Belfast is not just any city – politics, history and religion are inescapable parts of its fabric. For visitors it is compact, with relatively light traffic and conveniently located points of interest. The major central landmark is Donegall Square, surrounded by imposing remnants of the Victorian era. Donegall Square is dominated by the City Hall, a true example of muck-and-brass architecture. Also on the square is the Linen Hall Library, which houses a major Irish literary collection. The area north of High St is the oldest part of Belfast, and is known as the Entries. It was badly damaged by bombing during WWII, and today only a handful of pubs are left to reflect the character of the past. The River Lagan runs through Belfast, and the cranes of its shipyards still dominate the western skyline. Queen’s Bridge, a lovely bridge with ornate lamps, is just one of those spanning the Lagan. The Crown Liquor Saloon displays Victorian architectural flamboyance at its most extravagant. As much a museum as hostelry, the Crown’s exterior is covered in a million different tiles, while the interior is a mass of stained and cut glass, mosaics and mahogany furniture. It’s impossible to get a seat, and even standing room is rare, but the Crown is well worth putting on your itinerary.
The Grand Opera House across the road is another of Belfast’s great landmarks. It’s been bombed several times, and at the moment has been restored in an abundance of purple satin. History and culture are on show at the Ulster Museum near the university; the collection includes items from the wrecked Spanish Armada of 1588. On the outskirts of Belfast are its splendidly located and well laid-out zoo; the Cave Hill Country Park; Belfast Castle, which dates in theory from the 12th century, but the existing structure was built in 1870; and Stormont, the former home of the Northern Ireland parliament, and now home to the Northern Ireland Secretary.
Titanic Belfast is a visitor attraction and a monument to Belfast‘s maritime heritage on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard in the city’s Titanic Quarter. It tells the stories of the ill-fated RMS Titanic, which sank on her maiden voyage in 1912, and her sister ships RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic. The building contains more than 12,000 square metres (130,000 sq ft) of floor space, most of which is occupied by a series of galleries, plus private function rooms and community facilities.
Causeway Coast & Glens
The Causeway Coastal Route is rated as one of the Top Five Road Trips worldwide and when you drive it, you’ll see why.
The three designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are testament to the beauty of the area – The Causeway Coast, the Causeway Coast and Glens which includes Rathlin, Northern Ireland’s only inhabited off-shore island and Binevenagh with it’s dramatic cliffs. The ever-changing tapestry of scenery and colours, set against a dramatic coastal backdrop will take your breath away – making it the perfect place for a leisurely tour.
Start your journey in Belfast, and follows the coast road through the nine Glens of Antrim, winding between various picturesque villages and unforgettable scenic locations. The route peaks at the Giant’s Causeway on the North Antrim coast, before continuing west toward the walled city of Londonderry.
The journey starts in Belfast, follow the Coast Road to the Larne area, the gateway to the Nine Glens of Antrim; Glenarm (home to Glenarm Castle and Walled Garden, one of Ireland’s oldest walled gardens, dating from the 18th century), Glencloy, Glenariff, Glenballyemon, Glencorp, Glenaan, Glendun, Glenshesk and Glentaisie.
The road hugs the narrow strip of coastline between the sea and high cliffs. Around 60 million years ago, three great lava flows were laid down here, cooling the basaltic plateau of North Antrim. You can still see the different layers in the cliff face. At the end of the last Ice Age, ten thousand years ago, massive glaciers scoured the deep valleys that form the Glens. Time, weather and man have created the beautiful landscape that you see today. Inland, near Ballymena, Slemish Mountain is all that’s left of an ancient volcano. Saint Patrick is said to have spent six years there as a slave, herding sheep.
Glenariff Forest Park is at the heart of the Glens of Antrim. Set in a classic u-shaped valley, it offers a choice of bracing walks through stunning scenery.
Take a detour to Torr Head, with its views across to the Mull of Kintyre. It’s a reminder that before the road was built in the 1830s, this region was closely connected to Scotland. Many local families have Scottish surnames. This mix of Scots and Irish cultures has meant that North Antrim and the Glens have always been known as “a place apart”.
Rathlin Island, with its striking lighthouses and backdrop, lies just six miles off the coast and is reached by a regular ferry service from Ballycastle. Take time to cross the Carrick-a- Rede Rope Bridge and enjoy a drop of whiskey at the Old Bushmills’ Distillery. Catch the narrow gauge steam train from Bushmills to Northern Ireland’s most famous attraction and recognised World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway. Formed over 60 million years ago, when molten lava cooled suddenly on contact with water, it is an awe-inspiring landscape of mostly hexagonal basalt columns. Be sure to experience the impressive, new world-class Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre. Northern Ireland’s main tourist attraction, the hexagonal basalt columns, (all 38,000 of them including the ones underwater) are amazingly uniform. A recommended walk is from the Giant’s Causeway 16km (10mi) east along the coast (not the highway), past Dunseverick Castle to the beach at Whitepark Bay. According to one of the legends, the giant Finn McCool fancied a female giant on the Scottish island of Staffa and built some stepping stones to the island where similar rock formations are found.
A round of golf at Royal Portrush is the perfect way to finish the day, before following the Causeway Coastal Route west, towards Londonderry, taking in the beautiful Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne at Castlerock.