Often overlooked in favour of the Republic or the larger isle of Britain, Northern Ireland has quickly and quietly become one of Europe’s most captivating, beautiful, and fulfilling getaways. Stepping out from under the shadow of the Troubles, the country now offers stable and bustling cities, expansive wild regions, and picturesque coastline – all in a small and easy to navigate package. We’ll cover where to go in Northern Ireland, what to do, and how much it’s likely to cost you.
How do I get around?
However you choose to travel, you’ll find that Northern Ireland is relatively easy to navigate. Roads are in good condition and renting a car offers a great way to explore the country at your own pace – while bussing is also an option. Beyond that trains can get you between major cities and towns without much hassle while budget airlines are always available if you’re just looking to fly into Belfast.
When should I go?
Like the rest of the British Isles, you can plan a trip to Northern Ireland any time of the year – just expect it to be cold and wet in the winter. On that note, there will be a lot of rain no matter when you go. Despite this, visiting in the summer months is always your best bet for an enjoyable trip. If you’re interested in one of the many festivals held in the country, check the relevant schedule and plan your trip around that.
Where to go in Northern Ireland
If there’s a place that serves as a clear example of Northern Ireland’s rejuvenation, it’s Belfast. Since the late 90’s, the capital has exploded in terms of development, culture, and tourism.. The young population (nearly half of the country is under 30) ensures the bars and clubs are always full, helping the nightlife earn its spot among the UK’s best. In addition, regular festivals and events are sure to entertain people of all ages. You can even relive the heyday of industry by visiting the famous shipyards where the Titanic was built. Of course, reminders of the city’s troubled past can still be seen from numerous sectarian murals to large fences surrounding pubs and neighbourhoods. Still, Belfast has become a vibrant place and one that’s arguably a more worthwhile (and cheaper) alternative to Dublin.
Whatever you call it, Northern Ireland’s second largest city shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s not as developed as Belfast, however the fantastic setting more than makes up for that. There are also historic sights all over the place, ranging from the Troubles to the Viking age. Cultural happenings, friendly locals, cozy pubs – you’ll find them all within easy reach. Having been at the centre of events that shaped the history of Northern Ireland, the city now seeks to be at the forefront of its bright future.
The Antrim Coast
To truly discover the natural beauty of Northern Ireland, there’s one place you have to go – the Antrim Coast. Travel north from Belfast and you’ll come across a mouthwatering collection of towns, castles, and natural wonders. Foremost among them is the Giant’s Causeway – a mass of unique rock columns extending into the sea. The seaside resort of Portrush is a good base from which to jump up and down the coast, with enough beaches, restaurants, and bars to keep you occupied. Ballycastle is a charming harbour town set amongst picturesque cliffs and glens. Carrickfergus is home to one of Britain’s most impressive castles. You can even stop by Bushmills, home of the oldest whiskey distillery in the world. No matter how you explore the coast, trekking or driving, it is sure to be an altogether eventful and scenic trip.
Glens of Antrim
Before you head elsewhere however, County Antrim still has more to offer. These glacier carved valleys are Northern Ireland’s own unique answer to the Scottish Highlands. Towns and villages such as Cushendall and Glenarm dot the rugged landscape, serving as worthy staging points for exploring the region. Take the Ulster Way on the coast or head further inland along the Moyle Way. Either way, the trails are pleasant and the views are staggering.
It may be well known by virtue of one of Ireland’s most famous songs, but there’s a lot more to County Down than just the stars. From the rugged Mourne Mountains to seaside Newcastle, this region offers both secluded countryside and luxury tourist developments in equal measure. Golf courses and high-end restaurants are scattered amongst the lonely peaks, valleys, and plains of this enchanting land. Whether you want to sample the local flavours by way of food or hiking, it’s all only a short trip south from Belfast.
More sparsely populated and rural than County Down, Armagh still offers up enough natural beauty and towns to justify a voyage. The pace is slow, but provides a great comedown after the excitement of Belfast. The city at the centre (also called Armagh) is home to a great many religious institutions, making it the ecclesiastical capital of Northern Ireland. You can also visit the shores of Lough Neagh (the British Isle’s largest lake), as County Armagh is one of the five counties it borders.
How much does it cost?
A round trip flight between Pearson and Belfast can differ a great deal in price, though they generally start around $800 Canadian. All things considered, the price isn’t bad for a transatlantic journey, though you still might want to look into flights to Dublin or London if you plan on exploring the rest of the British Isles as well. Prices will depend on what season you’re going, who you fly with, etc. Be sure to shop around for the best possible rate, since it can make a big difference.
Unlike the Republic (which uses the euro), Northern Ireland uses the pound as its official currency. Prices are equitable to the rest of the UK, so you can expect daily expenses to range anywhere between $150 to $220 on a mid-range budget. That being said, depending on what you’re doing and how frugal you are, you can get by pretty cheaply. Pubs often offer meals for less than 10 quid and some sights and activities will have minimal costs. Be warned, the exchange rate between the Canadian dollar and the Pound sterling is not great for Canadian travelers right now, but this is usually the case with the pound’s value.
Health and Safety
Northern Ireland (and the United Kingdom as a whole) is a generally safe and secure country. There is no nationwide advisory according to the Government of Canada, and normal security precautions are recommended throughout. While the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 brought an end to the larger conflict, there are still sporadic incidents of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland perpetrated by renegade paramilitary groups. Occasional additional security measures such as baggage checks may be enforced. In addition, there is a possibility of civil unrest – particularly during largely Protestant parades. Use caution during these events (generally they take place in the summer) and follow the advice of authorities. As always, you should also be aware of petty crime in tourist and urban areas. Overall though, there are many reasons Northern Ireland is becoming a popular escape for many – and one main one is increased safety. As long as you use your best judgment, you should be fine.
These are just a few examples of where to go in Northern Ireland, there’s tons more to see and do. If you think somewhere else should be on the list, let us know in the comments. Check out our Country of the Week for more general information about Northern Irish history and culture as well as our Currency Spotlight for information on the pound.
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