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Once the ancient kingdom of Ulster, Northern Ireland has been home to Gaelic kings, ancient Irish clans, and seafaring Vikings. It is the land of St Patrick and the giant Finn McCool, and is steeped in the myths and legends of a mysterious and heroic past. Northern Ireland's appeal encompasses beautiful scenery, historic forts and castles, and a rich legacy of Celtic Christianity, as well as the Ulster people themselves who are welcoming and genuine, with a lively sense of humour. A major draw is the small size of the country - its sights are all just a short, scenic drive from each other along mostly rural roads whose only traffic jams are caused by flocks of sheep and cattle crossings.
To the southeast lie some of Ireland's loveliest landscapes in the Kingdoms of Down, a region recognised worldwide as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. County Down combines miles of spectacular coastline with fishing villages, seaside resorts, loughs, forests and the Mountains of Mourne. To the north is the dramatic Antrim coastline with its soaring cliffs, unblemished beaches, and the magnificent, glacier-carved Glens of Antrim. Among the unusual rock formations glimpsed from the coastal road, none is stranger or more memorable than the famous Giant's Causeway, the legendary tourist attraction that is fabled to be the highway built by giant Finn McCool, to bring his lady love to Ulster from an island in the Hebrides. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a mass of thousands of basalt columns tightly packed together to form stepping stones leading from the foot of the cliffs into the sea.
The gateway to the northwest is the historic walled city of Londonderry, or Derry, a city popularly home to poets and storytellers, which hosts plenty of live music and festivals, and is a centre of culture and creativity. Across the Sperrins is the city of Belfast, surrounded by hills and a wealth of industrial sites, such as old linen and corn mills that are a reminder of Northern Ireland's industrial heritage. Belfast played a significant role in the Industrial Revolution and the development of its manufacturing businesses quickly turned the 17th-century village into a robust metropolis that today is home to a third of the country's population and some wonderful architecture.
With its green hills, rivers and lakes, mountains and spectacular coastline, Northern Ireland is the perfect setting for many outdoor activities, while in the towns and villages, visitors will undoubtedly be invited to join in the or good fun, centred on a traditional Irish music session and a pint or two of the black stuff.
Although Northern Ireland is perhaps best known to travellers for its beautiful rural countryside and pretty coastline, the cities also have charm: industrial Belfast and the 17th-century walled city of Derry are two of the most popular urban destinations in Northern Ireland and are both great travel hubs for tourists. Northern Ireland is delightfully compact, meaning that the distance between sightseeing attractions tends to be small; a rare advantage when looking at the top attractions in a country and trying to plan an itinerary!
Belfast is an interesting city, once one of the major powerhouses of the Industrial Revolution, and a cauldron of political strife for many decades. The city is undergoing a wholesale rejuvenation, centring on the trendy Cathedral Quarter, famous for its performing arts venues and vibrant nightlife. The charming old city of Derry is less than two-hours drive from Belfast, and boasts many museums and historic sites of its own.
Those staying in Belfast can make quick excursions to a number of wonderful sites, including Giant's Causeway, on the scenic Antrim Coast, which is generally lauded as Northern Ireland's top tourist attraction. Whiskey lovers visiting Giant's Causeway should also be sure to detour to the nearby Bushmills Distillery, in the town of Bushmills, which is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world. Another gem near Belfast is the mysterious Giant's Ring, a Neolithic henge which many visitors will find fascinating. Lastly, the delightfully scary Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which offers splendid views, is also only a short drive from the city.
Once the city's centre for trade and its warehouse district, the Cathedral Quarter is now the heart of Belfast's cultural and tourist hub. The district is named for St Anne's Cathedral. The cathedral itself is a beautiful Romanesque place of worship, more than a century old, which houses many art works and historical artefacts, and welcomes tourists as well as worshippers of all faiths. Four services are held every day in the cathedral.
There are some lovely examples of Victorian and Art Deco architecture in the Cathedral Quarter, as well as several galleries, dedicated performing arts venues, and good restaurants and bars. The area plays host to the Belfast Film Festival and the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival annually, as well as a number of other entertaining events and festivals. Popular performance art venues and general gathering spaces in the Cathedral Quarter include Custom House Square (Belfast's largest outdoor venue), Writer's Square, Cotton Court, the Cathedral Gardens, and the recently opened Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC). Given some time, the Quarter could rival Dublin's Temple Bar district for a good time in Ireland. Many tourists choose to find accommodation in the district, particularly those interested nightlife.
Another must-see in the trendy Cathedral Quarter is the Crown Liquor Saloon, which is one of the most famous bars in Northern Ireland. A classic example of a Victorian 'gin palace', the Crown has undergone several restorations and refurbishments in its 130-year history, and today stands as beautifully finished as ever before, having lost none of its old-world charm.
The Belfast Botanic Gardens date back to 1828, but were only opened to the public in 1895. The gardens boast the Palm House, a cast iron and glass house built in 1852, rose gardens, green walkways, and the Tropical Ravine greenhouse, which was built in 1889. The gardens are popular with office workers, students, locals, and tourists alike, and are a delightful venue for a picnic. Concerts and music festivals are frequently held at the Stranmillis Embankment end of the gardens, with past performances by international stars like Kings of Leon, The White Stripes, Snow Patrol, and U2. Alcohol is technically banned in the park, but it remains a popular meeting place for young people.
At the main entrance to the gardens is the fascinating Ulster Museum, which is one of the top rated tourist attractions in the city. Founded in 1821, the Ulster Museum is a treasure trove of fascinating exhibits on a range of subjects, with dinosaur exhibitions rubbing shoulders with Egyptian mummies and Irish politics. The museum also houses an excellent art collection. The Ulster Museum has recently been renovated and greatly improved and is a wonderful attraction for people of all ages. There is also a good cafe at the museum.
The Belfast Zoo is packed with animals from all over the world housed in a range of habitats, and offers a fun-filled day out for the whole family to enjoy. The zoo is home to more than a thousand animals covering something like 150 different species. Animals in the zoo include bears, lions, a variety of monkeys, seals, cheetahs, lemurs, snakes, ferrets, kangaroos, wolves, tortoises, tigers, and gorillas. There is a separate bird park, containing many exotic and rare birds. The African animals, including elephants, zebras, meerkats, porcupines, and a large herd of giraffes are very popular with visitors.
Another highlight is Rainforest House, a walk-through exhibition containing fruit bats, among other things, in a tropical landscape. The zoo also hosts a number of exciting events throughout the year, such as reptile displays, birds of prey exhibitions, and more, and has active breeding and conservation projects. There is a cafe and gift shop at the zoo, as well as picnic tables, a play park for young children, and a farm. There are good walking trails and the Belfast Zoo, located on the side of Cave Hill, even offers some great views over the city. The location on the hill does mean that some areas can be quite steep and perhaps difficult for those with mobility issues.
Built between 1890 and 1896, St George's Market is one of the city's oldest attractions, and the last remaining Victorian covered market in the region. After painstaking (and expensive) restoration, the market has reopened. It is considered one of the best markets in the UK, having won many awards locally and nationally.
On Fridays, the Variety Market, as the name suggests, offers a range of different items from antiques to clothes, and is also famous for its fish market. The Variety Market hosts about 250 stalls and visitors can find books, crafts, food and pretty much anything else. The City Food and Craft Market is on Saturdays, and offers the freshest local, international and speciality foods, as well as crafts, flowers, plants, art, pottery and glass and metal work. There is usually live music at the market, so that visitors can shop to the jolly strains of local musicians. The Sunday Market is a mixture of the other two markets, also offering a staggering array of goods. St George's Market also hosts a special Christmas craft market every year during the festive season. The market may also be the best place in Northern Ireland to shop for souvenirs!
The fascinating and mysterious Giant's Ring, in Ballynahatty, near Shaw's Bridge, is made up of a circular enclosure nearly 656 feet (200m) in diameter, with five entrances, and an older Neolithic passage tomb dating back to roughly 2,700 BC (meaning that it predates the Egyptian pyramids!). Although the exact purpose of the henge is not known, some say that it served as a meeting point and ritual area, and several packages and urns full of bones have been excavated in the surroundings.
There are beautiful views across the Lagan Valley, and the Ring is a favourite spot for locals and tourists alike to relax, picnic, cycle, or walk. Similar ancient monuments can be found in Britain and Ireland, but Giant's Ring is one of the finest of its kind, evoking a powerful sense of mystery. There are some glorious walking trails in the area, including the Giant's Ring Path, which takes walkers through the beautiful countryside of Minnowburn and Ballynahatty, beginning in the car park by Minnowburn Beeches. This trail takes about two hours and is a circular route, which will loop back to where you left your car. Giant's Ring is a very short drive from Belfast, and should not be confused with the famous Giant's Causeway.
The Ulster American Folk Park is an open-air museum that focuses on the large-scale emigration from Ulster to America in the 18th and 19th centuries, and is the biggest of its kind in Europe. Displays illustrate the everyday life of the emigrants through reconstructed original and replica buildings, a full-size replica of a sailing ship, and daily demonstrations of printing, cooking, spinning, and blacksmithing practices. There is also a fascinating indoor museum and a dockside gallery.
The park hosts regular temporary exhibitions, some of which are fascinating and so popular that they stay up for years, like the Titanic exhibition, which looks at the Irish immigrants who sailed on the famous ship. The park also hosts a number of events, including popular music festivals such as the Appalachian and Bluegrass Music Festival. Admission costs increase on days when the park is hosting major events and travellers should check the official website to see what's on during their visit.
The park gives visitors a taste of what life was really like for the Irish at home and after making the journey to America over the past three centuries, allowing travellers to stroll through history at their own pace and see the buildings, clothes, and crafts which sustained daily life. As it is an open-air museum weather is a factor and visitors should come prepared when it is raining.
The focal point of Belfast's trendy Cathedral Quarter district, St Anne's Cathedral is a gorgeous monument, and a proud symbol of all the best that Northern Ireland has to offer. With its foundation stone laid at the turn of the 20th century, the cathedral was constructed around an old parish church, of which only the Good Samaritan window still remains, viewable in the sanctuary of St Anne's. In 1924, the west front of St Anne's Cathedral was built in memoriam of the Ulster men and women who lost their lives in World War I, and in 1932, mosaics of St Patrick were inlaid to celebrate the 1,500-year anniversary of the Saint's arrival in Ireland.
However, the most intriguing sight for present-day visitors to Belfast is the 130-foot (40m) stainless steel spire that was added to the cathedral in 2007. Known as the 'Spire of Hope', the structure is illuminated at night, and stands as a symbol for the rejuvenation of Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, and for the new hope and optimism that is beginning to flourish in Northern Ireland's historically troubled capital. Although St Anne's is an Anglican cathedral, the church welcomes people of all faiths as well as tourists. There are many historic treasures and works of art housed in the church.
The pride of Northern Ireland's tourist attractions, the Giant's Causeway is a must-see sight for visitors to the northern half of the Emerald Isle. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Giant's Causeway is a series of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, a wondrous geological feature caused by ancient volcanic eruptions along the Antrim coastline. The hexagonal columns, the tallest of which are about 39 feet (12m) high, were formed over 60 million years ago, and today present visitors with a terrain that truly does look like the handiwork of giants.
As visitors walk along the one mile (1.6km) causeway, they will notice a few famous formations among the columns, that have been given names such as The Chimney Stacks, The Harp, The Organ, and The Camel's Hump. Despite looking like a work of art, the Giant's Causeway is a completely natural landscape. An on-site Visitors' Centre is open every day of the year, and provides some interesting information about the origins and myths surrounding the unique landscape. The Giant's Causeway Visitor's Experience includes a multi-lingual audio guide and greatly enriches the visit to the Causeway, particularly for those travelling with children.
Situated in an area of significant natural beauty, with views of Rathlin Island and Scotland stretching out in the distance, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is one of Northern Ireland's newest and most popular tourist attractions. The rope bridge, which connects tiny Carrick Island with the mainland on the Antrim Coast, is the latest in a 350-year series of bridges between the two points, and offers a thrilling walk along the 66-foot (20m) divide, with visitors suspended 100 feet (30m) above the rocks below. Carrick-a-Rede boasts about a quarter of a million annual visitors and, despite being quite scary, especially in high winds, has an impeccable safety record. The extreme beauty of the rugged coastline on which it is built makes for a highly worthwhile day trip for visitors to Northern Ireland. Although there is no real danger, a number of tourists have chickened out and refused to cross the bridge again after reaching the far side! If this happens, the only alternative is getting back to the mainland by boat. Although opening times vary, the bridge is almost always open to visitors for at least a few hours every day.
Typical of Ireland as a whole, Belfast has a temperate climate, with a narrow range of fairly mild temperatures and plenty of rainfall all year. In summer, between June and August, average temperatures range between 49°F (9°C) and 66°F (19°C). Although rain is possible at any time of year, the summer months are slightly less rainy than the rest of the year. June is the driest and the sunniest month and July is generally the warmest. In winter, between December and February, average temperatures range between 37°F (3°C) and 46°F (8°C). November, December and January are the wettest months. The city seldom gets snow, with an average of less than 10 snowy days a year.
The best time to visit Belfast is between April and August, when the city is least wet and overcast. October is a good month to visit for culture vultures as this is when the Belfast Festival - the second biggest arts festival in the UK (behind Edinburgh) - is held. Around the 12 July every year some Protestant marches and parades are held in Belfast; the marches are usually peaceful nowadays, but it is still a tense and potentially violent period in the city and travellers tend to avoid it.
Ireland has a temperate oceanic climate, with weather that is generally mild, wet and changeable. Northern Ireland enjoys warm summers and mild winters, warmed up all year by the North Atlantic Current. Extreme heat and extreme cold are both rare. Inland areas tend to be colder in winter and warmer in summer than the coast. Northern Ireland is cloudier and cooler than England on average, because of the hilly nature of the terrain and the proximity to the Atlantic. July is the warmest month with temperatures averaging around 64ºF (18ºC). The highest temperatures occur inland and rainfall is more frequent in the mountains of Sperrin, Antrim, and Mourne, as is snow. Rain is possible at any time of year, with December and January being the wettest months.
Most travellers visit Northern Ireland between May and September, when it is warmest. The summer months of June to August are the most popular. Winter, between November and February, is generally avoided because it is the wettest as well as the coldest time of year. Late spring and early autumn - May and September - are good times to visit for those travelling on a budget as the weather is still pleasant but prices tend to drop outside of the peak season.
Belfast is a great place for travellers to enjoy sightseeing, as the layout of the city and its public transport make it easy for visitors to get from the centre of Belfast to the surrounding suburbs within 20 minutes, even during rush-hour. Moreover, many of Northern Ireland's most famous and worthwhile sightseeing attractions are just a short drive outside of the city.
Take a trip to City Hall and admire the turn-of-the-century British architecture and the memorial to the victims of the ill-fated Titanic (which was built in Belfast), and a statue of Queen Victoria. Head to the trendy Cathedral Quarter, where the beautiful St Anne's Cathedral provides a wonderful backdrop for the small shops, boutiques, galleries and eateries lining the streets around it, and take in the magnificent architecture in the area which is marketed as Belfast's 'cultural' district.
For a more relaxing day of sightseeing, visit the Botanic Gardens with a book and a packed lunch, and then head to Falls Road or Shankill to see some of the world's finest political murals. Animal lovers should visit the Belfast Zoo to meet the famous prairie dogs that run free around the zoo's grounds as well as many other exotic and endangered animals; and opera lovers will be thrilled at the opportunity to visit the Grand Opera House for a tour or a performance.
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