Covid has taken its toll on tourism and hospitality in Ireland (as expected), and after the lockdowns and strict restrictions, uncertainty still remains now, 2 years later, in 2022. But Ireland is slowly recovering and returning to normal, as lockdowns and restrictions have been lifted, and tourism is finally… hopefully, nearly, back to normal. Or about as normal as tourism and travel will be in these crazy times. So here we aim to share the current status of popular tourist attractions in Ireland, along with rules and restrictions, for the best destinations in Ireland in 2022.
Tourism in Ireland is not without its Covid casualties, and a couple taken from my own niche (boozing) include the permanent closure of the Smithwicks Experience in Kilkenny, and the doors still remain closed for the foreseeable future at the Bushmills Distillery. Not to mention all the smaller independent businesses lost in the tourism and hospitality sector. Otherwise, international tourism is picking up again, and, along with my fellow travel-loving bloggers, we share the tourist attractions that survived the pandemic and returned to relative normality.
Travel During the Pandemic (2020/2021)
We did manage 2 tours of Ireland during 2020/2021. The first was during a partial lockdown in 2020 when we managed to cover the Wild Atlantic Way from top to bottom, from Malin Head (Co. Donegal) to Mizen Head (Co. Cork). And while most hospitality and tourist facilities were closed at this time, the focus of this road trip route is mostly on the coastal landscapes and scenery in Ireland, so there wasn’t a huge difference in limitations in travel when it comes to exploring Ireland’s great outdoors (video below).
The 2nd tour was later in 2021, after the initial vaccinations had been administered, and when proof of vaccination was needed to use hospitality services i.e. cafes etc. For this tour of Ireland, we chose Ireland’s Ancient East which is focused more on touring the historical sites of Ireland. This was actually a great time for travel in Ireland before international travel had returned, and the bigger international tourists attractions in Ireland were relatively empty. We literally walked straight up to the Blarney Stone.
Restrictions of Tourism in Ireland in 2022
At the beginning of 2022, it was also by law (without reasonable excuse) that you must wear a face-covering on public transport, in taxis, rail stations, shops and other in-door public premises etc. This may change but is still advised and recommended. Proof of immunity by vaccination or recovery from recently having COVID is also necessary to access many indoor tourism and hospitality services. For us, we were able to use our vaccination card which we received in the UK. Otherwise, it is best to the check Citizens Information website for up-to-date details.
Advanced bookings are now advised (essential for many) tourist attractions in Ireland, at least those indoors, or those that include tours etc. This is due to social distancing and restrictions on numbers, and it is best to check individual attractions before travelling. A couple of examples from our recent travels was Blarney Castle where we received discounted rates when booking online, and Newgrange, where we booked 40-mins before arrival, en route, and were ushered past an unamused group that didn’t take the same initiative.
Can I Still Travel to Northern Ireland from Ireland?
It makes sense to cover both the north and south of Ireland when visiting, at least there’s no reason you shouldn’t. While technically there are two different countries (Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland), there is no land border on the island (despite Brexit), and no real restriction when it comes to travelling between the two countries. The only real noticeable differences will likely be in currency (Pounds instead of Euros), and distances (miles instead of kilometres) in Northern Ireland.
It is also simple to travel between the two capital cities Belfast and Dublin with a direct train line and the main motorway connecting Dublin and Belfast takes roughly 2 hours each way. Both capitals also have their own advantages when it comes to travel, with the most northern point of Northern Ireland actually further south than parts of ‘southern’ Ireland in Donegal. Therefore Belfast offers a better vantage point for exploring the more northern tourist attractions Ireland as well as many of the more scenic parts of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Best Road Trips in Ireland and Northern Ireland
There are 4 main road trips on the island of Ireland and together they in fact connect to cover the entire perimeter of the island for the Ultimate Road Trip in Ireland. These are:
- Ireland’s Ancient East (Ireland)
- Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way (Ireland)
- The Causeway Coastal Route (Northern Ireland)
- The Mourne Coastal Route (Northern Ireland)
These routes are fairly diverse as well, each road trip being unique in themselves, with their own standalone and standout tourist attractions. Therefore they make a good basis for travel and tourism in Ireland and this guide shares the best tourist attractions in Ireland in 2022.
Dublin and Ireland’s Ancient East
Dublin is the obvious arrival point for most visitors to Ireland, and it also makes a convenient base for day trips with many of Ireland’s famous tourist attractions along ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ within easy reach (not so much the west coast). Many of these tourist destinations can also be visited on wider itinerary tours from Dublin City Centre and there is always the road trip option with Ireland’s Ancient East.
At the same time, some of the more famous tourist attractions here are not as convenient for a day trip from Dublin, where it’s 1-hour 30-minutes from Dublin to Kilkenny, 2-hours from Dublin to the Rock of Cashel, and 3-hours from Dublin to Blarney Castle. So an overnight stay (at least) at Kilkenny, Tipperary, and Cork respectively is recommended when visiting these tourist destinations. I have included the below tourist attraction in order of travel time by road when travelling from Dublin City Centre.
Guinness Storehouse (Dublin)
One must-do activity in Dublin is visiting the Guinness Storehouse. This attraction is half museum, half tasting experience where you can learn about the science behind Guinness, how its marketed and consumed, as well as have your own go at pouring a pint, tasting Guinness stew, and sipping on a Guinness at the Gravity Bar with 360-degree views of Dublin.
Currently, the Guinness Storehouse is accepting a limited number of guests each day so advanced booking is recommended. Proof of immunity (via vaccination or having recovered recently from COVID) and matching photo ID will be checked upon arrival. Those under 18 years old do not need to show proof.
A recommended hotel is the Ashling Hotel in Dublin which costs $126+ per night and has 4.4 stars out of 5 from over 2,000 ratings on Google!
Recommended by Alanna from Periodic Adventures
Phoenix Park (Dublin)
The Phoenix Park is one of the largest city parks in Europe. Lying west of Dublin City Centre lies 1750 acres of enclosed recreational space for travellers and citizens to enjoy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. From a visit to the Dublin zoo to feeding the wild herds of deer that call the Phoenix Park home, there are countless activities to do there, and some of them are even free, so it’s ideal for those looking to travel Ireland on a budget. What more could you want?
As you walk through Dublin’s public garden, look out for the President of Ireland’s home, Áras An Uachtaráin. You may even catch a glimpse of him walking his dogs.
One of Phoenix Park’s hidden gems is the Papal Cross. It’s a 116-foot tall steel white cross that was created for the papal visit of Pope John Paul II on September 29th, 1979. Just type “Papal Cross” into Google Maps and you’ll be on your way to seeing one of Ireland’s most spectacular monuments.
Recommended by Adam of As Adam Goes.
Dublin Castle (Dublin)
Dublin Castle is historically and contemporarily the most important establishment of Ireland. Under the command of King John of England, the construction began in 1204 and ended in 1230. The castle has functioned as a top site for government activities from its foundation.
Tourists are welcomed inside to witness the architectural grandeur and history of Ireland. The total area under this castle is 11 acres. The state apartments occupy the southern region while the towers occupy the corners. Birmingham Tower in the southwest corner is among the few remaining structures of the original building. Most of the towers have fallen or been rebuilt. The castle houses an arts centre in the crypt of the Chapel Royal. The castle grounds are well known as a venue for musical concerts.
Ireland tour visitors are allowed inside every day from 9:45 AM to 5:45 PM. The last entry is permitted at 5:15 PM. Tickets cost around €6 – €7, and children below 12 do not need tickets. Guided tours are available in limited quantities due to the current situation. Hard Rock Hotel Dublin is the closest accommodation to the castle.
Recommended by Ruma of the Holiday Story
Dublin Hop-on Hop-off (Dublin)
The famous cities of Europe, like London or Dublin, can be really stressful if you don’t know the city very well. To travel in Ireland stress-free, hop on the bus in the capital to see all the famous landmarks in one or two days.
Hop On Hop Off City Tour covers 30 different attractions. You can hop off the bus at St. Patrick’s Close, Leinster Street or St James’s Gate. Whether you want to see The National Wax Museum or the National Gallery of Ireland this tour will give you plenty of options to choose from.
It also offers the best way to explore the city’s major attractions at your own pace. From the top of the bus deck, you can admire amazing architecture and incredible views of Dublin. This type of bus tour will help you learn more about the history of Dublin, as well as take you to some of the hidden gems in the city.
Recommended by Paulina of UK Every Day.
Malahide Castle and Gardens (County Dublin)
Malahide village is just 15 kilometres away (20-mins) from Dublin city centre and it’s a great place to spend the afternoon or a weekend when staycationing is still in trend. Malahide Castle and Gardens is the main attraction of this coastal village, where you can safely enjoy the formal gardens and the West Lawn at Malahide Castle. The castle has been there for 800 years, most of that time being the residence of an important Irish family, the Talbots.
You can only visit the castle on a guided tour, available 4 times a day, at 10:30, 11:30, 13:30, and 15:30. I suggest buying the ticket before visiting the gardens, as there is limited availability and the tours operate on a limited capacity now for social distancing.
Recommended by Anda of Travel for a While
Howth Cliff Walk (County Fingal)
If you’re looking for things to do in Ireland in 2022, then you absolutely must go on the Howth Cliff Walk! This adventurous yet peaceful walk is only a short day trip from downtown Dublin (25-minutes). In fact, it can be reached by taking the bus or the train, making it perfect if you’re visiting the country as a tourist.
The Howth Cliff Walk is incredibly picturesque and has multiple different routes to choose from depending on how much time you have as well as how hard of a hike you’d like to do. Be sure to pack a lunch to enjoy, because, towards the end, there’s an excellent spot to relax while watching the sea.
To stay overnight in Howth, consider spending a night at King Sitric Restaurant & Accommodation.
Recommended by Krystianna from Volumes & Voyages
Newgrange (County Meath)
The Neolithic burial tomb of Newgrange is one of Ireland’s most unique attractions located just 40minutes north of Dublin. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is famed for its connection to the winter solstice. The entrance to the tomb is aligned so that for a few days around the winter solstice, the light from the sunrise enters the passageway all the way to the burial chamber. It is also home to some of the oldest known spiral stone carvings in the world.
To visit the Brú na Boinne Visitor Centre and the exterior of Newgrange (the chamber itself is currently closed), it is necessary to pre-book the tour in advance. Tours are generally 1.5 hours in duration and face masks must be worn.
Located about 20 minutes drive away from Newgrange, The Scholars Townhouse Hotel in the heart of Drogheda is an ideal choice of accommodation.
Recommended by Nils of Let’s Go Ireland
Irish National Stud and Japanese Gardens (County Kildare)
A great thing to do in Ireland is to visit the Irish National Stud and Japanese Gardens in County Kildare just 45-minute out from Dublin. Home to some of the best horse studs and where some famous racing horses have been born and bred, the Irish National Stud is an interesting place to visit. Join a guided tour with a trainer or stable hand and learn all about the horses who live and breed there.
Afterwards, take a stroll around the beautiful Japanese Gardens. These perfectly landscaped gardens are styled in Japanese and even have a Japanese tea house nestled in them. Enjoy this peaceful haven among the plants, trees, shrubs, and water features that adorn these beautiful gardens.
Note: visits must be pre-booked in advance. Check here for nearby Hotels in Kildare
Recommended by Cath of Travel Around Ireland
Wicklow Mountains National Park (County Wicklow)
The Wicklow Mountains, located just south of Dublin (45-minutes), encapsulate all of the natural beauty that Ireland is known for – think rolling green hills, glacial lakes, and untamed boglands.
Within the Wicklow Mountains National Park (the largest national park in Ireland), there are plenty of opportunities to have outdoor adventures- whether you paddleboard in the idyllic Glendalough Valley, boulder a craggy gully at Glenmalure, or even try your hand at the seven-day backpacking trip of the Wicklow Way, there are endless ways to take in the area’s pure natural beauty.
If you’re looking for a place to stay near the national park, consider the cosy Glendalough Hotel, which dates back to the 1830s and retains a lot of its historic charm.
Recommended by Jessica Schmit of Uprooted Traveler
Kilkenny Castle (County Kilkenny)
Ireland has thousands of castles but one of the more popular ones to visit is Kilkenny Castle in the medieval town of Kilkenny just 1 hour 30 minutes south of Dublin. This castle has a history that goes back over 800 years, the majority of which are associated with the Butler family. Kilkenny Castle has mostly a Victorian remodel with well-restored rooms to explore and 50 acres of greenery.
Visitors can take a self-guided tour through the castle in a one-way route that ends up in the gardens outside. You can also venture to the basement below to see the medieval foundations. There are guides standing by if you have any questions about the castle or history.
It’s a beautiful place to explore and you’ll definitely want to make sure to pre-book your tickets online before you go!
Recommended by Ashley Jansen of Jetset Jansen
Rock of Cashel (County Tipperary) 2 hours
The Rock of Cashel is an imposing structure dating back to 1100AD. There are countless tales to tell about this medieval construction. For example, the windows were actually supposed to be bigger, but the Bishop in charge ran out of money and therefore decided to make them smaller.
You’ll need about 2 hours to explore the Rock of Cashel, definitely add this to your Ireland road trip itinerary. The most notable buildings include Cormacs Chapel, the Round Tower (the oldest structure on the premises) and of course the Cathedral itself.
Current opening hours are a bit more limited (9:00 – 15:45) due to Covid and you can only visit the exterior at the moment. Online ticket sales have been temporarily suspended and tickets can only be bought on site (€8 per adult).
‘Recommended by Lotte of Gezond Weekmenu’ by ‘Lotte of Phenomenal Globe Travel Blog
Cahir Castle (County Tipperary)
Cahir Castle in Tipperary sits on a tiny rocky island in the River Suir, a location that was chosen for its natural defences when the castle was built in 1142. The River Suir flows alongside this magnificent medieval castle and National Monument.
Restored in 1964 the Castle contains medieval furniture, cannons beautiful crenellations and a working portcullis. Cahir Castle is believed to have been built in the 13th century on the site of an earlier Irish stone fort known as Cathair Dún Iascaigh (the Stone Fort of the Fortress of the Fishery).
In the 70’s Stanley Kubrick used the castle as a setting for his film Barry Lyndon. In 1650 Oliver Cromwell and his forces demanded the surrender of the castle and it was given without a shot being fired.
Cahir village is a unique Medieval town surrounding the Castle and I would highly recommend staying at the Cahir House Hotel a historic townhouse with stunning castle views.
Recommended by Faith of XYUandBEYOND
Blarney Castle (County Cork)
Blarney Castle tops many to-do lists when it comes to tourist attractions in Ireland, as a pilgrimage of sorts to kiss the Blarney Stone at the top of the castle. In return, the smoocher will be given the ‘gift of the gab’ which more or less means Irish eloquence. The price tag (entrance fee) is therefore expensive but the surrounding grounds make the visit worthwhile with some of the most diverse and exciting gardens in Ireland.
Nearer the south of Ireland, Blarney Castle has always been a big favourite with the cruise ship crowds travelling up from the southern ports of Cork. With the pandemic, however, and with cruise ships grounded, Blarney Castle has been relatively empty, and on our most recent visit in late-2021, the queues to the actual Blarney Stone were no existent as pictured below. Prices were also discounted online and it’s almost the perfect time to visit atm.
Ireland’s West and Wild Atlantic Way
Unfortunately, Dublin is not a convenient base for travel to the west coast, where it’s over 2-hours on tollways to reach the opposite coastline. And while there are day trips from Dublin city centre visiting many west coast tourist attractions (e.g. 300kms to the Cliffs of Moher), it feels a bit like a wasted journey to travel the 3-hours back again. It’s best to find a base on the west coast.
The Wild Atlantic Way road trip is probably the best way to explore the tourist attractions on Ireland’s west coast, but personal transport is needed for this, and that’s not always an option. Otherwise, there are a number of convenient bases for tourism on the west coast including Galway City as a central location, Killarney for the Ring of Kerry and more southern tourist attractions, and then maybe Donegal or Londonderry (Northern Ireland) for the more northern attractions.
Sleive League (County Donegal)
Slieve League is located in Donegal, Ireland, around a 2-hours drive from Londonderry in Northern Ireland or Sligo. They are one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe. Notwithstanding the very popular Cliffs of Moher are three times smaller, Slieve League is practically unknown and hardly visited in comparison. However, Slieve League is stunningly beautiful with breathtaking views across crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. It would be a mistake to miss this natural landmark on any trip to Ireland.
Notwithstanding their height, visitors to Slieve League can easily walk from the lower parking lot to viewing platforms. Once you reach the viewing platforms, you can choose to stay and enjoy the spectacular views, or hike up to the peak. Even if you are not a hiker, consider hiking at least part of the way to get even more breathtaking views as you climb.
Like everywhere in Ireland, weather changes quickly. Make sure you dress in layers and bring a packable rain jacket in case your beautiful sunny day becomes misty, rainy or cool.
For stunning accommodation, consider staying at the elegant and luxurious Lough Eske Castle. Slieve League is only a 45-minute drive and you get an unforgettable experience of staying in a castle.
Recommended by Nicole of Go Far Grow Close.
Croagh Patrick (County Mayo)
Croagh Patrick is a timeless classic dominating the County Mayo landscape south of Clew Bay. Located in tiny Murrisk, the mountain is free to climb, but there’s a fee if you use the Croagh Patrick Visitor Centre car park. You can easily make the 7 km round trip hike to the top of the 764 m mountain in an afternoon, but make sure you have quality footwear and a good level of physical fitness.
Known as the holy mountain because of its connection to St. Patrick, you may also see Croagh Patrick referred to as “The Reek.” You’ll find hotels in the nearby town of Westport. The self-catering Murrisk Apartment right across the road are your most convenient lodging option.
Recommended by Ada of Beyond the Yellow Brick Road: A Travel Blog
Aran Islands (County Galway)
This little island group lies just a few kilometres offshore to the West Coast and can be reached by taking a ferry from Doolin. The ride from the mainland to Inis Oírr, the smallest of the Aran Islands, takes only 15 minutes.
The best way to explore the only 10 square kilometres big island is by bicycle, which you can rent right by the port. Bike lanes are allowing you to visit every landmark of Inis Oírr: the old and very photogenic shipwreck, the lighthouse and of course the fortress ruins.
But the island has as well beautiful white beaches and if you are not scared of the cold waters of Galway Bay, you can even go for a dip.
If you plan to stay overnight on the Island, make sure to arrange accommodation well in advance. Inis Oírr has only a handful of Bed & Breakfast that book out fast, for example, the Lios Éinne B&B right by the ferry port.
Recommended by Lena of Salut from Paris.
Cliffs of Moher (County Clare)
Believed to be created over 320 million years ago, Cliffs of Moher is one of the most visited attractions in Ireland, and for good reason. With striking sandstone, siltstone and shale cliffs that jut out from the deep blue sea, it’s a sight to behold. If you can visit at sunset when the sky turns a beautiful pink, red and orange, or take a ferry ride for a unique perspective of the cliffs from the ocean.
As of 2022, the staff at the Cliffs of Moher have put COVID-19 safety measures into effect. This includes social distancing signage, distanced seating and outdoor benches, packaged food and disposable cutlery and contactless payment.
Book a stay at The Lodges @ Sea View House Doolin, located a quick 10-minute drive from the Cliffs of Moher. Take the Cliffs of Moher walking trail down the coastline from Sea View House. It takes approximately an hour to reach the visitor’s centre.
Recommended by Haley of Haley Blackall Travel
Bunratty Castle and Folk Park (County Clare)
Bunratty Castle and Folk Park in County Clare is a 26 acre, outdoor, living museum attraction and is one of the best things to do in Co. Clare with kids (or even without kids)!
The park contains 30 buildings such as houses, shops and businesses from Ireland’s urban and rural history. Most of the buildings are fully furnished and some, like the 19th century Doctors surgery, have actors dressed in period costume who will ‘tell’ you about their lives.
There is a petting farm, a fairy trail, a Regency-era walled garden, a church and a recreated 19th-century street complete with a school, post office and pub. Visitors can also tour the 15th century Bunratty Castle, one of Ireland’s best-preserved castles.
Stay at Bunratty Manor Hotel, a short ten-minute walk from the entrance to the park.
Recommended by Sinead of Map Made Memories.
Dingle Peninsula (County Kerry)
Located on the West coast of the Emerald Island, the Dingle Peninsula is a heaven for anyone who enjoys spending time outdoors. Some of the best beaches on the Dingle Peninsula include Reunion Island look alike Cappagh beach and Inch beach, which offers great views of the Ring of Kerry.
For those who would like to wake up to those views every morning, the Inch Beach House B&B is the perfect place for your stay. Driving the Sea Head Drive is another highlight of the Peninsula and takes you to beautiful places such as the Dunquin Pier and Star Wars shooting locations. If you are looking to immerse yourself in the Irish culture, take a walk around the streets of colourful Dingle, and stop at a pub for a drink or a snack!
Recommended by Mary of Be Right Back by Mary
Gap of Dunloe (County Kerry)
The Gap of Dunloe is a stunning mountain pass through gorgeous countryside filled with charming bungalows and sheep-filled pastures. The gap features a narrow country road which winds past a series of five sparkling lakes.
Hiking along this 11-km route, known as the Gap of Dunloe Walk, is a great way to get an up-close view of the glacier-carved hills. The path officially starts at Kate Kearney’s Cottage and ends at Lord Brandon’s Cottage in Killarney National Park. You can finish the journey with a ferry ride to Ross Castle across the Killarney Lakes.
The Lake Hotel is a lovely lake-side property from which to base your visit to Killarney National Park and to explore the Gap of Dunloe.
Recommended by Katy from A Rambling Unicorn
Killarney (County Kerry)
If you’re looking for the best things to do in Ireland in 2022, visiting the picturesque town of Killarney should certainly top your list! Located in County Kerry, in southwestern Ireland, Killarney is a popular gateway to the scenic Ring of Kerry drive. But this colourful, traditional Irish town deserves a visit in its own right.
From wandering around its lovely streets and enjoying a pint in one of its many charming pubs, to exploring Ireland’s oldest national park, or visiting the impressive Muckross House, Gardens, and Traditional Farms, there’s just so much to do and see here that a shortstop won’t make it justice. For a truly unforgettable experience, take a boat tour on the Lakes of Killarney, including a visit to the inhabited Innisfallen Island.
I recommend staying for at least a couple of days at Castle Lodge Guest House, just a two-minute walk from the town centre.
Recommended by Vanda from The Yogi Wanderer
Skellig Michael (County Kerry)
A wind-swept, pyramidal shaped island, Skellig Michael is about 12 miles west of the Ireland coast and takes a small boat about 50 minutes to get there. A much sought after tour, people love going to the island for three main reasons.
One of the main reasons people want to visit Skellig Michael is that it is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list due to the monastery built way on the top of the island over 1400 years ago. Monks subsisted on the island, catching fish in the morning and growing some of their own produce, while dedicating their lives to the church. Today after climbing over 600 rocky steps, you can visit their unique buildings.
Secondly, Skellig Michael is home to many sea birds who nest there each year. Birders from around the world come to see the puffins, gannets, and others. Probably the most popular, the puffins nest there between April and August each year, and can be found on every ledge and rock as you climb to the top.
The final reason Skellig Michael is so popular is that it is one of the filming locations of two Star Wars movies, “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi.” You may even see avid fans dressed in costumes. No matter which reason speaks to you, Skellig Michael is well worth the trip.
Recommended by Corinne Vail of Reflections Enroute
Charles Fort, Kinsale (County Cork)
A few minutes from colourful Kinsale town is the historic Charles Fort, which was built back in the 1700s. Easily one of the best things to do in West Cork, this star-shaped fort took centre stage in many of Ireland’s most notable historic events, including the Civil War and Williamite War.
Entry to Charles Fort is €5 per adult and €3 per child and you can wander the large grounds and learn all about the history of the Fort and the surrounding area through the many audio and visual exhibits. The views of Kinsale Harbor from here are stunning – aim to get here for sunset if you can!
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Charles Fort is the legend of the ghost of the White Lady who is said to roam the grounds at night. According to locals, the ghost is of a grieving bride who threw herself over the Fort’s walls upon hearing of her husband’s death! Her husband was a soldier who was on patrol at Charles Fort on his wedding night and tripped and fell to his death.
Recommended by Aimee of Snap Happy Travel
Belfast and Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland is a relatively close-knit destination with tourist attractions no more than an hour-or-so apart. It is also a simple 2-hour direct connection to Dublin, which makes the city a potential day trip, but also a handy base for travel in the north of Ireland. From Belfast City Centre there are the. simple tour options that cover most of the main tourist attractions in Northern Ireland.
Belfast, with its international airports, is also popular for arrivals to the island of Ireland, and it is the ideal vantage point for exploring not just Northern Ireland, but the more far-flung attractions of Ireland in Donegal, and it is a popular starting point for those taking on the Wild Atlantic Way. Northern Ireland’s 2nd city, Derry/Londonderry also has an intentional airport and sits on the border with Donegal again for travel in the north of the island.
Belfast (County Antrim)
Belfast is a relatively small capital city, and with close-knit tourist attractions, it is easy to navigate on foot, and it is possible to cover most major attractions in 2-3 days (although there is plenty to keep busy for longer stays). The city also makes a handy base for travel and exploring the rest of Northern Ireland with every tourist attraction and furthest border within an hour of the city centre.
Central to the city would be Belfast City Hall, which hosts many of the city’s annual events (like Belfast Christmas Market), and is set next to the main shopping street of Donegall Place and Royal Avenue (Victoria Square a major attraction here). A short walk then finds the Lagan riverside area, which connects to the newly revamped Titanic Quarter which is like an open-air museum celebrating Belfast’s shipbuilding culture and of course the Titanic. Anyway, here’s our full list of things to do in Belfast.
Bangor and North Down Coastal Path (County Down)
A seaside alternative to Belfast, located just 30-minutes down Northern Ireland’s ‘Gold Coast’ Trainline finds the resort town of Bangor in Northern Ireland, as well as a number of stops and tourist attractions along the way. This includes the Ulster Folk Museum (Cultra), Helen’s Bay and Crawfordsburn Country Park, and many connecting beaches. Otherwise, Bangor is the main attraction on this coastline, and it also marks the beginning of the more scenic walks along the North Down Coastal Path.
Bangor of course is an attraction in itself with a lot of the town centred around Castle Park and Bangor Castle with the North Down Museum and historical walled garden. However it is hard to stay away from the coast of this seaside town with its rather massive marina and seafront promenade (and there’s always Pickie Funpark for the kids)… here’s our full list of things to do in Bangor.
The Giant’s Causeway (County Antrim)
The postcard picture of Northern Ireland and the first UNESCO inscribed World Heritage Site on the island of Ireland. The famous 40,000 interlocking basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway was the result of ancient volcanic activity, however, we all prefer the legend of Finn McCool, the giant who built the causeway to Scotland so he could go wallop some other giant on the opposite side. He then destroyed it again because the other giant, Benandonner, was twice his size.
Anyway, the Giant’s Causeway is found along the Causeway Coast, roughly 3-miles from Bushmills, and it is the main attraction of the coastline. The visitor centre is owned and managed by the National Trust who charge a rather pricy entrance fee, however, it is possible to bypass the visitor centre and we share here how to visit the Giant’s Causeway for free.
Carrick-a-Rede Ropebridge (County Antrim)
Found nearer the beginning of the Causeway Coast, just over 7km from the entry town of Ballycastle, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge connects between the main coastline and the wee island of Carrick-a-Rede. Originally the bridge was erected by salmon fishermen way back in 1755, but now is more frequented by selfie-obsessed tourists. It does look good. Again the site is managed by the National Trust, but this is only for access to the bridge, and the surrounding coastline is free to visit and explore.
Unfortunately, Carrick-a-Rede was one of the major casualties of tourism in Northern Ireland during the pandemic, and even now (2022) the bridge remains temporarily closed. However, it is only the bridge crossing that is closed, and the surrounding coastline is still open to visit and explore (for free), and honestly, it’s some of the most magnificent coastal scenery you will find. There’s a reason why this stretch of coastline has UNESCO status and the bridge itself kind of detracts from it.
Check Here for Hotels Near Carrick-a-Rede
Mussenden Temple/Downhill Demesne (County Londonderry)
Further along on the Causeway Coastal Route towards Derry/Londonderry, is the now-iconic tourist attraction Mussenden Temple, best known for its dome-shaped ‘temple’ found teetering on the edge of a cliff. And while it is best known for this iconic image, this is just a small part of a wider estate with the Downhill Demesne managed again by the National Trust. This includes some fantastic views from above over beaches and cliffside scenery.
The ‘temple’ is a paid attraction with very little inside, so it’s more the estate you’re paying to see. Otherwise the same iconic cliffside temple can be seen from the beach below (Downhill Strand) which is one of the longest beaches in Northern Ireland (7km long). It is also a drive-on-beach at the initial entrance and it’s absolutely free (at the time of writing). There is also surfing and other watersports along this beach.
Strangford Lough (County Down)
I’m including this as a wider attraction, and while there are a number of standalone tourist attractions along the way (I’ll come to these), much of the appeal of Strangford Lough comes from the surrounding scenery on Ards Peninsula. As a destination it is also more of a road trip in Northern Ireland and tourist attractions and even towns and villages can be tricky to reach without your own transport.
Along the way, one of the more standout tourist attractions on Strangford Lough is Mount Stewart, famous for probably the most picturesque gardens and cultivated estate in Northern Ireland. Then there is Scrabo Tower which overlooks the Lough from above, Greyabbey is a nice wee place to visit, Castle Espie, the Strangford Ferry crossing, before reaching another main attraction at Castle Ward.
Castle Ward aka Winterfell (County Down)
What once was an off-the-beaten-path domestic attraction, Castle Ward created a new lease of fame when it became the backdrop to Winterfell in the Game of Thrones series and home to the King in the North. Now it would be the star attraction of the Game of Thrones tours in Northern Ireland (leaving Belfast) including a bike tour of 20 different filming locations on the estate.
Aside from the new GoT fame, Castle Ward is a big attraction in itself with house tours, some beautifully landscaped gardens, and lots of surrounding woodland and forest walks to explore. Again, like Mount Stewart and the various tourist attractions of Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast, Castle Ward is managed by the National Trust, so it maybe worth investing in a year’s pass for longer visits.
The Mourne Mountains (County Down)
Designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Northern Ireland, the Mourne Mountains are located just north of the Irish border, and only 1 hour 30 minutes out from the centre of Dublin. It is also again a fairly wide and varying area with a number of standalone attractions such as Tollymore Forest Park which is a must-visit when in the region.
Otherwise, for those planning to climb the actual mountains, the highest peak at Slieve Donard is one of the easiest to reach with direct access from the seaside town of Newcastle which is also the obvious base for any visit to the Mournes. However, with personal transport, there are some more scenic off-the-beaten-path treks in the Mourne Mountains including Silent Valley to Ben Crom, and various walks from the Trassey Track.
There are many camping opportunities in the Mournes and the foothills (including Tolymore Forest Park and Castlewellan) but most people opt for a more comfortable stay in the tourist town of Newcastle.