Counties Down and Armagh occupy the southeastern corner of Northern Ireland, between Belfast and the border and contain some of the region’s most attractive countryside, especially around the coast. You’re also never far away from places associated with St Patrick, who sailed into Strangford Lough to make his final Irish landfall in County Down, founded his first bishopric at Armagh and is buried at either Downpatrick or Armagh, depending on whose claim you prefer.
As you head south from Belfast, the glowering Mourne Mountains increasingly dominate the panorama, and it’s in this direction that most of the attractions lie. If you simply take the main roads in and out of Belfast – the A1 for Newry and the border, or the M1 motorway west – you’ll come across very little to stop for: it’s in the rural areas, the mountains and coast, that the charm of this region lies. One of the best options is to head east from Belfast around the Down shore – past the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, one of the best in the North, and the blowsy suburban resort of Bangor into the Ards Peninsula or along the banks of Strangford Lough. Near the Lough’s southern tip, Downpatrick is closely associated with the arrival of St Patrick. There are plenty of little beaches, early Christian sites, defensive tower houses and fine mansions to visit on the way towards Newcastle, the best base for excursions on foot into the Mourne Mountains. Beyond the Mournes a fine coast road curves around to Carlingford Lough and the border. Inland, Hillsborough, resembling an English Cotswolds-style village, is closely linked to the political development of the North.
Below Lough Neagh, the north of County Armagh is dominated by the developed industrial strip known as Craigavon which contains the towns of Lurgan and Portadown, and has little to attract you. Away from the towns, however, there are two stately homes of interest, Ardress and the Argory, and some excellent cycling country north of Loughgall. The villages of South Armagh – a predominantly Catholic area – were the heartland of violent Republicanism, and often referred to as “Bandit Country” or “The Killing Fields”, even by locals. Armagh city, however, is well worth visiting for its ancient associations, cathedrals and fine Georgian streets, while South Armagh has some startlingly attractive country, especially around the peak of Slieve Gullion.