Northern Ireland is a beautiful corner of the Emerald Isle and has more to offer visitors than may first meet the eye. Uncover the top 10 things to do in Northern Ireland here so you can start planning your visit and discovering all the best things to see and do in the region.
Top Things to Do in Northern Ireland
The northeast corner of Ireland is where you will find Northern Ireland. Although officially a country within the United Kingdom containing six of the overall 32 counties on Ireland, Northern Ireland is often combined with a trip to the Republic by many visitors to the island of Ireland.
If you are looking for the top things to do in Northern Ireland or have been wondering what the top 10 tourist attractions in Northern Ireland are, then you are going to enjoy learning about them below!
Read my post to understand why there is a difference between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
One of the top 10 places to visit in Northern Ireland is Belfast. As the capital city, Belfast is a city that has undergone many changes in the last few decades. With the peace after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the biggest changes have occurred, making it more appealing and popular with tourists flocking to the Emerald Isle.
One of the best places in the city, and top places to visit in Northern Ireland, is the area known as the Titanic Quarter. The city is famous for having been the birthplace of the famous liner and the shipyard in which she was built has been transformed into one of the top ten places to visit in Northern Ireland.
You can visit the Titanic Museum, the Titanic Studios, and visit the SS Nomadic, the last remaining White Star liner.
Also a must in Belfast is Belfast City Hall (pictured) and the Botanic Gardens. Tours of City Hall are available, and you should make time to visit the Victorian greenhouses in the Botanic Gardens, especially the 1839 Palm House.
There is also the Ulster Museum to visit, Stormont where the Northern Ireland Assembly meets, and the grounds of Belfast Castle are a lovely place for a quiet wander, although the castle itself is not open to the public.
One of the best things to do in Belfast is to take a Black Cab Tour of the city to discover the political murals of the city. During the Troubles between 1968 and 1998, many political murals were created to denote political loyalties and affiliations. Today the amazing artwork remains as a testament to the troubled times, which will hopefully remain in the past.
No matter your interests, there is sure to be plenty to do in Belfast.
One of the best things to do in Northern Ireland is to head south from Belfast to visit the Mourne Mountains. Located in County Down, these low mountains, whose peaks rarely surpass 600m in height, attract thousands of visitors every year.
Although they might not be considered one of the top tourist destinations in Northern Ireland, should you choose to visit, you won’t be disappointed. They are hugely popular with walkers and hikers thanks to the fact that there is only one road that crosses the Mourne Mountains. This road was only built in the 19th century and until then the mountains could only be cross on foot or circumvented by sea.
The Mourne Mountains are one of the best places in Northern Ireland to get away from the crowds and enjoy nature. There are a few forest parks to visit including the Tollymore Forest Park and the Castlewellan Forest Park.
You can also see the Mourne Wall, a spectacular drystone wall that was erected between 1904 and 1922 to enclose the catchment area of the Rivers Kilkeel and Annalong and prevent livestock from reaching them. The wall is 2m high, 1m thick and 35m long.
The Silent Valley Reservoir is another great place in the mountains for a stroll. As well as the walks and trails there is an exhibition about the dam’s construction.
There is no national park in Northern Ireland but there have been calls for the Mourne Mountains to be converted to Northern Ireland’s first one, which would make it a seventh national park in Ireland.
Along with Belfast, one of the most popular places in Northern Ireland for visitors is Derry or Londonderry. As the second-largest city in Northern Ireland, the city was given a makeover in 2013 for its turn in being the UK City of Culture with the Peace Bridge being built and the waterfront being redeveloped.
Derry is a walled city and one of the best things to do is to walk along the circumference of the 17th-century city walls. You can get a feel for the city and enjoy unparalleled views of Derry. These are among Ireland’s only, largely intact city walls and there are four original gates and three additional gates to pass.
There are also a few museums worth visiting in the city including the Tower Museum where you can learn about the city’s history, and the Siege Museum where visitors can learn about the 1688 siege of Derry by Jacobite troops.
Outside the city walls of Derry, you can walk the Peace Bridge (pictured), visit St Columba’s Church, and also see the 12 murals depicting key events in the Troubles including Bloody Sunday.
Note, the city’s (and county’s) official name is Londonderry, having acquired the prefix of London in 1613 after it was selected as a major Plantation project, although it is most commonly referred to as Derry in everyday speech.
Discover the Causeway Coastal Route
If you are looking for things to do on the north coast of Northern Ireland and the east, then driving the Causeway Coastal Route is a must. This coastal route is approximately 130 miles long (210km) and stretches north from Belfast and then west to Derry.
This route includes some of the top 10 attractions in Northern Ireland including the Giant’s Causeway (discussed below), the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Dunseverick which has waterfalls that flow directly into the sea, the Mussenden Temple (pictured), and the beautiful seaside town of Portrush which hosts one of the best beaches in Ireland.
The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is a bridge that hangs 30m above the Atlantic Ocean and spans the 20m chasm between the mainland and Carrick-a-Rede Island. It was erected to provide access to the tiny island. It is hugely popular and, as one of the top things to see in Northern Ireland, a ticketed system was introduced giving visitors a one-hour slot to enjoy the bridge.
A unique sight to see in Northern Ireland is the Mussenden Temple, located not far from Portstewart. Built in the late 18th century by the eccentric Earl of Bristol as a memorial to his cousin, this temple is quite unique, perched on the headland with its domed rotunda. Originally designed to be used as a library, it is now maintained as a tourist attraction by the National Trust.
There are lots of pretty coastal towns along the way and exploring the Causeway Coastal Route, both the east and north coast could easily fill more than a few days.
One of the top tourist attractions in Northern Ireland that is usually found on people’s Ireland bucket list is the Giant’s Causeway, located along the Causeway Coast to the north. This spectacular rock formation is Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe.
The mainly hexagonal basalt stone columns were formed around 60 million years ago as a result of volcanic fissure eruption. After the molten basalt pushed through the chalk beds, rapid cooling occurred resulting in contraction, causing horizontal fractures which formed what we see today.
However, there is a legend associated with the Giant’s Causeway. Legend has it that an Irish giant, Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) was challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant, Benandonner. Fionn built the causeway to reach Scotland to accept the challenge. However, when Fionn realised his opponent was much larger than he, his wife disguised Fionn as her baby. When the Scottish giant saw the baby, he believed that the Irish giant must be a giant among giants and fled back to Scotland, tearing up the causeway as he went so that Fionn cannot pursue him. There are identical basalt columns at the Scottish Isle of Staffa, which may have helped influence the legendary tale.
At the Giant’s Causeway, there is a visitor centre where you can learn more about the formation of the columns. While the centre is free to enter, you must pay for parking which gives you entry to the centre. From the visitor centre, it is a 10 to 15-minute walk to the Causeway itself.
So, if you are looking to visit one of the top ten tourist attractions in Northern Ireland, then the Giant’s Causeway is a must.
Another one of the top things to visit in Northern Ireland is Rathlin Island. Lying 6km off-shore from Ballycastle on the Causeway Coast, the island which is L-shaped is a great place to visit if you’d like to try and spot seals or nesting birds in Spring or Summer.
The island is small and best visited on a day trip from Ballycastle or for an overnight stay. On the island, there is a Boathouse Visitor Centre where you can learn more about the island. There are also two lighthouses, among the best lighthouses in Ireland, and plenty of walking trails too.
The island also has a cave called Bruce’s Cave where it is said that Scottish hero Robert the Bruce spent time before returning to Scotland to defeat the English. His cave is located beneath the East Lighthouse at the north-eastern tip of the island.
Glen’s of Antrim
One of the most beautiful places to go in Northern Ireland is the area between Cushendun and Glenarm, known as the Glen’s of Antrim. The glacier valleys which form the Glens dissect a high plateau of black basalt lava and are among the best things to do in County Antrim.
The Glen’s of Antrim is an area of natural beauty and there are several walking trails in the region including the Ulster Way which stays close to the coast and the Moyle Way which runs inland across the plateau and includes the Glenariff Forest Park, which is a must-visit in this part of Northern Ireland.
The Glenariff Forest Park is home to one of the best things to see in Northern Ireland, the Ess-na-Larach Waterfall, one of the best Irish waterfalls. This and other waterfalls are dotted through the Glens, carved by nine rivers that run from the Antrim Mountains to the sea.
As with the whole of Ireland, some of the best things to see in Northern Ireland are its many castles. There are over 40 castles, some of which are ruins, some of which are intact, and no matter where you are in the region, you are sure to stumble upon one of them.
One of the most visited lies along the northern part of the Causeway Coast, Dunluce Castle (pictured). This 13th-century castle is mostly ruined, as a result of a fire in the 1600s. However, it is often visited as part of a trip along the Causeway Coast. Guided tours are offered during the summer and it is a picture-worthy castle sitting atop its craggy basalt outcrop.
A visit to Belfast Castle (already mentioned) is worth doing if you are in the city. Although the castle itself is not open to the public, its grounds are a lovely place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
Carrickfergus Castle is another castle to visit in Northern Ireland. It is a well-preserved Norman castle dating back to the 12th century and located on the north shore of Lough Belfast in the town of the same name.
Other castles to visit in Northern Ireland include
- Dunseverick Castle (history dating back to the 6th century)
- Enniskillen Castle (16th century)
Castles are among the top things to see and do in Northern Ireland, so make sure to add one to your itinerary. Find a complete list of Northern Ireland castles here.
One of the top ten things to do in Northern Ireland is to pay a visit to the Gobbins. This cliff path at Islandmagee along the Causeway Coastal Route has tunnels, caves, and bridges passing lots of birdlife, which makes it a must-see in Northern Ireland. You may even be lucky enough to spot dolphins in the Irish Sea.
First opened in 1902, after being created by Irish railway engineer Berkeley Deane Wise when the new railway made the area accessible to visitors, it is a popular place to go if you enjoy walking and hiking and have a good level of fitness.
The Gobbins area is accessible by guided tour and visitors will enjoy a 2.5-hour tour along the path. Booking in advance is a must. There is a visitor centre from where tours begin, a playground, a café, and a souvenir shop.
If you are looking for something unusual to do in Northern Ireland, then make sure to tackle the Gobbins.
Games of Thrones locations
One of the fun things to do in Northern Ireland is to embark on a trail to visit Game of Thrones locations in the country. There were about 25 filming locations around Northern Ireland for the famous TV show and many people flock to the region to visit some of them.
One of the top attractions in Northern Ireland when it comes to Game of Thrones locations is the Dark Hedges. Used as the Kingsroad in the show, the Dark Hedges is a road lined with entwined beech trees that were planted in the 18th century by the Stuart family as the formal entrance to their estate.
Other Game of Thrones locations to visit include:
- Cushenden Caves, where Melisandre gave birth to her ‘shadow baby’.
- Ballintoy Harbour, which featured as the Free Cities where Varys was born, and as the coastal place where Theon Greyjoy arrives back to the Iron Islands.
- Larrybane Quarry, which was used to introduce Brienne of Tarth when she fought Ser Loras Tyrell in front of King Renly.
- Castle Ward, used as part of Winterfell.
If you are a Game of Thrones fan, then one of the best activities to do in Northern Ireland is to seek out these filming locations.
If you’ve been wondering what to do in Northern Ireland, whether you are visiting the Emerald Isle or looking to explore more of the island you live on, then hopefully this list of the 10 best places to visit in Northern Ireland has given you some ideas. From famous things in Northern Ireland to perhaps a few lesser-known places, Northern Ireland has so much to offer visitors to this corner of the Emerald Isle. Where will you visit next?
Cath is an Irish expat now living in Portugal. She regularly returns to Ireland to explore more of the wonderful island with her family.