One Week in Northern Ireland: The Perfect 7-Day Northern Ireland Road Trip Itinerary

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Coastlines formed by warring giants. Historic shipyards. Political uprisings. The King in the North (yes, that's a Game of Thrones reference). These things and more are all tied to Northern Ireland and make it a fascinating place to visit.

But too many people visit Northern Ireland fleetingly, maybe dedicating a day or two to Belfast and Giant's Causeway as part of a longer trip in the neighboring Republic of Ireland. This is a shame, as Northern Ireland truly deserves a trip all its own – or, at the very least, more than just a day or two.

If you're interested in planning a trip just to focus on Northern Ireland, then this itinerary is for you! It hits up all the highlights in Northern Ireland in one week, from the history in Belfast and Derry to the stunning Causeway Coast to even a luxurious spa resort if that's your thing.

Belfast view from the Observatory Bar
Belfast views
Amanda and Elliot at Giant's Causeway
Amanda and Elliot at Giant's Causeway

Feel free to use this Northern Ireland itinerary to help you plan your own trip!

ONE NOTE: Northern Ireland shares an island with the Republic of Ireland, though Northern Ireland is still politically a part of the United Kingdom. For the purposes of this post, I'm going by the current political borders in terms of what's “in” Northern Ireland, and also referring to it as Northern Ireland!

The best time to visit Northern Ireland

Like most of the rest of the UK and Ireland, the summer months are usually regarded as the “best” time to visit. From May-September, you have more of a chance of experiencing some sunny days – though you'll still definitely want to pack a raincoat, too!

I've visited different parts of Northern Ireland several times, all in the summer or early fall, and I would agree that May-September is the best time to go. (The particular road trip I'm basing this itinerary on was in September, and you can see in my photos what the weather was like!)

Amanda in a yellow raincoat beside a large rock at Kinbane Castle
No matter when you visit, you'll want a good raincoat!

Where to start your Northern Ireland road trip

This particular itinerary is best done by car. I realize driving in the UK can seem intimidating to some, but you really do get used to driving on the left quicker than you'd think. (And for my American readers, you don't need any special permits to drive in Northern Ireland; your US driver's license works.)

You *can* travel around Northern Ireland via public transport, but you'll have so much more freedom to visit all the spots I'm suggesting with your own set of wheels.

Need to rent a car in Northern Ireland? I like to use Auto Europe to compare prices. Search for a rental car here. (I would suggest a small-ish car to make driving easier!)

As for where to start, this road trip itinerary begins and ends in Belfast. You could, however, also start your trip in Dublin (which is just a 2-hour drive from Belfast), or end in Galway. Meaning yes, you can absolutely combine this road trip with a road trip in the Republic of Ireland. If you have more than just a week, I would definitely recommend it!

1 week Northern Ireland road trip itinerary

Dark Hedges row of trees in Northern Ireland
Let's go explore Northern Ireland!

This itinerary is based on several trips (and one road trip) I have personally taken to Northern Ireland. I'm suggesting you dedicate a week to this trip in order to truly savor it and not rush too much – but I'll give you some suggestions at the end for how you can shorten this up a bit if you need to!

Highlights of this Northern Ireland itinerary include:

  • Learning about the history of Belfast
  • Driving scenic routes
  • Exploring castles and castle ruins
  • Crossing the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge
  • Visiting the UNESCO-recognized Giant's Causeway
  • Touring a distillery
  • Staying at a spa resort
  • Walking ancient city walls in Derry/Londonderry
  • And more!

Day 1: Explore Belfast

Highlights of today include: A political Black Taxi Tour, visiting Crumlin Road Gaol, seeing Belfast City Hall in the city center, and exploring the Cathedral Quarter.

The Spire of Hope atop St. Anne's Cathedral in Belfast
The Spire of Hope atop St. Anne's Cathedral

Belfast is the capital city of Northern Ireland, being home to just under 300,000 people. Its modern history dates back to the early 1600s, and it rose to prominence through the 1700s thanks to its linen industry and shipbuilding yards (a little ship called Titanic was built here… maybe you've heard of it).

Belfast was severely damaged by air raids during World War II, and experienced a decline in economy and population after the war as it struggled with demand for its main industries, followed by decades of political unrest.

Today, however, the city is bouncing back thanks to things like tourism and the film industry. Belfast still feels rough around the edges in parts, but it's also become a cool European capital with good pubs, lots of street art, and a young population.

Morning: Black Taxi Tour

Dividing gate in Belfast
A dividing gate still standing in Belfast

Chances are if you know anything about Belfast, you know (or at least have heard) about The Troubles, a period of violent clashes and terrorist-style bombings that plagued cities across Northern Ireland for roughly 30 years. But if you're like me, you probably know very little about what the reality of life in Belfast was like during that time – or what marks those years have left on the city.

To get a better understanding of The Troubles, I highly recommend going on a historic Black Taxi tour of Belfast. These tours are offered by licensed taxi drivers in Belfast who have personal ties to the events that took place in the city from 1968-1998; most of them grew up or worked in divided parts of the city.

On a tour like this, you'll learn about the various things that lead to the conflict (a complicated mixture of politics and religion played a role), and hear stories of religious discrimination, paramilitary groups, hunger strikes, and much more. Each tour is slightly different based on your guide and what their experience was like in Belfast during those years, which I think is pretty cool.

You might be surprised to learn that parts of Belfast are still divided by walls and fences and gates. You'll drive past or through some of the gates, and visit the largest wall (the “Peace Wall”) that still serves as a border between a Catholic and Protestant neighborhood.

Visiting the painted Peace Wall in Belfast
Visiting the Peace Wall with our driver in Belfast

I honestly don't think you can fully understand Belfast without going on a tour like this. Learn more about what a Black Taxi tour in Belfast is like.

(Don't let the description turn you off; these tours are very safe. While you might not want to go wandering on Falls Road or Shankhill Road on your own as a tourist, it's safe to go on a tour like this!)

RELATED: Belfast and Its Troubles: What a Black Taxi Tour in Belfast is Like

There are a LOT of Black Taxi companies offering tours around Belfast. They all are very similar, and they all utilize drivers who lived (and sometimes worked) through The Troubles. The tours offer informative, fairly balanced tours of both “sides” of Belfast.

Some Black Taxi tour options to check out include:

And here are some other historical Belfast tours that cover the same material:

Bobby Sands mural in Belfast
One of the Belfast murals you'll visit to learn about the hunger strike of Bobby Sands

Late morning: Crumlin Road Gaol

To compliment what you'll hear and learn on your Black Taxi tour, you may want to visit the Crumlin Road Gaol next. This high security prison (gaol means “jail” in Irish) dates back to 1846, but became most famous for imprisoning both Republicans and Loyalists during The Troubles.

“The Crum,” as it's known colloquially, hasn't served as a prison since 1996. Today, the site offers guided historical tours, and is also (a bit weirdly) an entertainment and event venue. (You can buy a ticket in advance here.)

Afternoon: Belfast City Hall

Belfast City Hall exterior with a green lawn
Belfast City Hall

Head back into the city center in the afternoon for a bit of wandering. One site you can't miss (literally, it's huge and you'll definitely notice it) is Belfast City Hall. Sitting in Donegall Square, the iconic green-domed building is one of the most iconic buildings in Belfast. It dates back to 1906, and is the city's main civic building.

Visitors can take free guided tours inside City Hall (you need to register at the visitor exhibition/guided tours reception), or you can explore the monuments, memorials, and gardens outside on your own, including the Titanic Memorial Garden.

Evening: Cathedral Quarter

Just to the north of Belfast's city center you'll find the Cathedral Quarter, a buzzy, creative area with some of Belfast's best bars. The quarter centers around Saint Anne’s Cathedral, a Romanesque church known for its needlelike steel spire. This area used to be filled with warehouses, but today those warehouses are filled with cafes, pubs, comedy clubs, and more.

Be sure to stop by Commercial Court just outside the Duke of York Pub to snap a photo on the famous “umbrella street” while you're here.

Umbrella alley outside the Duke of York pub in Belfast
Umbrella alley outside the Duke of York pub

If you're visiting on a weekend especially and want to listen to some live traditional music tonight, check out pubs like the Duke of York, White's Tavern, The Dirty Onion and Yardbird (they actually have live music 7 nights a week!), and Sunflower Public House.

You can also check out the Belfast Traditional Music Trail, which runs guided tours focused on traditional Irish music. They offer a public tour on Saturday evenings, or you can book a private tour other nights of the week.

Total driving time today: Less than 20 minutes. The only place you might need to drive to today is Crumlin Road Gaol; everywhere else is walkable, as the Belfast city center is fairly small.

Where to stay in Belfast (2 nights): We stayed at the The Fitzwilliam Hotel near City Hall in Belfast, which is a great (and yet fairly affordable) luxury hotel option. Other places I'd recommend include Tara Lodge, a small boutique hotel in the Queens Quarter near Queens University, or the Ibis Belfast City Centre, which is a good budget-friendly option in a good location.

Day 2: More Belfast

Highlights today will include the Titanic Belfast museum, the Botanic Garden and Ulster Museum, a fancy afternoon tea, and drinks with a view.

Morning: Titanic Belfast

Titanic Belfast museum building
The striking Titanic Belfast museum

Titanic Belfast is a museum and visitor attraction dedicated to the Titanic and Belfast's shipbuilding history, and is one of the most popular (if not THE most popular) attractions in the city.

Titanic Belfast is located in the city's “Titanic Quarter” (imagine that!), a mere 100 meters from where Titanic's hull was constructed and launched. The museum covers a whopping 120,000 square feet and includes interactive exhibits, recreations of the ship’s cabins, and an entire gondola-style ride indoors.

The museum walks you through the whole story of the Titanic, but also touches on Belfast's history as an important linen manufacturing city before it emerged as a ship building powerhouse. I learned a lot about Belfast here!

Also included with your Titanic Belfast ticket is a chance to go aboard the SS Nomadic. Moored at Hamilton Dock across the street from Titanic Belfast, the SS Nomadic served as tender boat to RMS Titanic, and is the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world! The vessel has been restored to look how she did when she ferried passengers to the Titanic, so definitely save time for this.

SS Nomadic tender ship in dry dock in Belfast
Visit the SS Nomadic, too

A note on visiting Titanic Belfast: The museum can get very busy, so be prepared for crowds! I'm suggesting you go this morning (the earlier, the better), as peak hours are usually between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. You definitely should book your (timed) ticket in advance, and prepare to spend at least a couple hours here to see everything.

Early afternoon: Botanic Garden/Ulster Museum

From the Titanic Quarter, head south of the city center to the Queens Quarter. Here you can visit two interesting spots near Queen's University.

First, Belfast's Botanic Garden is a great green space to visit in the city. The garden dates back to 1828, and has a gorgeous glass house, a palm house filled with tropical plants, a rose garden, and lots of walking trails. Best of all? The garden is free to visit!

And since you're there, you may as well also visit the Ulster Museum, which is located within the garden grounds. The museum has a range of exhibits covering art, history, and the natural sciences, and is also free to visit.

Late afternoon: Afternoon tea

Head back into the city center this afternoon for a spot of tea. Northern Ireland is still politically a part of the United Kingdom, remember, and the tradition of afternoon tea is still alive and well here.

There are several places you can book for a nice afternoon tea, including at the Europa Hotel, Café Parisien, the Merchant Hotel, or the Grand Central Hotel. Prices can vary, but overall afternoon teas in Belfast are much more affordable than what you'll find in, say, London.

Evening: Drinks at The Observatory Bar

Drinks with a view at the Observatory Bar in Belfast
Drinks with a view at the Observatory Bar

The Grand Central Hotel is one of the most famous hotels in Belfast, and its indoor rooftop bar, The Observatory Bar, is one you won't want to miss. With lots of cozy seating areas and the very best views of Belfast, this is the perfect place to grab an evening cocktail.

Total driving time today: 30 minutes

Where to stay in Belfast (2 nights): Again, we stayed at the The Fitzwilliam Hotel near City Hall, which I loved. Other places I'd recommend include Tara Lodge, or the Ibis Belfast City Centre.

Day 3: Belfast to Causeway Coast

Highlights of today include an optional coastal walk OR a visit to a Game of Thrones filming site, lunch at a castle, and driving the Torr Head Scenic Route.

Causeway Coast from a drone
Causeway Coast, here we come!

Today you'll bid farewell to Belfast and start heading north towards the incredible Causeway Coast. The Causeway Coast encompasses the coastal (and slightly inland) areas of Northern Ireland between Belfast and Derry, and is known for its incredible scenery and historic sites.

On paper, the Causeway Coast covers about 150 miles. But we're going to explore it slowly over a couple days!

Optional morning: Gobbins Walk

I'm suggesting two different ways you could start your day, depending on your personal interests. The first option is to walk the Gobbins Cliff Path, which is located about half an hour away from Belfast. This adventurous cliff-face walk takes you across bridges and past caves almost at sea level along the crashing coast.

The walk isn't necessarily a stroll, as it's 3 miles long out-and-back, and includes the equivalent of 50 flights of stairs, some of which are uneven and narrow. You also can only do this walk as part of a guided tour that takes 3 hours, so it's not a quick stop and requires some pre-planning (you can book tickets here).

Optional morning 2: Game of Thrones Studio Tour

Costumes at Game of Thrones Studio Tour
Game of Thrones Studio Tour photo by Twist Travel Magazine

The other option for this morning is to visit the Game of Thrones Studio Tour roughly half an hour south of Belfast. Northern Ireland was a major filming location for the series, and the studio tour allows fans to go behind the scenes in unique ways.

Much like the Harry Potter Studio Tour outside of London, the Game of Thrones Studio Tour features sets, costumes, props, and more that were actually used in the show. Stand before giants, walk through actual sets, and even sit on the Iron Throne. You'll also get glimpses into the planning and visual effects that went into making the series, and enjoy some immersive interactive experiences.

This is a really fun stop for any Game of Thrones fan, and honestly would be enjoyable for any film or TV buff. Booking your timed tickets in advance is highly recommended (you can book ahead here).

Lunch: Glenarm Castle

Whether you choose the Gobbins Walk or Winterfell this morning, this afternoon you can start heading up the coast. I recommend stopping at Glenarm Castle for lunch. This coastal estate is the ancestral (and current) home of the McDonnell family, Earls of Antrim. It's still used as a private home by the Earl and Countess of Antrim, but is also open for tours on select dates.

Along with touring the castle, visitors can always explore the 18th century Walled Garden, visit the Heritage Center to learn about the McDonnell family, and see vintage cars in the Coach House Museum. You can grab coffee or lunch at the Ground at Glenarm Castle, and ice cream at The Milk Parlour.

Afternoon: Cushendun Caves or Glenariff Forest Park

Views near Cushendun
Views near Cushendun

This afternoon, there's another choice you can make between exploring a pretty wooded park with waterfalls, or some seaside caves.

Glenariff Forest Park would be the first possible stop, not far from Glenarm Castle. This park is mostly woodland, with some lakes and waterfalls and beautiful vibes. Park in the main parking area and hit one of the 4 hiking trails. (My pick would be the Waterfall Walk, which is less than 2 miles and mostly along boardwalks.)

Or, if hiking doesn't appeal, drive a little further north towards the villages of Cushendall and Cushendun, both quaint little spots with cute cottages and cozy pubs.

Stop at Cushendun to see the lovely beach and the Cushendun Caves, a series of sea-carved caves that were used in Game of Thrones (it was here that Melisandre gave birth to her shadow/demon baby). The caves are free to visit and don't take terribly long to walk around.

Amanda exploring the Cushendun Caves
Exploring the Cushendun Caves

(You *might* be able to visit both Glenariff Forest Park and the Cushendun Caves, depending on how you're doing on time. It's your call!)

Late afternoon: Torr Head Scenic Route

Just north of Cushendun, you can detour off the main road onto the Torr Head Scenic Route (the main road will turn left; you should turn right onto Torr Road).

This short, 15-mile drive between Cushendun and Ballyvoy is not for the faint of heart (don't let the line down the middle of the road fool you; it's barely wider than a single lane road with frequent cliff-like drop-offs on one side), but it is seriously EPIC.

Driving the Torr Head Scenic Route
Driving the Torr Head Scenic Route

You can (and should) stop at Torr Head itself, a dramatic headland with the remains of an 1800s coast guard/signaling station on top. You can climb up to the ruins for great views in all directions. On a clear day, you can see Scotland across the water!

Also located off the Torr Head Scenic Route, make a stop at Murlough Bay. You'll drive down a narrow gravel road and park next to some livestock pastures, and then you can walk along a gravel path to the bay itself.

This quiet, protected bay is surrounded by steep, forested hills and is usually pretty empty thanks to its secluded location. Some say it's one of the most beautiful spots along the Causeway Coast – and I can't really argue! You can walk out onto the rocks or even enjoy a small sandy beach at low tide.

Murlough Bay in Northern Ireland
The incredibly pretty Murlough Bay

RELATED: 18 Epic Stops Along the Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland

Evening: Ballycastle

From Murlough Bay, it's a short drive to the town of Ballycastle, one of the larger towns on the Causeway Coast (population of around 5200). Ballycastle has a lovely large beach (Ballycastle Strand) with views of Fair Head, a marina and seafront play park, and plenty of cafe and restaurant options.

Total driving time today: Anywhere from 3 to 4 hours, depending on whether you do the Gobbins Walk or the Game of Thrones Studio Tour in the morning.

Where to stay in Ballycastle (1 night): There are lots of good options here, including Ballygally Castle (which yes, is a real castle!), or the upscale Glass Island B&B. Nearby in Ballintoy, you could also book in at the cozy Whitepark House.

Day 4: Causeway Coast

Highlights today include the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge, several castle ruins, a beautiful beach, and an optional stay at a spa resort.

We're dedicating most of today to sights along the northern Causeway Coast, including one of the most popular stops in all of Northern Ireland! Because everything is fairly close today, you can have a lazier morning if you want and get a slightly later start.

Morning: Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge

Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge
Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge

Start your day at the famous Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge, which is not far from where you're staying. The site is exactly what it's billed as: a 60-foot-long rope bridge connecting the mainland to a small island.

The bridge was first built about 250 years ago and was historically used by fishermen to go over to the tiny island of Carrick-a-Rede to fish for salmon. Today, it's entirely a tourist attraction managed and maintained by the National Trust in Northern Ireland.

You do have to hike from the entrance area/parking lot to get to the bridge (it's about 1 kilometer or .6 miles each way), and the bridge itself is suspended almost 100 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. Once you cross the bridge you can walk around the small island, but the main attraction really is crossing the bridge itself.

Crossing the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Crossing the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

This spot gets very busy during the summer months and on weekends, so it is recommended that you book your ticket in advance, or go early in the day (which is why I'm suggesting it as the first thing on your to-do list today). Even then, expect a slight wait to cross the bridge.

NOTE: If you only want to see the bridge but not cross it, you can actually do the coastal walk for free and don't need a ticket at all. The ticket/fee only applies to crossing the bridge. (You'll have to pay for parking, though, if you just want to do the walk and skip the bridge.) And also note that you cannot see the bridge itself from the parking area; you'll have to do the walk to get close!

Late morning: Kinbane Castle hike

After the rope bridge, backtrack a bit to the east along the coast to visit Kinbane Castle. (Yes, it would make sense to visit Kinbane first to avoid backtracking, but going to the rope bridge first thing will hopefully help you miss the worst of the crowds!)

Kinbane Castle is a small castle ruin sat on a craggy limestone headland along the Causeway Coast. It does take a little effort to reach, but it's personally my favorite castle ruin to see!

Kinbane Castle ruins on the Causeway Coast
Kinbane Castle ruins

Kinbane Castle was originally built by Colla MacDonnell in 1547. The castle was largely destroyed by the English in the 16th century, however, and today only parts of a guard tower are still standing. But those remains are in such an epic spot!

To get to Kinbane Castle, you do have to walk down 140 steps (and of course back up them again). From the bottom of the stairs, you can explore a rocky beach and all parts of the headland that the castle was perched upon. The views back toward the mainland are especially incredible and well worth the hike.

Kinbane Castle views
Looking back from the headland

Afternoon: White Park Bay Beach

Stop in to the Carrick-A-Rede Bar and Restaurant for lunch, and perhaps see Ballintoy Harbor (it was also used in Game of Thrones). And then I'd also recommend stopping at White Park Bay Beach.

Even though you may not associate the UK and Ireland with beaches, there are plenty along the coast! White Park Bay is a beautiful arc of golden sand that stretches between two headlands. Getting down to the beach does require a bit of a walk through some sand dunes, but you can also get a glimpse of the whole beach from the parking area.

The beach is managed by the National Trust, and is a stunning spot to visit (though not a great spot to actually swim because of rip currents).

Afternoon: See more castle ruins

As you continue along the coast, there are some more castle ruins you can visit.

Amanda at Dunseverick Castle ruins
Dunseverick Castle ruins

The first beyond White Park Bay is what's left of Dunseverick Castle. There's been a fort or castle on this craggy promontory since at least the 5th century, and it's said to have been attacked by Vikings and visited at least once by Saint Patrick. Dunseverick Castle was eventually destroyed in the 1600s, and today only the shadow of a gate tower remains.

From the castle parking area, it's possible to walk down into to boggy valley and climb up to the castle site. (Just be careful, as the ground is spongy and the hills are steep!) You can see the tower up close, as well as ancient low earthworks surrounding the site. (And this is all free!)

A bit further along the coast is Dunluce Castle, the largest ruin you can visit along the Causeway Coast. There's been a fortification of some kind on this rocky outcrop for more than 1000 years, but the current castle ruins are mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries, when Dunluce was the seat of Clan McQuillan, and then Clan MacDonnell.

Dunluce Castle ruins
Dunluce Castle ruins

You can tour the Dunluce Castle ruins and see some historical exhibits inside. Just beware that it's said to be haunted by a banshee!

This one does require an entrance fee, and you buy tickets there at the castle.

A note on the itinerary: Yes, you'll be driving right past Giant's Causeway today, but that's not an omission! I'm saving that popular site for Day 5 so you can spend more time enjoying it.

Magheracross Car Park & Viewpoint

I'm convinced that most people skip this spot because it's marked as “Magheracross Car Park & Viewpoint” on Google Maps – and what's exciting about a car park? But you really should make a stop after Dunluce Castle.

Walking paths here lead to viewing platforms with views towards Dunluce Castle and a collection of white limestone rock formations and sea arches. The views are absolutely incredible, and it's a no-brainer to visit since you can see everything for free with minimal walking.

Magheracross Viewpoint (from a drone)
Magheracross Viewpoint (from a drone)
View from Magheracross Viewpoint
And the non-drone view from this viewpoint

Optional evening: Galgorm Resort

If you're looking for a bit of luxury on your trip to Northern Ireland, then I need to tell you about Galgorm Spa Resort just outside the town of Ballymena. This resort is tucked away on 380 acres of lush parkland with the River Maine running through it, and offers a variety of accommodation options, several restaurants, spa services, and a unique outdoor “thermal village.”

Elliot and I actually stayed here for 2 nights during our trip, returning here in the evenings to enjoy the thermal village and gin tastings inside the resort's “Gin Library.” You can read more about Galgorm here.

We stayed in a cozy Shepherd's Hut at Galgorm and really loved it.

RELATED: Galgorm Spa Resort in Northern Ireland: Everything to Know Before You Go

Outdoor spa in the Thermal Village at Galgorm
Outdoor spa in the Thermal Village at Galgorm
Galgorm Conservatory
Galgorm Conservatory

Total driving time today: Anywhere between 1 hour and 1 hour 45 minutes, depending on where you decide to stay tonight.

Where to stay tonight: You could opt for Galgorm like we did. But if that's not your style, then two other options are the award-winning Bayview Hotel in Portballintrae, or The Bushmills Inn Hotel, a cozy boutique hotel in Bushmills that dates all the way back to the 1600s.

Day 5: Giants Causeway

The main highlight of today will be visiting Giant's Causeway, but you'll also get to see the Dark Hedges, tour a old distillery, and explore a cute coastal town.

Morning: Dark Hedges

NOTE: IF you're staying at Galgorm, then it makes sense to detour slightly to visit the Dark Hedges in the morning, on your way to Giant's Causeway. If you're staying in Bushmills or Portballintrae, though, then I would go straight to Giant's Causeway and visit the Dark Hedges later in the day.

The Dark Hedges is a spot you've probably seen photos of. It's a lane lined with big, twisted beech trees that were originally planted in the 1700s by the Stuart family to line the avenue leading up to their manor, Gracehill House. In the mid-2010s, though, the Dark Hedges were made famous thanks to Game of Thrones and Instagram, and the site became a tourist must-see.

A sunny day at the Dark Hedges
A sunny day at the Dark Hedges

The part of Bregagh Road the trees are planted on has been closed to vehicular traffic in order to protect the trees, so now you need to park in a lot in front of the Hedges Hotel and walk via a wooded path to see the site. (And please abide by these new rules; parking near the trees is literally killing them, and nobody wants your car ruining their photos.)

The Dark Hedges can be crowded, but the lane is still quite pretty to see. In the early morning, there's a chance of a foggy, eerie scene and fewer people.

Morning: Giant's Causeway

Continue on to Giant's Causeway, which has a parking lot and National Trust-run visitor center that both open at 9 a.m. Arriving as close to that time (or, at least before about 10:30 a.m.) is ideal if you want to enjoy a quieter visit.

Amanda on top of rocks at Giant's Causeway
Want a chance at a shot like this? Go early!

Giant's Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of 40,000+ interlocking hexagonal basalt columns that were formed during an ancient volcanic lava flow – or by the Irish giant Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool), who is said to have built the Causeway in order to reach Scotland to challenge the giant Benandonner. You can believe whichever origin story you prefer.

The award-winning Giant's Causeway visitor center offers several ways to learn about the Causeway, including audio tours and guided tours. Note though that the visitor center “experience” is ticketed, and they recommend booking online in advance.

You don't HAVE to pay for the visitor center in order to visit Giant's Causeway, however the ticket includes guaranteed parking and access to restrooms, so it's honestly worth it. (Otherwise you have to park further away and pay a £10 fee anyway.)

Giant's Causeway columns
Park closer so you have more time here!

The stones are a slight distance from the visitor center, hence why I didn't suggest you stop on Day 4 for a quick photo stop. From the visitor center, it's about half a mile to the largest concentration of basalt columns. There are two different walking trails you can use to reach them; one along the bottom of the cliff (the Blue Trail), and one cliff-top walk (the Red Trail).

I recommend taking the Blue Trail downhill from the visitor center, spending as much time as you want exploring the stones (they're shaped perfectly to act as natural steps; just be careful if it's wet!), and then connecting to the cliff-top Red Trail via the Shepherd's Steps.

Yes, the uphill climb is steep, but it's short, and then it's mostly flat or downhill on your way back to the visitor center (and the views from the clifftop are awesome!).

Giant's Causeway view from the Shepherd's Steps
View from the Shepherd's Steps
Giant's Causeway view from the Red Trail
Giant's Causeway view from the clifftop Red Trail

GOOD TO KNOW: There's also a shuttle bus that runs between the visitor center and the stones via the Blue Trail that you can use for a few pounds extra. This is worth it for anyone with mobility issues (or if you just don't want to walk a half-mile uphill on the way back to the visitor center).

There's a cafe at Giant's Causeway to have lunch at, or you could head into nearby Bushmills where there are several pubs and fish and chips shops to choose from.

Afternoon: Old Bushmills Distillery

This afternoon is a great time to soak up some non-scenic history. Head to the Old Bushmills Distillery, which is the oldest licensed distillery in Ireland, with a license to make whiskey dating back to 1608.

You can take a tour of the distillery to learn all about Irish whiskey and how Bushmills makes its triple-distilled “water of life.” Everything they make is distilled, aged, and bottled right here. They have three different tours ranging from 1-2.5 hours long, and advanced booking is recommended as they do tend to sell out.

If you've not visited a distillery before, or are a fan of Bushmills, then this is definitely worth it. (And, honestly, even if you don't drink whiskey, visiting a distillery to learn about the history and craft can still be really interesting.)

Late afternoon: Portrush

After your distillery tour, head to the town of Portrush, one of the largest on the Causeway Coast, with a population of about 7000 people. The town is built on a small peninsula, and has lots of cafes, restaurants, and pubs to choose from.

You'll also find the legendary Royal Portrush Golf Club right on the coast. The golf club is home to the famous Dunluce Links, said to be one of the most challenging golf courses in the world.

Total driving time today: 1.5 hours if you stay 2 nights at Galgorm; otherwise it's less than 30 minutes total of driving today.

Where to stay tonight: You can either do a second night at Galgorm (you'll have time again tonight to enjoy the thermal village), or you can stay in Portrush at the Elephant Rock Hotel or the Inn on the Coast.

Day 6: To Derry / Londonderry

Highlights today include some last glimpses of the Causeway Coast, and the historic walled city of Derry.

Derry City street view
Derry City views

Today we're bidding the Causeway Coast and its views and charming towns farewell, and heading to the second-largest city in Northern Ireland.

Morning: Mussenden Temple

If you stayed overnight in Portrush (or if you don't mind detouring slightly), then I recommend making one last stop along the coast at Downhill Demesne, an 18th century estate in County Londonderry that's now managed by the National Trust.

The former mansion on the estate is mostly destroyed, but the real “star” here is the Mussenden Temple, a round building perched right on a cliff edge that was originally built as the estate's library. The round, column-covered structure was modeled after the Temple of Vesta in Rome, and is one of the most-photographed buildings in Northern Ireland.

NOTE: Many National Trust sites in Northern Ireland are free to visit, but charge for parking. At Mussenden Temple, there's paid parking at Lion's Gate. The pay machines are cash-only, but you can also download the PayByPhone app before your trip and pay through that if you have a mobile plan on your trip. (I've used this app in several countries!)

Afternoon: Explore Derry

Driving into Derry/Londonderry
Driving into Derry

Your final destination today will be the city of Derry/Londonderry. The city goes by both names, and which one is used is often based on the political or religious leanings of the local person you're talking to. (Officially speaking, the city and county are called “Londonderry,” but most locals call it Derry.)

And if you're really confused about this name debate, then it's a good thing you're going to Derry! Derry was a hotspot for conflict during The Troubles – in fact, it's generally agreed that the Troubles kicked off in Derry, and you've likely heard of Bloody Sunday, which also happened here.

In order to fully understand the history and present-day reality in Derry, I highly recommend a visit to the Museum of Free Derry, as well as a guided walking tour through the Bogside neighborhood to learn about Bloody Sunday, and see some of the famous Bogside murals.

Bogside murals in Derry
Bogside murals in Derry

I know I already recommended a tour focused on The Troubles in Belfast, but it's worth learning more about it in this part of the country, too. (Book a Bogside tour here.)

Also in Derry you'll want to walk the ancient city walls, which encircle the city center and date back to the 1600s. The Derry Walls are an iconic part of Derry, and are still fully intact! The full length along the walls is about a mile, so it won't take you long to walk them.

(You could also join a walking tour with Martin McCrossan City Walking Tours, which includes the walls AND a bit of Troubles history. Tours cost £6, and run at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. each afternoon. Booking is not necessary; simply show up at 11 Carlisle Road.)

Old gate in the Derry Walls
Old gate in the Derry Walls

You might also want to visit the neo-Gothic Guildhall building, and take a stroll over the Peace Bridge while in Derry.

Evening: Live music

If you're up for a night out tonight, you can't go wrong with catching some live traditional music at Peadar O’Donnell’s pub.

Total driving time today: 1-1.5 hours

Where to stay in Derry (1 night): We stayed at the Bishop's Gate Hotel, which is the top-rated hotel in Derry centrally located within the city walls. Other good options include the Shipquay Boutique Hotel, and the Maldron Hotel Derry.

Day 7: County Fermanagh & Lough Erne

Highlights today focus around the beautiful Lough Erne.

Lough Erne
Lough Erne

If you have this seventh day to spare, then I definitely encourage you to get off the beaten path and explore a part of Northern Ireland that so many people miss: County Fermanagh.

Morning: Explore Lough Erne

Head south from Derry to the southwest corner of Northern Ireland, where you'll eventually reach Lough Erne, the second-biggest lake system in Northern Ireland. There are several things you won't want to miss along the southern side of the lake, including:

  • Lough Navar Forest Drive – A beautiful one-way loop drive.
  • Cliffs of Magho Viewpoint – Offering up incredible views of Lough Erne.
  • Blackslee Waterfall – If you're up for a hike, this 4-mile trail traverses through the beautiful Blackslee Forest and ends at a pretty waterfall.
Cliffs of Magho Viewpoint at Lough Erne
Cliffs of Magho Viewpoint

Lunch: Enniskillen

At the eastern end of Lough Erne, you'll find the town of Enniskillen, which actually sits on a small island separating Upper and Lower Lough Erne. The town is very cute and has ample restaurant, cafe, and pub options along Townhall St. (We had a great lunch at The Toastery.)

Take some time to stoll and explore town before you leave; perhaps shop for art and crafts at the Buttermarket.

Town of Enniskillen
Town of Enniskillen

Afternoon: Marble Arch Caves

This afternoon, another cool spot to visit in County Fermanagh is the Marble Arch Caves. This 7.1-mile-long limestone cave system has been developed for visitors, with a 1-mile series of paths constructed so people like you and I can visit.

Guided cave tours operate daily, and it's recommended you book tickets in advance. (I personally skipped this one since I've been to several caves like this before, but if you've never been it's a unique experience!)

Back to Belfast, or on to Ireland

From there, you can either return to Belfast (2 hours), or continue on over the border into the Republic of Ireland. From Marble Arch Caves, it's 1 hour to Sligo, roughly 2.5 hours to Dublin, and nearly 3 hours to Galway.

Total driving time today: From Derry to Lough Erne to Marble Arch Caves, it's about 2.5 hours of driving. Then add on the extra time to get to your next destination.

Only have 5 days in Northern Ireland?

Causeway Coast at Murlough Bay
Causeway Coast at Murlough Bay

If you're adding Northern Ireland on to a longer Ireland road trip, then you might not have an entire week to dedicate to it. In that case, here's how I'd structure 5 days in Northern Ireland:

  • Day 1: Belfast (Black Taxi Tour, Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast City Hall, Cathedral Quarter)
  • Day 2: Belfast (Titanic Belfast museum, Botanic Garden, afternoon tea, drinks at Observatory Bar)
    • Option to swap out half a day on either Day 1 or Day 2 to drive to Winterfell if that sounds like more fun to you.
  • Day 3: Causeway Coast (Glenarm Castle, Torr Head Scenic Route, Kinbane Castle hike, Carrick-a-Rede bridge, Dark Hedges, stay in Ballycastle)
  • Day 4: Causeway Coast (Giant's Causeway, Old Bushmills Distillery, Magheracross Viewpoint, stay in Portrush)
  • Day 5: Derry (walls walk and Bogside tour)

Basically in this shortened itinerary, I'm cutting out staying at the Galgorm Spa Resort, suggesting fewer stops along the Causeway Coast, and omitting the day in County Fermanagh.

You could further shorten this itinerary by spending just 1 day in Belfast (it IS possible to visit Titanic Belfast and do a Black Taxi Tour all in one day if you manage your time well). I would not cut anything out along the Causeway Coast, though, as it's the highlight of this Northern Ireland road trip!

Causeway Coast at Giant's Causeway
I mean, seriously, you don't want to miss any of the Causeway Coast!

Want to combine Ireland and Northern Ireland?

Since you're already on the same island, it does make sense to combine a trip to Northern Ireland with a regular Ireland road trip.

There are a few different ways you could do this, depending on how much time you have. Assuming you're planning to take roughly a 2-week trip, I would recommend the 5-day version of this itinerary combined with my 10-day Ireland road trip itinerary.

What to pack for a Northern Ireland trip

Check out my packing guide for a trip to Ireland; Northern Ireland shares the same general weather!

Basically, you're going to want a variety of layers you can put on/take off, a good rain coat, and some waterproof shoes.

And that's it! Who's ready to plan a trip to Northern Ireland?

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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1 Comment on “One Week in Northern Ireland: The Perfect 7-Day Northern Ireland Road Trip Itinerary

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  1. Love this post! We spent 8 nights in Northern Ireland as part of a road trip that included time in Ireland, as well, and visited many of the sites you shared here. So fun to see these delightful places again!

    For travelers that enjoy hiking, I would highly recommend a stop in the Mourne Mountains. The Mournes are the highest peaks in Northern Ireland, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and a UNESCO Global Geopark. The mountains are criss-crossed by huge dry stone walls (built to protect reservoirs) and the whole area is just spectacular. The Mournes inspired C.S. Lewis to write the Narnia books; that’s just how magical they are! Stay in Newcastle — it is a delightful little town with easy access to the mountain hikes, as well as a gorgeous sandy beach at the Murlough Nature Reserve, where you can swim in calm waters with stunning views of the mountains. The Mournes are south of Belfast, so they wouldn’t squeeze easily into this northern coast itinerary. But for hikers who might be combining Northern Ireland with Ireland and flying into Dublin like we did, they are an easy stop on the way to the Antrim coast. I would return in a heartbeat!

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