You might never have guessed it, but Belfast and Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast has been declared the number one region in the world to travel to in 2018. The travel experts at Lonely Planet made it their winner, seeing off competition from Alaska and the Julian Alps in Slovenia in the process.
For those who’ve never visited this charming corner of the world, it’s easy to wonder why. With many Causeway Coast landmarks featuring as Game of Thrones locations, more people than ever are discovering the region’s magic.
With so much buzz around Northern Ireland out there, it’s surely time to visit Belfast. Using the capital as a base, you can easily access much of the region and take in the best it has to offer. Here’s what not to miss on your Northern Irish getaway.
A recent addition to the city’s museum line-up, Titanic Belfast follows the fateful story of the infamous ship. Set across an iconic six-storey building, you’ll explore nine galleries that will give you the sights, sounds and smells of the vessel in the city that made her. Exciting and poignant in equal measure, it was voted the ‘world’s leading tourist attraction’ at the World Travel Awards 2016.
Just behind the museum, you can walk the real slipways where the boat was launched over 100 years ago. Recently restored, the area now plays host to a packed-out schedule of open-air concerts and exciting events. Scratch the surface of this innovative public space and you’ll notice a life-size plan of Titanic’s promenade deck is inlaid in stone, while benches are placed exactly as they would have been aboard the ship.
Belfast City Hall
Arguably the jewel in Belfast’s crown, this magnificent neo-classical building serves as the centrepiece of the city. From the ornate exterior to the lavish and beautiful interior, its grand appearance is only half of the story. You’ll get to hear the rest when you book a place on one of the free tours of the building, and learn a little more about its incredible history.
St George’s Market
Whether you’re looking for some grub, handcrafted goods or simply want to rub shoulders with the locals – you can’t beat St George’s Market. Constructed in the 1890s, it’s regularly listed among the best in the UK. You’ll always get an incredible atmosphere here; with the smell of fresh fare and the sound of local bands filling the air. You’ll find everything from fruit and veg to antiques, clothes and continental meats on sale. Friday hosts the variety market, while Saturday sees a focus on food, and Sunday specialises in local arts and crafts.
Lying on the city’s northern fringe is the majestic Belfast castle. High up on the slopes of Cavehill Country Park, its prominent position offers spectacular vistas back down over the city. Despite the ideas a castle of this kind might conjure up, it isn’t actually very old, having been built between 1811 and 1870. It’s an incredible landmark nonetheless, and the surrounding gardens are the perfect place for an afternoon stroll – if the sun’s shining, that is.
Crumlin Road Gaol
You’ll find this unique sight just to the north west of the city centre. Dating back to 1845, this vast complex functioned as a working prison until as recently as 1996. Now defunct and having been renovated, you can explore it for yourself on a guided tour. You’ll hear about its long and often dark history, from when women and children were held within its walls to the segregation of republican and loyalist prisoners. Visitors get to see it all – the prison wings, the underground tunnel that led to the court house; even the execution cell where most of the 17 men put to death at the Gaol were hanged.
The Giant’s Causeway
Undoubtedly Northern Ireland’s most famous natural landmark, this mysterious geological formation is a 90-minute drive up the coast from Belfast. Steeped in myth and legend, thousands of neatly packed hexagonal columns step their way down to the Atlantic. Set to the roar of waves and a backdrop of rugged cliff faces, there’s nowhere quite like it on Earth.
Just along the coast north-east of Belfast, The Gobbins makes for an exhilarating and picturesque adventure. Putting the dramatic cliffs of the region to good use, this coastal path will guide you two miles along the crag tops, traversing suspension bridges, tubes, caves and tunnels as you go. Not only will you be treated to stunning vistas out to sea, but you might even spot mainland Northern Ireland’s only colony of Puffins up close.
The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Not for the faint-hearted, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is a 75-minute drive from central Belfast. Suspended almost 30 metres above sea level, this structure was first constructed by salmon fishermen over 350 years ago, as a means of reaching Carrick-a-Rede island. Though the bridge you see today is only several years old, it’s every bit as rickety as the original (though completely safe). If you brave the bridge, you’ll be treated to stunning views back over the Northern Irish coast as your reward.
The Dark Hedges
Planted in the 18th century by the Stuart family, this spectacular avenue of trees is a sight to behold. Noted for its interwoven, mystical appearance; the avenue has long since been one of Northern Ireland’s most famous natural landmarks. If you think you’ve seen this road before somewhere, you probably have – Arya Stark escaped along it in season 2 of Game of Thrones. Just an hour’s drive from the capital, you can no longer take the car through the Dark Hedges, but they’re still well worth enjoying on foot. It’ll give you the chance to take in the fresh Irish air, after all.
With so many great attractions to choose from, we think the experts at Lonely Planet might just be onto something – perhaps Belfast really is the best place to visit in the world. Get planning your Northern Irish adventure with flights to Belfast from Manchester Airport.