Planning a trip to Northern Ireland? Of course you are! It just headed up Lonely Planet’s 2018 Top 10 Regions list! We were even more psychic and actually visited during 2017! As such we thought we’d better share with our readership a self drive Northern Ireland itinerary. We did Southern Ireland too, that one’s coming next! But with half of this travel partnership having been born in Northern Ireland with kinship that traces its roots there for generations, we thought it was more than about time we put pen to paper on beautiful Northern Ireland! Following our local knowledge you’ll have no need to join any tour groups unless you wish to. Hire a car at your starting point and follow our self drive Northern Ireland itinerary to breathtaking trip success!
Day 1 – Self Drive Northern Ireland Itinerary – Belfast
You will want a full day to explore Belfast, or even extend your stay to two full days if you like all the recommendations on our list for Belfast.
If it is a Friday, Saturday or Sunday when you visit Belfast be sure to check out the St George’s Market for local food, craft and art in a late 1800s original market hall. Be on the lookout for breakfast baps to feed yourself in a Northern Irish fashion: these are potato or soda bread filled with bacon and eggs or other breakfast fillings of your choosing.
After approx an hour at the market call up a Black Cab Taxi Tour (local mobile: 07702449694). These narrated tours will take you around Belfast to discover the history of the city’s political murals as inspired by the troubles. A tour lasts around 1-1.5 hours and costs approx £35.
If you are still a bit full from a very full Irish breakfast or breakfast bap then take just a quick pitstop and fuel up by way of gourmet hot chocolate at Co Couture, a little basement chocolate shop off to the side of the very photogenic Belfast City Hall.
From here head up to the tallest spot in Belfast to view the city from above: the Victoria Square Shopping Centre Viewing Platform. Victoria Square is a covered in street of retailers and a House of Fraser department store for more luxury shopping. The Viewing Platform is free but the lift is often busy, so you may want to take the 6 flights of stairs and work off your indulgent hot chocolate!
From the top of the 360 degree viewing platform you will be able to spot the iconic Samson and Goliath – the twin yellow cranes that tower over Belfast’s shipyard. If you would like to get more up close and personal with these cranes and aren’t too caught up by shopping head over to the shipyard where the Titanic Experience Belfast is also located for those with a keen nautical interest. This tour lasts approx 1.45 hours and costs approx £18.
The Stormont Parliament Buildings built in 1932 are also visible from the viewing platform, there are 45 minute tours that run between 9am-4pm daily for those with a keen interest in politics.
Be sure and don’t miss the heritage listed Crown Liquor Saloon. It doesn’t look much from the outside but once inside you won’t be able to take your eyes off the ornate ceiling, bar and carved wooden snugs (fenced off booth rooms) that make up this charming early 1800s gin palace. For eats you could try a Deanes restaurant if you are feeling fancy. Deanes is the name in Belfast for semi-silver service modern fine dining and they have six different locations and restaurant styles on offer. If you’re more in the mood for some Irish themed food and drink, try Filthy McNasty’s – but warning – your night could get a little crazy!
OUR TOP TIP
Google some of the Belfast tour options you wish to take with keyword “Groupon”, often, especially in winter, there are reduced deals on.
Day 2 – Self Drive Northern Ireland Itinerary – The Coast Road
If you love castles then hug the coast on the A2 heading north out of Belfast to get to the town of Carrickfergus in just 20 minutes. In this town you will find the main attraction: Carrickfergus Castle right out on the water. On high swell days, waves break over the walls of this still-standing castle from the 1200s. You can tour the castle for only £3! Exploring inside the walls of the castle shouldn’t take much more than 30 minutes to an hour depending on whether you choose to take the opportunity to also dress up as a knight! One word of warning: the castle keeps limited hours during low season opening between 10am-4pm daily.
One for the Game of Thrones fans, leave Carrickfergus on the A2 which becomes the Belfast Road which becomes Larne Road. On Larne Road you will continue to hug the coast and pass by the Wall! The Wall is the iconic location in the show which keeps the White Walkers out of Westeros. In Northern Ireland, its Magheramorne Quarry. A warning though: there are loads of signs telling you not to stop and to keep driving, so you may not get more than a quick glimpse as you drive past. As this is more of a drive-by than major stop, continue on your way to the town of Larne, all the way down to where the Antrim Coast Road (A2) begins again.
From Larne the A2 will take you along one of it’s most famous coastal stretches leaving Larne via the Black Arch: The Antrim Coast Road, which wends its way through picturesque County Antrim. This is considered one of the most scenic tourist routes in the world! First you will drive past Drain’s Bay, so named for the tidal draining of the waters from the coastline daily. Just past here on your right you may wish to stop at Carnfunnock for your lunch. There is a terrace cafe overlooking the water and you can stretch your legs in the Carnfunnock Country Park after. You may even wish to walk by the very picturesque but very haunted Cairndhu House!
Back on the road you will now pass through Ballygalley, a good beach to stop for a swim at if it is sunny day. The locals will swim if the sun is out and the temperature is above 12C it seems… although some have more sense!
Continuing along the road you will pass through the famed Glens of Antrim, formed by melted glaciers after the last ice age. Along this drive you will pass through the towns of Glenarm, Carnlough, Waterfoot, Cushendall, Cushenden and finally Ballycastle. The whole drive only takes an hour, but you may want to stop and stretch your legs/ grab a cup of tea in some of the towns you pass through. Any of these quaint villages are great for a stop in, and you may actually want to try them all if you have time. If you’re more in the mood for one stop, try Glenarm, where you can explore the castle.
Any of the above villages are a great place to spend the night, but if you’d like something with a story, try the Londonderry Arms Hotel in Carnlough, which sits right on the water. You can’t miss it, and it was once owned by Winston Churchill – yes, that Winston Churchill!
Day 3 – Self Drive Northern Ireland Itinerary – Giant’s Causeway
Drive on to Ballycastle where you are just 20 minutes drive from the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site: The Giant’s Causeway. If you are a keen photographer you will want to visit this attraction for ‘golden hour’ (the hour before sunset) so shuffle this itinerary accordingly. Therefore we would suggest leaving the Causeway for the afternoon and heading first to Ballintoy Harbour nearby (another Game of Thrones location and a charming little historic spot in it’s own right). After about half hour down at the harbour drive back 7 minutes to the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge. This attraction will get the adrenaline pumping especially on windy days. In fact if too windy, it may not even open. Otherwise opening hours are from 9.30am -3.30pm daily and the admission is £7 for an adult.
Drive from here 20 minutes to the Old Bushmill’s Distillery, to sample Ireland’s oldest whisky! You can join an hourly tour between 9.30am and 3.30pm daily although you must book your tour by 1.30pm. A tour costs £8 for an adult ticket, and children under 8 years are not permitted on the tour. The town of Bushmill is picturesque too and would be an excellent choice to grab a spot of lunch.
Once fed and whiskeyed head to the Giant’s Causeway, 7 minutes back towards the coast. You will want to take your time exploring this amazing natural attraction so allow yourself at least 1.5 hours or more. If you buy your tickets online in advance (here) you can make a little saving as they cost only £9.50 for an adult. Check out our post on The Giant’s Causeway: 7 Things to Know Before You Go to get even more helpful information and pictures of this incredible location!
Drive 8 minutes from the Giant’s Causeway down to Portrush for sunset views over this cute harbour town. There are plenty of restaurant options to choose from, we enjoyed modern fish and chips at Neptune and Prawn then wandered over to it’s sister restaurant Ramore for their incredible selection of takeaway desserts! Feast your eyes at least if too full from dinner and be sure to take one away! Portrush has been a Northern Irish vacation favourite for years so it also will make an excellent location to stay the night.
OUR TOP TIP
You can park for “free” at the Giant’s Causeway in the carpark of neighbouring pub The Nook. I say free as it’s for customers only but grab a takeaway coffee to settle that score and as a bonus keep your hands warm during your likely cold Giant’s Causeway visit!
Optional Extra Day 4 – Self Drive Northern Ireland Itinerary – Derry/Londonderry
One hours drive from Portrush, Derry/Londonderry is the second largest city in Northern Ireland, and the fourth largest in Ireland. The name can be a little controversial, as it’s original Irish name Derry, received the English prefix London in the 1600s during the Plantation of Ulster by English and Scottish Protestant settlers when the London bankers help finance the building of the walls. The name is controversial in that mostly Catholic nationalists use the name Derry, whereas mostly Protestant Loyalists use the name Londonderry. If you want to read more about it – check out this explanation.
Drive to Derry and have breakfast at Tahlia’s Eatery and Breakfast – highly recommended by the locals but you may need a reservation for this one. Once you’ve eaten your fill, head to the Tower Museum to find out more about this historic city, including key events like the Siege of Derry and the period of the Troubles.
Now that you have found out about the history of this amazing city, it’s time to stroll the Walls. Derry’s Walls have been immortalised in song, and although the city has been besieged three times, its walls have never been breached, giving rise to its nickname “The Maiden City”. The Walls are approximately 1.6km in circumference and are completely intact, giving you an uninterrupted walk from which you will see some excellent views of the surrounding landscape.
For some Irish entertainment and traditional food, head out to Paedar O’Donnells, a can’t-miss pub that just bursts with atmosphere and fun times – you won’t want to head home! But when you finally do, rest assured there are numerous hotel, BnB and hostel options to choose from to rest your head for the evening and reflect on what a great time you had in Northern Ireland.
Self Drive Northern Ireland Itinerary – Notes on Cost
Our daily cost per person was roughly £100 based on shared accommodations at an airbnb or family owned and operated mid range bed and breakfast (£50), midsize car hire (£50), fuel, two pub/cafe meals (£40) and two attraction admissions daily (£30). This cost can be lessened by hiring a smaller car, and going more budget on accommodation options. Load up on included breakfasts, which tend to be generous and you will find you’ll only need a light snack at lunch. We found we needed a tank of fuel every 2-3 days. Save money on accommodations and meals? Spend more on beer 😉