It has often had to play second fiddle to its southern neighbour, but Northern Ireland offers a diversity of attractions that frequently confounds first-time visitors. Rejuvenated and irrepressible, Belfast now rivals any of the UK’s capital cities, but in addition, the country manifests superb natural heritage – including one of the world’s great coastal road trips – remarkable cultural treasures, outdoor activities in abundance, and an increasingly vibrant food and music scene.
Barely recognizable from the battle-scarred city of the 1970s and 80s, Belfast is today a bona fide city-break destination, no question. Stately Victorian buildings and a rich industrial heritage hark back to the city’s glorious past, but really, it’s the revitalized restaurant scene, some rocking nightlife and a raft of excellent festivals that all serve to confirm Belfast’s welcome renaissance.
Northern Ireland boasts numerous low-lying mountain ranges, but it’s the rugged Mournes in County Down that draws the lion’s share of hikers. Its highest peak – Slieve Donard – only tops 850m, but this is often testing terrain; and who needs the Great Wall of China when you’ve got the Mourne Wall, a 22-mile long dry stone wall which traverses some fifteen summits. No less fabulous, if somewhat less demanding, are the Sperrin Mountains in County Tyrone, a sparse expanse of wild, undulating moorland.
Stretching for some 120 miles between Belfast and Derry, this fabulous road trip has few rivals anywhere on the continent. Unsurprisingly, most people make a beeline for the Giant’s Causeway (Northern Ireland’s only designated World Heritage Site), with its stupendous black basalt columns. But there are diversions aplenty enroute, among them Rathlin Island, which harbours some incredible wildlife, and Portstewart, lined with a glorious two-mile sweep of golden sand.
It was, of course, from Belfast in 1912 that the Titanic set sail, and the ill-fated ship is commemorated in truly spectacular style at the all-new Titanic Quarter in the city’s regenerated docklands area. Comprising, among other things, a media centre and a scientific discovery centre, its focal point is Titanic Belfast, a thrilling and engaging interactive museum.
Northern Ireland’s culinary scene has taken a while to get going, but it’s certainly making amends now. In Belfast, two restaurants have recently gained a Michelin star, namely Ox, and Eipic at Deane’s, whose sumptuous menu offers dishes such as scallop with clementine and hazelnut brown butter. And don’t leave without trying the Ulster Fry, widely acknowledged to be a superior version of the great English fry-up.
Two particularly fine outdoor museums are the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum just outside Belfast, which displays some thirty buildings transplanted here from around the country, and the Ulster American Folk Park, near Omagh, which brilliantly relays the historically close links between Northern Ireland and the United States. Here, too, a splendid array of vernacular architecture has been transferred from its original setting.
The north can certainly rival the south when it comes to musical talent. In days of yore, the leading lights were Van Morrison and the Undertones (the latter famously championed by the late John Peel), while in the 90s, it was the turn of indie-heroes Ash, from Down, and the Divine Comedy from Enniskillen. Hot on the scene right now are Two Door Cinema Club from Bangor. If you fancy attending a gig, drop in at Belfast’s iconic Limelight Complex, or there’s Open House, a unique, year-round series of gigs at various venues around the city.
Whether it’s mountain biking in the Davagh Forest or angling on Lough Earne, there’s loads to do here. Golfers won’t feel short-changed either, with dozens of fabulous courses to hack around, including Royal Portrush (which will stage the British Open in 2019) in Antrim, and the sublime Royal County Down course in Newcastle; indeed, Northern Ireland currently boasts one of the world’s great sporting superstars in Rory Mcllroy. Big cheers, too, for the national football team, which has just qualified for Euro 2016 in France, its first major finals since 1986.
Neatly positioned within a bend of the River Foyle, Derry’s medieval walls are among the best-preserved anywhere in Europe, their survival all the more remarkable having withstood three major military sieges. Enclosed within the mile-long circuit is the original medieval street layout, itself spotted with a cluster of eminently enjoyable attractions, the pick of which are the Tower Museum and the Verbal Arts Centre.
To the surprise of many, Northern Ireland ranks the largest lake in the British Isles. Lough Neagh is just to the west of Belfast but actually bordering five of the country’s six counties. Its tranquil waterways and secluded bays provide ample opportunity for boating, fishing, walking and cycling; a great way to get a handle on the lake is to tackle the 113-mile long Loughshore Trail – but don’t worry, it’s almost completely flat.
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