Mark got tickets for Billy Joel’s concert in Dublin last June. As we have both been several times to the Republic of Ireland, and as we’re not a couple to shy away from the opportunity to visit a new place, we decided to go on a road trip around Northern Ireland before the event.
Considering Belfast is about 1h30 away from Dublin, it’s very easy to rent a car from either airport and visit both countries in one trip.
TIP: Just be warned, when you hire a car in the republic of Ireland (ie Dublin), you’ll have to pay a “cross border fee” to allow you to drive it to Northern Ireland. Check the fine-print.
I had always dreamt of seeing the Giant’s Causeway, and after getting tips from a couple of Northern Irish acquaintances, we thought it a good idea to give our tour a Game of Thrones theme as many of the filming locations are quite spectacular too. There are many companies offering packaged GoT tours, but given how close together a lot of these locations are a road-trip is quite doable and gives you much more flexibility to pick and choose what you want to see.
RECOMMENDATION: Follow the Journey of Doors!
Towards the start of our trip, we discovered the Journey of Doors, based around a set of doors made from trees from the Dark Hedges.
“In January 2016 a storm swept the island bringing down some of these famous trees. The wood from the fallen trees was salvaged and transformed into unique works of art in the form of 10 intricately crafted doors. Using iconic symbols and key scenes from the show, the doors work together to tell the tale of Season 6. The craftsmanship used to carve these doors is breathtaking. With the culmination of Season 6 the doors have formed a Game of Thrones trail connecting 10 pubs and restaurants with filming locations across Northern Ireland.”
Get the Journey of Doors passport in any of the 10 pubs featuring a sculpted door retelling the tale of season 6 and get it stamped! You can also download it here.
We didn’t want to pack too much in, as there’s a danger of feeling too rushed and not really enjoying things as much, but we still wanted to see as much as we reasonably could in the 3-4 days we had (we only arrived in Dublin at lunchtime on the first day). We planned things loosely, leaving some wiggle-room depending on what we found along the way, and how the weather turned out – and here’s the itinerary we ended up following:
- Castle Ward: we landed on Tuesday lunchtime in Dublin, got the car and drove to Castle Ward, otherwise known as “Winterfell”. Unfortunately, it was pouring down with rain, so the walk wasn’t as pleasant as it could have been, but still a beautiful site.
- Inch Abbaye: a ruined monastic site featuring early Gothic architecture, used as the location for where Robb Stark’s camp was in season 1 and where he was proclaimed the King of the North.
- Belfast: We often do a “Free” walking tour in cities we visit, where you pay at the end whatever you think the tour was worth (usually around £5-10 for a 2-3 hour tour). We chose the Belfast Free Walking Tour, which had good reviews online and we weren’t disappointed. As we hoped it gave us a great intro to Belfast and its history, from the shipyards (birthplace of the Titanic) and the industrial age through The Troubles (including the most bombed hotel in the world) to the present, with plenty of colourful stories along the way. As an added bonus, that’s how we found out about the GoT stamp collector passport and I got my first stamp – there’s only one pub in Belfast with the sculpted door, all the others are in the countryside).
In the afternoon we drove along the Peace Wall between Falls Road and Shankill Road in west Belfast. As we had a car, we drove ourselves, but friends have recommended the Black Taxi or Black Cab tours, which are driven by guides who were themselves involved in the troubles, so worth checking out.
- The Dark Hedges (Ballymoney, Co. Antrim): also known as The King’s Road (the one that Arya Stark took when she escaped from King’s Landing disguised as a boy). It’s an incredibly photogenic avenue of gnarled beech trees (but try getting up early if you want to beat the crowds and get that Instagram money shot!).
- The Giant’s Causeway: it was a childhood dream to see the Giant’s Causeway and the main reason I wanted to go to Northern Ireland. As it happens, I was a little bit disappointed. In my head, I saw the stones as being, well, gigantic. They are much smaller than I anticipated – nonetheless, still a wonder of nature and absolutely worth a visit! But what was the most annoying, as in any touristy places (it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site after all!), was the crowd. Far too many people around.
Having said that, depending on your timetable and priorities, once again you can try and beat them by arriving first thing in the morning (or just before closing time).
- Ballintoy Harbour: Ballintoy harbour was the setting for Theon’s return to the Iron Islands. It was here that Theon first met his sister Yara, was baptised in the name of the Drowned God and paid homage to the ship “Sea Bitch”. It’s also a charming little harbour.
- Mussenden Temple & Downhill Beach: Perched on the cliffs overlooking Downhill Strand, an iconic view, the temple was built in 1785 and forms part of the Downhill Demesne. Constructed as a library and modelled on the Temple of Vesta in the Forum Romanum in Rome, it is dedicated to the memory of Bishop Lord Bristol’s cousin Frideswide Mussenden.
- The Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne is a National Trust property and you must pay an entrance fee to walk around but it’s a vast domain also featuring a beautiful garden and a ruined mansion, a great place to wander around.
- Downhill Beach serves as Dragonstone, the place where the seven gods of Westeros were sacrificed by Lady Melisandre.
- Road trip back to Dublin.
- We drove back past Castle Ward and Inch Abbey so we could stop past Strangford, another picturesque village and home to The Cuan’s pub – as I got quite into getting my stamps for the GoT passport (and I didn’t have it on the way to Belfast on the first day, and it’s just a little detour on the way back down to the Republic of Ireland).
We found that Northern Ireland lived up to expectations in terms of colourful history, rugged and picturesque landscapes and friendliness of its inhabitants – and the weather! It wouldn’t be Ireland without a bit of rain.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the small size of the country, it’s not particularly well connected in terms of public transport, and for any visit outside Belfast, the only real options are either to hire a car or get on an organised coach tour. Having a car gives you freedom of movement and schedule, however it comes at a higher cost for the environment. Going on a tour will be a bit more sustainable and involve less planning, but you are tied to a fixed programme. Your choice.
Of course, our short trip was only a taste of what Northern Ireland has to offer. Wherever you decide to go and however long you stay, I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time there. Please, add to our list any recommendations that you may have in the comment section.