To this date, I have no idea how it took me 27 years to fly all of 60 minutes and visit Northern Ireland for the very first time. I grew up spending my summers in Hong Kong and Malaysia, but my friend Hannah grew up quite differently, spending hers in Northern Ireland where her parents are originally from and where they have a house still. So, it was a bit of a no-brainer when we decided to descend upon Bushmills (or thereabouts), hire a car and spend Bank Holiday weekend exploring the Emerald Isle at last.
Northern Ireland is divided into six counties, and we only really managed to tick one off – County Antrim – but it was absolutely stunning. I had the best time seeing the beautiful countryside views for myself, as well as finally getting to see some key Game of Thrones filming locations. Needless to say, I’ll be spending my evenings rewatching every single season after I’m done compiling this travel guide! A huge thank you must go to Hannah for putting together our incredible itinerary and for giving us a real local’s guide to everywhere we went. You’ll even be able to download our exact travel plans at the end of this post.
Also, apologies for the changing lighting and colours in my photos! We had one day of blazing sunshine and then another full day of torrential downpours, then our last was just a classic overcast day.
Things to See
The Giant’s Causeway
Needless to say, a visit to the otherworldly Giant’s Causeway should top your Nor’n Ireland travel bucket list. This UNESCO World Heritage site is quite the site to behold, although nowadays is completely packed with visitors the world over. Which also means the surrounding area is blighted by coach traffic and cars hastily parked on roadsides, as the official car park will set you back £11.50 to park in.
We took a coastal walk from Hannah’s pad (just West of the Causeway) and thus avoided any parking shenanigans, and I’d totally recommend doing the same if you can. Pedestrian access is totally free but to use any of their visitor charges, the same fee will apply. The views are something else! This heritage site is home to 40,000 basalt columns, the result of a volcanic fissure eruption. It’s a place steeped in history and legends, and it isn’t hard to see why.
The Dark Hedges
Regardless of whether or not you’re a Game of Thrones fan, the Dark Hedges are certainly worth a visit. This spellbinding avenue of around 150 beech trees features as the Kings Road in the TV series, but in reality, was planted circa 1775 to impress guests as they neared Gracehill House, the stately home at the other end of the road. The entangled branches create a symphony of light and shadow as you pass through them and there’s certainly an eerie feel as you do so. I can’t even imagine how amazing they’d look in late autumn or deep winter! The road itself is also now ‘access only’, as over-tourism has sadly lead to the foundations of these super old trees coming apart.
Excitingly though, the fallen trees have been recycled to become intricately carved doors that are situated across County Antrim. Each door is meticulously designed to represent a season of Game of Thrones and you can collect a passport and gain stamps for each one you visit. Hint: there’s one at Gracehill House.
Cushenden and the Red Caves
This small and unassuming village is home to the Red Caves, where Melisandre famously gave birth to her shadow baby, which were formed over 400 million years of extreme weather conditions. They’re situated just to the right of the rocky beach and are teeny tiny. To make your visit there more worthwhile… go to Mary McBride’s! This is the smallest pub in Northern Ireland and it is absolutely adorable. The bar staff were incredibly friendly and chatty and right in the back, you’ll also discover another Doors of Thrones. Get your passport stamped by the staff, before continuing over to The Corner House (see ‘Where to Eat’).
Another top Game of Thrones filming spot, Murlough Bay is one of the most secluded and it was also one of the scariest driving experiences of my life! Rolling glen on one side and the ocean on another, the ascent and descent was truly something to behold, and the bay has such a sweet, uniqueness about it. Be warned, this is a glen FULL of hairpin roads!
Loughreema, The Vanishing Lake
Whilst driving to our next destination (Ballycastle), we zipped by an unassuming sign that said ‘The Vanishing Lake’ beside, you guessed it, a lake. I couldn’t wait to get home that evening and give it a Google, discovering that Loughreema is set upon a chalk bed and, dependant on the weather, this lake is either totally full or completely dry to the bone. It’s certainly mysterious, and has even been voted number 14 of 100 top geological sites in the UK! Totally worth driving past and seeing for yourself.
Carrick-a-Rede and Larrybane Quarry
This was somewhat of a fleeting visit for us as the other girls had already experienced the famous Rope Bridge and we were on a tight timeframe. The quarry is another filming location, but the rope bridge is steeped in history. The one-across-at-a-time contraption was once the only way for fishermen to get to the little island on the other side to fetch their wares and sell to make a living. Expect huge queues and cars everywhere because, yep, over-tourism.
I loved visiting this adorable harbour. Park in the (often busy) car park then walk to the harbour and climb over the rocks for a stunning panoramic view of the sea. Then, be sure to grab a slice of cake from the shop and eat it outside.
Ulster Museum and Belfast Botanic Gardens
We didn’t get much time in Belfast in the end, due to taking several detours to explore little villages, but we did manage a fleeting visit to the Ulster Museum to see the temporary Game of Thrones tapestry exhibition. It ended on the day we went, but you’ll be able to see some photos in my Instagram Stories ‘Ireland’ highlight. Right next door’s is the botanic garden and Belfast’s is one of the loveliest I’ve been to! There’s a huge conservatory, beautiful rose garden and a temperate house too.
Other notable places to stop by:
- White Park Bay: A beautifully secluded beach where you’ll find cows enjoying the sand.
- Portrush: If you enjoy amusement parks, head here and go to Barry’s for some good old-fashioned seaside fun!
- Ballycastle: We only managed to drive through this adorable town, but are desperate to go back and explore their plethora of independent shops.
Where to Eat
A must-visit if you head to the Giant’s Causeway, take the left road opposite The Nook (a sweet pub that’s styled with Victorian school desks inside) and you’ll be met with a tiny car park and a caravan selling the greatest grilled cheese sandwiches. There are plenty of options for vegetarians too. Grab their watermelon and lime soda, or go for an iced coconut matcha latte if you’re super extra like me. I had their mozzarella and cheddar toastie with scallions and it was SO good.
This charming seaside eatery is a wooden beach hut on Portstewart Strand, a National Trust-owned beach. Expect plenty of seafood and next to no vegetarian options, plus menus that change daily with the local fresh produce. I opted for their fish and chips which was delicious! There’s also a heated outdoor terrace and bar where live music, next-level sunsets and a selection of local gins will keep you going for hours on end.
Mauds Ice Creams
Voted the best in Ireland, Mauds Ice Creams in Ballycastle was our respite after a day hiking and driving for long stretches of time. I wanted to include it because their Raspberry Whirl(?) and Rum and Raisin ice-cream was easily one of the highlights of the trip for me! Enjoy it overlooking the harbour.
The Corner House
Across the road from Mary McBride’s in Cushendun, this sweet tearoom sell the most delicious lemon drizzle cake! The interiors are expectedly quaint and it’d be the perfect place to stop for some tea and cake. The girls picked up a selection of cakes to save for that evening, and it comes highly recommended from us all.
Lost & Found
Our last day saw us visit Lost & Found, a cafe that wouldn’t look out of place in London. We took Hannah’s Granny, and each ordered something different. I would personally recommend their poached eggs on toast with jalapeño jam and halloumi, whilst Hannah tried their brunch burger, Sophie went for an Italian pesto and chorizo on toast option, and Sarah went for French toast! There’s a selection of dairy-free milk here, and plenty of coffee fodder if you’re looking to add to your kitchen.
We were all desperate to try Pablo’s in Belfast, a burger joint in the city centre. There’s just one veggie option and it’s a squishy bean patty, so if you’re also vegetarian then I’d recommend going for the Dirty Veggie Fries and ordering both the Raw Sauce and Gin Mayo. SO GOOD. The girls scoffed their beef patties super quickly and absolutely loved their choices.
I wanted to include a section devoted to my personal highlights from the trip. I mean, I obviously adored the Giant’s Causeway but the beauty of exploring is that you’ll always discover hidden gems that you never realised you’d love so much. These are the things you absolutely should add to your next trip to Northern Ireland:
Glenariff, Rainbow Road and Waterfall Walk
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I enjoy a good hike and spent much of my time outdoors. When Hannah suggested we do a waterfall walk, I was SO excited! And it absolutely lived up to and exceeded my expectations. The drive to Glenariff is tricky, but worth it. Light layers will be your friend as you’ll likely get super warm on the walk, and be sure to wear suitable shoes (trainers are fine).
Each of the walks available are clearly signposted throughout the Forest Park and the parking will set you back £5. There’s a cafe and gift shop here in the car park, as well as toilets, but my recommendation would be to a) pop to the loo before you walk, and b) pack water and some snacks for the route. And pack your litter afterwards! The walk isn’t long and it is incredibly rewarding to see countless waterfalls, walk on elevated pathways and admire nature in all of its beauty.
Our trip saw us headed to several vantage points and bays purely to view ruins from afar. But what I didn’t expect was to have a whale of a time climbing 1,000 or so steps down to the ruins of Kinbane Castle and exploring the last remaining remnants of a Victorian castle that lies at the edge of a limestone headland. As you descend, you’ll also see a breathtaking waterfall to your left but continue on up to the ruins and perch for equally breathtaking views. It’s worth noting that the steps are pretty steep and deep (some reached my knee when standing!), and there are no barricades once you reach the headland so be very careful when exploring. Better yet: why not take a picnic and enjoy it whilst overlooking the views?! There are picnic tables by the car park and it’s completely free to visit.
- Hire a car! We rented a car a few weeks before our trip and I’d absolutely recommend that you do too. From what I saw, there is limited public transport and also not many pedestrian roads if you did want to walk from place to place. Expect hairpin roads aplenty and all of the hills.
- Pack practically. I mean, it should go without saying that you’ll be visiting the rolling countryside with hills, glens and beaches aplenty, so you’ll need something tougher than the usual Instagram travel goals looks. I packed two activewear outfits and then a classic jeans and a sweatshirt for our day in Belfast, and had to borrow a raincoat as mine hadn’t arrived in time. Trainers are also a good idea, or hiking boots if you have some!
- Budgeting. Our 3-day trip cost me around £120, not including car hire. It’s super easy to do a trip like this on a budget!
Download the Daisybutter x Bow Dream Nation travel itinerary to Northern Ireland.
Don’t forget to browse my Instagram Stories highlight for some of-the-moment photos, and stay tuned for my Postcards from Ireland!
Have you been to Northern Ireland? Which spots listed here are you adding to your travel bucket list?