down throughout the centuries however, eventually coming into the part-ownership of Winston Churchill through marriage. He signed his share over to the Northern Ireland government in 1928 and since then the site has been maintained and conserved by the state. The scene of several tumultuous feuds, there are plenty of ghost stories associated with the castle. It is even said to have its own resident banshee, the ghost of Maeve Roe, daughter of Lord McQuillan. She refused to marry her father’s choice of husband because she was in love with another man and was locked into the eastern tower as punishment. Rescued by her true love on a stormy night, the pair escaped to a small boat stored in Mermaid’s Cave but drowned in the wild waves. Her body was never recovered but local legend says her cries can be heard on similarly stormy nights and her ghost can be seen in the tower looking out to sea. Tickets and other practicalities Open seven days a week, the entrance fee of £5.50 per adult (£3.50 per child) gets you some spectacular views of the castle and plenty of historical exhibits inside detailing the long and fascinating history of the site. Some of the castle interiors are not wheelchair accessible and there are cobblestones to navigate in some areas.
In the 18th and 19th centuries more than two million Ulster people left their homes to forge a new life across the Atlantic. Their story is told here at one of Ireland's best museums, which features a sprawling outdoor history park. Exhibits are split into Old World cottages and New World log cabins, with actors in period costume on hand to bring the stories to life. The park is 8km northwest of Omagh. Last admission is 1½ hours before closing.
This spectacular rock formation – Northern Ireland's only Unesco World Heritage site – is one of Ireland's most impressive and atmospheric landscape features, a vast expanse of regular, closely packed, hexagonal stone columns looking for all the world like the handiwork of giants. The phenomenon is explained in the Giant's Causeway Visitor Experience, housed in a state-of-the-art ecofriendly building half-hidden in the hillside above the sea.
Belfast's classical Renaissance-style City Hall was built in fine, white Portland stone in 1906. Highlights of the free, 45-minute guided tour include the sumptuous, wedding-cake Italian marble of the rotunda; an opportunity to sit on the mayor's throne in the council chamber; and the idiosyncratic portraits of past lord mayors. On the ground floor and accessible outside tour times are a series of commemorative stained-glass windows and a visitor exhibition with displays on Belfast's history spread across 16 rooms.
You could spend hours browsing this state-of-the-art museum, but if you're pressed for time don't miss the Armada Room, with artefacts retrieved from the 1588 wreck of the Spanish galleon Girona; the Egyptian Room, with Takabuti, a 2500-year-old Egyptian mummy unwrapped in Belfast in 1835; and the Early Peoples Gallery, with the bronze Bann Disc, a superb example of Celtic design from the Iron Age.
There are not many historical monuments that you can enjoy while savouring a pint of Guinness, but the National Trust's Crown Liquor Saloon is one of them. Belfast's most famous bar was refurbished by Patrick Flanagan in the late 19th century and displays Victorian decorative flamboyance at its best (he was looking to pull in a posh clientele from the train station and Grand Opera House opposite). Despite being a tourist attraction, the bar fills up with locals come 6pm.
The view from the summit of Cave Hill (368m) takes in the whole sprawl of the city, the docks, Belfast Lough and the Mourne Mountains – on a clear day you can see Scotland. Cave Hill Country Park spreads across the hill's eastern slopes, with several waymarked walks and an adventure playground.
The showpiece of Belfast's green oasis is Charles Lanyon's beautiful Palm House, built in 1839 and completed in 1852, with its birdcage dome, a masterpiece in cast-iron and curvilinear glass. Nearby is the 1889 Tropical Ravine, a huge red-brick greenhouse designed by the garden's curator Charles McKimm. Inside, a raised walkway overlooks a jungle of tropical ferns, orchids, lilies and banana plants growing in a sunken glen. It reopened in 2018 following a £3.8 million renovation.
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