10 of the best day trips from Belfast

Belfast makes a great base for exploring the rugged terrain of Northern Ireland. Discover 10 wild escapes, all within easy reach of the city.

Situated an hour’s drive from Belfast, the Dark Hedges are just one of 25 filming locations in Northern Ireland used for the fantasy HBO TV show, Games of Thrones.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Sacha Scoging
Published 6 Oct 2021, 06:00 BST, Updated 8 Oct 2021, 15:27 BST

Perhaps it’s the promise of clean air and spectacular, natural scenery, or maybe it’s the warm local hospitality. Whatever your reason for visiting Northern Ireland, Belfast, its capital, provides the perfect base for exploring this wild nation — and while hiring a car is the most flexible way to travel, the city’s excellent transport network means all of the following adventures are a simple train or coach ride away, too. So, whether you’re hoping to scale Northern Ireland’s highest mountain or discover ancient castles and caves, Belfast has it all within easy reach.

1. The Glens of Antrim

Home to nine fairytale valleys offering landscapes in every shade of green, one could easily spend a week or two discovering all the walking trails and panoramas the Glens of Antrim have to offer. While each has its own charm, it’s widely acknowledged that Glenariff, known as Queen of the Glens, is the most picturesque of all. Located just 50 minutes north west of Belfast, Glenariff Forest Park offers around four square miles of dense forest, peppered with lakes and picnic areas. Take the three-mile Waterfall Walkway to be rewarded with an impressive, tiered waterfall, or opt for the more adventurous five-mile Scenic Trail which offers spectacular views over the glen and across the sea as far as the Mull of Kintyre. 

2. Derry

Derry, or Londonderry — Northern Ireland’s second-largest city — has been reimagined as a vibrant cultural hub, filled with museums, galleries and performing arts centres. Spend the day ambling among 17th-century city walls and cobbled streets, filled with Georgian architecture and modern murals, before heading to the Museum of Free Derry, whose exhibits offer a soul-stirring reminder of the city’s turbulent past. A walk or cycle across the Peace Bridge is a must, held in high regard for its elegant, snaking curves, symbolic story and bird’s-eye view of the city. If you’re a lover of all things artisan, the Dickensian-style Derry Craft Village is a must-visit in the heart of the city. Here you’ll find independent shops, and have the chance to while away an afternoon at one of the complex’s many eateries. On the 90-minute drive back to Belfast, take one of four cross-country routes through the glacier-carved landscapes of the Sperrin Mountains — an untouched Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and widely regarded as being one of the top scenic drives in the world.

The Giant's Causeway comprises around 40,000 interlocking, hexagonal, basalt columns.

The Giant's Causeway comprises around 40,000 interlocking, hexagonal, basalt columns.

Photograph by Getty Images

3. Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim

No trip to the Emerald Isle is complete without a visit to Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway. A little over an hour’s drive from Belfast, the site comprises around 40,000 interlocking, hexagonal, basalt columns. Depending on who you believe, these stones were formed either by an underwater volcanic eruption, or by the ancient warring giants, Finn McCool and Benandonner, who tore up great chunks of the Antrim coastline and hurled them into the Irish Sea. Steeped in myth and legend, be sure to check out the attraction’s other historic treasures, including the Wishing Chair, the Camel’s Back and the Giant’s Boot before tackling one of the surrounding clifftop trails for a bird’s-eye view of the fabled landmark. Having racked up your step count, treat yourself to a tipple on a tasting tour of the Old Bushmills Distillery, which, located just two miles away in the quaint town of Bushmills, is the oldest whiskey distillery in the world.

4. Dunluce Castle, County Antrim

Fans of HBO's hit series Game of Thrones may recognise Dunluce Castle in County Antrim as the filming location for the series’ House of Greyjoy. However, the site, which has laid in ruins for over 400 years, has a much deeper and sinister story. To understand its history, the 40-minute walking trail around this derelict locale makes for an enticing visit, during which you can view various archaeological exhibits set behind glass among its crumbling walls. What’s more, the castle is set atop a rugged cliff pounded by waves, offering spellbinding ocean views as far as the Scottish Island of Islay and Inishtrahull Lighthouse, off the Donegal Coast. Once you’ve finished exploring the ramparts, sun-seekers should make a beeline for the neighbouring seaside towns of Portrush and Portstewart, both popular spots for surfing and where herds of local cows are known to linger on the sandy shores. 

Read more: What to do in Northern Ireland's County Antrim

5. Lake Lough Neagh

Tranquil, unspoilt scenery, with secluded bays and skyward views, this is Northern Ireland’s largest freshwater lake, and the Irish answer to Italy’s Lake Como. Pack a picnic and head to Oxford Island, a National Nature Reserve less than half an hour from Belfast’s city centre, to learn about the diversity and local importance of the lake’s reed beds, wildlife ponds and wildflower meadows, before strolling along Kinnego Marina — the largest marina on the lough. Here, you can choose from an array of watersports such as kayaking, canoeing, sailing, water skiing and wakeboarding, before boarding a jet boat ride to Coney Island to discover the history of the Normans. If there’s time, tie in a visit to nearby Maghery County Park for a spot of birdwatching and fishing, while historians should stop by the Holy River, at Washing Bay, to learn about its 20th-century bathing tradition.

The Gobbins Cliff Path is a two-and-a-half-hour guided walk that weaves through narrow caves and tunnels.

The Gobbins Cliff Path is a two-and-a-half-hour guided walk that weaves through narrow caves and tunnels.

Photograph by Getty Images

6. Gobbins Cliff Path, County Antrim

Dark tunnels, swinging suspension bridges and rugged stairways carved into cliff faces where the boom of ocean waves reverberate through the walls — is this the most terrifying coastal path in Europe? Starting via a basalt outcrop hole in a rock, the Gobbins Cliff Path, which reopened in 2015 after a 60-year closure, is a two-and-a-half-hour guided walk that weaves through narrow tunnels and caves. There’s an abundance of wildlife to look out for en route, such as Northern Ireland’s only mainland colony of puffins, who live in burrows in the ground. The elevated paths carry you over rock pools encrusted with molluscs and strewn with sponges and seaweed, while the depths teem with fish and other sea creatures. On the 40-minute drive back to Belfast, stop by the medieval town of Carrickfergus, where you can explore the 800-year-old castle and nearby marina.

7. The Dark Hedges, County Antrim

This avenue of twisted 18th-century beech trees seems an unearthly portal to another world. It’s perhaps fitting then that they featured in the HBO series Game of Thrones. Situated an hour’s drive from Belfast along Country Antrim’s Bregagh Road, the Dark Hedges are just one of 25 filming locations in Northern Ireland used for the fantasy TV show. Spend a day exploring real-world Westeros in County Antrim, scouting out Ballintoy Harbour, the Cushendun Caves and Murlough Bay, before arriving at the Dark Hedges for sunset. The dusk lighting creates a scene plucked straight from the pages of a fairytale, and, if you believe in local legend, you might catch sight of the Grey Lady, an 18th-century ghost said to haunt the spooky, tree-lined lane.

8. Rathlin Island, County Antrim

Want to go off-grid? Rathlin Island, home to just 100 people off the coast of County Antrim, is about as rural as Northern Ireland gets. Hop aboard the Ballycastle Ferry, an hour’s drive north from Belfast, to cross the six-mile-wide Sea of Moyle to reach an island filled with wildlife. Spot guillemots, razorbills, cormorants, and kittiwakes making their homes high in the rocks, while resident grey seals bask in the sun. Hiring a bike is the best way to navigate around the island, or, enjoy one of the island’s many leisurely walking trails, including the picturesque shore of Mill Bay. The working lighthouse and Boathouse Visitor Centre, both a short walk from the main harbour, are also well worth a visit to view artefacts from shipwrecks and learn about the present-day island culture.

The Mourne mountain range is home to Northern Ireland’s tallest mountain, the mighty, 2,700ft Slieve Donard.

The Mourne mountain range is home to Northern Ireland’s tallest mountain, the mighty, 2,700ft Slieve Donard.

Photograph by Getty Images

9. Mourne Mountains, County Down

With valleys and forests strung along a dramatic coastline, the Mourne Mountain range is a nature-lover’s playground. It’s also home to Northern Ireland’s tallest mountain, the mighty, 2,700ft Slieve Donard. Head to the small seaside town of Newcastle, just 45 minutes south of Belfast, to fuel up and find the start of this craggy mountain path. Although eroded in places, the trail offers an easy climb to Slieve Donard’s summit and will reward you with panoramic views as far afield as Belfast Lough, Dublin Bay and the Isle of Man. History buffs will be impressed by the two prehistoric burial cairns on the summit that date back to the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. While in the region, make time for nearby Tollymore Forest Park, which offers a plethora of outdoor pursuits such as camping, horse-riding and orienteering — or, scout out the Mournes' three Blue Flag beaches, Murlough, Cranfield and Tyrella, fringed with dunes and rock formations.

10. Ards Peninsula, County Down

Embraced by the pristine waters of Strangford Lough to the west and a score of sandy shores to the east, the Ards Peninsula is home to clusters of whitewashed fisherman’s cottages, welcoming locals and a fascinating history. While a lap of the peninsula only takes a couple of hours by car, a full day trip allows you to make several stops in this vast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Starting in the market town of Newtownards, located just half an hour outside Belfast, take the lough-hugging Portaferry Road to Mount Stewart House and Gardens, where you can explore the 18th century National Trust estate, complete with tropical gardens and farmland trails. Then, continue south, stopping into Kircubbin and the historic village of Grey Abbey, to reach the picturesque harbour town of Portaferry. Here, you can either board the ferry across ‘The Narrows’ or take time to sit on the sea wall and watch boats wrestle with fast-flowing sea currents leading straight into Strangford Lough. On the loop back north, weave through the peninsula’s traditional seaside stops, including quaint Kearney, quirky Millisle and historic Donaghadee.

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