Northern Ireland Holiday Planning Guide
Northern Ireland today is a rejuvenated, dynamic region attracting increasing amounts of tourism. Belfast, the region's biggest urban center and capital, has become a hip city with vibrant nightlife and a thriving gourmet culinary scene that provides an extensive list of indulgent things to do in Northern Ireland. The region's renowned coastline, featuring the World Heritage-listed Giant's Causeway, serves as an attractive holiday destination for hikers, cyclists, photographers, and other adventurers. Northern Ireland has seen more than its fair share of political and economic unrest, but the people of this region remain proud of their cultural and artistic heritage, providing visitors with a warm hospitality hard to find almost anywhere else in the world.
Places to Visit in Northern Ireland
Regions of Northern IrelandCounty Antrim
: Home to the World Heritage Site Giant's Causeway, this county also has gained attention because of its whiskey and adrenaline-pumping activities along the coast, like rock climbing and rugged hiking with trails overlooking the sea.County Down
: Known for its mountainous terrain and world-class hiking trails, County Down represents an affluent area dotted with farms, private mansions, golf clubs, and restaurants.County Londonderry
: Citizens of this region are particularly proud of their history, which is reflected in ancient walls and ruins here as well as in the lore shared by locals famous for their witty storytelling. Don't be afraid to sit and talk a while on your Northern Ireland trip.
Cities in Northern IrelandBelfast
: Because many tourists choose to visit Dublin, Belfast remains largely undiscovered. Locals are pleasantly friendly toward visitors and very welcoming in the many hotels, pubs, and restaurants, and the city offers a plethora of attractions like museums and historical sites to visit on your Northern Ireland holiday.Derry
: Located beside the River Foyle, Derry represents one of the oldest inhabited places on the island with a rich history and a fascinating series of defensive walls. The city is geared toward young travelers, with a booming nightlife and plenty of bars, nightclubs, and live music.
Things to Do in Northern Ireland
Popular Northern Ireland Tourist AttractionsGiant's Causeway
: Listed as a World Heritage Site and the country's fourth-greatest natural wonder, this amazing area is made of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns formed by ancient volcanic eruptions, with columns rising to various heights.Causeway Coastal Route
: Trailing around the northern Irish coast, this road serves as a path to several popular Northern Ireland places to visit like Giant's Causeway, offering stunning natural views along the wayCity Walls
: Dating back to the 17th century, Derry's medieval defensive walls remain the only completely intact ones in Ireland, allowing people to walk around the top with great views of the Old Town.Crumlin Road Gaol
: Last used in 1996, this Victorian-era prison now opens its doors to visitors wanting to see the jail and cells where men, women, and children were forced to pay for their crimes.Carrickfergus Castle
: This castle once played an important role in defending Ireland against the Scots, English, French, and even other Irish until 1928; it remains as one of the best preserved medieval structures in the country.SS Nomadic
: Board the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world, where visitors can learn about 100 years of maritime history from the ship's past and discover its role in World War I and World War II. You can tour the ship's interior.National Trust - Carrick-a-Rede
: Visit a thrilling Northern Ireland tourist attraction at this bridge suspended between two cliffs that leads to the island of Carrick-a-rede, which was once used during fishermen's salmon runs.Belfast Zoo
: Housing more than 1,000 animals across 150 species, this zoo includes a rainforest environment and up-close views of exotic animals like Barbary lions, red kangaroos, and Asian elephants.Dunluce Castle
: Dating back to the 13th century, this medieval castle allows visitors to tour the ruins of the great hall and climb the towers for fantastic views of the surrounding coastline.Glenariff Forest Park
: Get into nature on your Northern Ireland holiday at this park featuring waterfalls, forest and riverside trails, abundant local wildlife, and a camping area for those who would like to stay longer.
Planning a Northern Ireland Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Northern Ireland with Kids
There are lots of Northern Ireland places to see that are appropriate for kids, starting in Belfast
. Not only does the city offer plenty of shopping and dining choices, but look for entertainment venues for cinemas and live musical shows. A favorite way to explore is to tour the city by bike, or on foot if you'd rather, to learn all about the history and visit quirky shops for souvenirs.
In Northern Ireland's countryside, villages dot the hills, where you can take time to ask the locals about history and lifestyle or visit some of the region's notable natural features. Or look for the medieval ruins and explore old castles.
Things to Do in Northern Ireland with Kids
Starting in Belfast
, check out the Belfast Zoo
, an exciting home for hundreds of animals and exotic species from all over the world. Get up close and personal with elephants, lions, lemurs, and more, while you learn from zookeepers about the animals' routines and homelands. Along the Causeway Coastal Route
you'll have the chance to admire natural scenes like red sand beaches, waterfalls, and towering coastal cliffs. This road leads you to numerous popular Northern Ireland tourist attractions like Dunluce Castle
, a medieval structure where kids can explore old halls and towers and learn about the area's medieval history. Another castle to look for is Carrickfergus Castle
, one of the best preserved medieval structures in the area and a key to defense throughout history.
Don't miss the jaw-dropping attraction of Giant's Causeway
, a geological wonder. Formed by the upheaval from an ancient volcano eruption, some 40,000 octagonal columns rise up at varying heights and lock together, creating a veritable playground resembling an alien planet. Children not afraid of heights will enjoy the thrill of crossing National Trust - Carrick-a-Rede
, a bridge spanning two cliffs leading to an island.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Northern Ireland
Many hotels, tourist attractions, and transportation services offer discounted--and sometimes free-- tickets for children, so be sure to ask at attraction entrances. Keep an eye out for sweets shops during your Northern Ireland itinerary, as young travelers can often be lured with a treat of Irish candies and cakes.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Northern Ireland
Cuisine of Northern Ireland
Food is simple in Northern Ireland. rarely fancy or exotic. Expect to have porridge with tea or coffee for breakfast and another small meal at dinnertime. Lunch is the main meal in the region, with lots of meat-based dishes featuring beef, pork, chicken, or lamb often paired with onions, cabbage, peas, carrots, or--most commonly--potatoes. Another favorite food after Northern Ireland sightseeing is stew, which features mutton, potatoes, and onions. Fish and chips are a great, quick substitute for those in a hurry.
Don't miss the chance for an Irish drink, and try the famed Guinness black beer during your trip.
Shopping in Northern IrelandBelfast
boasts the title of 17th best high street in the United Kingdom. with great retail shopping for fashion, jewelry, housewares, and more. For handcrafted wares, check out County Londonderry
and look for the small workshops offering home decor, linen, toys, and sweets.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Northern Ireland
History of Northern Ireland
The area of North Ireland first gained importance as the base of the Irish war of Resistance against the English in the 16th century. Settlers from England and Scotland began colonizing the area when Oliver Cromwell conquered the whole of Ireland. Battles and disputes rose up between the Irish and English, resulting in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when Protestant King William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James, and England claimed Ireland.
Not until the 20th century did the area organize the Ulster Volunteer Force as a resisting force against Dublin's power over the north. The formation began an arduous campaign against the British Army, during which a partition to separate the north was considered by the Irish government, but ultimately the decision was delayed due to World War I. Years later, the partition was accepted. Sir Edward Carson, the Ulster Unionist leader, is still considered the original founder of Northern Ireland, under whom the first Northern Ireland Parliament opened in 1921.
Beginning in the 1960s, The Troubles started a string of violent years between Northern Ireland's nationalists and unionists, caused by the disputed status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and the discrimination against the nationalists. Over 3,000 people died as a result, and the autonomous regional government for Northern Ireland was suspended in 1972. A vote was held to decide if Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom or be part of a united Ireland, in which the results almost unanimously supported staying in the United Kingdom, and a declaration of ceasefire followed.
Nonetheless, disputes and public disorder still occur today between nationalists and unionists. The conflict remains one of the longest disputes in history after 1,000 years.
Customs of Northern Ireland
Northern Irish are exceptionally friendly and many do not mind talking with you about their country's history and lifestyles. Especially in Belfast
, you may be welcomed like an old friend amongst strangers. However, locals are reluctant to talk about politics, religion, or economics with outsiders. Avoid talking about these taboo subjects unless the conversation takes place with friends or with people with similar views.
Holidays & Festivals in Northern Ireland
As you might guess, Saint Patrick's Day is the most celebrated holiday in Northern Ireland. If you are fortunate enough to visit during this time, be sure to catch the lively parades that occur in cities and small towns alike and join in the meals and drinking in pubs.
Another holiday to be mindful of is Orange Day, a controversial pride parade of the Orange Order on July 12, which celebrates the victory of Prince William of Orange over King James II. Be wary when enjoying these festivities, though, as the tension sometimes provokes violence from Nationalists.
Northern Ireland Travel Tips
Climate of Northern Ireland
You may want to travel to Northern Ireland sometime between February and August, with April considered the best month for travel because of its pleasant, mild temperatures. If you plan to travel during the warmest months, July and August, keep in mind that the area receives about 18 hours of sunlight every day. Always carry rain gear during your Northern Ireland trip.
Transportation in Northern Ireland
Transportation links are tourist-friendly and provide convenient methods for exploring the country, and often you can find discount passes. Ask for a joint pass for both bus and rail routes to easily view all destinations on your Northern Ireland itinerary without having to buy multiple tickets. If you need to reach more rural areas not covered by typical bus routes, try the Rambler Bus Services, a company designed to make scenic rural areas of Northern Ireland more accessible.
Languages of Northern Ireland
Locals in cities and in the countryside speak English, so it is easy to get around here. Some natives still speak the native language of Gaelic. This native tongue largely disappeared during the Great Famine of the 1840s, when many speakers died. Gaelic today is seen as the language of the poor.
Tipping in Northern Ireland
Restaurants typically include a 10 to 15 percent service charge in the bill; if it is not included, an appropriate tip in this range is expected. Tipping hotel staff and taxi drivers is not essential, but they will gladly accept a small tip. Always tip in cash to be sure the person receives the full gratuity.