There aren’t many people who are familiar with Northern Ireland, and even less who have been there. In fact, the country is mostly associated with the Irish Republican Army, which carried out many deadly bomb and gun attacks in the last few decades of the 20th century.
Fortunately, that looks set to change after Lonely Planet ranked its capital Belfast and the Causeway Coast the No.1 region to visit in its Best in Travel 2018 list, and all for good reason.
Spokesperson Chris Zeiher says, “Belfast has had a chequered history and that in itself makes it an incredibly interesting city to visit. Home to the Titanic Experience, this is an unmissable extravaganza that every visitor to Belfast must have.”
The city today is a stark contrast to its past, where streets were once patrolled by heavily armed troops and marred by sectarian violence.
Indeed, the city today is a stark contrast to its past, where streets were once patrolled by heavily armed troops and marred by sectarian violence. In their place are lively neighbourhoods that are chock-a-block with restaurants, bars, galleries and shops.
Make a stop at the Victorian-style St George’s Market, which is Ireland’s oldest and longest-operating. Healthy options abound at Home restaurant, perfect for vegans and travellers with food intolerances. Lonely Planet also highly recommends Mourne Seafood Bar, “which does a roaring trade in fare from the sea”.
Watering holes run the gamut from Victorian to modern. The most popular has to be Crown Liquor Saloon, distinctive for the tiles framing the main door, and housed in a building protected by the National Trust. A four-in-one alternative is the funkily named The Filthy Quarter, which also includes a lounge where a DJ spins from a caravan.
Even as the locals and tourism authorities prefer to move on from its violent past, it is not something that is easily forgotten – and fortunately, there are ways to learn about it. The best is through Paddy Campbell’s Belfast Famous Black Cab Tours for their narration of the history of the Troubles, as that dark period of history is called, in “an energetic and charmingly idiosyncratic way”. The biggest takeaway: the Irish are ace in gallows humour.
Finally, trust Zeiher when he says the Titanic Experience is a must-visit. Belfast was where the ill-fated RMS Titanic was built. Standing over where it was constructed is today the architecturally stunning Titanic Belfast museum. It virtually recreates the ship, and also has replicas of the cabins. Don’t leave without a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “she was fine when she left here” – another classic example of the Irish and their gallows humour.
From Belfast, rent a car and trundle up north. Stretching 120 miles to the walled city of Derry is a region called the Causeway Coast.
Says Zeiher, “One of the most beautiful and interesting patches of the British Isles, the coast is where many Game of Thrones locations are peppered along. There’s a timelessness to the Causeway Coast that delivers multiple ‘wow’ moments for the traveller.”
Worth stopping at is Giant’s Causeway, a geologic formation created 60 million years ago by volcanic activity, made up of stacks of interlocking basalt columns.
Traipse down The Dark Hedges, an avenue that leads to Gracehill House built in 1775. The 150 beech trees are one of the most photographed sights in Northern Ireland, made famous when it became the King’s Road in Game of Thrones.
Another site worth stopping at is Giant’s Causeway, a geologic formation created 60 million years ago by volcanic activity, made up of stacks of interlocking basalt columns.
Whiskey lovers should not miss the distillery at Bushmills, which has been making the beverage since 1608, thereby according it the honour of the world’s oldest. Then stop for a night at the charming Bushmills Inn, one of the best places to stay in the country, according to Lonely Planet.
There are also ancient castles that dot the coastline, the most well-known of which is the medieval Dunluce Castle. Built around the 1500s by the McQuillan family, it still stands today, albeit in an uninhabitable way, perched precariously on a rocky outcrop overlooking the North Channel.
For the more adventurous, steel those nerves and cross the 20m-long, 1m-wide rope bridge that connects the mainland to the island of Carrick-a-Rede. At 30m above the wild sea below, it is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
But cross it and you can expect to be greeted by stunning views of the rugged Causeway coastline and Rathlin Island, itself a haven for wildlife.