Northern Ireland is home to some beautiful countryside, great Irish pubs and of course the iconic Giant’s Causeway. Northern Ireland’s small size means you can easily take in its highlights in a short space of time, making it the perfect place for a weekend escape.
For me, one of the best things about being London based was the ability to travel quickly and easily across Europe. A memorable weekend away was one spent not on the European continent but in Northern Ireland – a place with a fascinating recent history and a real angst that’s still present today.
A weekend is feasible for exploring Northern Ireland if you get a Friday evening flight and a late Sunday return flight, giving you two full days to see as much as you like. We hired a car for extra flexibility and easily covered the area between Belfast and Derry (or Londonderry) taking in iconic sites like the Giant’s Causeway and the Mussenden Temple, as well as endless rolling hills, without feeling rushed.
Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland and makes a great starting point. It’s easily and cheaply accessible from London, with multiple flights on discount airlines each day. You can pick a hire car up at Belfast airport when you land and head to your accommodation if you get in during the evening, meaning you can get straight on your way the next morning. Northern Ireland is home to lots of great bed and breakfasts so be sure to stay in one or two while you’re there.
The Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s main tourist attraction and with just cause. It’s an incredible place. There’s a real sense of anticipation as you walk down to the site – a feeling I often get when visiting somewhere so iconic. You can easily spend a couple of hours here wandering over the rocks – more than 40,000 basalt columns make up the causeway, which was created following a volcanic eruption. The coastline around the causeway is dramatic, with the North Atlantic Ocean crashing against the nearby cliffs.
The coast here is known as the Causeway Coast and makes for a scenic drive between Belfast and Derry (just 190 kilometres separate these two cities). There are a number of historic buildings and castles to break up your journey, including the Mussenden Temple near Castlerock and Downhill House, built in the 18th century and largely destroyed by fire in 1851. These ancient and crumbling buildings evoke the area’s past and you can explore them at your leisure.
Be sure to give yourself time to explore Derry. This city has such an incredible recent history and if you have time this is a place I’d really recommend joining a walking tour or something similar so you can learn more about life here from the locals. Tours are not something I usually like to do, but here they are a great idea. My mum was travelling with us in Northern Ireland and she got talking to some locals in Derry who gave a fascinating insight into what life was like during the ‘Troubles’ as they’re known. Put simply, the Troubles began in the 1960s as a result of a push for civil rights. The British Government had introduced a rule restricting votes in Catholic households in Northern Ireland, and forcing Catholic families into particular areas. During my time in Derry I also learnt that the division of Ireland goes all the way back the Queen Elizabeth I’s rule when she gave land out to Protestant farmers and not to Catholics.
The woman we met in Derry told stories about crawling under gun fire on her way to school, going into town to watch the riots and being forced to live in a particular section of the town up on a hill to ensure isolation. Much of it was hard to believe, particularly given how relatively recently this took place.
While in Derry, be sure to head down to the Bogside to see the murals there dating from this time, as well as the historic centre and old city walls. You can follow the coast back to Belfast for your return flight, or alternatively return inland past beautiful Lough Neagh. If you’re interested in learning more about Northern Ireland’s past, Mark Mulholland’s A Mad and Wonderful Thing is a compelling story exploring the tensions that exist in Northern Ireland and is well worth a read.