I recently spent some time in Northern Ireland with my family of 3. It was the first time we’d been so didn’t know quite what to expect, but here are some impressions based on our experiences. They may not be typical – it’s quite possible the 5pm bus from Ballycastle isn’t always late! But nevertheless, here they are!
Where is it?
Northern Ireland is in the north east corner of the island of Ireland. It is part of the United Kingdom, whereas the rest of the island belongs to the independent Republic of Ireland.
Why we went
Because we’d never been before. It’s the only part of the UK my wife and I hadn’t visited and when she announced the very specific dates she could have leave, a glance at the flights available from our local airport showed Belfast topping the list for availability, price and convenience. It was time to make that trip.
Is it worth visiting?
Many wouldn’t consider it an obvious place for a vacation, with the south of Ireland being more popular. However, you’d be mistaken if you think there are no tourists in the province. There are plenty and it’s not difficult to see why. It has a beautiful coastline with the Causeway Coast designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site, mountains, lakes (loughs), urban centres worth exploring and loads of history. It is particularly interesting for Game of Thrones fans as there are tours to many film locations that appear in the show. Northern Ireland is certainly an up and coming destination, so much so that the Belfast and Causeway Coast region has been named as one of the top ten places to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet magazine.
Where we stayed
We spent 3 nights on the Causeway Coast in Portrush and 3 nights in Belfast, enabling us to see a sizable chunk of Northern Ireland.
What is there for children?
We found museums tended to be child friendly. In Belfast, the Ulster Museum had a “hands on” room for children and activity sheets designed for them. City Hall had a dressing up room where they could try on the Lord Mayors robes, as well as many educational exhibits.
The Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre, while a little expensive, does add to the experience for children, including interactive features with giants as well as information on the scientific explanation for the rocks. We found the guided walk though was what really brought the place to life for the whole family.
Portrush has the biggest theme park in Ireland, which might be more accurately described as a funfair – the Emerald Isle isn’t renowned for having anything like Disneyland. It was still very much enjoyed by our daughter, as were the beaches which are patrolled by lifeguards. Being on the west of the British Isles, the sea water here isn’t as cold as the weather might lead you to believe. Surfing is popular.
Worth a shout out is Carrickfergus Castle, where kids will enjoy finding the life size figures from its history which are dotted around the site.
Northern Ireland consists of 6 traditional counties and is easy to get around. The most flexible way is by car with the Causeway Coast offering one of the world’s great scenic drives. Roads appeared to be largely uncongested, even in tourist hotspots. We decided to use public transport, which worked out pretty well for us as a family. From our research, buses and trains appeared both more comprehensive and cheaper than south of the Irish border. The family and friends ticket, allowing the whole family unlimited all day travel for about £20 was particularly good value for longer journeys. For shorter trips, it was cheaper to buy individual tickets and there was a 33% reduction for off peak train travel. Overall, compared to the cost of hiring a compact size car (including extras such as fuel and parking fees), I estimate that public transport costs were at least £100 cheaper for our 6 day break.
Trains aren’t exactly what you’d call “high speed”, but Northern Ireland isn’t that big, so journey times are not too long. They are also quite comfortable. We had no trouble getting across the province from Belfast to Portrush.
We used buses to travel a substantial chunk of the scenic Causeway Coast. They were punctual and drivers were helpful, calling out stops and local attractions for those of us who might not appreciate where we were. There was only one exception to this mentioned above, which you can read about in my Carrick-a-Rede and Ballycastle blog. Incidentally, there is a more frequent service on this route at weekends, so it’s obviously aimed at tourists.
Our full public transport itinerary was as follows:
Bus: George Best Airport – Belfast
Train: Belfast – Portrush
Bus: Portrush – Giant’s Causeway – Dunluce Castle – Portrush
Bus: Portrush – Carrick-a-Rede – Ballycastle – Portrush
Train: Portrush – Belfast
Train: Belfast – Carrickfergus – Belfast
Irish people have a reputation for friendliness and offering a warm welcome to visitors. It is deserved and just as true in Northern Ireland as it is in the Republic. We found this in restaurants, on public transport and even at bus stops, where locals were only too ready to strike up a friendly conversation with visitors. I asked our accommodation owner in Portrush if it was easy to walk back from Dunluce Castle, should we miss the last bus. She said it was possible, but should we find ourselves in that situation, mention it to someone and they’ll probably offer us a lift back. “People are like that around here” she told us. We didn’t test that out but I can well believe it.
Ulster’s accent is regarded as harsher than the soft lilts to be found further south. This doesn’t imply any lack of friendliness though and can be offset by the local vernacular. While I found Dubliners often insert the “f” word into sentences (usually as punctuation rather than intending aggression), northerners prefer to utilise a more charming word. “I’m on the wee bus” a woman informed someone on her mobile phone as we left the airport. “Enjoy your wee meal” the waitress said as she brought my dinner. I was just about to tell her I hadn’t ordered a small one, when I looked down and realised it was quite a hearty portion. In Northern Ireland, the word “wee” is no indication of size. It can be used to describe an insect or a skyscraper, but it’s rarely left out of a sentence. Another word that confused me (it doesn’t take much) is “strand”. When someone told me that Portstewart had a particularly nice strand, I might have been more eager to go there had I realised we were talking about a beach! I suppose we didn’t have time anyway.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which set up the current political power sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland and involved constitutional changes in the Republic, was approved by large majorities in referendums both north and south of the Irish border and effectively ended the troubles. Although Ulster is far more peaceful now, there is still a sectarian divide in some parts between Protestants and Catholics. This is most pronounced in the west of Belfast where walls continue to be necessary to keep the peace between communities. If you’re not sure what area you are in, have a look at the flags flying in the street. In Protestant areas you’ll find the red white and blue flag of the United Kingdom. Catholics are more likely to fly the green white and orange of the Irish Republic. If you don’t see any flags, the area could well be one of the increasing number of mixed districts. The authorities are aiming to tear down the remaining walls by 2023. I hope they are successful.
Another indicator of this sectarian divide is the name given to Ulster’s 2nd city. Its official title is “Londonderry”, but the local football team and airport are named “Derry”. The word “Derry” is also used in the name of the local council. You may see it called “Derry-Londonderry” in public transport timetables. This is because Protestants call it “Londonderry” and Catholics prefer “Derry”. So if you see either or both of these words being used, they refer to the same place.
Town and city centres are areas where everyone mixes. Divisions can be more subtle here. We were dining at an Irish bar in Belfast on the night Northern Ireland was playing a World Cup qualifier. The sound was firmly muted on the tv when the British national anthem was played and switched back on when the game started. I suspect people would have been singing with gusto in bars on the unionist east side of the city.
None of the above should put you off visiting. As said earlier, people on both sides of the divide are friendly towards visitors and you’ll receive a warm welcome whether you’re Catholic, Protestant or neither. Indeed, the peace walls and sectarian murals are tourist attractions in their own right. Bus tours are available to these areas or you can visit more subtly in a black cab or just walk. We chose not to as the troubles and sectarianism are covered adequately in the museums and we didn’t want to overdo it on a family holiday. When visiting, you should show some respect for the host culture by not wearing opposing sectarian attire. For those who like to wear the shirts of their favourite sports teams, Rangers and Celtic football jerseys are regarded as sectarian in nature here, unlike my Liverpool shirt which I’m sure would have been welcomed everywhere, had I worn it! You should have no worries about wearing any English or other European club jersey.
Even if you go in summer, you shouldn’t expect a heatwave in Northern Ireland. That is not to say you won’t get one, but the weather can be unpredictable and changeable, so be prepared. We woke up one morning to pouring rain, but finished the afternoon on a beach bathed in sunshine. In between, we did a coastal walk in overcast but dry conditions. Taking waterproofs is a good precaution, even if you’re lucky enough not to need them. While summers are mostly mild, rather than warm, winter doesn’t get too cold either, so no season is off limits for outdoor activities. Ireland can be exposed to the odd Atlantic gale, but they usually don’t last too long.
What did we miss?
Plenty! The big miss in Belfast was the state of the art Titanic Experience and the regenerated docklands. I’ve heard many good reviews of this. We didn’t see many inland areas of the province, the loughs (lakes), Mountains of Mourne nor the 2nd city of Derry-Londonderry, the most complete walled city in Ireland. Our itinerary was concentrated on Belfast and the Causeway Coast, but we skipped the north-eastern section of this beautiful coastline.
That said, we had a wonderful time and would thoroughly recommend you to take a trip there.
Northern Ireland has 3 airports – George Best Belfast City, Belfast International and Derry. All are well connected to the public transport network. There are also good transport links from Dublin Airport to Belfast. Ferry ports at Ballycastle, Larne, and Belfast provide links to Scotland and England. Dublin and Rosslare, south of the border, have ferry services from locations in Wales and England
Information and accommodation
My Northern Irish blogs
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Click here for Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Regions to visit in 2018