As someone who has roots from the deep-Celtic-south of the REPUBLIC of Ireland, my jaw hit the floor when my husband told me our first stop of the Ireland trip was Northern Ireland….aka, Great Britain.
The few times my grandmother talked about the old country, she always managed to slip in an insult about the British with a spit and went on a tirade about how they ravaged her homeland. To say that I grew up with prejudice against “the north” is a vast understatement. I was aghast. I grew up telling myself I would never, god help my soul, go to the North.
Upon setting foot in Northern Ireland, I realized just how racist and discriminatory my narrow-minded thinking was. A visit to Northern Ireland is not only a scenic wonderland, but it’s also an up-close and personal experience of the (still) ongoing Catholic-Protestant conflicts. Going to the North made me appreciate the courage and bravery of the South all the more.
That, and the scenery will blow you away. The natural beauty of the north is worth a visit alone.
Here’s five reasons I recommend that everyone (even the hardcore southern Irish) check out Northern Ireland:
This aint a UNESCO heritage site for nothin’. It’s like Stonehenge because it’s just so… unbelievable.
Basically, these stones are shaped like that NATURALLY. Yeah. No one can really explain it. Irish folklore says that a Giant stepped all over the shore and made that mark with his shoes, but the real ‘scientific’ reason is a lot more boring (something about a volcano and cooling rock).
Giant’s Causeway is like going to a national park in the United States. The National Trust (UK’s version of the National Park Service) up-keeps it well. Free parking, an audio guide, a free mini-museum and maps are included with the entrance fee. It’s clean. It’s orderly. It’s goddamn gorgeous.
The whole time I was there I had to pinch myself. I couldn’t believe something this awe-inspiring actually existed. We not only got to take some epic photos on the beach, but we got to climb to the top of the cliff where a majestic Atlantic coast was on our left and rolling hills of Irish countryside were on our right.
Honestly, one of the best things I’ve seen in all of my travels. I can’t recommend this place enough.
Down the road from Giant’s Causeway is another national trust treasure: Carrick-a-rede.
It’s honestly just more of the jaw-dropping scenery of Giant’s Causeway, but with an added opportunity to traverse a rickety wooden bridge to a tiny island called Carrick-a-rede. Fisherman originally made this bridge almost 400 years ago in order to catch some mighty fine salmon on the smaller island closer to the open sea. Now, sadly, there are no more salmon–but tourists still flock here for the views.
Luckily we were blessed with blue skies and sunshine (a truly rare occurrence in Ireland, trust me) and the sea sparkled like a sheet of turquoise gems. It was fantastic.
Sitting on the island and looking at the rocky, Northern coast was peaceful, serene and… healing. Really wonderful place and worth the seven pound toll.
Glens of Antrim
Dude. The Glens of Antrim. Doesn’t that sound like the name of the best fantasy book ever? Well, the name lives up to the expectation, my friends.
So just how many glens are there in Antrim? There are nine, and while I would have loved to visit all nine of them, we only got to visit one: Glenariff.
I know this photo looks amazing, and it’s everything you imagine Ireland to be–but trust me, it’s even more mind-blowing in person. I think I stood and stared at this view for a good ten minutes because it was that moving.
Each glen is HUGE. Glenariff alone had an 8 mile trail that weaved inland and passed by multiple waterfalls, lush-green forests and even some mountains.
And get this: IRELAND HAS NO ANNOYING BUGS. I’m sure there are some, but I wasn’t bitten once in Ireland (there are almost no mosquitoes on the Emerald Isle!). Forget seeing lizards or snakes, either (that tale about St. Patrick driving the snakes off the island?? The snake part is true). It may be cloudy, but at least you don’t have bugs or reptiles eating at your flesh. Big win in my book.
Oh, and did I mention that almost every glen (or national/state park) in Ireland has a convenient and cute cafe attached to its entrance? So after your long hike you can have some Irish breakfast tea (or a latte) and take in the views. Score.
As you drive across the northern coast of Ireland (or the Causeway Coastal Route, its official name), you’d be blind to miss Dunluce Castle. Although it wasn’t originally on our itinerary, it looked too cool to pass up.
And yes, it is too cool to pass up. While Ireland is chock full of castles, this castle is different. For one, it’s RUINED (as real as it gets); plus, it sits right on the cliff side. It’s so close to the ocean that, in a few decades (or even years) the castle will eventually crumble into the sea.
Whether you’re taking a panoramic cliff shot of the castle, or you’re inside taking photos of what used to be the dining room and kitchen, this castle is worth the stop.
Plus, it only takes 1-2 hours to see–it’s a quick stop!
Belfast can be kind of a downer. It’s one of those cities that’s just been through a lot of shit… and it shows. Undergoing such hardship, however, has given the city an indescribable grit and toughness that just isn’t in the other Irish cities. It’s a city of industry and laborers and it shows in its architecture and the faces of its populace. It’s a rough, tough, bitch of a place.
Belfast was the hotbed of Catholic-Protestant conflicts in the 80s and 90s (a mini-civil war, if you will) and, while a negotiated settlement was reached in the late 90s, the city is still very divided. The contrast between a loyalist and nationalist neighborhood is unmistakable.
I went to the Irish-Catholic memorial to remember those lost in the conflicts and… I legitimately cried. Young men–on both sides–fighting for what they believed was independence and freedom.
Although Richard and I did our own walking tour, I recommend booking a black taxi tour. On the black taxi tour, the driver (usually a veteran of the conflict) will take you to different murals in the city and explain their significance.
If that doesn’t stir some emotions (whether you’re British or Irish), then I don’t know what will.
We were there during the last week of June when most of Ulster county was prepping for the July 11 celebration. Honestly, as someone from the Irish-Catholic side, it was a bit hard for me to stomach. When July 11 nears, almost every community in Ulster county hangs up British flags and displays gaudy photos of the queen. This is the day that Northern Irish protestants celebrate the Glorious Revolution when King William III (Protestant) dethroned King James II (Catholic) and took over England.
Basically, it’s the celebration of how Protestants trump Catholics. The nationalism was… eerie. It reminded me of some southern states and their support of the confederacy.
Belfast is a window into Ireland’s dark and tragic history…. but one that any visitor (Irish or not) should learn well.
Tips for Traveling to Northern Ireland
- Rent a car and drive around. Just do it.
- After you rent that car, follow the Causeway Coastal Route.
- Exploring Northern Ireland and the Coastal Route will take at least four nights. I don’t recommend any shorter.
- Stay at a B&B at least once if you can
- Try to go in the summer if possible. Although Irish summers are not guaranteed to be sunny, at least the days are long–the sun doesn’t set until 10 PM!
- Try the northern cider. It’s damn good.
- Don’t ask the locals if they’re Irish or Catholic if you can help it–it’s a loaded question.
- ….and no matter where you are in Ireland (or Northern Ireland), get some Guinness and Irish beef stew. It’s just better here.