Northern Ireland seems to play a lot of different roles in travellers’ minds.
“It’s part of Ireland, which is part of England… I think” – wrong on both counts.
“The Titanic movie was filmed there and they have a big museum about it” – actually no, the real Titanic ship was built here, but the second part is true.
“They had a war, and it’s not safe for travellers” – around 25 years ago that might have been accurate, but things have changed.
“It rains a lot” – sadly true.
Despite all the misconceptions, Northern Ireland is rising higher and higher on all of those ‘x places you need to visit right now’ lists. If you’ve booked your plane ticket and packed your umbrella, you’re almost ready to go. Here’s what else you need to know before you touch down in ‘Norn Iron’:
Northern Ireland is not Ireland
Ireland and the United Kingdom have a long and complicated history together. So long and complicated, in fact, that many visitors have no idea which parts belong to which country and why. The bottom line is this: Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. The rest of the island is Ireland (not ‘Southern Ireland’), and it’s an independent country.
That means when you’re in Northern Ireland you pay for stuff with pounds, not euros. Speed limit signs are in miles, not kilometres. You’ll see Union Jack flags and red post boxes instead of the Irish tricolour and, um, green post boxes. Aside from that there’s nothing to worry about – physical borders were banished long ago, there is no customs and you don’t need your passport. Not until Brexit complicates things, anyway.
Get into Trouble(s)
Anyone born before the 1990s will have heard of ‘The Troubles’, a violent nationalist vs. loyalist conflict that lasted over three decades and saw the IRA make headlines around the world, however since the Good Friday agreement of 1998 peace has reigned for 20 years and Northern Ireland is now as safe as anywhere else in Europe. However, trauma has left a lasting mark on the locals and on the land. It’s fine to strike up a conversation about it, but be respectful; remember many natives you meet will have lost loved ones in the fighting. Oh, and joking about it will probably earn you a punch in the face.
A fantastic way to learn more about The Troubles is by taking a black taxi tour of Belfast city. You’ll see what remains of the Peace Wall that once separated loyalist and nationalist enclaves, take in the powerful political murals and hear first-hand accounts of this formative era of Northern Ireland’s history. Paddy Campbell’s Belfast Famous Black Cab Tours is highly recommended.
Go beyond Guinness
Ireland is the home of Guinness, and no visit is complete without supping a pint of ‘the black stuff’ in a real Irish pub. But there’ll be plenty of time for that in Dublin. Up North, there are other delectable tipples to try. If you’re headed to the Giant’s Causeway (and if you’re not, you really should), you’ll pass through the town of Bushmills. Bushmills Irish Whiskey has been made there since 1608 in the world’s oldest whiskey distillery. A tour is the perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon, of which there will be at least one during your Northern Ireland trip. Elsewhere, tradition decrees that all visitors make a stop at The Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast, known for serving up fine gin and traditional ales.
What about food? You can’t leave Northern Ireland without filling up on an Ulster Fry. Similar to a Full Irish or Full English breakfast, this is a plate piled high with sausage, bacon, pudding, fried egg, plus some local extras – namely grilled potato farls (like pancakes but better) and soda bread. George’s in Belfast’s St. George’s Market is the best place to obliterate your appetite. Not your thing? Check out Deanes or The Barking Dog for something a little more gourmet.
Follow the Causeway Coast…
Belfast is a vibrant city that’s definitely worth at least a day or two of your time. But there’s so much more to see in Northern Ireland, too. The now world-famous Giant’s Causeway is just the first stop on the winding Causeway Coastal Route that will make you gasp several times over. Tackle that fear of heights by crossing the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which spans two 30-metre cliff faces with crashing waves below. Feel the Game of Thrones vibes at Dunluce Castle or visit some of the real filming locations at Ballintoy Harbour (aka Pyke) or the Dark Hedges (aka the King’s Road), to name just a few. Squish sand between your toes and snack on delicious seafood at the seaside towns of Portstewart and Portrush; the list goes on and on.
… then go further afield
It may be stunning, but the Causeway Coast isn’t exactly off the beaten path. If you’re looking for somewhere free from tourist crowds, make for the Mourne Mountains for tranquil and scenic hiking or head out to Sketrick Island for Michelin-starred meals and zen-like views of Strangford Lough. Wildlife lovers will definitely want to put Castle Espie Wetland Centre on the list too, home to most of Ireland’s native and exotic birds. Whichever you choose, you’ll have the place to yourself in the best possible way.
Explore this wonderful part of the world on an Intrepid small group adventure through Northern Ireland and Ireland now.
Feature image by stifos, Shutterstock.