Best National Trust Properties in Northern Ireland

We had planned on visiting every National Trust property in Northern Ireland through the space of a year, but with our stints in Asia, and the arrival of Coronavirus 6-months in, we didn’t quite make the full list. But we did cover the main sites of the National Trust, and covered many of them two or three times, as we made the most of the nearer sites to us here in Co. Down and Antrim. And we do plan to finish the full list as soon as we can. We have also been trying to map the best National Trust Properties in Northern Ireland along with local guides and wider tourism to make the overall experience more rewarding for visitors to Northern Ireland. With many included in our Northern Ireland Road Trip Video below.

National Trust Membership

I would consider the annual pass even for tourists visiting Northern Ireland as it not only works for National Trust properties throughout the U.K. but you can easily cover the costs on a short visit to Northern Ireland. For example, we bought joint membership in Scotland for £102, so that’s £51 each. And you can easily cover half this cost in one day just by covering the main attractions of the Causeway Coast. Tourist attractions which will otherwise be paid on arrival by thousands of tourists every week.

We obviously take a more relaxed approach given we do have plenty of time to explore, and the Causeway Coast was very much an afterthought in our outings (it’s busy out there). Yet we had already broken even on our National Trust Annual Pass in less than 3 weeks, and on our 4th day out. Then we likely doubled or triple in value through the year including various National Trust properties during a road trip through Scotland.

Of course, we would rather see this money going to the 65,000 volunteers of the National Trust instead of the annual £200,000ish paycheck to the CEO (not to mention the other upper-tiers of the organisation). But collectively they do a rather fantastic job at maintaining the National Trust Properties of Northern Ireland, and there really is something for everyone. And here we share some of the best National Trust Properties in Northern Ireland following our own interests in pottering around the gardens and estates of the Northern Ireland’s historical homes.

The Mourne Coastal Route

This area is rather huge but there is a lot to explore as well and the 2 best National Trust properties are fairly close together (45-min drive apart) on the banks of Strangford Lough and the Ards Peninsula. Then Rowallane Gardens would be roughly 30-minutes out from both. But I would definitely recommend giving a day or so to all these properties.

Otherwise, County Down is a rather scenic region to explore, starting with us here in Bangor in North Down and following what is known as the Mourne Coastal Route following the Ards Peninsula. Mount Stewart would then be the main National Trust Property along with our recommended stops at Greyabbey for rustic charm and its ancient Abbey, and maybe the fishing village of Portavogie for some Portavogie Prawns. The Strangford Ferry crossing from Portaferry then brings you to Castle Ward.

We are near to Downpatrick here, which is the entry town to Castle Ward along the opposite side of the Ards Peninsula. Although Downpatrick is better known as being the burial place of Saint Patrick and for its annual Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. It would also be the main town before reaching the foothills of the Mourne Mountains and Newcastle where the National Trust have Murlough Nature Reserve. Two of our favourite outdoorsy attractions here include Tollymore Forest Park and the walk from Silent Valley to Ben Crom Reservoir.

1. Mount Stewart (Strangford Lough)

Mount Stewart for us would be the best National Trust Property in Northern Ireland, partly due to it being nearest to us here in Belfast/Bangor, but it also has everything we look for in a day-out. This includes the house tour where there are guided tours as well as times for free to roam. Then there’s a 950-acre estate and a rather massive lake with walks and trails including a “Red Squirrel Trail” and further-flung attractions like the “Walled Gardens”. But the highlight is undoubtedly the formal sunken gardens found next to the house with a labyrinth of flowers, statues and topiaries, and they’re really just the most impressive gardens we’ve found to date in Northern Ireland. Here for our full guide to Mount Stewart.

2. Castle Ward (Strangford Lough)

Castle Ward is a rather massive 820-acre demesne found on the banks of Strangford Lough, where it is home to Castle Ward House, Old Castle Ward, and it includes various woodland nature trails and coastal paths. The main attraction here would have normally the main house of Castle Ward, along with its sunken gardens, stable yard cafe, and daily heritage tours of the mansion house. Although these days a lot of the focus is on Old Castle Ward, a Georgian ‘castle’ and farmyard, which is now better known as ‘Winterfell’ due to its fame as the backdrop for the castle in the Game of Thrones franchise. So it may be the better option for (big) kids with experiences and activities like archery and bike rentals and tours to explore the 20+ movie scene locations throughout the wider estate. The National Trust also have a connecting campsite which we experienced in the Castle Ward Glamping Pods.

3. Rowallane Gardens (Saintfield)

We originally approached Rowallane Garden as a potential stopover en route to Castle Ward. To our surprise, it was easily one of the highlights of National Trust Properties in Northern Ireland. But, as with gardens, it is best to visit in the spring and summer months, where there’s not really a building/heritage tour like Mount Stewart or Castle Ward other than the outhouses and cafe/visitor centre. But the gardens really are perfect for a picnic, and it’s a bit like a smaller, less prestigious Mount Stewart, only it’s cheaper, and a lot less busy, so there are advantages. There is of course more to Rowallane Garden as well where there is a wider estate expanding out from the walled gardens to parklands, and woodlands, to a far perimeter of fields and rural farmland. Enough for at least a half-day out. Our full picnicking experience here.

4. Murlough Nature Reserve (Newcastle)

This was more a visit on passing after a stopover in Newcastle following a night of camping at the not-so-far Castlewellan Forest Park (NI Forest Service). And it was a bit like a freebie for us on our Annual Membership Pass in an otherwise paid car park run by the National Trust which more or less gives access to the more scenic and better-maintained coastline of the area. Although it is also potentially walkable from the not-so-far town of Newcastle (2-miles). Anyway, Murlough National Nature Reserve is one of the most extensive sand dune heaths in all of Ireland (apparently) with a rather majestic backdrop of the Mourne mountains, and wider walks and trails shared by the National Trust.

The Causeway Coast

The Causeway Coast would be the most scenic coastline in Northern Ireland (and maybe all of Ireland) famous foremost for the renowned Giant’s Causeway. But there is a lot more to the 29km of coastline which has collectively been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). ‘The Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast’.

The National Trust sites on the Causeway Coast have caused a bit of fuss locally as they more or less occupied otherwise free-to-roam coastline attractions, built car parks and gates, and then charged loads to get past. Although these tourist attractions are ridiculously busy at the quietest of times so it does make sense to regulate the traffic and the income obviously allows to better preserve/maintain these areas of natural beauty.

Anyway, there are 4 busy National Trust Tourist Attractions along the causeway coastline which I share in order here by distance when arriving from Belfast. The first attraction is Carrick-a-Rede Ropebridge before the Giant’s Causeway and these are both on the Antrim Coast. Before reaching Port Stewart Strand and Mussenden Temple which are found on the Londonderry side. Although you won’t notice any change between the 2 counties.

There is also a lot to explore along the Causeway coastline including a dozen or more ‘Game of Thrones’ filming locations popular with big bus tours and other major attractions include Rathlin Island, Port Ballintoy, the ruins of ‘Dunluce Castle’, and the Bushmills whiskey distillery. There’s more than enough to fill a week and which I also share in our simple Top 10 Causeway Coast Attractions.

1. Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (Ballycastle)

Not far from Ballycastle and just after the harbour of Ballintoy is Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and the only National Trust Property on the Causeway Coast that we have yet to visit. At least we’ve not yet crossed the bridge itself to the wee island of Carrickarede. Although we have made it to the car park on 4 occasions with plans to cross to bridge, only it was far too busy with the first 3 visits, and on the 4th we were told we needed advance booking before it was closed due to bad weather… Now, with closures due to Covid, a visit looks more unlikely than ever. There are some nice views however from the carpark above and below and the overspill car park (Larrybane Quarry) is another Game of Thrones filming location, for King Renly Baratheon’s camp.

2. Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre (Bushmills)

Shortly after Dunseverick Castle (4km), which is one of the National Trust’s lesser properties, finds The Giant’s Causeway, which is by far the most famous landmark in Northern Ireland and its first-ever UNESCO world heritage site. For those new to the area, it is more or less a coastline of towering interlocking basalt columns (40,000+), and it is also an attraction that can be visited for free (our guide to free admission here). But there is also a National Trust Visitor Centre which shares many of its own benefits including easy to access car parks, lots of fancy exhibits in the visitor centre, free audio guides that lead you through folklore along the coastal path, and then free travel on the shuttle busses to-and-from the main attraction at the Giant’s Causeway.

3. Portstewart Strand (Portstewart)

There are a couple of these drive-on beaches on the Causeway Coastal Route, where cars can be driven onto the beach itself, for a picnic maybe, or whatnot. So the most popular drive-on beach would be the Portstewart Strand which stretches a good 2km from where it begins in the small seaside town of Portstewart. The beach itself did use to be a free-to-enter tourist attraction here before the National Trust took control and introduced a charge per car for entry. But this of course came with various benefits and Portstewart Strand soon made headlines as it was named the Best Blue Flag Beach in the U.K. And it does make a decent break along the Causeway Coastal route with sand dunes to explore on one side, and nice views to enjoy with maybe a scampi supper from Superfry. Alternatively, there is another drive-on beach (Downhill Beach) which is found right next to Mussenden Temple at Downhill Demesne

4. Mussenden Temple (Castlerock)

Known officially as ‘Downhill Demesne and Hezlett House’, this would be one of the more rewarding National Trust Properties on the Causeway Coast, as you are at least paying to visit a private estate rather than for access to what is otherwise public land. Anyway, Mussenden Temple is probably a stone’s throw from Portstewart Strand, but it is somewhat cut off from the main Causeway Coastal Route by the mouth of the River Bann. This means turning inland and into traffic to cross at Coleraine adding around 20-km to the journey. The National Trust entrance fee includes access to the temple itself with fantastic views over Downhill Beach, but there are also other gardens, walks and trails to explore on the grounds and along the nearby cliffs on the coastline.  

Other Locations

National Trust Properties are of course scattered all over Northern Ireland so there are many further-flung ‘days-out’ for us yet to explore. But it is hard to motivate ourselves to drive over an hour each way to Magherafelt to witness the significant costume collection of Springhill House. So we do try to connect these National Trust Properties with others in the area to make the most of a day out.

1. The Argory (Lough Neagh)

Further afield now to the more obscure properties of the National Trust where we find a handful of properties out near Lough Neagh (The Argory, Ardress House, Springhill House). And the distances really are not so different to the National Trust Properties in County Down when travelling from Belfast. But the Argory was an easy choice where the focus is more on the gardens and surrounding estate than the house tours. And it was definitely the right choice with some great woodland walking trails and along the passing Blackwater river. The walled gardens as well were rather pretty and we even joined the hourly house tour of the former residents’ home. Nearby we decided to call at Ardress House but it was closed at the time and we were only able to poke around the courtyard and apple orchards. Other National Trust Properties near Lough Neagh include Springhill House and Coney Island.

2. Florence Court (Fermanagh)

The highlight of our visit to Florence Court would be the adorable field mouse that randomly chased me and climbed all over my shoes. Not to take away from the property itself as Florence Court again has it all with a heritage house tour, well maintained formal gardens, 10-miles of trails on a rather massive estate, not to forget a mountain as a backdrop. There is also a fair bit of intrigue in the random outhouses including a water-powered sawmill and a blacksmith’s forge on the sustainable estate. You could probably spend a day exploring Florence Court, but, if hurried, it may be worth pairing a visit to the nearby UNESCO Marble Arch Caves (7km). There are also 2 National Trust Properties in the area with Castle Coole and Crom Estate.

3. Castle Coole (Fermanagh)

I honestly can’t remember much from Castle Coole as we spent a lot more time exploring Florence Court than we maybe should have. But it definitely wasn’t time wasted. Anyway, Fermanagh is about as far-flung as possible for us in Northern Ireland, so we tried to squeeze in as much as possible on this passing visit en route to the Lakelands. So we did get an idea of the main buildings of Castle Coole with the courtyard and tearoom and further to the house itself. And very little stood out as being overly unique or exciting in comparison to the best National Trust Properties in Northern Ireland above. But I guess it does give a local escape in Fermanagh where it is within walking distance (about 1km) from nearby Enniskillen. It is then a further 10-miles to Florence Court.

Other National Trust Properties in Northern Ireland

These would be the lesser-known properties owned by the National Trust, in fact, people will visit many of these places without even knowing the National Trust connection. Such as Belfast’s most famous pub, the Crown Bar (Liquor Saloon).

Leave a Reply