Ireland has always been a popular heritage trip, with nearly 20 percent of Americans claiming Irish blood. Today, the popularity of DNA tests and ancestry mapping has spurred more families to trace their roots throughout the entire country, both Northern Ireland and the southern Republic of Ireland.
What some may not realize is that northern Ireland is actually one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom. While much of the 20th century was marked by the ethno-nationalist conflict known as “the troubles,” peace has come to Northern Ireland in the years since 2007 — and so have visitors. Instead of making this part of the country a footnote to your trip, there are so many reasons to make it your primary destination.
Belfast is the largest city in Northern Ireland, and its crown jewel for visitors is the Titanic Belfast. Built on the slips where the original ship was constructed, this interactive experience walks visitors through the whole story from conception to its tragic end. The six floors mirror the height of the Titanic and offer interactive exhibits, an underwater cinema and a shipyard ride. Plan to spend at least half a day and be sure to book your tickets in advance!
There is more to see in Belfast than just the Titanic, so plan to spend a couple of days exploring. Families love walking through St. George’s Market, filled with fresh food and more than 150 tradespeople and with free jazz on the weekends. You won’t go home hungry, and kids will love Aunt Sandra’s Candy Factory Stall. But don’t worry — you can work it off at Cave Hill Country Park, with its walking trails and playground. Families can also enjoy the Botanical Gardens, Ulster Museum or the Crumlin Road Gaol.
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There are Game of Thrones filming locations all across Northern Ireland, and while the show certainly isn’t family-friendly, some of the local experiences can be! (Plus, they’re cool for parents who are fans.) Just 40 minutes from Belfast, Castle Ward was used as a backdrop for Winterfell, the “kingdom of the North” in Game of Thrones. Today, kids 8 and up can have a full archery experience onsite, complete with costumes.
A must-do when visiting Northern Ireland is road trip along the Causeway Coastal Route, named one of the best coastal drives in the world by Condé Nast Traveler. Stretching from Belfast to the walled city of Derry/Londonderry, the Causeway Coastal Route offers breathtaking scenery and opportunities to see castles, lighthouses and dramatic cliffs.
This UNESCO World Heritage site consists of 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns, and it’s easy to see why legend had it that they were formed by a giant. Today we know that this natural phenomenon was actually created from volcanic activity. You can learn all about it at the visitor’s center and then take an easy walk down to the Causeway or hop aboard the provided shuttle to scramble across these columns by the sea.
Within a nature preserve in the heart of the glens lie three stunning waterfalls along the three-mile Waterfall Walkway. You can also enjoy beautiful forest trails, panoramic landscapes and quiet riverside walks.
The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge links the mainland with tiny, craggy Carrick Island. At 30 meters above the sea, this rope bridge is not for the faint of heart, and babies or toddlers need to be in a carrier so that parents have both hands free to hold onto the sides. While this is a must-see sight in Northern Ireland, keep in mind that there are steep dropoffs, so kids should be kept close at hand.
Dunluce was once the site of smugglers and tragic lovers, but today the ruins of this 14th century castle stand 30 meters above the ocean and offer fabulous views. The National Trust offers guided tours of the keep, and there are some areas that you can explore on your own. Just keep in mind that there are steep climbs that may not be suitable with younger children.
This famous corridor of beech trees was planted by the Stuart family in the 1800s and is the most photographed natural attraction in Northern Ireland. No wonder it was also used to depict the King’s Road in Season Two of Game of Thrones. Because it is so popular, it is closed off to car traffic, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to get a clean picture without people in the background. For that, you need to arrive early (though after the sunrise photographers have moved on).
TIP: If you are visiting a number of National Trust attractions and properties, consider buying a National Trust Touring Pass for free admission during your visit.
Norwegian Air now offers inexpensive flights from a number of U.S. cities direct to Belfast. It is easy to spend a week experiencing all that Northern Ireland has to offer, or you can combine Northern Ireland and Ireland into one longer trip. Our Connect with a Travel Advisor page can help you plan the perfect trip.
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