We went away for an adults-only long weekend with friends to Northern Ireland. Our trip had the perfect mix of beautiful scenery and rich history (both ancient and recent), incredibly nice people, great food, pubs, and everything was surprisingly affordable.
Here’s what sealed the deal for Northern Ireland for us:
- It was close enough where we could get away for a long weekend. We didn’t want to ditch the kids for longer than that.
- Norwegian airline had some crazy sales, and the flight was cheap!
- Game of Thrones shooting locations (really, my husband didn’t need any convincing here) – and they lived up to the hype
- Friday night: Departing flight (red eye)
- Saturday: no sleeping in for us – we used the day to explore Belfast
- Sunday: Belfast tour, and then on to explore the coast – dark hedges, Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, Ballintoy Harbour, Giant’s Causeway, and on to Derry for the night
- Monday: Explore Derry, then into Ireland proper to see Grianan of Aileach (don’t ask me how to pronounce that), Glenevin Waterfall Straid, Doagh Famine Village, Carrickabraghy Castle, and back to Derry for the night
- Tuesday: Castlerock, Dunluce Castle, and back to the airport to head home
Getting ready for the trip: There are a few basics you’ll need to get before you go:
- Plug adapter. Europe has different plugs, so unless you’re staying an an American hotel chain, you likely won’t be able to use the native plugs. You can get them pretty cheap. See here.
- Download the map from Google Maps. Then you can still use GPS without using data. You can also use apps like Viber, Facebook, and Facetime to talk to people back home.
- Bring cash. There are places that are cash only (i.e. black taxi cab), so make sure you exchange money before you go (or try to exchange when you get there…but you may get worse exchange rates).
- Bring an umbrella. It WILL rain!
- If you’re renting a car, also get rental car insurance in advance. They WILL try to sell you rental car insurance at the kiosk, and it’s a huge rip-off. Check with your credit card company too to see what they cover.
Flight: We were exhausted. 6 hours on a flight where the seats barely recline and half the people around you are snoring is not the best conditions for a good night sleep. No shock there. We don’t bounce back quite as easily as we used to! Here were our essentials for the trip:
- Travel pillows – my husband and I differed on our preferences:
- I liked this one because I thought it gave me better support for my neck. Plus, the fleece kept me warm (I am always freezing on planes!).
- My husband liked this one. You may wonder why…my husband’s explanation was that mine was “weird”. Sometimes he can be so articulate Unlike me, my husband is always hot, so the fleece wrap on my pillow would have made him uncomfortable.
- Battery bank for our phones. The plane didn’t have outlets or seat TVs, so my phone was my only source of entertainment in between naps. I downloaded some books (see here for suggestions), as well as some Neflix movies. And my phone battery would not have lasted me through the flight. And even if it did, we hit the ground running, so I wouldn’t have had time to charge my phone before heading out to explore the city. I would highly recommend a battery bank anytime you travel for the flexibility. Here’s the one I got – I like it because it has the built-in cables, could charge both of our phones at once, and lasted most of the trip without needing a recharge!
- Snacks. Granola bars, almonds, trail mix are my go-tos for quick snacks on the go. Also, bring an empty reusable water bottle. You can’t get water through security, but you can fill an empty bottle up at the water fountains in the airport. Our budget airline charged for everything, including water, so we brought our own.
- Free walking tour. Yes, free. It was a 2-hour tour that went all around the heart of the city, starting at City Hall. The tour went into the history of the city but didn’t get into the politics (there are other tours focused on that). It covered the historical industries, migration, emigration, key landmarks in the city, and a bit of background about the “Troubles”. The tour is free, but tips are encouraged. https://visitbelfast.com/see-do/partners/belfast-free-walking-tour
- Titanic museum. Ok, honestly, I’m not a museum person. But this museum is really cool and immersive. It has gondola rides, short movie clips, replica cabins, and personal stories about some of the passengers and crew.
- Black taxi tour (Belfast Famous Black Taxi Tours). This is a MUST. There were four of us, and we had a private tour in a cab that took us outside of the city center and into the Catholic and Protestant sections of the city. Our driver/tour guide (Dermot) went into a lot of the political history, shared personal stories, and even let us open the gate in the wall dividing the Catholic and Protestant neighborhood. He even brought umbrellas for us. Our tour guide was Catholic, and we were really tempted to do a second tour with a Protestant guide to get both perspectives!
- Where we ate: Lunch at McHughs Pub. The Boxty is a must try. Dinner at 2 Taps (a tapas bar). We ate outside on the heated patio. The food and drinks were amazing. No, not your local cuisine, but amazing service and food nonetheless! I have also heard that The Crown (pub) has awesome food, but we couldn’t get in without a reservation.
Coastal Drive: Belfast to Derry
- The Dark Hedges: This is an avenue of beech trees on the road leading to Gracehill House, an 18th century estate. The bonus is it was used in the King’s Road scene in Game of Thrones.
- Carrick-a-rede rope bridge: This is a rope bridge that was used by salmon fishermen, which is suspended about 100 feet above the water. This bridge was also used in Game of Thrones filming. The bridge closes when there are strong winds. Spoiler alert – the cost of N. Ireland had strong winds our ENTIRE trip. Needless to say, they had closed the bridge 30 minutes before we got there, so we didn’t get a chance to walk across it. However, we still took the walk to see it, and the area was gorgeous. I tried to negotiate with the attendant to at least let me go down the steps of the staircase leading TO the rope bridge, with no luck. Clearly trial lawyer was not my calling.
- Ballintoy Harbour: Yes, another Game of Thrones shooting location! Beautiful beach (used to film the Iron Islands).
- Giant’s Causeway: NOT a GOT filming location! Volcanic activity helped shape the rock into symmetrical six-sided columns that look like honeycombs. It’s a world heritage site, and is really amazing.
- Castlerock: A riuned palace and Mussenden temple on the cliff
- Dunluce Castle: Ruins from a castle from the 1500s. Legend has it that the castle’s kitchens fell into the sea during a storm in the 1600s.
Derry / Londonderry
- Derry (as the Catholics refer to it) or Londonderry (as Protestants know it) is a walled city, with 4 gates. You can walk on the wall around the city, which gives great panorama views of the city outskirts.
- Our tour guide (John McNulty) was awesome – so animated and great information. $4 pound walking tour, which includes a free tea or coffee.
- The peace bridge was opened in 2011, and showcases two arms, which symbolize reaching across and connecting the two communities on either side of the Foyle river
- The “Hands Across the Divide” statue was unveiled 20 years after Bloody Sunday (1992) and symbolizes reconciliation and hope for the future
- Peace murals adorn the buildings of Derry as well, but not quite as prevalent as those in Belfast
- Our favorite restaurant here was The Gate Bistro & Cocktail Bar – awesome seafood!!
- Grianan of Aileach: A stone ring fort on top of Greenan Mountain – it has amazing views, but you’ll definitely need your windbreaker!
- Glenevin Waterfall Straid: A pretty waterfall, about 1/2 mile walk from the parking
- Doagh Famine Village: You can visit the village on your own, or go on the tour. I highly recommend the tour – our tour guide and his family lived in one of the houses in the village until 1984, and he provided great commentary around the way of life
- Carrickabraghy Castle: It’s a very short drive from Doagh, and offers some amazing views. The castle itself didn’t have much to it – the ruins weren’t very well preserved. But the strong winds made for incredible waves, and they were really mesmerizing. We spent about an hour just staring at them!