In peace, Northern Ireland has staked its rightful claim as one of the most beautiful, memorable and cultural regions to be found anywhere on the island of Ireland. Nowhere is Ireland's recent history more strongly felt than in the North, and any visit would be incomplete without uncovering this rich and vibrant culture.
Natural wonders and centuries of innovation and enterprise mean today's visitors to Northern Ireland are greeted with some of the island of Ireland's most unique attractions. Until recently, years of political unrest and uncertainty saw visitor numbers to Northern Ireland fail to grow at the same rate as the rest of Ireland.
After years of peace and relative calm, the people of Northern Ireland are proud to be given the chance to show off their top attractions. Below we have created a list of the top attractions in Northern Ireland, both man-made and natural.
Since peace returned to Belfast in the late 1990s, Northern Ireland's capital has undergone an astonishing transformation. Once tied in with sectarian violence and, perhaps cruelly, lumped in with Bosnia, Beiruit and Baghdad on the list of places for globe-trotting tourists to avoid, the city is now a modern, thriving and cosmopolitan hub of hotels, restaurants and family-friendly attractions.
This transformation is made all the more evident in cultural representations of the region, which have at last moved beyond the all-too-predictable film and TV depictions of The Troubles with which the city become all but synonymous.
Just as Northern Ireland has garnered attention as the eye-catching backdrop to Game of Thrones, creating a sub-industry of its own comparable to "Tolkien Tourism", Belfast has gained added prominence as the location of the hit BBC drama series The Fall starring Gillian Anderson (The X Files, Hannibal) and Jamie Dornan (50 Shades of Gray).
Right across the street, outside City Hall, you will find the meeting point for a free walking tour of the city which departs every day at 11:00 and 14:30.
According to Gaelic mythology, the causeway was built by the giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) so that he could reach Scotland and fight with his Scottish rival, Benandonner. As with all great rivalries, the outcome varies depending on whose version is being recounted.
One legendary status which is not disputed, though, is the Causeway's immense pulling power as a tourist destination, with 750,000 visitors making the trip annually. Here, tourists can enjoy not only the geological feature itself, but also the modern and impressive Giant's Causeway Visitor Experience.
The walk to the Causeway itself can be a bit strenuous for those with lower mobility. Some stretches are steep and rocky. Sturdy shoes and some drinking water are recommended.
Although Derry's recent transformation is perhaps less dramatic than that of Belfast, visitors who come to Derry expecting a city still darkened by the long shadows of The Troubles will almost certainly be pleasantly surprised. In anticipation of the city's status as UK City of Culture 2013, Derry received considerable investment and underwent a rejuvenating makeover.
Visitors and locals alike can look to the Peace Bridge, Ebrington Square, the redeveloped waterfront and the Guildhall area as examples of a city which has shaken off its outdated stereotype, under whose weight Derry had unfairly served as a metaphor for Ulster's violent past. In the city which greets tourists so warmly today, visitors will find plenty of enjoyable diversions.
Visitors who wish to gain the fullest appreciation of this side of Derry should make time for Free Derry Corner, the Bloody Sunday Memorial, the People's Gallery Murals and the Museum of Free Derry. View the Visit Derry website for more information.
If you're visiting in October, be sure to stick around for Halloween which is a major event in the city and culminates in the largest street party in Europe. Just remember to wrap up warm!
The angular edifice which houses The Titanic Experience is so evocative of the transformation which Belfast has undergone in recent years that it has become almost as iconic as the ill-fated ship to whose short history this attraction is dedicated.
An extensive multimedia tribute to the world's most famous ocean liner, The Titanic Experience is located at the top of the slipway from which the ship made its first and only descent into the Belfast Lough and the waters of the Irish Sea beyond. Opened in 2012 for the centenary of the ship's launch and tragic demise, the museum has rapidly become Ulster's most visited tourist destination, outstripping even The Giant's Causeway.
Cleverly put together, the attraction encapsulates more than simply the scale of the ship, more even than the scale of the disaster which befell it; drawing on all the sights, sounds and smells of the age, the museum recreates all facets of this most fascinating period of history, bringing to life the experiences not only of the passengers but also of the ship workers who realized this vision of early twentieth-century engineering.
As the museum gets busy, be sure to take advantage of the downstairs left-luggage lockers. More space and comfort for you and your fellow visitors.
Although their history spans over a century, and although they began as a unionist motif, it was in the early 1980s that Belfast's iconic murals would gain the prominence that now draws tourists, when Republican depictions of the infamous hunger strike of Bobby Sands and his follow prisoners began to spread across Republican districts of the city.
For two decades, murals on both sides of the city voiced the deep divisions between communities whose differences seemed insurmountable. On the Unionist side, the imagery was chiefly militaristic, with slogans like "No Surrender" a near-constant refrain. In Republican communities, depictions drew on a more diverse palette of cultural and historical symbolism, but their message was no less clear and no less divisive.
To get the most out of a trip to Belfast and its rich history, a local tour guide is recommended.
Lording it over an open expanse of fountains and marbled stone, Guildhall rises to majestic heights to take its place on the Derry skyline. A £10m renovation in 2013 has brought the very best out of what was already a magnificent structure of stone and stained glass. As well serving an important civic function for the city (it was the seat of the historic Bloody Sunday Inquiry headed by Lord Saville from 2000 to 2005), Guildhall has become a nexus for Derry tourism and a focal point for most visits here. View the Visit Derry website for more information.
If you're are heading to Derry specifically to see the Guildhall, then be sure to call ahead and check what times are best to visit. Some days, areas of the building are closed for private functions.
Ireland's first attempt at town planning, modelled in 1545 on the French town of Vitry-le-François. Visit www.derrywalls.com for further information. Those interested in architecture should allow time to visit St Columb's Cathedral, situated within the city walls.
A good local tour guide is recommended to get the most of this historic city and its iconic fortifications.
A handy stop-off point between The Giant's Causeway and Ballycastle, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is a dizzying experience to be enjoyed or studiously avoided, depending on your head for heights. Looking like something from an Indiana Jones movie, the rope bridge conveys locals and tourists alike across the 20-metre chasm between the sea cliffs and the island of Carrick-a-Rede.
The bridge which draws visitors today is actually a stronger and safer version of the original which was put up every spring by fishermen whose nets, cast from the island's northern cliffs, would intercept migrating salmon. Today, there is a small visitor centre, a cafe and a car park.
The bridge itself is very sturdy and only bounces if people jump while crossing it. Take a deep breath and go for it!
Glenariff Waterfall Walk is one of a series of walks in the Glenariff Forest Park, County Antrim. The forest is laid out with pathways and steps for people to explore. It might take up to 2 hours walking to reach the payoff, the waterfall, but it is well worth the wait. The walk which leads to the waterfall is a little strenuous and is not advisable for everyone. The steps are steeper and can become slippery on approach.
All trails are well signposted and have clearly defined pathways. Bring sturdy shoes and a sense of adventure.
Ballymacdermott Court Tomb, located on Ballymacdermott Mountain in County Armagh, is a megalith portal tomb. It dates from between 4000 and 2500 B.C. The tomb was excavated twice, in 1816 and 1962. The first excavation unearthed pulverised human bones in an urn while the second discovered human cremations. During the second excavation, archaeologists found that some of the stones in the tomb had been recently disturbed, locals informed them that this was caused by an American tank during World War II.
A beautiful spot but fairly exposed so be sure to wrap up on a blustery day.
The Stairway to Heaven, officially known as the Cuilcagh Mountain Trail, is a 4 and a half-mile walkway through bogland in County Fermanagh. The walkway was constructed to protect the rare blanket bog that was being eroded by walkers in the area. The walkway ascends to over 550 metres to the Cuilcagh Mountain face.
Bring cash for the carpark and a flask of something that warms the cockles while you take in the amazing views.
The easiest way to travel into Northern Ireland, if it is possible, is to aim for Belfast City. It is the capital city of Northern Ireland and is the area that all roads in the north eventually lead to. For simplicity, the following section will be mainly focusing on getting in and out of here. Think of Belfast City as the base of Northern Ireland, from there you can explore the smaller towns and villages of the region.
There are 3 International airports in Northern Ireland. In Londonderry, there is the City of Derry Airport and in Belfast City, there is George Best Belfast City Airport (Named after former Northern Ireland and Manchester United soccer player) and Belfast International Airport. These airports operate flights from the UK as well as Holland, Spain and Portugal.
Dublin Airport is the most convenient airport for visitors to Northern Ireland coming from the United States and Canada. You can travel to and from Dublin Airport to Belfast City in a number of ways. If you are renting a car in Dublin Airport be sure to book a Sat-Nav as well. This will come in handy to find your way out of Dublin city more than anything else. Once you find your way onto the M1 motorway the rest of the journey is pretty much plain sailing. Just remember that once you cross the border into Northern Ireland that the speed limit is read in miles per hour, whereas in the Republic it is in kilometers per hour. You can also avail of the direct bus from Dublin Airport to Belfast City via Aircoach and Expressway, this journey takes, on average, 2 hours and costs around 13 euro one-way.
The main bus station in Belfast City is Europa Buscentre. Based in the city centre and servicing both Belfast airports and Dublin Airport. Europa Buscentre also has a route to Dublin City, which in turn connects you with the other cities in the Republic of Ireland. There is also a bus route running from Londonderry to Dublin, this route can have as much as three change overs and takes 4 hours 20 minutes.
The best way to enter Northern Ireland via train is also via Belfast City. The Dublin train runs from Connolly Station to Lanyon Place in Belfast. There is an average of eight trains per day, leaving every hour and 40 minutes, starting at 7:35 am and finishing at 8:45 pm. The quickest of these routes takes two hours and five minutes. Dublin also acts as the change over point if you are taking the train to or from Belfast to any other city in Ireland.
If you have gotten to grips with driving in the Republic of Ireland and are crossing the border into Northern Ireland there are a few things to look out for. The roads of Northern Ireland are categorised the same as all other countries in the UK. The letter 'M' stands for motorway, the next most important roads are classed with the letter 'A', the next with the letter 'B' and so on. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland drive on the left-hand side of the road and both use the 'Roundabout' system. The only real difference to keep in mind is that the measurement of speed in Northern Ireland is miles per hour while in the Republic it's kilometres per hour. To make it a little more tricky, the speed limit often appears on road signs as just a number in both countries.
There is a ferry route running between Larne, County Antrim in Northern Ireland to Cairnryan in Scotland and from Belfast City to Liverpool in England.
One of the most cost-effective ways to travel around Northern Ireland is by bus. Translink is the main bus and train operator in Northern Ireland. They offer a great range of combo deal tickets and Smartcards which help lower your day to day travel cost.
Visitors can avail of the Ramblers Bus Service which is designed to make the more remote areas of Northern Ireland more accessible. If you are planning to travel around Belfast on public transport then the Belfast Visitor Pass from Translink is definitely worth a look. This gives you unlimited travel on all Metro, NI Railways and Ulsterbus services for £6.50 per day.
Belfast City runs a bike hire scheme, sponsored by the food delivery company Just Eat. It is a cost effective and quick way to get around the city. There are around 40 stations in total, each within close proximity to another.
A user must first create an account on the website, there is a £5 sign up fee which then goes towards your account as credit. You can choose from three different pricing options.
Taxis in Northern Ireland are broken down by classes A,B,C and D. Class A and B taxis are regular taxi cabs that can be hailed on the street or phoned from a base.
These class of taxis have an initial charge (up to 0.5 miles of £3). One mile is £3.80 and every additional mile is £1.60. Class C taxis are ones that are used chauffeur services, weddings and funerals, the above maximum fare structure does not apply to Class C taxis. Class D is Taxi Buses and again the maximum fare structure does not apply to these.