20 things to do in Northern Ireland
7 April 2014
With a rich history, stunning natural sights and lively cultural scene, there’s a lot to discover in Northern Ireland. Just listen to what these students have to say...
These are a few of our favourite sights, but take a look at Tourism Ireland and Discover Northern Ireland for more ideas – plus information about travel, accommodation and discounts for students.
Now read on and find out how you can join the 'craic' (fun)!
1. Marvel at Giant’s Causeway (pictured at the top of this page), a unique natural wonder. On the north coast of Northern Ireland, these 40,000 basalt columns are actually solidified lava from a volcanic eruption around 60 million years ago. It became the inspiration for many myths, and today there are stunning walking trails to explore.
2. Celebrate St Patrick’s Day in style! Attend a street party, learn traditional dance moves at a céilí, and paint yourself green – see our guide to St Patrick’s Day.
3. Pretend you’re in a fairy tale at Dunluce Castle. Perched on a cliff along the Causeway Coast, this is arguably the most dramatic location in Northern Ireland and oozes medieval drama. It’s also believed to have inspired the castle of Cair Paravel in The Chronicles of Narnia (writer CS Lewis was born in Belfast).
4. Did you know the Titanic was built in Belfast? Step back in time and stand at the bottom of the enormous Thompson Dry Dock, where the Titanic last sat on dry land. The pump-house is now an interactive visitor centre, but the dock itself still looks as it did in 1911. Alternatively, explore the huge Titanic Belfast exhibition venue, which includes recreations of the ship’s decks and cabins.
5. Recreate epic scenes from Game of Thrones. That’s right – the popular fantasy TV series is filmed in Titanic Studios in Belfast, and at many scenic locations across Northern Ireland. Find out which clifftops, castles, caves and forests have featured on the show here (warning: spoilers!).
6. Hit the road in County Antrim. As well as Giant’s Causeway, the coast road from Belfast to Derry/Londonderry will take you through Kilroot – once home to Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver's Travels – nine beautiful glens (valleys), rugged cliffs and many pretty seaside towns.
7. See and hear some of the world’s biggest names in music, comedy, theatre and dance at the Belfast International Arts Festival, or the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. You might spot the next big thing – famous musicians from Northern Ireland include Van Morrison, Snow Patrol, Ash and Two Door Cinema Club.
8. Learn about Ireland’s links to America at the Ulster Folk Park in Omagh, which tells the story of emigration from Ulster to America in the 18th and 19th centuries. The outdoor site offers a ‘living history’ experience, and puts on colourful events such as American Independence Day celebrations and the Appalachian and Bluegrass Music Festival.
9. Have a night out in style – across Northern Ireland, pubs are historic as well as sociable. This is the Crown Bar in Belfast, formerly the Crown Liquor Saloon, which dates back to 1826 – it was remodelled in 1898 with beautiful late Victorian features. Or try McHugh’s, which was built between 1710 and 1720!
10. Indulge in an Ulster fry – the traditional Irish fried breakfast of bacon, sausages, an egg, a tomato and perhaps mushrooms, plus Irish soda bread or potato farls (a type of bread made with potato). You might also get a vegetable roll, but watch out if you’re a vegetarian – this is actually made with peppery minced beef, flavoured with leek, carrot and onion. A cup of tea is compulsory.
11. Speak like a local with some slang and local dialect. People in Northern Ireland speak English, but you’ve probably noticed the accent and slang words are unique – even ‘Northern Ireland’ is often pronounced ‘Norn Iron’! There's no better way to get to know people than to join the ‘banter’ (light-hearted conversation and teasing jokes), so here are some words to start you off:
• Craic = Fun, gossip or enjoyable conversation. ‘Join the craic!’ is an invitation to join in, while ‘What’s the craic?’ means ‘What’s going on?’ or ‘Do you have any news?’
• Bout ye? = How are you?
• Grand = Good
• Banjaxed = Broken. For example, ‘my car is banjaxed’ – or ‘I’m banjaxed’ means ‘I’m very tired’
• Aye = Yes
• Wee = Small
• Ma = Mother
• Da = Father
12. Take a walk through the unusual Italian-inspired gardens of Mount Stewart, which were planted in the 1920s by Edith, Lady Londonderry.
13. Share folk tales and learn some Northern Irish legends. Some say St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, banished all the snakes from Ireland – and that’s why the country has no native snakes. There are also many myths about a giant named Fionn MacCumhaill, whose enemy was a Scottish giant named Benandonner. He built a bridge so they could meet and fight – it was destroyed, but what remains is Giant’s Causeway.
14. Admire Belfast’s iconic architecture. With styles ranging from Victorian Gothic to Italian Renaissance, 19th-century architect Sir Charles Lanyon made his mark with the Queen’s College building, the Crumlin Road Courthouse and Gaol, the Union Theological College, the Palm House in the Botanic Gardens, the Customs House, the Public Library in Royal Avenue and Belfast Castle.
15. Explore the walled city of Derry/Londonderry. This is one of the best preserved walled cities in Europe, and was also the inaugural UK City of Culture in 2013.
16. Learn archery or fencing at the annual events held at Carrickfergus Castle. The castle was originally built in 1177, and now houses historical displays including 17th- and 19th-century cannons.
17. Find out what ‘coasteering’ is – and if you’re feeling brave, try it! This mix of cliff jumping, rock climbing, cave exploring and bellyflopping is an adrenaline-fuelled way to see the Northern Ireland coast (try Coasteering NI or Clearsky Adventure). Alternatively, this is a great place for surfing, kitesurfing or wakeboarding.
18. Lose yourself (but don’t get lost!) in the Mourne Mountains, one of Northern Ireland’s most scenic areas and a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. From hill walking to cycling, there’s something for everyone here.
19. Visit Enniskillen, an island town where writers Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett went to school – and that now hosts the Happy Days festival, the world’s first annual festival celebrating Samuel Beckett.
20. Test your nerve on the rope bridge to Carrick-a-Rede island. A coastal footpath winds through stunning scenery to the bridge, which was originally built by fishermen over the 30m-deep and 20m-wide chasm. On the other side, take a deep breath and enjoy the view – you can see Scotland from here.