Alongside France, Italy, and Germany, the U.K. is one of the four countries U.S. travelers want to visit the most on a Eurotrip.
Although it is extremely popular among Americans and Canadians alike, due to both the close historical and cultural ties these three nations share, the overwhelming majority of visitors whose journeys originate across the pond rarely ever leave London.
London is indeed in a league of its own, with its street art-filled boroughs and unprecedented diversity, which sets it apart from other European capitals.
With that being said, the U.K. is so much more than just the ‘Big Smoke’, or England, on an extent.
Perhaps the least-visited region in the country, this tiny territory boasts dramatic landscapes, world-class city breaks, and a fascinating History, and it’s perhaps one of Europe’s most underrated summer destinations:
The Hidden Gem Of Britain
Northern Ireland is the smallest nation in the United Kingdom, a political union comprising England, Scotland, and Wales.
Unlike its sister nations, however, Northern Ireland is not located on the island of Great Britain, sharing instead the Emerald Isle with its closest neighbor, the Republic of Ireland (ROI).
The partition of Ireland is a contentious topic, but we won’t bore you with the details.
We suggest you do your own reading on it ahead of visiting to get informed, but all you need to know is that while the South of Ireland is a sovereign state, Northern Ireland is part of the U.K.
So why, exactly, is it worth visiting?
Why Is Northern Ireland Worth Exploring This Summer?
For starters, Northern Ireland, informally called Ulster among natives, is home to some of the most breathtaking scenery found anywhere in Europe.
The nationally-protected Causeway Coast and its accompanying glens form together an area of outstanding natural beauty, where you’ll be met with a rugged littoral interspersed by sandy crescents and centuries-old settlements lapped by the raging waters of the North Atlantic.
The Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland’s number one tourist attraction, can be found in this region.
A collective of 40,000 basalt columns, looking as if they were perfectly arranged by nature itself, the promontory is shrouded in myth. According to legend, the columns were laid out by an ancient giant in his attempt to build a bridge that would span the Irish Strait and reach Scotland.
Taking an audio guide tour, starting from the Visitor Center, you’ll be able to learn more about the region’s interesting folklore and its importance to locals.
A Jet-Setting Destination For Game Of Thrones Fans
Northern Ireland is where some of your favorite TV shows and Hollywood flicks were filmed, with the Derry-based Netflix hit Derry Girls, the original Line of Duty, and the Gillian Anderson-starred crime drama The Fall, to name a few.
Perhaps the most famous of them all, however, is the fantastical world of Game of Thrones, set across numerous spots up and down the North Coast. While a majority of the shooting would have taken place in the Titanic Studios in Belfast, some other popular outdoor locations are featured, such as:
- The Dark Hedges, a long corridor of arching, spooky beech trees fans will recognize as the King’s Road
- Castle Ward, a picturesque 18th-century mansion and its adjacent grounds, best known among GoT fans as Winterfell
- Inch Abbey, which served as a stand-in for Robb Stark’s camp in season 3
- Ballintoy Harbour, the exact point where Theon Greyjoy makes landfall on his way back from the Iron Islands
- The Antrim Plateau, the equivalent to the Dothraki hinterland, and many more.
The country’s North coast is a popular destination for summer travel.
The sleepy towns of Portrush and Portstewart come to life in the hotter summer months, especially July and August. Renowned for their casino culture and seaside funfairs, the coastal duo is where Northern Ireland nationals flock for their ‘staycations’.
Benone Strand, Downhill Beach, and Castlerock Beach, the latter of which features a ruined castle perched on a cliff overlooking the sandy banks below, are the three top swimming sites within short driving distance of Portrush.
The North Atlantic is no balmy Mediterranean island, but with record temperatures expected this summer, the cooler currents will provide some relief from the sun.
The Northern Irish coast is also a lot more affordable than other beach destinations in Britain, such as the overtouristed Brighton and Cornwall. A weekend getaway at the four-star All Seasons in Portrush, breakfast included, will only set you back by USD$218.
Other well-equipped, affordable holiday B&Bs a stone’s throw away from the beach are listed on Booking.com for USD$76 a night.
Natural Parks Galore
If taking long walks on a windy beach admiring the rugged coast is not your idea of fun, but you’re still a nature lover, you’ll be glad to know Northern Ireland is jam-packed with forested reserves and ecological destinations.
The Mourne Mountains, in the Southeast, is a jagged granite range where the highest peak in the country – Slieve Donard – is located, rising 850 meters above sea level.
Castlewellan is yet another lush green space offering visitors an escape from the fast-paced city life, encompassing a serene lake and a handful of walking trails cutting through the heart of Northern Irish wilderness.
Watch out for the odd cheeky Leprechaun, as you might be able to spot Ireland’s mystical creatures, extremely protective of their pots of gold, prancing in the wild, though if you do, I’d double-check the list of ingredients going into that Irish stew served at your hotel.
Our absolute favorite, Glenariff Forest Park, is distinguished for its host of majestic waterfalls, meandering creeks, and emerald foliage.
It can be visited from Belfast as a day trip, as it is only 47 miles Northeast via the M2.
To my fellow History buffs out there, Northern Ireland may be small, but its cultural heritage is so immensely rich you will never run out of sights to chase.
This is a land dotted with medieval castles, ancient ruins, and quaint, traditional villages that have frozen in time.
A symbol of Northern Ireland, Dunluce is a 15th-century castle resting on a detached, vertiginous basalt structure connected to the mainland via a stone footpath. Below, the furious waters of the Atlantic move against the column’s lower body in an eternal dance.
It is easily the country’s most romantic castle and a postcard-ready spot.
Other castles you shouldn’t miss out on include:
- Carrickfergus, a medieval Norman stronghold
- Belfast Castle, a pink-colored late 19th-century manor
- Kinbane Castle, a ruined fort commanding a sweeping panorama of the Antrim Coast
- Tully Castle, resting on the shores of the scenic Lake Erne
- Enniskillen Castle, a well-preserved 16th-century fortress now serving as a museum
Other than the medieval, Northern Ireland takes pride in being the birthplace of the Titanic.
Constructed in the Belfast docks, the doomed ship would set on its inaugural voyage from the British Isles before sinking off Newfoundland in Canada.
Today, tourists can pay the newly-built Titanic Belfast a visit, a unique feat of architecture resembling a trio of interlocked, glistening ship bows housing a museum on the inside.
Learn About The Troubles
Last but not least, Northern Ireland is your go-to destination for educating yourself about the Troubles, the sectarian war that plagued the country for the best part of the 20th-century.
During the bloody period, Catholic communities and Protestants clashed due to disagreements over the status of Northern Ireland under the jurisdiction of the U.K.
Several neighborhoods in both Belfast, the compact, incredibly Bohemian capital of Northern Ireland, and its Northwestern counterpart of Londonderry (or Derry, as the Irish call it) are bedecked with vibrant murals depicting each community’s political inclinations, however controversial.
In East Belfast, you are likely to stumble upon militant, Loyalist, or pro-British murals, while in West Belfast, primarily a Catholic-Irish constituency, Republican, anti-British art colors the cityscape.
In Londonderry/Derry, the Bogside Murals are the main point of interest, as well as the city walls, running along the extent of the entire city center.
Northern Ireland Is Easy To Reach From America
Northern Ireland is one of the easiest European destinations for Americans to reach this summer, with plenty of flights offered between the United States, Canada, and the island of Ireland.
Arriving in Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland, you can easily hop on a Belfast-bound, cross-border train, which rattles up the East Coast for a duration of two and a half hours before calling at Belfast Lanyon Place.
There are no border checks traveling between Ireland and Northern Ireland, or indeed Ireland and any U.K. nation, due to an agreement called the Common Travel Area.
From Belfast, rail service to other domestic destinations in Northern Ireland, including Portrush and Derry/Londonderry is frequent.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com