Our last holiday as residents of the UK – ironically, I found choosing a destination for this trip as difficult as our very first. With so many places still unseen, I felt overwhelmed with choices. Wherever we chose needed to be special. Not necessarily elaborate or expensive, but certainly memorable. I’m sure a lot of places could have delivered that, but the one we kept coming back to was Northern Ireland. It was the last of the four countries making up the UK that we had yet to see, and making it our final travel destination before moving on to Asia just seemed right. That decision made, the next step was planning the perfect weekend travel itinerary for Northern Ireland so that our holiday would, indeed, be unforgettable.
Before we started traveling consistently, I wasn’t really sure what kind of travel I liked best. It all sounded fun – city breaks, adventure trips, budget holidays, a touch of luxury now and then – I was up for anything. But over time it became clear what I enjoyed best. I liked being surrounded by beautiful scenery, needing to pack little more than a clean pair of jeans and hiking boots in my suitcase, and coming home from a trip feeling refreshed rather than run ragged. Our holiday in Northern Ireland nailed it in all three areas. Hiking: Check. Scenic: Triple Check. The perfect active, but not too active, itinerary: That’s where this guide comes in. :)
Northern Ireland is the smallest of the countries making up the UK, but don’t let that fool you into thinking there isn’t much to do or see. The opposite is true. With only a weekend to spend in the country, we had to pick and choose carefully what we wanted to see. We decided to focus on the scenic sights and developed our itinerary around Northern Ireland’s impressive natural beauty. For a list of Northern Ireland’s best scenic sights and how to fit them all into a weekend, check out our full travel itinerary below with travel tips at the bottom of the page!
Northern Ireland Travel Itinerary: Day One
Sunset at Dunluce Castle
The earlier you can knock off work on Friday the better, because you’re going to want to experience as many sunsets in Northern Ireland as possible.
After you arrive into Belfast and rent a car (scroll to the end for tips on that), drive directly to Dunluce Castle. Located on the edge of a cliff in Co. Antrim, this crumbling medieval castle makes for some seriously stunning images at sunset if the weather is on your side, and especially when the sun sets to the west of the castle. Unfortunately, neither were in our favor when we visited, but the soft sunset light we witnessed was still beautiful and the dramatic setting worthy of photos even without an impressive sunset.
If you’ve still got enough light before sunset, there are steps on the eastern side of the castle that will take you down to the water. You may not want to be in this spot for sunset as your view might be blocked, but this is a great spot for unique photos of Dunluce Castle beside the sea.
Northern Ireland Travel Itinerary: Day Two
Early Morning at the Giant’s Causeway
Whether or not you managed to fly into Northern Ireland early enough for sunset the night before, you’re going to want to be up bright and early on Saturday morning because there’s a full day of sightseeing ahead and you’re definitely going to want to beat the crowds to Northern Ireland’s most popular attraction – the Giant’s Causeway.
Steeped in ancient legend, the Giant’s Causeway, located along the coast in Co. Antrim, is a beautiful natural phenomenon featuring a massive network of over 40,000 interlocking stone columns. Created by volcanic eruptions or built by the Irish giant Finn MacCool so he could cross the causeway and fight Scottish giant Benandonner? You can decide which story you prefer, but you won’t want to miss seeing this extraordinary sight!
The tour buses from Belfast begin arriving at the Giant’s Causeway just before 10am, so if you can arrive at least an hour or so before, you’ll find it much easier to take photos and appreciate the scenery. There are several good coastal hiking/walking trails that start from here, too, any of which I recommend taking after the crowds start showing up at the Causeway.
Explore the Town of Bushmills
After seeing the Giant’s Causeway and working up your appetite hiking along the coast, it’s time to head to the town of Bushmills. A small village near the coast, Bushmills gets its name from the river that flows through it. Featuring a main street lined with shops and restaurants and a few scenic spots to check out near the watermill, Bushmills makes a perfect pit-stop for lunch.
We ate several meals in Bushmills since it was where we based ourselves for the weekend and can recommend Mike’s Coffee Shop (serves breakfast and a cheap, quick lunch), Lilly’s Bakery for dessert and pastries, and The Scotch House for a more filling, sit-down sort of lunch.
Bushmills’ most popular attraction is the Old Bushmills Distillery, the world’s oldest whiskey distillery. If you skipped hiking along the coast, a tour of the distillery might be a fun way to pass the time until lunch. We didn’t personally check this out while we were in Bushmills, but you can find more info on daily tours here.
Cross Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
If you’re feeling brave enough, your next stop of the day should be Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.
Connecting the mainland with a small island off the coast, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge stretches 65 feet in length and hangs almost 100 feet above the water below. Once used by salmon fisherman, these days tourists are the only ones who risk crossing the bridge. But don’t worry, the risk is small. The bridge is well-maintained, and besides a little swaying as you cross, it’s not too awfully scary. Just don’t look down if heights make you wobbly.
Maintained by the National Trust, there is a fee to cross the bridge. For current prices, check their official website. After crossing back over the bridge, take the Carrick-a-Rede coastal walk heading east for a wider view of the passage you just crossed!
Sunset at the Giant’s Causeway
To close out an epic day in Northern Ireland, it’s almost obligatory that you return to the Giant’s Causeway for an equally epic sunset.
If you can arrive an hour before official sunset, you’ll be able to catch all the changing colors as the sun slowly sinks below the sea, plus find the perfect spot for the grand finale. The Giant’s Causeway isn’t particularly busy this time of day as all the tours have already returned to Belfast, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a good spot without other spectators blocking your view. After sunset, quickly make your way back to the path – the stones are way too easy to trip over in the dark!
Alternatively, if you missed getting to see sunset the night before and you’d prefer not to return to the same place twice in one day, give Dunluce Castle a go!
Northern Ireland Travel Itinerary: Day Three
Visit the Dark Hedges
If you want to check out the first stop on Sunday’s itinerary without a giant parade of other tourists joining you, set your alarm clock for another early morning.
Nicknamed the Dark Hedges, Bregagh Road is a picturesque avenue famous for the ancient beech trees that line it on either side, their branches meeting overhead forming a tunnel. Attracting photographers and artists with its mythical appearance for over a century, it wasn’t until the road featured in Game of Thrones that the Dark Hedges became a true tourist destination.
Having never seen the show and not realizing the road’s increase in popularity because of it, we allowed ourselves a slow morning, arriving at the Dark Hedges just after 10am. Big mistake. The area was already crawling with people and those mysterious, light-filtering-through-the-gnarled-trees shots I was hoping to get were impossible. We waited for quite some time to see if the crowds would clear out, but the tour buses just kept coming. For a more enjoyable experience (and those coveted atmospheric shots of an empty road), arriving prior to the tour buses (before 10am) is a necessity, but sunrise would be awesome if you can swing it!
Drive the Causeway Coastal Route
After leaving the Dark Hedges, it’s time to make your way towards Belfast to catch your flight back home. But don’t worry, your trip isn’t over. Far from it, because you’re going to take the Causeway Coastal Route to reach your destination!
Stretching 130 miles from Derry to Belfast, the Causeway Coastal Route is one of the world’s most scenic drives. Unfortunately, with only a weekend in Northern Ireland, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to drive the entire route (factoring in the many stops you’re sure to make), but you’ll still be able to drive a large portion of it on your way back to Belfast.
From the Dark Hedges, make your way towards Ballintoy where you’ll pick up on the route. You’ll have already seen many of the important stops along the Causeway Coastal Route at this point – Dunluce Castle, the Giant’s Causeway, and Carrick-a-Rede – so your first stop will be Ballintoy Harbour. After that, my advice is to just drive, stopping anytime something attracts your eye. Following the route, you’ll find an abundance of scenic look-out points, rugged cliffs, and deserted beaches. For a list of popular stopping points and a map, click here.
See the View from Kinbane Castle
If you stop at only one spot along the Causeway Coastal Route on your way back to Belfast, make it Kinbane Castle. It’s not the castle so much that made us fall in love with this spot, but the incredible views from it.
Kinbane Castle (or the remains of it) rests on a limestone headland that projects out into the sea making it a prime spot to visit if you want to capture photos looking back toward the cliffs along the mainland. The views out to sea of Rathlin Island are equally as impressive. (Do be careful, though, as you walk along the path to the edge of the headland. It gets extremely narrow in places and there is nothing to break your fall if you slip!)
Kinbane Castle is a popular stopping point along the coastal route, but you’ll still find far less people here than you will at any of the other sights on this list, so take a moment while you’re there to breathe in the crisp, fresh air, relax in the sun, and appreciate the unbelievable beauty Northern Ireland has to offer.
Northern Ireland Travel Tips
Getting to Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland is served by two major airports, both in Belfast. We were able to find a great deal on flights from London through Ryanair, but there are many other airlines offering direct flights into Belfast from several destinations in the UK and Europe as well.
If you’re coming from the Republic of Ireland, catching the Translink train from Dublin is a cheap and easy way to reach Belfast.
How to Get Around in Northern Ireland
Unless you want to be at the mercy of tour bus schedules (and I really don’t think you’ll want to be), you’re going to want to rent a car while you’re in Northern Ireland. It’s the only way you’ll be able to follow our weekend travel itinerary which makes sure you visit Northern Ireland’s best scenic spots at their least crowded times.
If you know how to drive a manual transmission, you’ll be able to rent a car quite cheaply in Northern Ireland. Those of us who are stuck using automatics won’t be nearly as lucky. Still, it’s worth the cost to have the freedom to explore places at your own pace and stop where you want to stop.
FYI: We didn’t find nearly as many narrow roads in Northern Ireland as we did in the Republic of Ireland, so renting the smallest car possible isn’t something you’ll have to worry about here!
Where to Stay in Northern Ireland
Many visitors to Northern Ireland base themselves in Belfast. Both the ease of staying near where you’ll be flying in and out of and the vast supply of accommodation choices make this a good option. BUT, if your goal is to see the most scenic parts of Northern Ireland, Belfast isn’t the best choice. It’s a 1.5 hour drive from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway – you’re definitely not going to want to do that first thing in the morning!
There are several excellent towns and villages that offer accommodations closer to the sights on our itinerary. Out of these, we picked Bushmills, mainly because of its proximity to the Giant’s Causeway (somewhere we knew we’d be visiting twice), but also because it was centrally located to all of the other sights we wanted to see as well. We stayed at this Airbnb and absolutely loved it. I don’t know what was better – the house itself or the fact that the river flowed just beyond the backyard. It was perfect. If you’re not into Airbnb, you also have the option of staying in a hotel or guest house in Bushmills as well. You’ll find a list of all your options at the link below.
When to Go
When people ask me when the best time to travel to the UK is, I always tell them to plan their trip around how many daylight hours they need. The weather is too unpredictable to say one month is better than another, but the daylight hours? That you can work with.
To cover everything in our weekend travel itinerary for Northern Ireland with daylight to spare, I recommend visiting from late spring to early autumn. The days are longer during these months and it’ll be much easier to arrive before sunset on a Friday night if sunset isn’t until 9pm or later. (For reference, we made our trip in late May and enjoyed daylight from 5am to 10pm.)
Sidenote: Even visiting in May, you’ll need to bring a warm jacket for after dark. It gets pretty chilly once the sun goes down!
Should You Include Belfast?
Since our trip focused on the scenic side of Northern Ireland, other than flying into it and taking the train out of it, we didn’t see Belfast on this trip. To be totally honest, I’m not particularly sad about it. Besides the Titanic Museum, I didn’t see anything in Belfast that motivated me to want to stay an extra day. (We were visiting over a bank holiday weekend, so we could have spent Monday in Belfast, but chose instead to take the Translink train on to Dublin instead.)
Given the choice, I’d probably still choose an extra day exploring Northern Ireland’s scenic sights over spending a day in Belfast, but that’s just me. I’ve heard Northern Ireland’s capital is quite the underrated city, so if I missed out by not visiting Belfast, let me know in the comments!
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