Northern Ireland Top Highlights
Ireland was deeply entrenched in my mind ever since I was a young child. Maybe it was partly because my favourite colour was green (and man, is there ever a lot of it there), or perhaps it was because I quite partial to the accent because my best friend at the time was from Scotland and I couldn’t tell the difference at that age.
Or, maybe it was for something a bit more alluring to my previously introverted ways. Owning a remote thatched-roof cottage, complete with smoking chimney and cobble stone pathway. All this amidst fields of green that would lead to the quaint village for which would be my home.
Either way, time had come in my life for a change. For many years, it felt like my life was on repeat. Wake up, work a little, plan an event for friends, do some hiking, go out for dinner, sleep. It was time to start chasing dreams again.
Ancestrally speaking, I’m English, Irish, Scottish and Polish. The easiest route to get a work visa for an entrepreneur, who doesn’t make millions annually, is either to bite the bullet and work a regular 9-5 job for someone else, or to apply through their ancestral ties. My choice was pretty clear, especially already having just done a trip to Ireland a few years prior.
It took me over a year to put together the necessary documentation to prove my lineage for the Ancestry Visa. Part of it learning the process as I went, and part of it waiting for the higher ups to do their part. This also required me to write my first business plan since high-school to prove my software company was actually sustainable!
There were a few exceptions on my application that had to be made as my case was very unique. I honestly didn’t think it would get approved. My father also wasn’t being co-operative and wouldn’t contribute any proof of heritage. I even had to make an inter-provincial trip to obtain birth records in Alberta! Regardless, and miraculously, the UK Visa center sent me an approval letter a few months later!
I had just started seeing an amazing woman who was a nurse in Canada, and broke the bad news to her. In fact, I had even assured her, it was very unlikley I’d be granted the visa. I had to make a choice, because she wasn’t ready to take the leap into Northern Ireland. I chose the dream over the girl. That one hurt. I put many of my personal effects in storage, rented out my house, and bolted abroad…
Ireland is a country split by the adversarial lines of ethnicity: the English and the Irish. While Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland in the south is its own independent country that is part of the European Union.
The Troubles were a period from the 1960s to the late 90s where native-born Irish were looking to cast off the strict British rule from their country and claim independence.
The atrocities prior to this are too numerous to count, so I won’t delve into the politics. Derry and Belfast were the two hardest hit areas. The cities, to this date, still have big cultural and physical divides between them. Contrary to popular belief, the Troubles truly were about nationality and independence and almost nothing to do with religion: the Catholics (Irish) and the Protestants (British).
In Belfast, the Catholic population prefers to remain on the west side of the city, while the Protestants predominantly in the east. I suppose this helps eliminate some potential conflict. The same is true in Derry, where a Peace Bridge has now been built that crosses the river – linking the two sides together.
In 1998, the Good Friday agreement was reached which abolished the border between the two countries and permitted free-flowing access for all citizens. This drastically helped reduced tensions. While conflict these days is rare, the energy in the air (especially in the north), is still very cautious and skeptical.
When I arrived, the Twelfth of July ceremonies were in full swing. British-identifying residents stack wooden pallets high as sky scrapers and light them on fire for a huge street party. They burn the Irish flag, amongst other cultural artifacts. I was absolutely blown away that this didn’t incite mass violence, and that it was still permitted to go on.
Personally, as a new resident, I was met with some mild social pushback for being an “outsider.” Racism and sexism are still very prominent in Northern Ireland – even towards Canadians. Locals are wary of new-comers that aren’t tourists. As a tourist, they’ll love you!
For most new cities I live in, I start a social club, which allows me to impart some of the best experiences I’ve had from the past onto a new city while also making new friends. We had a lot of fun! From hikes and cook nights, to communal canvas art night and more. Once people got used to the idea of coming over to a strangers house (which is almost taboo there), it was a bit hit!
The apartment I rented was gorgeous. It had three bedrooms and two bathrooms for a fraction of the price I would’ve paid back home. But, many locals live in what are called terrace houses.Every building shares side walls and roofs down the entire street. Just like one giant apartment complex.
I’m not sure if it was a normal thing, but there wasn’t a laundry room – the washer/dryer combo was a miniature box that sat under a kitchen counter! The only other differences besides Canada were the tiny fridges and stoves, and the on-demand hot water heaters in every shower. Now that was a bliss…
It was also right on the edge of the city overlooking fields, with plenty of parking. Now that’s something that’s hard to come by in Belfast with their tiny city streets.
Often cars will park half on the sidewalk to make room for the lane. People in the north often laugh about the poor condition of the roads in the south, but in reality, today, the south has massively upgraded their infrastructure. In the north, a two way street feels about half the width it should be! And, because of the Troubles, the design of the roads is chaotic at best — as walls and dividers between sections of the city.
Belfast is the best launching pad for adventure in Northern Ireland.
The Cathedral Quarter is a cultural hub for those looking for great nightlife, comedy and art shows, live music, food festivals, craft coffee shops and more.
In its heart, Commercial Ct is the street you’ll want to visit first. You’ll be elbow to elbow with loud, excited, locals and tourists alike. Annually, they hold a huge Pride festival which shouldn’t be missed if you’re there at the right time. Or, hop on the Wee Toast Tours communal bicycle for a grand pub tour of the best of Belfast.
Like any regular big city, you’ll find axe throwing, lazer tag, bowling alleys, escape rooms, mini golf, and concert halls. But, if you’re looking for the best pool hall in town to shoot some billiards, Lavery’s is absolutely the place to go.
If you’re off on your first trip away from home after high school, and are looking for people your age to hit the dance floor wth Limelight is your best bet for popular music and huge crowds of college kids!
For a more unique experience, take a Harry Potter themed mixology class at The Cursed Goblet. It’s quirky and cheesy, but for any Potter fan, you’ll be in love the minute they sit you down in you very own robe complete with wand.
For the more cultural side of things, a breakfast at the elaborate Great Room Restaurant will make you feel like a Victorian king, even if you wind up with an empty wallet by the end. It’s mighty expensive.
Afterwards, take a stroll through the 28 acres of green space at the Botanical Gardens. Originally established in 1828, it’s a popular spot for locals to hang out for picnics, study time, or for a romantic date.
Bask in luxury for an elaborate evening dinner at the Harlem Cafe where they usually have live music or AMPM Bohemian Restaurant for something equally as gorgeous. Top the evening off with a murder mystery at the Cabaret Supper Club, and put your sleuthing skills to the test.
The Crumlin Road Gaol, from the Victorian era, was one of the most advanced prisons of its day. It was executing prisoners right up until 1961.
Cave Hill is the local go-to for hiking, since there aren’t many mountains in the north east. It’s a two hour stroll – and that’s if you really take your time. But, it does offer a spectacular view of downtown Belfast including the shipyards for which made the city famous.
The Dark Hedges
The Dark Hedges really lived up to their name. I thought this would make an awesome place to take friends on Halloween at midnight and do ghost stories with hot chocolate. The perfect start to any horror movie right there.
There’s no admission to walk this legendary road, and it’s easy to find; however, no cars are permitted on the avenue itself.
The trees were planted in 1775 by James Stuart who had built his new home at the end of the drive. Less than 90 of the original 150 beech trees have survived to this day. There are also regular problems with graffiti and other damage from vandals. Luckily, it’s not overly noticeable.
They were also a filming location in Game of Thrones for the King’s Road, and also in 2017 for the Transformers movie The Last Night.
Mount Stewart, built in 1820 and previously known as Mount Pleasant, is one of the many National Trust heritage sites. Buying one of their touring passes will save a ton of cash on admissions to other attractions.
The gardens on the property have been voted one of the top ten in the world, so grab a tea and have a walk in the afternoon sun like I did. The house tour is much like what you would expect, with many time-period specific, and even original works of art, furniture, and other decor.
Right next door to Mount Stewart is Greyabbey. Surrounding the abbey is now a small town of under 1,000 people is a great spot to check out a few antique shops. They abbey itself was built in 1193, and has a haunting aura to match. The looming ravens overhead will only add to the chilling atmosphere. I wandered through the graveyard next to the ruins before dipping into the adjacent forest to pick up more of the energy of the place.
The Ards Peninsula also has a number of other cute seaside towns and minor attractions that make well for a full day adventure.
Many locals rent caravans and head out to scenic spots on the ocean for weekend escapes. As you can imagine, tent camping in Ireland isn’t as popular as back in Canada due to the weather.
I enjoyed the intricate network of winding roads and headed back for a complete full circle tour via the ferry at Portaferry.
When I was in New Zealand, everything was marketed as “the best __ in the world.” The marketing and experience for the Gobbins felt the same way. No self-guided tours are permitted and tickets sell out regularly, but probably just because of the marketing.
The tour will take you on a bus to the cliffside where you’ll do a trek that should only take twenty minutes along a metal walkway. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty, but what should be a short stop almost turns into a full day adventure. If you have time, skip it, there’s much better stuff ahead.
As I headed north, I knew there were a ton of smaller stops along the way I had found on blogs, and it took me a full day to get to my destination – even though it should have only taken an hour. Every time I’d get out of the car for a quick photo of a Google pin I had dropped, I wound up roaming the nearby area to see what else I could find. I was never disappointed. It’s really easy to lose track of time when you’re in an area like this.
One of the must-do stops is Glenariff Forest. It’s a massive almost 1200 hectare forest — and let’s be honest, there’s not a lot of trees left in Ireland due to heavy logging in the middle ages. However, there is a huge replanting effort underway for which I had donated to. The view of the valley is stellar, and the paths lead to a few waterfalls as well.
If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, make it a bucket list item to see all of the impressive carved doors spread throughout the country that tell its story.
The Giant’s causeway was my favourite spot in all of Northern Ireland. The hexagonal basalt columns were the result of an ancient volcanic fissure eruption. But, that’s not what local legend would have you believe.
Legend has it that giant Finn MacCool was challenged to a fight by his Scottish counterpart Benandonner. He built the causeway across the North Channel so they could meet. It’s up for debate for who won the fight in the end.
Something interesting that I learned was that in Irish mythology, MacCool was a hero with supernatural abilities. It is believed as well that over time the pagan gods of Ireland grew smaller the people’s imaginations until they became fairies, while the heros turned into giants.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
The twenty meter Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge leads to a cliff where fishermen used to hunt for salmon. Today it’s only a tourist stop and a great chance to snap a photo of the coastline.
Old Bushmills Distillery
While I’m actually allergic to beer, I couldn’t give up the chance to see the Old Bushmills Distillery. Considering over 120,000 tourists visit it each year, it must be pretty good, right? It launched in 1608 by order of King James the first to distil whiskey, so they’ve got a bit of practice. They’ve won gold medals at world spirits competitions. And, the 40 minute tour was one of the best I’ve been through yet.
Dunluce Castle, built in the middle ages, was at one point the seat of Clan McDonnell, but it had many other dwellers over the years. Teetering over the ocean on a basalt outcropping, it has a fairytale-esque feeling to it. If you’re going to get married in Northern Ireland – this would be the spot! Though, be mindful of the kitchen. Legend has it that it once collapsed into the sea below!
It’s been noted that today’s Halloween costumes have been heavily influenced by the folk customs from pagan Ireland. Derry is well known for some of the most elaborate celebrations in the country. A massive Halloween parade and other unique exhibits haunt the town over the course of the week.
It’s also home to the famous Derry Girls show, and as mentioned earlier, many iconic landmarks from the Troubles. Signs to join the IRA can still be seen in Derry today.
Driving along the north coast is a huge journey with the patchwork job of farm roads, but you’ll come across legendary sights like Malin Head (appearing in Star Wars), amongst others.
Many tourists opt in for a relaxing afternoon by renting bikes and taking the ferry to Rathlin Island. I did this and immediately regretted it. I was absolutely bored to tears! Coming back to the mainland with actual amenities and sights to see felt like a huge promotion.
Best Luxury Accomodation
Lough Erne, in the far west of Northern Ireland, had my two favourite places to stay. Mind you, the creek side wooden barrel hot tubs at Galgorm Spa outside of Belfast were also pretty epic!
Take a free ferry and sleep in luxury accommodation at The Lusty Beg. Practice up on your shooting, canoeing, or just take a dip in their massive indoor pool. Make a day excursion to take a tour of the Marble Arch caves. Or, take an easy three-hour hike up the Cuilcagh Boardwalk.
The real gem though? On the north side of the lake: The Finn Lough bubble domes! These giant inflatable plastic domes gives you the full overnight nature experience, with the dryness, warmth and comfort of a hotel room. I could’ve stayed there for a week. This is where you can go to really decompress!