Like many folks, my impressions of Northern Ireland were all formed during the turbulent decades known collectively as The Troubles. Thankfully those dark days are long past and in its place a new tourism industry has come to life in Northern Ireland. As I recently discovered, there’s a good reason for that, Northern Ireland is one of the most remarkable places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting and my brief time there only fueled a greater desire to return and see even more of this beautiful place. There’s a lot to see and do in Northern Ireland, but here are a few reasons why it should be near the top of your travel bucket list.
Derry – Londonderry
One of the hotspots for violence and turmoil during The Troubles, today those scars have been visibly removed and the city has once again become a highlight for tourists from around the world. For the first time visitor, the best introduction to the city is by joining one of the Martin McCrossan city walking tours offered several times every day. This tour takes you through the historic downtown of Derry, sharing both the ancient history of this important city as well as the history of The Troubles that rocked it so very hard. The result is an interesting, engaging and informative tour that’s honestly one of the best I’ve ever joined. Be sure to spend some time exploring the city on your own afterwards by walking the city walls, one of the best examples of an intact wall system in Europe. No matter what you decide to do, I think you’ll end up loving Derry just as much as I did.
Causeway Coastal Route
Starting in Derry and ending in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the Causeway Coastal Route is a 120-mile drive that connects dozens of small coastal villages and attractions, including several smaller routes connecting inland sites to the main drive. It also takes much more than the 1-day I had to devote to it. I started early, ended late and raced along the way and was not able to even scratch the proverbial surface. Honestly, if you have a week to spend driving this impossibly stunning route, take it. Go slow, stop at everything and enjoy the almost otherworldly beauty you discover along the way. Some of the many highlights include: the Giant’s Causeway, Derry, beautiful coastlines, Ballintoy Village and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.
I don’t think Irish food gets enough global love as it should. There’s a lot more to it than just beer and stew, although those are indeed still important elements of traditional menus. While visiting Northern Ireland, be sure to try as many different kinds of Irish cuisine from the traditional to the modern. When it comes to traditional fare, the best place to start is in a traditional Irish pub. Finding one isn’t hard, what’s difficult is deciding which one to patronize. On the typical menu you’ll find all of the hearty classics loved around the world, but many pubs are also trying to entice a new generation with dishes that are lighter and more health-conscious than usually found in pubs. New chefs though are also transforming the landscape of food in Northern Ireland, and while you’re driving the Causeway Route, be sure to stop for lunch in Portstewart and the critically acclaimed Harry’s Shack. Taking an old shack and transforming it into one of the hottest restaurants in Northern Ireland, Harry’s enjoys an amazing location, great views and of course delicious food. The center of the modern food movement though in Northern Ireland is in Belfast, where you’ll find some exciting new concepts taking root. One of the new favorites in town is the James Street Bar & Grill. Using seasonally inspired, locally sourced foods, this popular hotspot turns Irish food on its head in the best way possible. No matter where you decide to eat, it’s impossible to go hungry in Northern Ireland.
Speaking of Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland surprised me in every way. Lively and modern, this is a city that begs to be explored on foot, which is exactly what I did on one of the first bright, sunny days of summer. For a quick education on The Troubles and politics in Northern Ireland, join a Black Cab tour. These driving tours are led by real cabbies, who share their memories and perceptions of The Troubles in intensely personal ways. The tourism star in Belfast though is the Titanic, and the massive museum and exhibit facility will surely entertain you for hours if not the entire day. After spending some time at the Titanic, walk back to the city center through some new and up-and-coming neighborhoods to learn more about the city and its colorful culture that is reshaping its future. By the end of your time in the city I think you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
To be honest, Northern Ireland wasn’t always a place that I wanted to visit, but thankfully that’s all changed. The Northern Ireland of today is a bright and colorful place with experiences so unique and special that just about any type of traveler will love their time spent exploring the country.
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