Northern Ireland’s lively capital is renowned for its mix of art, culture and history, and you’ll find a wealth of exciting attractions to keep you busy. But beyond the limits of Belfast’s rich cultural cityscape, only an hour or less away, lie even more remarkable destinations that can enthral and excite. What’s more, eagle-eyed visitors will spot filming locations from the HBO epic Game of Thrones at nearly every turn, many of which are set to open to the public in 2019 to coincide with the airing of the show’s final season.
Birdwatch at Castle Espie
Drive eastwards from Belfast towards Strangford Lough to discover Castle Espie, an extensive wetland reserve managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Found three miles to the south of Comber, County Down, it is home to an abundance of native and exotic water birds, stunning estuary views, as well as habitats for plenty of other incredible wildlife. Castle Espie is also an early wintering site for the vast majority of the world’s migrating pale-bellied Brent geese, while Kingfishers are a regular sight in the Saline Lagoon.
From Castle Espie, head south for 20 minutes to take in the picturesque Killyleagh Castle with its conical roofs and imposing battlements, which stands proudly over the village of the same name. Alternatively, head around Strangford Lough in a clockwise direction to reach the National Trust site of Mount Stewart, a splendid collection of award-winning gardens alongside a beautifully refurbished neo-classical property. The characteristic gardens have a strong exotic and Mediterranean feel, while wooded areas support plants from all over the world, ensuring there’s something to discover all year round.
Slightly further south are the ruins of Grey Abbey, a former grey stone Cistercian priory. You’ll also find the Grey Abbey House and Gardens, which hosts an annual steam rally by the County Down Traction Engine Club in addition to numerous classic car meetings.
Head north from Mount Stewart to the centre of Bangor and the North Down Museum. This insightful exhibition explores the pivotal role that Bangor Abbey had in early Christian Ireland and the impact of the Viking invasion. Full-sized versions of a Viking Longhouse and Monk’s Cell accompany a range of exhibitions on the Bronze Age, plantations and more.
Boat on Lough Neagh
Drive westwards from Belfast and bask in the tranquil atmosphere and unspoilt scenery of Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland’s largest freshwater lake. An Area of Specific Scientific Interest, its internationally recognised wetlands are a haven for wildlife and numerous viewing points can be found dotted along its 125km of pristine shoreline. Hire a boat to experience the calm waters or try out a number of more adventurous water sport activities.
Go full-steam ahead in Whitehead
Venture in a north-easterly direction for 25 minutes to uncover the Whitehead Railway Museum, on the east coast of County Antrim, which offers a fascinating insight into the world of steam travel and the history of railway in Northern Ireland. Children can dress up in Victorian costume, watch as restoration work takes place and climb on board several iconic locomotives and carriages from the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland’s collection.
Uncover the beauty of Lisburn
Immerse yourself in the historical importance of Castle Gardens, in Lisburn, by travelling just 20 minutes to the south west of Belfast. Once the home of a fortified 17th-century manor house and now a beautifully kept public park, the city is also home to the spectacular 300-year old Lisburn Cathedral. Delve further into the history of the region with a visit to the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum, which explores Ireland’s industrial heritage, tracing the history of linen through its award-winning Flax to Fabric exhibition.
Bask in the splendour of Hillsborough Castle a short distance further to the south west, an 18th- century Georgian country house that is also the Queen’s official residence in Northern Ireland. Take a guided tour of the castle and state rooms, before venturing outside to explore its ornamental grounds, woodlands and waterways.
Around an hour from Belfast to the south west is the city of Armagh. See St Patrick’s Cathedral, which stands on top of the hill from which the city derived its name. Gaze at the stars at the Armagh Astronomy Centre and Planetarium and listen to a show on the night sky, before exploring its beautiful landscaped grounds. Finish your visit to the city at Armagh County Museum. Designed like a Greek temple, the museum is home to numerous artefacts that detail the rich history of the region dating back to prehistoric times.
Discover the mesmerising Mourne Mountains
Some 50km and an hour to the south of Belfast by car, in County Down, is the immeasurable beauty of the Mourne Mountains, the country’s highest and most awe-inspiring set of peaks. Explore the summits, complete with their granite tors, via a network of criss-crossed tracks and trace the old smuggling routes from Newcastle to Hilltown, taking in views of the Mourne Wall along the way. Built to keep sheep and cattle away from the Silent Reservoir catchment, the 22-mile long wall has stood for close to 100 years.
If there is time to explore a little further from Belfast, then start with the stunning scenery and natural sights of Country Antrim to the north. The striking coastline is home to an abundance of wildlife, as well as the majestic Giant’s Causeway and the impressive Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, near Ballintoy. Other popular destinations include Bushmills Distillery – Ireland’s oldest working distillery – and nearby Dark Hedges, where Arya Stark made her escape from King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. Dunluce Castle, a cliff top ruin, also starred as The House of Greyjoy in the hit TV show.
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