With St. Patrick’s Day just a few days away, now is a great time to be thinking about a summer trip to Ireland…and don’t forget to include Northern Ireland in your plans! During our recent family vacation to Northern Ireland, three generations enjoyed touring a castle, admiring the elegant architecture in Belfast and especially climbing all over the hexagonal rocks of The Giant’s Causeway!
We loved touring both the Republic of Ireland as well as the six northernmost counties, which comprise Northern Ireland, during our most recent trip to the Emerald Isle. Most tourists overlook Northern Ireland when planning their visit to Ireland, but the area is just a few hours north of Dublin and well worth a few days’ visit.
Exploring the Giant’s Causeway
Our favorite sight in in Northern Ireland was The Giant’s Causeway, located along the lovely coast of Antrim. With approximately 40,000 mostly hexagonally-shaped stone pillars strewn along the Straits of Moyle (North Channel), The Giant’s Causeway is a very impressive natural wonder to see and a great place to climb and explore with two little ones! Even my parents enjoyed carefully making their way along the pillars to the water’s edge. Formed over 60 million years ago, The Giant’s Causeway is listed as both a natural and cultural World Heritage Site, one of only 25 sights to achieve this dual status. We all loved climbing around the pillars and both children had a blast getting to explore while we watched them scramble along the rocks, pausing to see the different shapes and wondering if the legend about the giant, Finn MacCool, building the causeway as a bridge across the North Channel was true!
Touring Carrickfergus Castle
Another highlight of our visit to Northern Ireland was visiting Carrickfergus Castle, about 30 minutes north of Belfast. This Norman castle, over 800 years old, is one of the best preserved medieval structures in Northern Ireland. We spent several hours touring the entire castle, which was a highlight with both little ones as they loved climbing up the steep stone steps to the lookout posts and seeing where hot oil could be dropped from the castle entrance onto unwary enemies! We got to climb on cannons, sit at the head table of the inner keep (living quarters of the ruling family) and explore the dungeons. Being allowed to climb and walk around anywhere inside the compound was a wonderful way for both children to stretch their legs and learn about medieval history at the same time!
Belfast – the Capital of Northern Ireland
Belfast is a lovely city with many examples of ornate Victorian architecture, particularly Belfast City Hall. Finished in 1906, City Hall stands in the center of Belfast and sports a gorgeous Baroque dome and many famous statues on its expansive grounds, including Queen Victoria. While my four year old little boy wasn’t as impressed, my daughter (several years older) liked seeing the “pretty building” and statues.
We also loved seeing the sumptuous Crown Liquor Saloon, the most famous pub in Northern Ireland. Built in the 1880s at the height of the Victorian era, the lavish interior includes gorgeous stained glass windows and gas lamps. While children aren’t allowed to stay in the bar area, we were able to briefly look around and our daughter loved getting to climb up to sit on the bar stool and pose for a photo. Other famous sights in Belfast include the “Titanic Belfast”, a museum and monument located on the shipyard where the original Titanic was built and the Crumlin Road Gaol, the only Victorian era jail remaining in Northern Ireland.
The Patron Saint of Ireland
While we have big celebrations in honor of St. Patrick (the Patron Saint of Ireland) in the US, most people do not know that you can actually visit his final resting place at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland, just two hours north of Dublin. The Cathedral has been beautifully restored with original foundations dating back over 900 years. Our daughter admired the Celtic cross carved on St. Patrick’s grave, which matches the cross we had gotten from Ireland for her baptism.
To wrap up our enjoyable visit to Northern Ireland, we ended up at Bushmills, one of the oldest whiskey distilleries in the world, established in 1608. As children aren’t allowed on the tour, I took them for a delicious lunch at their on-site restaurant while my husband and father enjoyed not only the tour but also the sampling of aged whiskeys…a delicious way to end our trip to Northern Ireland! Be sure to include a visit to Northern Ireland whenever your plans next take you to the Emerald Isle!