Essential Stops in Northern Ireland

By Thursday, October 02, 2014 , , ,

Sometimes I get homesick for the place I like to consider my really-far-away-home-away-from-home: Northern Ireland. Yes, I’m happy to say that I have indeed been to that stunning, emerald isle across the Atlantic. I may have been born in America, but I think I’ll always be trying to convince myself that deep down inside me, there’s a full-blooded Irishwoman longing to drink tea after every meal and to live just a few hours away from a coastline covered in cliffs and blue waves. In case you ever decide to traverse to that wonderful, beautiful far-off land, here are some important things to know. 

Like much of Europe, Northern Ireland is rich in history, culture, and natural beauty. It’s a great option if you want to avoid heavier tourism areas in Europe and hot summer weather. The cities are less overwhelming than bigger ones like London or Paris, which can be a refreshing break from crowds. It was also never hot when I went there, which is automatically more points in my book. Rain will be a given there, but the temperatures were really mild. 

Before you seriously consider going, you need to realize the significance of “Northern” in the country’s name. Many people dismiss it, but this is legitimately important. It does not simply reference the geographical location, but also a political and cultural separation. Yes, Northern Ireland is certainly Irish, but it remains a province of the United Kingdom, distinctly separating it from the rest of Ireland, known as the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland sits in the northeast corner of the island, bordered by the Irish Sea on the east and the North Channel and Atlantic on the north. Though smaller than the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland takes great pride in its culture and identification with the United Kingdom. Seriously, don’t leave off that “Northern.” I got corrected several times. ;) 

To start off my tour of must-see sights, let’s head to Belfast. As the country’s capital, it’s a major center for shopping and business with plenty of shops and bustling malls for all you avid shoppers. Also try to catch a ride on a double-decker bus…I didn’t and so wish I’d been able to! Belfast is also known for its construction of the Titanic. Large yellow cranes usually seen along the city skyline mark the famous building site. One of the best views is at the top of Victoria Square Shopping Mall. It has an observation deck enclosed by a glass top all the way around, so you’ll get a fantastic panoramic outlook over the whole city. 

One of the pictures I took from the top of that mall. See the yellow cranes?
Now that we’ve hit the capital, let’s get to what I like best. Don’t get me wrong – cities are great, but I get this weird satisfaction out of seeing beautiful countryside and places that are more hole-in-the-wall and off the beaten path. Belfast is a tourist center, but outside of it are numerous smaller urban areas, such as Hillsborough, Carrickfergus, and Newtownards. Hillsborough has some great walks and parks, as well as quaint shops and bakeries. Then there’s Hillsborough Castle, where Queen Elizabeth resides when she is in the country. That was a pretty neat tour. Carrickfergus sits very close to the bay, so you’ll get a fantastic view of the Irish Sea. The historic Carrickfergus Castle is also a popular spot there. Newtownards sits furthest east of these. Perhaps its most stunning attraction is Mount Stewart, home of the Marquesses of Londonderry. It’s a large estate with all the charm and grandeur of estates in Jane Austen’s novels, and the gardens are its crowning glory. Rightly so, they’re considered some of Europe’s finest. Flowers and trees of countless varieties burst with color and life all year round. I hardly knew what to take pictures of as I walked around, and that’s saying something! 

Just one example of the gorgeous flowers at Mount Stewart

The front of the Mount Stewart house. Doesn't it make you think of a Jane Austen movie? :)

Further southeast are the Mourne Mountains, one of my favorite places I saw there. The Mournes comprise one of Northern Ireland’s most scenic areas and have been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. For all you hikers, this is your dream spot. But even if you’re not an adept hiker, you can manage some of the places in the Mournes. Really. I did it, so I know just about anyone can. And the view from the top is always worth it! The highest peak is Slieve Donard, reaching an impressive 2782 feet. The Mourne Wall is also prominent, extending 22 miles through the Mournes and offering spectacular views of many mountains along its stretch.

A view at a midway point during our hike in the Mournes. So much beauty!
I’ve saved the best for last. Maybe the most breathtakingly beautiful area in Northern Ireland rests on its most northern coast. Known by many locals as simply “the north coast,” the areas that face the North Channel and Scotland boast some of the most spectacular scenery in all of Ireland. One is Giant’s Causeway, known for its unusual rock formations along the coastline. Sadly, I did not see this place for lack of time, but it’s on the top of my list for my next trip! The rocky coast is comprised of about 40,000 interlaced basalt columns, the aftermath of a prehistoric volcanic eruption. From there, you can take a coastal walk to the nearby Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and its adjacent island. The walk is pretty easy, and the beautiful view of the sea is unmatched. I took the latter part of this walk to get to Carrick-a-Rede, and it was one of those moments that I realized, “Holy cow, I’m actually in Northern Ireland right now.” Like Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede is one of Ireland’s primary sites of natural beauty. Though I was sad we had to skip Giant’s Causeway, I’d pick Carrick-a-Rede first again in a heartbeat. I think I was struggling to process all the magnificence when I was there. You walk across a rope bridge (don’t worry…it’s secure) from the mainland to a tiny island covered in heather and blindingly bright green grass. All around lies the sea, which usually has a rich blue shade as it crashes against the cliffs of the island and the surrounding coastline. If you look closely, you may catch a glimpse of Scotland across the sea! I’m not saying there’s nowhere more beautiful, but I am just saying that everywhere else I visit in my lifetime is going to have lots to live up to.

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and island

This is what you see as you're taking the coastal walk on the mainland after you've come back across the rope bridge and walking back to the main visitor area. Unreal, right?

That about does it for places to see, but I would also add that it’s important to let customs and traditions rub off on you, no matter where you’re visiting. That’s what makes you a seasoned traveler! I used to not drink tea at all, but now I can’t think of anything more relaxing than a hot cup of tea and a good book at night. Tea is one thing you need to prepare yourself for if you go to Northern Ireland. They drink it with everything. And I mean everything. Also, sheep. They are everywhere. It also may throw you if you ride in a car or bus and they start driving on the left side of the road. Don’t panic. It’s the correct side.

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