Derry's Peace Bridge stands as a symbol of hope in Northern Ireland — Photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland
Northern Ireland offers an experience colored by myth and magic, rooted in centuries-old culture and heritage set to traditional music. A vibrant contemporary ethos is also in play, especially in Belfast. Unexpectedly, I found the tangled conflicts of the past still simmering in the present, yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a warmer, more welcoming people.
Not unexpectedly, July rains often blustered across the impossibly green countryside, making my Gore-Tex jacket and waterproof hiking shoes essential. Weather and history aside, music is perhaps the equalizer. It thrives every day of the week in a pub somewhere, as friends and strangers mingle to play or listen to timeless tunes evoking all the joy, melancholy, and joy again of what it is to be Irish.
With no set route or timeframe intended, here are but a few places and experiences that drew me to Northern Ireland, and that will beckon me back again.
Titanic Belfast's powerful architecture speaks to the power of the exhibits inside — Photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland
Two cities are must-visits: Belfast and Derry. A mashup of grit and gentility, Belfast has much to keep visitors engaged. Black Taxi Tours provides an overview, while museums and attractions interpret different eras of history. Other cities have Titanic exhibits but none like Titanic Belfast, set within feet of where the doomed ship was built. It brings to life the construction of Titanic and untold stories of her designers, laborers and passengers.
The city also has three Michelin-starred restaurants, plus Maddens, a raucous pub where you should grab a pint and tap your toes to traditional tunes. Titanic Hotel and charmingly idiosyncratic Harrison Chambers of Distinctions are good lodging choices.
You can walk a mile on Derry's walls, which completely encircle the old city — Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis
Many of us first saw Derry in Netflix’s binge-worthy "Derry Girls," but better yet is to visit in person. Derry (aka Londonderry) has been the setting of horrific sectarian battles, from the infamous siege in 1689 to Bloody Sunday in 1972. Stroll atop the ancient walls to get the lay of the city – and find the "Derry Girls" mural. Martin McCrossan City Walking Tours delve into local history, as do Tower Museum and Guildhall. The emotionally charged Museum of Free Derry is the most powerful, tackling events leading to the Bloody Sunday massacre.
But Derry is more than its dark days. Walk across the Peace Bridge, a striking physical ode to hope and peace spanning the River Foyle. Get a brew and bite at Walled City Brewery. Find Irish art and goods at Craft Village off Shipquay Street. Later, mosey down Waterloo Street and stop wherever the music moves you. One lodging option: centrally located Bishop’s Gate Hotel.
10 of the best food experiences in Northern Ireland
10 of the best food experiences in Northern Ireland
Nature's artistry or a giant's folly? You decide as you walk along that section of northeast coast defined by the causeway's fantastical formations — Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis
It's fun to imagine that mythical giant Finn McCool tossed Giant’s Causeway into existence in a fit of fury, as lore has it. Pragmatic scientists insist some 40,000 massive black basalt columns erupted out of the sea more than 50 million years ago, forming the coastal cliffs. Whatever its origins, the geology is stunning. As you follow the trails, search for formations such as the Giant’s Boot, The Camel and Wishing Chair where, obviously, you should sit and make a wish.
More than 350 years old, Crosskeys is a stellar spot for traditional music sessions — Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis
Crosskeys Inn, near Toomebridge in the rural interior, is Ireland’s oldest thatched-roof pub, dating to 1654. It exudes history and Old World ambiance in its cozy, firelit rooms. You can quaff an ale or whiskey while listening to traditional tunes played by local musicians, who gather to celebrate and share Ireland’s vibrant musical heritage. There’s no regular food service but there are seasonal events.
Seamus Heaney HomePlace
The peaceful, interactive garden at Seamus Heaney HomePlace inspires reflection — Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis
Nearby, Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy presents wide-ranging exhibits about the Nobel laureate’s life and work, and a garden with interactive components and connections to specific poems. Heaney’s writing made the rural landscapes and everyday experiences of life here feel intimate and familiar to readers. HomePlace encompasses acres of land Heaney knew and wrote about, so visit inside but also walk the boardwalk and trails where the line between land and literature all but disappears.
Beaghmore Stone Circles
Beaghmore Stone Circles in the fading light of day — Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis
Farther south, wildly different experiences stir the senses. It’s easy to miss Beaghmore Stone Circles, off a winding road northwest of Cookstown, at the edge of the Sperrin Mountains (don't count on Google Maps). These ancient circles and cairns have a palpable presence. Whether or not you feel it, the site is a peaceful place to walk and ponder who lies beneath the cairns and who so long ago meticulously arranged the stones.
Woodlab Distillery Gin School
It's all beakers and test tubes when making your own gin — Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis
At first, Woodlab Gin School in Moy seems more lecture than fun gin tasting. Be patient. Dr. Ulrich Dyer – an organic chemist who worked for 30 years in the pharmaceutical industry and has since produced award-winning gin – has encyclopedic knowledge of flavor profiles, molecules and infusion processes. Turns out it’s all fascinating, even for non-science types.
Not to worry. There’s lots of tasting, too, plus dozens of ingredients and combos to test as you make your own proprietary spirit.
This quote from C.S. Lewis, author of the beloved Narnia books, is painted on a building in Rostrevor — Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis
We all know Narnia lies through the wardrobe, but it also lies through the Mountains of Mourne to Rostrevor in the southeast. Literary giant C.S. Lewis said so. Fittingly, a Narnia Trail creeps through the woods in the town's Kilbroney Park, where places and characters from the books wait to be discovered. There’s also Fairy Glen, a leafy brookside trail best for sauntering, not hurrying. Stop at the Church Café before or after for tasty food and drink.
Northern Ireland is ever evocative with its verdant green spaces, castles, cliffs and cities that span the centuries. It’s a place where religion dominates but folklore and mythology remain deeply rooted. While the past still informs the present, contemporary Northern Ireland sits squarely in the 21st century.
Upscale shopping, fine dining, art and theater are as vibrant in Belfast as in any European city, while the rural landscapes still capture that essence of Ireland in which fairy trees and black-faced sheep stand steadfast against the blustering wind. It's impossible not to be charmed by Northern Ireland; it weaves its way into your soul and holds there, like the sheep, steadfast.