Living in England, I’m trying to visit as many European countries as possible. Surprisingly, after almost two years, I realized I hadn’t yet made it to Ireland OR Northern Ireland! There are so many places to visit, and so little time. Ireland and Belfast was somewhere my mom was interested in visiting as well, so we went during her visit. I’ll start by saying I didn’t love Dublin. But that’s okay because this post isn’t about Dublin, it’s about Belfast and Northern Ireland. My reason for bringing up Dublin is because we visited Dublin and Belfast on the same trip, and we all loved Belfast and the Giant’s Causeway much more than Dublin! I will say, the weather could have been partially to blame – cold, rainy, and windy isn’t the best way to see a city.
Since we wanted to hit to Ireland and Northern Ireland in the same trip, we flew Ryanair from London Stansted to Dublin, and then rented a car to drive to Belfast. We actually drove to Belfast as soon as we landed, and visited Dublin second (which I will talk about in a separate post). It was an easy and beautiful two hour drive to Belfast. The Irish countryside is so stunning, and truly made of every shade of green! The drive was enjoyable because of the views, and of course the sheep. I absolutely love all the sheep in the United Kingdom. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Belfast City Centre. Since we had a rental car, we required a hotel with adequate parking nearby. The Holiday Inn was nice and perfect for our needs; it was in walking distance to sites in the city and also had a good breakfast. It’s pretty much your typical Holiday Inn. I would stay here again if I went back to Belfast.
We arrived in Belfast in the early afternoon. After checking in, the first thing we did was head straight to the market. We knew we wouldn’t have another opportunity to do so, and wanted to make sure we got there before it closed. The market is only open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. St. George’s Market is an award winning market that has been around since the 1890s! There are a plethora of vendors, and many amazing places to eat. It’s a great place to go for lunch, as there are so many choices – everything from pasta, falafels, burgers, paella, sweet treats, and much more! We ate a late lunch there, and browsed the stalls. It’s definitely a must do when in Belfast; you won’t be disappointed. And you won’t leave hungry. I opted for a falafel wrap, as I often do in the markets, and it was so fresh and delicious! My mom and husband had a pasta dish that involved rolling the fresh pasta in a wheel of cheese; it was also incredible.
We spent the afternoon walking around Belfast and browsing shops. Belfast is a smaller European city, but there are a lot of shops, particularly if you are looking for souvenirs. It was quite common to see whiskey themed gifts, as well as jewellery with Celtic knots, and other “Green” and Irish gifts. We knew that Monday would be a full day with our drive along the coast to the Giant’s Causeway, so we tried to visit a few places even though we were tired from traveling. We stopped by Belfast Cathedral, also known as St. Anne’s Cathedral. It is beautiful both outside and inside, and much more modern than most cathedrals I’ve seen. After the Cathedral, we spent some time wandering around shops and enjoying the city. One thing we learned – be sure to book for dinner. We had found some great places online that we wanted to try, but they were fully booked and we wished we had planned ahead to make a reservation.
Our next day was a full day spent traveling along the Northern Irish Coastline. The beauty of the coastline was one of the top reasons we decided to go to Belfast. Since we rented a car, we were on our own timeline, and able to stop whenever we wanted. There are several tour buses that do day trips from Belfast. Those are worth looking into if you are traveling solo or afraid of driving on the left side of the road. Since we live in England, that’s not a problem for us. Our first stop of the day was a village called Carrickfergus to visit Carrickfergus Castle. The castle is smaller than some we’ve seen in Europe, but it’s inexpensive and it was fun to visit and walk around. In hindsight, I would’ve saved it for the trip back to town, and would’ve headed straight to the Giant’s Causeway to get there before the crowds.
From Carrickfergus Castle we drove along the coast, stopping several times to see sheep. One of my favorite things about the United Kingdom is all the sheep! They are so freaking cute, and it was lambing season so there were so many precious baby lambs. I swear there is nothing better than see them and hearing their cute noises. Ireland is literally so green, and then you see these adorable dots of white fluff amongst the green grass. It’s perfect. If you love sheep, Ireland is the best place for you. And so is England. Aside from the endless farms of sheep, the drive offered spectacular views of the coast. There were several places to stop and we took our time exploring. Again, in hindsight, I would’ve headed STRAIGHT to the Giant’s Causeway, and done all the stopping on the way back. Usually when we drive, it’s a game to see if we can beat the GPS, but with all the winding roads, turns, and coastline views, it was hard to speed up the journey. Definitely allow yourself plenty of time, and consider the amount of daylight available if you’re not going in spring or summer.
We decided to stop at Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge before heading to the Giant’s Causeway. The bridge connects the mainland to a tiny island, and was first built by salmon fishermen in 1775. They used to cast their nets off the bridge. The bridge is currently operated by the National Trust, so if you’re members, it is free! Of course our National Trust membership expired a few months prior, but it’s still definitely worth it to pay for admission. If you aren’t a member it’s 9 pound for adults and 4.50 for children. Definitely worth it; the property is spectacular with gorgeous views of the cliffs, and of course crossing the bridge is great fun (and totally safe!). They make sure only one person crosses at a time, and the bridge is steady when you cross. Just don’t look down if you’re afraid of heights. It seems silly to pay money so you can stand in line just to cross a bridge that basically leads to nothing, but it is fun and on the way to the Giant’s Causeway. If you’re really pressed for time, you can skip this, but I’d recommend going if you are able.
After the rope bridge experience, we headed to the main event! The Giant’s Causeway was one of the primary reasons I wanted to visit Northern Ireland. To be honest, as spectacular as it was, I wish I had gone a little later in the season so it would have been warmer and perhaps sunnier – but alas, this is the United Kingdom, and it’s not known for sunshine. Despite the cold winds, and on and off misting rain, it was still a great day for hiking along the coast. Definitely wear layers and bring warm clothes, because the weather in Northern Ireland literally changes as you round the corner. I was glad I had my winter hat and gloves (though the gloves made taking pictures more difficult). The Giant’s Causeway is also run by the National Trust (again, if we only had our membership still!). There is a large car park, and then a building where you get tickets. If you aren’t a member it is 12.50 for adults and 6.25 for kids. The admission price includes an audio guide, which was actually interesting. I hung with the audio guide for most of the tour until my ears got cold and the wind made it hard to hear. Besides, there is only so much you can learn about volcanoes and rocks. I reached my limit and just wanted to take pictures. Supposedly, you can walk to the rocks for free, but you can’t park in their car park unless you pay. I’m not really sure how that works, but it’s worth looking into if you’re on a budget. We walked down, stopping at certain points for the audio guide, but then took the bus back up because it was cold, and we were DONE.
Here’s a little that I learned about the Giant’s Causeway. I’m in no way a geologist or any kind of scientist, so fact check this yourself if you truly came here to learn. The Giant’s Causeway is a result of ancient volcanic fissure, and consists of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns. It’s pretty cool how they fit together and are different heights. The Irish have a legend that the causeway was created by a giant named Finn MacCool (thus the name), but I’m fairly certain it was science that created it. You can google it if you’re undecided. Regardless, the columns are impressive, and a must do if you’re traveling to Belfast. You can also hike on the cliffs above; if we had more time, we would’ve done it but it was a long day and the weather just wasn’t cooperating.
There are a couple other attractions in the area. You can go hiking or walking along the cliffs for more spectacular views. There is also an area called Portcoon Jetty that is supposed to be beautiful. If you like castles, Dunluce Castle is nearby. And if you like whiskey, the Bush Mills Distillery is also close by. All these options sounded wonderful, but we lost track of time and it was too late to do anything else. We opted for an early dinner nearby at the Smuggler’s Inn and it was quite tasty! I’d definitely recommend this place if you’re hungry after exploring. It was an uneventful drive back to Belfast, and an early evening for us before exploring more of Belfast the next day.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll probably have come to the conclusion that I’m a nerd. A well traveled nerd, but a nerd none the less. I’d say you’re correct in your assumptions, and I can prove it. The author C.S. Lewis is from Belfast. He is most known for the Chronicles of Narnia series. So first thing in the morning, I took my husband and mother on a wild goose chase through Belfast, looking for C.S. Lewis Square. There were a couple wrong turns and some confusion as to where to park, but we did eventually find it. Of course I took pictures of all the statues! If you’re a fan of the books, don’t miss this in Belfast.
After stalking the various statues from C.S. Lewis’s books, I took my dorkiness to a more socially acceptable level and visited the Titanic Museum. I feel like most of you are fascinated by the Titanic disaster, and who didn’t love seeing Leo and Kate on the big screen? You know you’ve seen that movie; in fact you hear Celine Dion singing right now, and you’re reminded of the fact that there was totally room for two people on that door, Rose! Anyhow, back to the museum. Shipbuilding was (and remains) a major industry in Belfast. The city had some hard times, as did most of Ireland. The museum tells the story of the city of Belfast, it’s shipbuilding roots, and how the Titanic was built. It also shares what happened on that fateful night, minus the Hollywood drama. The museum is a bit pricier – 19 pounds a person, but it was very interesting and held our attention for a couple hours. They have a discounted price if you arrive an hour before close. I’d say it’s worth doing when you go to Belfast.
Belfast is a wonderful city to visit, and a popular alternative to Dublin. Northern Ireland has so much to offer, especially if you love nature and the outdoors. It is definitely a country that needs to be on your bucket list! I hope to get the chance to head back someday to do some hiking, visit the Gobbins, and see the Peace Wall. We were limited on time, but did check off most of the major attractions.
When is your trip to Belfast?