The Ultimate Northern Ireland Road Trip With Girlfriends Part 1

Are you dreaming of a Northern Ireland road trip? Even better, doing this trip with your girlfriends? Dream no more. Get ready for a whirlwind of laughter, scenic drives, and unforgettable memories! I’m taking you – my readers – on my Ultimate Northern Ireland Road Trip Extravaganza.

The thrill of the open road meets the charm of Northern Ireland in a journey that transcends the ordinary – this is not just a road trip; it’s a symphony of laughter, discovery, and unforgettable moments. Joining me on this Northern Ireland driving tour are Lindsay of I’ve Been Bit Travel Blog, Kirsten of Inspired By Her Travels, Nadine from The Ink and our Tourism Ireland representative, Jocelyn.

The route in this blog post that we are heading is from Dublin to Newcastle, a cute seaside town with breathtaking coastal views, charming streets, and the buzz of seaside adventure. After a fun excursion to Castlewellan for the beauty of Castlewellan Forest Park, we are heading to Belfast where you can immerse yourself in the city’s rich culture, from historic sites to trendy neighbourhoods.

In my Part 2 post to come – when we leave Belfast, we are heading on the Coastal Route Scenic Drive with picturesque landscapes, local flavour, cozy pubs and Instagrammable Stops. Then, we will wrap in the walled city of Derry to walk on the ancient walls, soak in the city’s history, and enjoy the warmth of its people.

Buckle up, fellow adventurers! Get ready for scenic drives, cozy inns, delectable local eats, and the kind of laughter that echoes through the mountains and resonates in the city streets. And as a bonus? Game of Thrones filming locations are all over the region. Are you ready to fill your heart with Northern Ireland? 

Northern Ireland Road trip girl friends at the Gobbins hike, selfie by Nadine
Northern Ireland Road trip, selfie by Nadine

Northern Ireland Road Trip Itinerary

Picture this: A road stretching ahead, weaving through picturesque landscapes, dotted with quaint towns and bustling cities. The air is infused with the promise of adventure, and each twist and turn brings with it a new story waiting to be written. Our destination? The heart of Northern Ireland – a region steeped in history, embraced by dramatic coastlines and sprinkled with the magic of both old-world charm and modern vibrancy.

From the vibrant streets of Belfast to the tranquil shores of Newcastle, the lush beauty of Castlewellan to the historic charm of Derry – we’re diving headfirst into the soul of Northern Ireland, uncovering hidden gems, creating inside jokes, and making memories that will last a lifetime. As this trip was so large and packed with so many wonderful experiences, I’m breaking it up into two posts.

Flying is the way to get to Northern Ireland from Toronto, Canada. Once we arrive in Dublin (in the Republic of Ireland), the road trip begins. It’s in the Arrivals Section of Terminal 2 in Dublin where we meet our Belfast-based driver, guide, local historian, fun guy and gentleman who made sure we didn’t get into too much trouble – Billy Scott of Touring Around Belfast. If you aren’t comfortable with a self-driving tour and want local context and information wherever you go, Billy is your Blue Badge Guide! I would not hesitate to travel with Billy again. 

 

What is the difference between Ireland and Northern Ireland?

There is a difference between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This is something to clarify before we go any further. There is Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom with Scotland, England and Wales. While their landscapes may share many similarities, Ireland and Northern Ireland are two separate countries. 

When Northern Ireland was formed in 1920, it was decided, partly because of where Catholic and Protestant populations lived. The south – which is Ireland, is predominantly Catholic. The north – Northern Ireland and part of the UK is Protestant. This played a large role in the history of conflict between the two areas. The Troubles carried on for many decades.

As of right now, there is no physical border between the two countries. One big difference is that Ireland uses the Euro as it’s currency while Northern Ireland uses the pound. Another difference is speed limits are measured in km/h in Ireland and mph in Northern Ireland.

They each have their own capital city. Dublin is the capital of Ireland. Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland. With over a million residents, Dublin is the largest city in all of the island of Ireland. Belfast has close to half of that population and is the second-largest city in all of the island of Ireland.

Northern Ireland political murals - photo taken outside of Belfast

Day 1 – The Drive from Dublin to Newcastle

Remember that Northern Ireland’s weather can be unpredictable, with rain occurring at any time of the year. It’s advisable to bring layers, a waterproof jacket, and sturdy walking shoes, especially if you plan to explore the countryside.

Ultimately, the best time to travel depends on your preferences for weather, crowd levels, and the types of activities you want to enjoy during your visit to Northern Ireland.

Our flight arrived in Dublin at 5:30 in the morning. The drive from the airport in Dublin to Newcastle is only a couple of hours and it’s super uneventful when you do it early in the morning like we did. 

Newcastle is situated at the foot of the Mourne Mountains and along the rugged coastline of County Down. The town offers a mix of natural beauty, outdoor activities, and charming town experiences. The Mourne Mountains are located in County Down, in the southeastern part of Northern Ireland.

We arrived at The Avoca Hotel in Newcastle, County Down, by 8:30 in the morning for a hearty Full Irish breakfast. Our drive time included stopping to catch a gorgeous sunrise along the coast. After our overnight flight and drive, we were hungry so food was necessary and we were in the perfect spot.

Exterior Avoca hotel morning, sign for Irish Breakfast on sidewalk

Where to Stay In Newcastle?

In Newcastle, we stayed at The Avoca Hotel. I had a sea view from my King bedroom. This might have been a girl’s trip, but we are grown-ups and we had our own rooms. 

My room, on the second-floor walk-up, was quiet, faced Dundrum Bay and boasted a lovely sitting area by the window. I enjoyed having my own shower, wardrobe and small desk.

There is a restaurant – The Avoca Restaurant that we enjoyed breakfast at as well as our dinner and my first Guinness of the trip.

Interior Avoca Hotel King Bed Room facing water through window

What are things to do in Newcastle?

One of the first things to do in Newcastle is stroll along the pristine Newcastle Beach. The beach has panoramic views of the Irish Sea and the Mourne Mountains. Next, take a leisurely walk along the promenade, enjoying the fresh sea air and views of the Irish Sea. If you want some nature from the comfort of town, relax in Donard Park. Donard Park is a beautiful public park with walking trails and the picturesque Glen River.

If you have time, hike or drive through the stunning Mourne Mountains. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore Tollymore Forest Park, a filming location for Game of Thrones. This is where you will find the Dark Hedges. I didn’t have time on this trip, but there will be a return!

a street in the town of Newcastle in morning hours, on an overcast day

Castlewellan Forest Park

One of the most amazing stops we made was at Castlewellan Forest Park. Castlewellan Forest Park is just a short drive away from Newcastle. There is a quiet lake, walking trails, and the iconic Castlewellan Castle. The park covers over 1100 acres. In the lake – you can kayak or paddle board IN FRONT OF A CASTLE! Yes, that’s right, Castlewellan Castle is the backdrop for your lake adventure. Can you think of anything more epic in this region than paddleboarding in front of a castle? 

Stand Up paddle boarding in front of Castlewellan Castle on her Northern Ireland girl's trip
Photo by Lindsay of I’ve Been Bit Travel Blog

Just as epic, an E-Bike ride through Castlewellan Mountain Bike Trails! Castlewellan Forest Park boasts a network of exhilarating mountain biking trails that cater to various skill levels. If you can, ride up to the Peace Maze for stunning views of the Mourne Mountains! From beginners to experienced riders, there are routes designed to provide an adrenaline rush and stunning views of the surrounding landscapes. 

Whether you’re a nature lover, a history enthusiast, or someone who enjoys good food and local charm, Newcastle has something to offer for everyone. Take in the breathtaking scenery, immerse yourself in the local culture, and make the most of your time in this delightful coastal town.

The author and friends on E-Bike ride to Castlewellan Castle outside of Newcastle, Northern Ireland

 

Day 2 – Drive from Newcastle to Belfast with stops in between

Despite still being a bit jetlagged, we depart Newcastle on more adventures to be had. The destination is Belfast, with stops at Linen Mill Studios for the Games of Thrones Studio Tour and Royal Hillsborough, which is the first village or town in Northern Ireland to receive the exceptional Royal title. 

One thing to know about Northern Ireland is that almost everyone there worked in some capacity on Game of Thrones. It’s a badge of honour for so many you speak with. Everyone is excited to tell you their story of working on the show. And they want you to know which stars they have had a brush with. For me, with a background in Toronto’s film and television industry, it’s incredibly endearing. What better way to dive into Game of Thrones lore of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond than with a full studio tour?

Game of Thrones Linen Mill Studios exterior with author posing in front

Linen Mill Studios

Linen Mill Studios was one of the filming locations for all seasons of Game of Thrones. The studio features reconstructed sets from Game of Thrones and allows you to walk past interior locations that were integral to the series. This studio was used to film interior scenes of Winterfell, the ancestral home of House Stark. The Great Hall of Winterfell and other rooms within the castle were constructed and filmed at the studio.

The studio was also used to create interior sets for Riverrun, the seat of House Tully. Scenes within the halls and chambers of Riverrun were filmed at Linen Mill Studios. Interior scenes set at The Twins, the seat of House Frey, were filmed at Linen Mill Studios. While many exterior scenes for Castle Black were filmed at Magheramorne Quarry, the interiors, including the living quarters and the dining hall, were constructed and filmed at Linen Mill Studios.

Linen Mill Studios offers guided and self-guided tours where you can explore the sets, costumes worn by the characters and various props used during the filming of Game of Thrones. 

Interior of Linen Mill Studios of Game of Thrones characters and their weapons used in the series

If you’re a fan in any way (except for the last season of GOT, we don’t need to discuss that), this is a must-do stop. Even the non-fans in the group enjoyed this. There are lots of photo opportunities! You will learn about the uses of special effects, and prosthetics, in the series, and other interesting aspects such as set designs and more of creating a high-profile television series. I would recommend a self-guided tour so you can wander, and take as much time as you wish. Don’t worry, if you are looking to buy a souvenir to remember your experience, you’ll exit through the gift shop here.

Game of Thrones art department at Linen Mill Studios

Royal Hillsborough

The town of Hillsborough is home to Hillsborough Castle, which is often referred to as “Royal Hillsborough.” Hillsborough Castle is a historic residence that has served as the official residence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland since the 1970s. It is also a royal residence – for yes – King Charles when he visits and a venue for official functions. 

Hillsborough Castle has a rich history dating back to the late 18th century. It was built in the 1770s for a prominent family. Over the years, it has been associated with various important figures and has undergone several renovations.

The castle is surrounded by extensive gardens and grounds, which are open to the public. We were more than excited to take a tour through the castle with an extremely colourful character for our guide. If anyone else gets Alan for a guide, they’re in for a treat! The artwork, memorabilia and photographs of the Royal lives is incredible. I’m not a Royal Watcher or gawker, but I found this interesting. 

Throne Room in Royal Hillsborough belonging to the Windsor Royal Family in Northern Ireland

While I barely ever remember to document food, we ate at The Hillside Restaurant, which was established in 1752. Now that’s an establishment that has likely boasted dining guests of many nobility statures over the years. My lunch was delicious.

The town is really cute and worth taking time to wander around as well if you have time.

The Hillside Restaurant exterior in Royal Hillsborough from the sidewalk

Welcome to Belfast – Day 2 and 3 of the Northern Ireland Road Trip Itinerary

Belfast is our stop for the next 2 nights. This city has a vibrant atmosphere and offers a diverse range of experiences. It’s a working person’s city. We didn’t see anything that screamed this was a very cosmopolitan city, so I was right at home. Of all of the cities in Europe that I have been to, this was the most comfortable for me.

The downtown core of Belfast is big enough that you can get a good leg stretch walking everywhere, but small enough that you can walk to many places. Many attractions, shopping districts, and dining options are conveniently located, allowing for an easy and enjoyable exploration of the city.

Belfast boasts a rich cultural scene with numerous theatres, galleries, and live music venues. Whether you’re interested in art, shopping, culinary delights, or cultural experiences, it’s there. For groups who have individuals with separate interests, there’s something in Belfast for everyone.

 

Where to Stay in Belfast?

While in Belfast, we stayed at the Ten Square Hotel at 10 Donegal Square South. Ten Square Hotel in Belfast has a modern and stylish design. Ten Square Hotel is located in the heart of Belfast, across from Belfast City Hall. 

My room was beyond spacious enough for just me and the bed was just right. Despite being across from city hall, I didn’t hear a single noise. I would stay there again. The hotel breakfast was amazing.

 

What are things to do in Belfast?

There are a lot of amazing things to do in Belfast on a girl’s trip. Like many other old-world cities, Belfast is full of history and charm. Belfast is famously known as the birthplace of the RMS Titanic. The Titanic plays a huge role in Belfast today. 

Belfast is also home to political and historical murals, which can be found throughout the city. These murals depict the city’s complex political history and the Troubles, as well as messages of peace and reconciliation. There is no way you can explore Belfast and not see reminders of the troubles between Catholics and Protestants and the political landscape.

Spirit of Belfast, public art installation in early evening

Explore the Cathedral Quarter

The Cathedral Quarter, named for St. Anne’s Cathedral, a stunning landmark Anglican cathedral, is characterized by its cobbled streets and historic architecture. The area is a blend of narrow alleyways, Georgian and Victorian buildings, and modern structures, creating a unique and charming ambiance. Known for its historic charm, lively atmosphere, and artistic flair, the Cathedral Quarter is a hub for creativity, entertainment, and dining. 

The Cathedral Quarter is home to historic pubs and traditional Irish bars, offering a cozy atmosphere and a chance to experience local hospitality. The area is known for its eclectic mix of shops selling everything from handmade crafts to vintage finds.

Belfast is known for its vibrant street art scene. Between our hotel and the Cathedral Quarter was The Spirit of Belfast, a public art project. The sculpture represents Belfast’s shipbuilding heritage. 

The Cathedral Quarter is a lively area for a night out with live entertainment. And for the record, I always felt safe when walking in the area.

Belfast Cathedral Quarter Commercial Court in early evening. Author posing under sign that reads Have you ever seen the rain coming down on a sunny day?

Explore the Linen Quarter 

The Linen Quarter is the area near City Hall, which stands on the site of the White Linen Hall, demolished in 1896. Belfast was the world leader in the production of fine Irish linen. The Linen Quarter played a significant role in the city’s economic history, and there may be plaques or informational signs highlighting this heritage.

While exploring, be sure to wander into one of Belfat’s oldest libraries, the Linen Hall Library. It houses a significant collection of books, manuscripts, and documents. Check if there are any exhibitions or events taking place during your visit. If you would like to shop for goods from Northern Ireland to take home, be sure to hit up Born and Bred.

In the Linen Quarter, there is The Grand Opera House, a historic theatre. We did not catch a play during our trip, but that means something to do next time!

political cartoons in Linen Hall Library, Linen Quarter, Belfast

Explore the Titanic Quarter

The Titanic Quarter is a waterfront regeneration project located in Belfast, named after the world-famous RMS Titanic. The area has undergone significant redevelopment, transforming former shipyards into a modern, vibrant district. 

Titanic Belfast is the star attraction of the quarter. It is a state-of-the-art museum housed in a striking building that mimics the design of ship hulls. The museum narrates the story of the Titanic, from its construction in Belfast to its ill-fated maiden voyage. Interactive exhibits, reconstructions, and artifacts provide an immersive experience. It’s an emotional depiction of the people, from the designers to the labourers to the pursers, ship doctors to the stories of passengers. The whole disaster is followed from the inception of the vessel to the survivor’s tales at the end. Titanic Belfast has multiple galleries, exhibits, and interactive displays. Plan sufficient time to explore each section thoroughly, it’s not a museum that you will want to rush through.

Belfast Titanic lifejacket and names of the survivors and perished

Adjacent to Titanic Belfast is the SS Nomadic, the last remaining White Star Line ship. Visitors can explore this beautifully restored vessel, which served as a tender ship for the Titanic.

The Titanic Slipways are the original slipways where the Titanic and its sister ship, the Olympic, were launched. The site has been preserved and offers a unique view of the scale of the Titanic’s construction.

Visit The Titanic Hotel Belfast is located in the former Harland & Wolff headquarters and drawing offices. Thousands of ships were designed in the Drawing Offices and constructed on the adjoining slipways, including the White Star liners Olympic, Titanic and Britannic and the naval warship HMS Belfast. 

Exterior of Titanic Belfast Museum with author in the I

And did I save the best idea for last? What road trip in Ireland misses an opportunity to taste Irish whiskey? Do a tour and tasting at Titanic Distillers at Thompson Dock. Journey back in time and explore how the Pumphouse, which was once famed for its feat of engineering, has now become home to a Distillery. Distilling Irish whisky and vodka, Titanic Distillers make the whiskey they want to enjoy after a long, hard day. They want it warm and talking to you, so bring it to your heart for a snuggle first. I promise you’ll enjoy it too.

the author Tasting Titanic Distillers whiskey in the Titanic Quarter, Belfast

Where to Eat in Belfast?

The city of Belfast is known for its diverse dining options, ranging from traditional Irish pubs serving hearty meals to trendy restaurants offering international cuisines. I did not have one mediocre meal while in Northern Ireland. Absolutely every dish was amazing. I’m not one to write about food, but you should know to go to these places:

Drawing Office Two at Titanic Hotel Belfast

The service at Drawing Room Two was so slow, the table we had wasn’t fit to eat at, but the atmosphere and historical significance of the building made up for it. The magnificent dual Victorian Drawing Offices, with their three-storey high barrel-vaulted ceilings, is the only surviving example of this type of architecture in the world. The bar is stunning. Take a walk through the building if you have a chance to see architectural artifacts of the ships and shipyards.

Drawing Room Two at Belfast Titanic Hotel restaurant

James Street

We hear that James Street is everyone’s favourite restaurant in Belfast. And imagine this, a group of Canadian girls goes to Belfast and ends up in a restaurant to be seated by a gentleman who married a fellow Canadian girl. Strange but true. He made us feel right at home and directed me to local brews to try. This restaurant is 2 blocks from our hotel so perfect so head out to explore the city after if you’re up for dancing or singing.

 

Bert’s Jazz Bar 

Bert’s Jazz Bar is Belfast’s one true jazz bar with the cocktails to match and it’s a restaurant with delicious food to appease the most discerning. The decor takes you back in time and the food screams high class. Do not miss this place.

Bert's Jazz Bar, in Belfast, interior bar area

There are plenty of bars in the area for after-dinner drinks that encompass all that is the atmosphere of an Irish Pub along the way. From the cute and quaint to the large and brash, there is a place to suit your group. Some of the recommendations given to us was:

 

The Crown Bar

Sweet Afton

The Perch

Pug Ugly’s

The Points

 

When Is the Best Time to Travel to Northern Ireland?

The best time to travel to Northern Ireland depends on your preferences and the type of activities you want to engage in. Northern Ireland experiences a temperate maritime climate, which means relatively mild temperatures throughout the year. Northern Ireland hosts various cultural and music festivals throughout the year, providing an opportunity to experience local traditions and entertainment. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, visiting during the shoulder seasons allows you to explore filming locations without the peak summer crowds.

Here are some considerations for different seasons:

  1. Spring (March to May):
    • Spring is a pleasant time to visit when temperatures begin to rise, and the countryside is adorned with blossoming flowers. The landscape is lush and green during this season. It’s a good time for outdoor activities, and tourist attractions are less crowded compared to the summer months.
  2. Summer (June to August):
    • Summer is the peak tourist season in Northern Ireland. The days are long, and temperatures are mild to moderately warm. This is an excellent time for outdoor adventures, festivals, and exploring the coastline. Keep in mind that popular tourist destinations may be busier, especially in July and August.
  3. Autumn (September to November):
    • Autumn brings colourful foliage to the landscapes, making it a visually appealing time to visit. The weather remains relatively mild in the early part of the season. September can be a good time to enjoy the beauty of the countryside and coastal areas while avoiding the summer crowds.
  4. Winter (December to February):
    • Winters in Northern Ireland are generally mild, but temperatures can be cool, and rainfall is more frequent. If you’re a fan of winter scenery and enjoy indoor activities, visiting during the winter months can offer a quieter and more reflective experience. Keep in mind that daylight hours are shorter during this time.

Whiskey stills in Titanic Distillery, Belfast

Are you Ready for a Girl’s Trip in Northern Ireland?

Are you ready for an adventure that will fill your heart with joy and your camera roll with epic moments?

Northern Ireland is the perfect balance of culture, adventure, and gastronomy. It’s a bold and rugged road trip in Northern Ireland that will elevate your girlfriend’s road trip to the next level. Pack your sense of humour and adventurous spirit. This is more than just a road trip in North Ireland; it’s a journey of discovery with your girlfriends.

Kathryn, Lindsay and Nadine selfie pre-paddleboarding

I can’t wait for you to read part 2 of our trip where we walk where the Giants walked! Sign up for my newsletter if you want the inside scoop when Part 2 gets published.

For more of my travels in Europe, be sure to check them out here.

 

2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Northern Ireland Road Trip With Girlfriends Part 1

  1. Billy at https://touringaroundbelfast.com/ says:

    Love it Kathryn, what a great write up.
    It wasn’t work for me I enjoyed your company so much.

    • kathrynanywhere says:

      Thank you, Billy! It wouldn’t have been the same without your knowledgeable commentary, superior driving skills, witty humour, willingness to stop at random graveyards and dinnertime singing!

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