Belfast and the Best of Northern Ireland
Rick Steves' Europe: Episode # 304
No trip to Emerald Isle is complete without a visit to Northern Ireland. We tour bustling Belfast, sneaking a peek at its politically charged neighborhoods. Then we head for the Antrim Coast and go wild in Portrush, Ulster's Coney Island. We taste-test Irish whiskey, scramble over six-sided rock columns, putter through a world-class golf course, and stomp our feet to Irish music in rough-and-tumble Derry.
- Read the script from the show.
While mediocre by European standards, this is Belfast's one major museum. The delicately worded history section is given an interesting British slant (such as the implication that the Great Famine of 1845 was caused by the Irish population doubling in 40 years — without a mention of various English contributions to the suffering). After a wander through the Early Medieval Ireland exhibit and a peek at a pretty good mummy, top things off with the Girona treasure. Soggy bits of gold, silver, leather and wood were salvaged from the Spanish Armada's shipwrecked Girona — lost off the Antrim Coast north of Belfast in 1588 (in Botanic Gardens on Stranmillis Road, south of downtown, tel. 028/9038-3000).
At the intersection of Castle and King Streets, you'll find the Castle Junction Car Park where shared black cabs efficiently shuttle residents from outlying neighborhoods up and down the Falls Road and to the city center. When bus service was discontinued at the beginning of the Troubles, local paramilitary groups established the shared taxi service. Any cab goes up the Falls Road, past Sinn Fein headquarters and lots of murals, to the Milltown Cemetery , then back every minute or so (hop in and out, sit in front and talk to the cabbie). Trained cabbies do one-hour tours (tel. 028/9031-5777 or 078/9271-6660).
Stephen McPhilemy leads private tours of his hometown, Belfast and the North Coast — when he's not on the road guiding tours for Rick Steves several months a year (tel. 028/7130-9051, mobile 078-0101-1027, email@example.com).
Portrush and the Antrim Coast
Ramore Wine Bar
The 45-minute tour starts with the mash pit, which is filled with a porridge that eventually becomes whiskey. (The leftovers of that porridge are fed to the county's particularly happy cows.) You'll see thousands of oak casks — the kind used for Spanish sherry — filled with aging whiskey. The finale is the tasting in the 1608 Bar — the former malt barn. Everyone gets a single glass of his or her choice. To see the distillery at its lively best, visit weekdays when the 100 workers are manning the machinery (tours book up fast; in summer, call and put in your name to get a tour time before you arrive; quarter mile from Bushmills town center; tel. 028/2073-1521).
Browse the information and watch the video in the Visitors Centre (a minibus zips tired tourists a half-mile directly to the Grand Causeway). For a better dose of the Causeway, follow the high cliff-top trail from the Visitors Centre 10 minutes to a great viewpoint, then go 10 minutes farther to reach the Shepherd's Stairway. Zigzag down to the coast; at the T junction, go 100 yards right to the towering pipes of "the Organ." Then retrace your steps and continue left to the "Giant's Boot" for some photo fun and the dramatic point where the stairs step into the sea. Just beyond that, at the asphalt turnaround, you'll see the bus stop for a lift back to the Visitors Centre. Or, you could walk the entire five-mile Giant's Causeway (tel. 028/2073-1855).
A quaint, narrow-gauge steam locomotive connects the Causeway to the town of Bushmills on a two-mile, 15-minute journey (tel. 028/2073-2844, www.freewebs.com/giantscausewayrailway).
For up-to-date specifics, see the latest edition of the Rick Steves' Snapshot: Northern Ireland travel guide or the Rick Steves' Ireland travel guide — or join us on one of our free-spirited Ireland tours.