If you are traveling to the island of Ireland for a 1 week or 2 week vacation, why not dedicate a few days to explore the other country that shares the island – Northern Ireland. Now look, I understand that Northern Ireland (also called the north of Ireland) is a separate country than the republic of Ireland. That’s exactly why I recommend visiting it. It provides a fascinating and important contrast that is intricately connected to the modern cultural and political landscape of Ireland.
Thanks to its compact size, you can explore some of Northern Ireland’s highlights in just two days. The north of Ireland offers an abundance of experiences that appeal to all types of travelers. Whether you're a history enthusiast, a nature lover, or a movie buff, Northern Ireland has something special in store for you. From the legendary Giant's Causeway to the vibrant streets of Belfast, immerse yourself in the unique blend of ancient tales and modern charm.
This carefully curated travel guide will ensure that you make the most of your limited time, leaving you with unforgettable memories and a new perspective on this complicated place. In this blog post, I will help you uncover the six highlights of Northern Ireland that will make your experience truly remarkable. So fasten your seatbelts, pack your camera, and let's embark on a journey to Northern Ireland's must-see wonders.
6 Highlights of Northern Ireland to See in Two Days
Brief History of Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland is one of those places where you really need a basic understanding of the history to truly appreciate the destination. Much of its most impactful history is recent. For a quick history lesson, the North of Ireland is made up of six counties in the province of Ulster on the northern part of the island of Ireland. It is part of the United Kingdom (rather than Ireland) because the British government partitioned the island following Irish independence in 1922. Although the potential for Irish unity seems to be growing more popular, Northern Ireland remains under British control today,.
Throughout the late 20th century, the north of Ireland endured periods of political conflict known as "The Troubles." Essentially, this was a 30-year period of armed conflict between opposing sides. Most commonly understood as a sectarian conflict between Northern Ireland's Catholic and Protestant communities, the reality is a bit more complicated. Religious labels were often used as shorthand to denote sides of political strife between Unionists, who wanted to be part of the UK, and Republicans or Nationalists, who wanted to be united with the republic of Ireland (or at least independent from Britain).
Northern Ireland functioned much like other apartheid states, where Unionists/Protestants were given more access to public services, resources, land, jobs, and education than Republicans/Catholics. The IRA is the most well-known dissident republican group from this time period, often blamed for much of the violence. Again, this is a bit of a misnomer. You must consider the fact that the Unionist side was backed by the LITERAL BRITISH EMPIRE with an immensely vast pool of military, paramilitary and state power. This violence and division lasted for about 40 years until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought an end to most of the upheaval.
From its dark past of political unrest, Belfast (the capital of Northern Ireland) has transformed into a vibrant and welcoming city that offers visitors a diverse range of experiences. Despite its reputation from the past, Belfast is a safe place for tourists to visit. The Good Friday agreement remains in place to this day, although the scars between the different factions are visible if you look for them.
Belfast dates back to the early 17th century, but it grew into a prominent industrial center during the 18th and 19th centuries. Known for its shipbuilding and linen industries, Belfast was the largest city in the UK behind London for many years. Famous people from Belfast include C.S. Lewis, William Butler Yeats, and Kenneth Branagh.
You can just feel the history here. Belfast has been through many iterations, each seemingly more complex than the last. A few cultural highlights to explore in Belfast include the Belfast City Hall. It is a stunning example of Baroque Revival architecture. Pop into St. George's Market, a vibrant market showcasing local produce, crafts, and live music, perfect for a taste of Belfast's culture. Finally, learn more about the Troubles at Crumlin Road Gaol. This is a former prison turned museum, offering a fascinating glimpse into Belfast's troubled past.
Black Cab History Tour
One thing you absolutely must do in Belfast is a Black Cab political history tour. These tours talk about The Troubles. Belfast was ground zero for violence. If you are a sweet summer child such as myself, you might not know a whole lot about the history of the Troubles. Vicious attacks, car bombings, and arson occurred with moderate frequency throughout “The Troubles”, resulting in the deaths of hundreds. During this period, Belfast residents experienced an immense amount of violence as they fought against the apartheid state for equal rights and recognition under the law.
A Black Cab Tour is the perfect opportunity to learn from people who actually lived this history! We took our tour through Taxi Trax with Liam and it was one of my highlights from my entire week vacation in Ireland. I learned a tremendous amount because of Liam. Keep in mind, the perspective of the driver will deeply shape your experience and there are Black Cab tours run by former Unionists as well as Nationalists. You can probably gather my perspective on The Troubles from the intentional language choices I am using in this article.
Regardless, I found the Black Cab Tour of Belfast to be eye-opening, heartbreaking, and perspective shifting. I loved Liam’s candid honesty and personal anecdotes. As he told us about The Troubles, we visited several street art murals and historic sights. You will hear stories from the perspective of people who lived through this period, giving you an intimate and personal understanding of how this tumultuous time impacted real people. I was moved by the resilience and fortitude of Belfast residents. It was also super interesting to see how Irish organizers collaborate and support other resistance movements around the world, such as Palestine and BLM.
Located in the northeast corner of Belfast, the Titanic quarter is a 185-acre area that has been going through a massive amount of renovation in recent years. The most iconic ship ever built in the Belfast shipyard is, unsurprisingly, the RMS Titanic, which gives this area its namesake. The Titanic Quarter now stands as one of the largest urban-waterfront regeneration projects in Europe.
You’ll see old symbols from the harbor, like massive cranes and water canals, as well as new modern architecture and public art installations. Belfast has a thriving film industry and many of the major production houses have studios and filming projects going on here. It was actually the primary studio where “Game of Thrones” was filmed. It’s quite a cool area to wander around.
The most famous attraction in the Titanic Quarter is definitely the Titanic Belfast Museum. You’ll notice the striking museum immediately, whose spectacular and impressive architecture dominates this neighborhood. The 130,000 square foot Titanic Museum pays tribute to history’s most notorious shipwreck. The museum features 9 different interactive exhibits, inviting the visitor to hear stories about many of the people involved in the ship’s creation, launch, and sinking. Nearly 1 million tourists visit this museum each year, and it is a must-see attraction during a 24 hour stay in Belfast.
Perhaps the most well-known attraction in the north of Ireland is Giant’s Causeway. You’ve probably seen your favorite influencer visit this natural UNESCO World Heritage site – it is very popular on Instagram. Although the site itself was smaller than I expected, you can plan on spending about half a day at the Giant’s Causeway.
The Giant's Causeway is a product of volcanic activity that occurred over 60 million years ago. As molten lava flowed into the cold waters of the North Atlantic, it rapidly cooled and contracted, leading to the formation of the distinctive hexagonal columns. 40,000 naturally formed basalt columns jut out into the North Sea, interlocked like a jigsaw puzzle. This unique natural feature looks like a Jenga tower toppled into the ocean. It is also one of the rarest natural formations on Earth!
The site is managed by the National Trust and requires an entrance fee to access the visitor center and the causeway. There are hiking trails of various lengths and intensity that will take you down to the Giant’s Causeway. The most scenic hiking option will take about 2 hours round trip, and you’ll probably want another 30 minutes at the Giant's Causeway itself.
If hiking isn’t your thing, there are shuttle buses from the top of the cliff down to the Giant’s Causeway. They run about every 15 minutes during business hours, and it cost 2.50 GBP per person roundtrip. There are no bathrooms or buildings by the causeway, so I would recommend using those services before heading down. You can also grab lunch at one of the small restaurants or hotels at the top of the hill.
Game of Thrones Filming Locations
Driving to the coast from Belfast takes approximately one hour through rolling countryside and bucolic farmland scenery. Along the way, there are several filming locations featured on the hit HBO series “Game of Thrones”. In general, one of the highlights of traveling in Northern Ireland is seeing the various filming locations from the show – there were lots!
You might be interested in visiting a few of the famous sites along the way. The Dark Hedges Drive is especially noteworthy, thanks to the narrow road where beech trees on both sides come together to create the illusion of a tunneled hedge. In Game of Thrones, you might recognize this location as the place where Arya Stark escaped from King’s Landing. You can see a list of GoT filming locations in the North of Ireland here.
Perched precariously above a steep coastline cliff, Dunluce Castle is a picturesque Irish castle that dates back 1,000 years. It was first constructed by a Norman knight, but ownership of the castle changed hands many times over the following centuries. The castle's strategic location atop a rocky outcrop made it an ideal stronghold during times of conflict. However, in 1639 a devastating fire destroyed much of the castle's structure leaving it a stone relic of its once former glory.
Now Irish castles don't quite compare to the castles I am used to seeing in Germany, but I still found Dunluce Castle to be beautiful. The castle is open to visitors, and there is an entrance fee to help maintain and preserve the site. What remains of Dunluce Castle today showcases its once grand and imposing architecture. Visitors can explore the remnants of the residential towers, curtain walls, and courtyards that once comprised this medieval fortress. Its ruinous state has this haunting beauty about it.
It was mainly inhabited in the 16th and 17th centuries by the feuding McQuillan and MacDonnell clans. The Red Wedding scene in Game of Thrones was actually inspired by a real-life fight between these families in which one family ambushed the other at a shared meal, massacring them and taking control of the castle. It also served as the set for House Greyjoy's Pyke Castle in Game of Thrones.
Northern Ireland Coastline
I knew the Irish coast would be lovely, but I don’t think I understood just how beautiful it would be. It is rugged and raw with dense clouds broken through by bright bursts of sunshine and blue sky contrasted with a seemingly fluorescent green blanket of glass and low shrubbery. A truly stunning sight. The causeway coastal route in the North of Ireland is one of the most beautiful road trip routes imaginable.
To best appreciate it, I would strongly recommend hiring or renting a car. This will give you the ultimate flexibility to stop at every picturesque turn, hill, and cliff. There are plenty of day trip companies that offer round trip tours of the coast if you aren’t ready to navigate it on your own. We opted to go with a Wild Rovers tour and had a good experience. The buses were comfortable, and the pacing of the day trip was spot on, plus for an affordable price tag.
When to Visit Northern Ireland
The best time to visit Northern Ireland is during the late spring to early autumn (May to September). The weather is milder, with longer days and less rain. Plus, Belfast really comes alive with festivals, events, and outdoor activities.
Where to Stay in Northern Ireland
For Belfast, you can really lean into the theme at the Titanic Hotel. It is a perfect choice for design lovers because this hotel is a stunner. The luxury boutique hotel sits inside the converted shipbuilding office of Harland & Wolff, the Belfast based manufacturer that built ships in the 19th & 20th century–including, you guessed it, the Titanic.
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