Medieval castles, mountain ranges, coastal drives, and one of the most spectacular (and certainly unique) landscapes you’ll find anywhere—all are within easy reach of Belfast. That is, if you don’t mind driving down tiny, winding roads that take at least twice as long as they should to get anywhere. Though the destinations covered here are no more than 60 miles in any direction from Northern Ireland’s capital, it could take you up to 90 minutes to drive there—more if you take the scenic way. And frankly, why wouldn’t you?
By Car -- Most of the attractions listed here are easily accessible by car, with a journey time of between 1 and 2 hours (at most) from Belfast. Roads are good in the regions around the city, although traffic can be a problem, particularly during rush hour. In reasonable traffic, Comber is about a half hour drive from the city; Strangford and Armagh, about an hour; Newcastle, 1 1/4 hours; Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway 1 1/2 hours.
By Bus --Ulsterbus (www.translink.co.uk; [tel] 028/9066-6630) runs buses from Belfast to Downpatrick, Carrickfergus, and Ballymena. While several other towns are reachable by bus, routes are long and circuitous—you’re better off driving, or joining an organized tour.
By Train --Translink (www.translink.co.uk; [tel] 028/9066-6630) has train connections with several towns in the region, including Lisburn, Armagh, Bangor, and Portrush, although journey times can be long. The Translink/Ulsterbus website has a great journey planner.
19km (12 miles) NE of Belfast
Just outside Belfast off the M3 motorway, the castle town of Carrickfergus offers a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the city, and some fresh sea air. Locals like to say that Carrickfergus was thriving when Belfast was a sandbank, and looking around its winding medieval streets at the edge of the sea, it's easy to believe. In 1180 John de Courcy, a Norman, built a massive keep at Carrickfergus, the first real Irish castle, to guard the approach to the strategically critical Belfast Lough. Even today, although the town spreads for several miles in each direction along the shore, the huge, forbidding castle is still its center. The narrow streets across from the castle follow the historic winding pattern of medieval roads, and you can still find some of the old city walls.
Stop into the Carrickfergus Tourist Information Office, Heritage Plaza, Antrim Street, Carrickfergus, County Antrim (tel. 028/9336-6455); it's open all year Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm.
Downpatrick: Sainted Town
37km (23 miles) SE of Belfast
Legend has it that when St. Patrick came to Ireland in a.d. 432 to begin his missionary work, strong winds blew his boat to the ancient fortified town of Downpatrick, at the south end of Strangford Lough. He’d meant to sail up the coast to County Antrim, where as a young slave he had tended flocks on Slemish Mountain. Instead, as fate would have it, he settled here and converted the local chieftain Dichu and his followers to Christianity. Over the next 30 years, Patrick roamed through Ireland carrying out his work, but this is where he died, and some believe he is buried in the graveyard of Downpatrick Cathedral, although there’s no proof. Because of all of this, the town tends to be crowded, largely with Catholic pilgrims, around St. Patrick’s Day.
Stop in first at the Down County Museum (www.downcountymuseum.com; [tel] 028/4461-5218) The Mall, English St., BT30 6AH. Set in a converted jail, the museum tells the story of Down from the Stone Age to the present day. They also have an extremely flashy son et lumiere (sound and light) show, which is projected onto the old prison walls; and a handy tearoom. The museum opens weekdays from 10am to 5pm, and weekends from 1 to 5pm. Entry is free.
Almost next door to the museum, at the end of the English Street cul-du-sac, is Down Cathedral (www.downcathedral.org; [tel] 028/4461-4922). Excavations show that Downpatrick was a dún (or fort), perhaps as early as the Bronze Age, and its earliest structures were built on the site where this church now sits. Ancient fortifications ultimately gave way to a series of churches, each built atop the ruins of the previous incarnation, over 1,800 years. The current cathedral is an 18th- and 19th-century reconstruction of its 13th- and 16th-century predecessors. Just south of the cathedral stands a relatively recent monolith inscribed with the name “Patric.” By some accounts, it roughly marks the grave of the saint, who is said to have died at Saul, 2 miles (3km) northeast. The tradition identifying this site as Patrick’s grave seems to go back no further than the 12th century, though, when John de Courcy reputedly transferred the bones of saints Columba and Brigid to lie beside those of St. Patrick. The Cathedral is open to visitors Monday to Saturday from 9:30am to 4pm. Entry is free.
A 5-minute walk away, the modern glass-and-steel St. Patrick Centre, 53A Market St., BT30 6LZ (www.saintpatrickcentre.com; [tel] 028/4461-9000) tells the story of Ireland’s patron saint through high-tech displays and exhibits. There’s also an exhibition devoted to the legacy of Irish missionaries who helped spread Christianity in Europe in the latter half of the first millennium. The center is open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm; also Sunday 1 to 5pm in July and August. Entry costs £6 adults, £4 seniors, students, and children, and £14 families.
Downpatrick is about 21 miles (34km) southeast of Belfast. To get there from the city by car take A24 then A7; the drive takes just under 40 minutes. You can also get there by bus (a 1-hour trip) from the Europa Bus Station on Great Victoria Street.
16km (10 miles) SE of Belfast
There's a nice museum in this small town a short distance from Belfast.
16km (10 miles) W of Belfast
Now here’s a great creation story: Irish lore maintains that Lough Neagh—the largest lake in Ireland—was created by the mighty giant Fionn MacCumhail (Finn McCool) when he dug up a chunk of earth to fling into the sea to create the Isle of Man. It must have been a sizeable chunk indeed, to gouge out this 153 sq.-mile (396 sq.-km) lake.
The Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, Oxford Island, Craigavon, Co. Armagh (www.oxfordisland.com; [tel] 028/3832-2205), is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, and 10am to 5pm on Saturday and Sunday (6pm from April to September). Part of an enormous, lush nature reserve, the center has an exhibition on the Lough and its history, plus information about the best walking trails. They also host occasional guided walks (or “rambles”) through the reserve; prices and times of any upcoming tours are advertised on the website. There’s also a cafe, craft shop, and tourist information center—where, handily, you can hire a pair of binoculars.
However, before you think about taking a dip in the cool, glassy waters, consider this: The lake’s claim to fame is its massive population of eels. Yep, the waters are positively infested with the slimy creatures. Hundreds of tons of eels are taken from Lough Neagh and exported each year, mainly to Germany and Holland. The ages-old eel-extraction method involves "long lines," baited with up to 100 hooks. As many as 200 boats trailing these lines are on the lake each night (the best time to go fishing for eels). So, maybe take a rain check on that swim.
If you’re not entirely creeped out by that, however, you can take a boat trip on the lovely lake. Boats depart regularly from the nearby Kinnego Marina ([tel] 028/3832-7573), signposted from the main road. They last about 45 minutes and cost about £10 for adults, £7 for children. It’s advisable to call in advance to book.
For windsurfing on Lough Neagh, try Craigavon Watersports Centre, 1 Lake Rd., Craigavon, County Armagh, BT64 1AS (www.craigavonactivity.org/watersports-centre; [tel] 028/3834-2669).
65km (40 miles) SW of Belfast
A green, rolling stretch of gentle hills and small villages, County Armagh is also one of Northern Ireland’s most rebellious Republican regions—you’ll notice police watchtowers atop some hills, as well as the occasional barracks (mostly empty these days).
The handsome cathedral town of Armagh City makes a good touring base. A short distance outside the city, the small town of Bessbrook has historic cottages, the forests of Slieve Gullion, and ancient Navan Fort, the most important archaeological site in Ulster. The area’s greatest natural attraction is a 40-minute drive north of Armagh City: Lough Neagh, Ireland’s largest lake.
Armagh City’s name, from the Irish ard Macha (Macha’s height) refers to the pagan queen Macha who is said to have built a fortress here. It’s no coincidence that St. Patrick chose to base himself here when he was spreading Christianity—it was a bold challenge to the native paganism. The simple stone church that he built in the 5th century is now the stately St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral. (Not to be outdone, Armagh City’s Roman Catholic cathedral is also called St. Patrick’s. East of the town center, the city also boasts The Mall, a lush park lined with handsome Georgian townhouses built of the colorful local limestone. To get to Armagh City from Belfast, take M1 and A3 southwest for 40 miles (64km); the journey takes a little less than an hour.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.