Northern Ireland itinerary: Northern Ireland highlights and practical tips for a 2-day road trip in this stunning part of the world.
I don’t often use the word ‘breathtaking’, to describe a place. I find the term abused, inaccurate and lazy, a little bit like a ‘hidden gem’ or ‘best kept secret’.
However, when a turn of the road suddenly revealed the rugged beauty of the Northern Ireland coast, it took my breath away.
It came out with a ‘oh wow’ sound and left me uncharacteristically speechless.
If you want to experience what this magical moment was all about, you can follow this itinerary: it follows our road trip and it will show you some of the most famous places in Northern Ireland and some of the most important landmarks in Ireland as a whole
Northern Ireland itinerary at a glance
- Starting point: Templepatrick
- Day 1: Dark hedges, Carrick-a-rede, Giants Causeway, Dunluce castle
- Day 2: Belfast, drive to Dublin
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Northern Ireland itinerary: day 1
Day one of our Northern Ireland itinerary was our exploration day.
I put a lot of research into what to see in NorthernIreland and after interrogating blogs, forums and maps, I came up with an itinerary that could be easily covered in one day and would show us some of Northern Ireland most acclaimed spots without proving too tiring.
The itinerary is as follows:
- Morning: Drive from Belfast to the Dark Hedges, then Carrick-a-rede bridge
- Lunch: Giants Causeway
- Afternoon: Giants Causeway, Dunluce Castle, drive back to be in the Hotel in time for dinner
We left our hotel at about 10 in the morning.
It was a little later than I had hoped but May in this part of the world comes with long hours of daylight so that we were able to take our time without excessive stress.
Our first stop was the so-called Dark Hedges’
Stop 1: The Dark Hedges
The Dark hedges is a road in Northern Ireland framed by impressive beech trees.
It is a landscape feature, created by the Stuart family to impress the visitors approaching their mansion, and indeed is a sight to behold.
The dark hedges are an extravaganza of knotted branches and bare tree trunks, bending towards each other and creating a tunnel effect over an otherwise nondescript country road.
The road is one of the most photographed spots in Northern Ireland and one of the compulsory stops on all Norther Ireland organized tours.
The reason for this popularity is twofold. The obvious one is its beauty.
The less obvious one, or at least less obvious for me, is that the dark hedges appear in an episode of Game of Thrones and is therefore now a location of ‘pilgrimage’ for the TV series fans.
How to visit the dark hedges
Since the dark hedges are, effectively, just a road, I wasn’t sure what to expect on location.
Would there be a car park, would we just see them from the road, would we drive through them?
No practical information seemed to be available online but thankfully, a visit to this spot turned out to be easy.
The dark hedges are indeed just a road and technically you can simply drive through it (it’s well indicated once you are in the area).
However, since the road is not very long and full of tourists taking photos, driving is not advisable.
The better option is to park your car nearby and explore on foot.
Visiting the Dark Hedges with kids
Something for the kids. I had talked the dark hedges up for the kids trying to get them excited and while they were not overly impressed, they enjoyed the walk under them.
However, the real highlight of this stop for them was the fairy village in the grounds of the Hedge hotel!
We used the hotel only as a parking spot to visit the hedges but soon realized there were reasons to spend time on their grounds too.
Their extensive lawns host a beautiful fairy village and it’s a dream for kids.
Tree stumps, tree trunks and bushes have been transformed into fairy houses and little widows and doors peek out of the vegetation, inviting kids to knock on their whimsical frames.
It is a fabulous spot for little ones and one the evocative dark hedges could not compete with, in the eyes of a 5-year-old!
Is a stop at the dark hedges worth it?
I enjoyed our stop at the dark hedges.
We spent about half an hour there, took photos and marveled at the beautiful trees.
It was a nice first stop on our day trip and a good way to break up the car trip to the Giant’s causeway, since they are located just a few kilometers off the main road up there.
However, I am not sure the dark hedges are a destination in itself.
The road is beautiful and if you were to stumble upon it unexpectedly while driving around the area, you would definite stop in awe.
Once you take away the surprise though, once you have seen many photos of them and find yourself taking the same pictures of the trees as the many other people beside you, its magic subsides.
My suggestion is to visit the dark hedges like we did, as a stop on a longer itinerary or to base yourself in the Hedges hotel one night, to be able to see the dark hedges outside of the tour bus rush hour (evening or early morning).
Stop 2: Carrick-a-rede bridge
Our second stop after the dark hedges was Carrick-a-rede bridge, the iconic rope bridge that graces the covers of so many Norther Ireland travel brochures.
Driving to Carrick-a-rede
The drive to Carrick-a-rede is the one I mentioned above as taking my breath away.
Driving up from Belfast, the first part of the journey is inland, but once you get close to the coast, the scenery changes drastically and opens up to the vast, rugged beauty of the Antrim coast.
Getting to Carrick-a-rede is easy: the coastal road here is beautiful, well kept and well signaled and soon we found the right turn to the National Trust manages site.
The road is scenic but does not follow the cliff edge and is therefore safe to drive even for people who are afraid of heights (this is not the case for other parts of the coastal route!)
Carrick-a-rede is a tourist spot and as such has a large car park and a small cafe.
We parked in the lower car parked and ventured towards the site entrance.
The highlight of the trip here is, for many, the actual rope bridge but there is a lot more to this wonderful stretch of coast than the thrill of crossing its wobbly length.
Walking towards Carrick-a -rede bridge
The bridge itself is about 1 km away from the car park: the path is wide and well kept and except for some steps towards the end of it, overall buggy friendly.
At the start of the path you find a ticket office but access to the site is free: what you pay for is access to the bridge, an experience that is managed by the National Trust and that is organized in slots.
I have a fear of heights and this combined with two young children under the age of 7 made me think missing the crossing was probably the best idea.
The Carrick-a-rede rope bridge is a suspended bridge connecting the mainland to a small, rocky island.
It was originally built by local fishermen to make the onerous tasks of retrieving their nets easier and access to it is now strictly regulated.
At the end of the 1km path,what you find is a long line of people queuing up in front of a small door.
This doors opens onto steep steps and is guarded by a site employee who makes sure there are no ‘traffic jam’ on the bridge.
Can you visit Carrick-a-rede with a fear of heights?
There is no way a person with severe fear of heights can cross the Carrick-a-rede bridge.
The bridge itself is suspended over 100ft between two rock faces dropping almost vertically into the waters below and the fact that is made of rope means it tends to wobble in the wind.
However, what was really insurmountable for me wasn’t even the bridge itself but the steps leading to it.
I only had a glimpse of them and while scenic, the steps really give you that sheer drop feeling that the vertigo-prone needs to stay away from, lest they get dizzy and faint in the least suitable spot of all!
What a person with a fear of heights can do, however, is enjoy the long walk to the bridge.
The path leading there is safe, not exposed to the cliff edge and non vertigo inducing.
Depending on the severity of your fear, you can walk to and from the bridge along the same path or follow a slightly different way back.
This second path allows you to catch a good view of the bridge but sadly has one little stretch of road (no more than a couple of meters) that has no fence and is therefore possibly problematic (I would have done it without the kids but the path there is narrow and holding hand was at the same time necessary and impossible)
Stop 3: The Giant’s causeway
We spent in Carrick-a-rede a long time and the kids were starting to get tired.
Our late start meant lunch was now overdue so our next stop had to first involve food: thankfully, I knew the Giants’ Causeway had a well-equipped visitors’ centre with a cafe and restaurant so this is where we headed next.
The Giant causeway is not far from Carrick-a-rede bridge.
A short drive brought us to the vast welcome centre and we quickly got access to the large car park.
Giants causeway arrival and visitors’ centre
The Giant Causeway itself is a natural area and access to it is free.
However, use of the audio-guides, facilities and even the car park is paid for and tickets are checked when leaving the premises.
This means that unless you are staying nearby and are able to walk there, you need to budget for entry to the site.
The visitor centre is large and very well equipped.
As well as the cafe, it has a souvenir shop and a fantastic area for kids and adults alike to learn about the causeway.
This learning area has specimens from the causeway, it explains its peculiar history and entices the kids to learn about the legends of the causeway, its marine inhabitants and its special geological importance.
Access to the actual causeway is easy. From the visitors centre a very large road meanders down the coast opening up to a gorgeous view.
The first type of landscape that opens up in front of you doesn’t include the famous basalt columns that make the causeway so famous but it is stunning nonetheless and unmistakably volcanic in origin
Giants causeway walking paths
The causeway can be discovered following several paths, color coded.
Blue trail: this is the easy path and is more a road than a trail. It leads you from the visitors’ centre down to the coast and can be followed by people of pretty much all levels of fitness.
If you cannot or do not walk, part of it is even served by a bus (price not included in the ticket, about 1£).
The road can be easily walked even by kids in approximately ten minutes.
This is what I call the ‘default trail’ the one you take if you just follow the road in front of you.
The blue trail leads you down to the part of the causeway where visitors are allowed to climb onto the basalt columns.
Red trail: we didn’t take the red trail but this is a 2 mile trail following the upper edge of the causeway. It is marked as ‘difficult’ but promises beautiful views
Yellow trail: this trail stems off the red one and is described as ‘challenging’, therefore we deemed it not suitable for children
Visiting the Giants Causeway with kids
The path we followed was the blue one.
We walked down the large road and the first thing we noticed was how incredibly beautiful the coastline is.
People talk about the causeway because of its peculiar geological meaning and the basalt columns, but no one ever told me that even without those, the place is stunning.
The coastline here is high and rugged and the bright green of the grass created a vibrant contrast with the dark black of the volcanic rocks.
The road leads you up to the waterline and here is where the first basalt columns appear. The columns are a geological marvel and have different sizes.
Some are small and some are really tall, creating a very peculiar ‘steps’ effect.
It is possible to walk on the basalt columns and, with caution, kids can enjoy the experience too.
The easiest way is to just stay on the lower ones but if you can (i.e. if you have older kids or one adult per child, to hold hands) the best way it to climb up to the top of the gateway.
From the bottom, the climb seems harder than it is and the causeway is surprisingly safe once on top.
The view from there is spectacular: the causeway stretches into the sea as a geological, geometrical pier and with waves crashing on it two sides.
You can marvel at the columns under your feet and the blue sea for hours but the real surprise is not in front of you but rather, behind your back. When you turn around, thinking your causeway experience has come to an end, the coast stunned me with the impressive view of its highest cliff, towering over me.
I know I am an enthusiastic traveler but there is no other way of saying this: that cliff is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, anywhere in the world.
Stop 4: Dunluce castle
After the beauty of the giant’s causeway I had expected our day to slowly wind down and prepared myself for a nondescript drive back to our hotel.
However, I had read that close to the causeway the was a castle and I decide to stretch a few kilometers in the hope of catching a glimpse of it.
I was not disappointed.
Dunluce Castle is perched on a promontory of the Antrim coast and its turrets emerge from emerald green grass to control the vast coastline.
Since we got to Dunluce late in the evening we didn’t visit the castle but simply pulled over into the small car park to take some photos.
The castle is worth seeing and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful castles in Ireland.
What is there in Dunluce castle for kids?
We haven’t visited Dunluce castle inside but we saw many families there, enjoying the sun on the large lawn in front of it.
The spot doesn’t offer much to kids but it is a nice location for a picnic and can be a nice spot if you want to avoid spending for lunch at the pricey causeway cafe.
After this final site, we got on the road back to out hotels and with no additional stops we got to the hotel in no time
Northern Ireland weekend itinerary day 2
My original idea on how to spend our second day in Northern Ireland was to explore Belfast city.
There were many things to do in Belfast with kids that piqued my attention, however, the beautiful weather made me want to stay outdoors, so we headed out of town to the Ulster Folk and transport museum.
Top tip: if you are visiting without kids, I highly recommend spending the day taking a tour of Belfast city instead. We took one on a previous occasion, a double decker bus tour that showed us and explained the history of Belfast and it was really interesting.
Stop 1: Ulster Folk museum
The Ulster Folk Museum is easily reached by car from Belfast.
It is an outdoors museum with an old Ulster village reconstructed and it’s a lovely place to visit with kids.
After you get your ticket, you can explore the village at your own pace.
You can stroll along its roads, enter the house of the seamstress and see how they used to live (yes, my children did ask why there was no TV! Talking about an educational visit…) and learn about traditional jobs, from the baskets weaver to the iron monger and the village photographer.
For me, the highlight of the visit was the picture house.
Here you can see how the old projection room works and watch old movies.
The kids had never seen anything like this and were surprised to see there were no words involved and the music was played by a piano in the hall!
I also enjoyed very much the post office and the police station.
This also had some interesting information about the troubles, a hugely important part of history in this area and beyond.
Some photos there were disturbing so, depending on your child, you may want to make sure they are not walking around alone.
Stop 2: The Ulster transport museum
The folk park is a lovely place for a family day out and we spent a good bit of time in the onsite cafe.
Soon, however, we decided to move to another part of the museum complex, hosting my children’s most beloved objects of all: trains!
The Ulster transport museum is just down the road from the folk park and an absolutely delight to visit with kids.
As the name suggests, it is entirely devoted to transport and the star of the show here and huge steam and diesel locomotives, kept in a vast room where an old turntable and train station has been recreated.
The kids were absolutely in awe of the trains and indeed they are a sight to behold.
The locomotives are immense, colourful and so reminiscent of Thomas the Thank the kids felt they were almost in a theme park!
The kids are allowed to climb onto some of the locomotives and to have a go at riving the train (perfect photo op!).
The room itself is built to resemble an old train station and it has some little touches such as the warning to ‘mind the gap’ beside steps that made even us adults get in the spirit of things.
After the trains, we moved to the airplane section which is smaller but also interesting for kids.
Here you can see how airplanes are built, peek inside one and see how flying machines developed over the course of the years.
Since we got to the museum late, we only had about 30 minutes here, definitely not enough to enjoy all it has to offer.
Had we had more time, we would have also explored the miniature railway on the museum grounds and enjoyed the vast outdoors spaces surrounded the several museum pavilions.
Instead, we climbed back into our car and, our eyes full of the beauty of Northern Ireland, headed back South back home, to Dublin.
Northern Ireland travel resources
- STAY: at the Hilton Templepatrick (read our review here)
- TRAVEL: by car (if you need to ren one, you can get good prices HERE)
- SEE: The Dark hedges, Carrick-a-rede bridge, The Giant’s Causeway, Dunluce Castle, The Ulster folk and transport museum
- BRING: Good paper map, GPS, good walking shoes
I hope you enjoyed this Norther Ireland itinerary: safe travels!
This post was originally published in 2017 and has now been fully updated.