There is always lots happening in Belfast, but the capital city can also be a great base for exploring other parts of Northern Ireland. From castles to some of Ireland’s greatest natural wonders, there is a huge array of day trips to take from the city. Our list includes options for nature lovers, whiskey aficionados, and even "Game of Thrones" fans.
The most flexible way to travel is with your own car, particularly if you want to reach some of the more wild destinations like the glens and Mourne Mountains. However, renting a car for your stay in Belfast isn’t always practical. In those cases, the easiest locations to reach are around the Giant’s Causeway, including the town of Bushmills and Dunluce Castle.
The top day trip destination from Belfast is, without a doubt, the fabled Giant’s Causeway. The natural marvel is made up of 40,000 black basalt stone columns that were formed by volcanic activity 60 million years ago. However, it’s more fun to believe the legend that the octagonal rocks were placed there by a clever giant with a grudge. Walk out on the rocky outcroppings or visit the award-winning visitor center to learn more about why this is one of the most unique geological areas in the world.
Getting There: The causeway is about an hour’s drive from Belfast along the M2/A26. Private tours depart regularly from Belfast, with many companies offering a comfortable coach bus experience if you don’t want to rent a car. For public transportation options, Ulsterbus Service 172 and the open-top Causeway Coast Service 177 both stop near the Giant’s Causeway.
Travel Tip: Be sure to wear sturdy shoes if you plan to walk on the basalt columns. The visitor center is great, but the Causeway is best experienced up close. However, it can be slippery from ocean mist and rain.
A short drive from the Giant’s Causeway, you'll find Dunluce, one of Ireland’s most famous castles (fans of "Game of Thrones" will recognize these clifftop ruins as the House of Greyjoy). Built in 1500, it was only used as a real castle for about 100 years; lying close to a perilous drop-off, the kitchen fell into the ocean below during a storm in 1639. The castle was abandoned after the accident and has sat in ruins overlooking the churning waves for nearly 400 years. Luckily, it has been converted into a kind of open museum, with exhibits set behind glass among the crumbling walls.
Getting There: Dunluce Castle is very close to the village of Portrush and located off the A2. From Belfast, you can take Ulster Bus 218 and switch to the 402 or 402a in Coleraine.
Travel Tip: Visit towards the end of the day when you can take some stunning sunset photos. The last entrance is at 4:30 p.m., but you can find plenty of vantage points near the castle to take pictures even after closing time.
Many of the filming locations for the HBO hit "Game of Thrones" can be found in Northern Ireland—and the most recognizable is only about 50 miles from Belfast. The Dark Hedges might be better-known as the Kingsroad to avid fans of the show. In the 1700s, the Stuart family planted this half mile-long lane of beech trees to create an impressive entrance to their mansion, GraceHill House. The intertwined branches covering the path make for a fairytale setting.
Getting There: The easiest way to reach the Dark Hedges is via car, taking the M2 to the A26, eventually getting onto Bregagh Road. Several companies offer "GoT"-inspired tours that stop at the Dark Hedges. It is possible to take Ulsterbus, but the trip takes about two hours and the nearest bus stop is more than a 20-minute walk from the landmark.
Travel Tip: Park at the Hedges Hotel in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim. You can stop in for a coffee and then walk over to the famous lane.
Bushmills: Irish Village Life and Whiskey Tastings
With just under 1,300 inhabitants, the little village of Bushmills offers a quiet antidote to busy Belfast life. Located about 60 miles outside the Northern Ireland capital, the village is most famous for its whiskey. While you're there, visit the Old Bushmills Distillery for a tasting tour. It is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world and has been producing the fiery liquid for 400 years. Because the tiny town is close to the Giant’s Causeway and Dunluce Castle, make a full day of it by combining all three in a single visit.
Getting There: From Belfast, you can take Ulster Bus 218 and switch to the 402 or 170 in Coleraine. Trains also run from Belfast to Coleraine, if you prefer.
Travel Tip: It’s not possible to reserve a visit to the distillery unless you have a group of 15 or more. If the whiskey tasting tops your to-do list, stop by fairly early during the summer months (peak season) when the tour spots are allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The Glens of Antrim: 9 Fairytale Valleys
County Antrim is home to some of the most spectacular scenery in Northern Ireland, and the prettiest part of all may be the nine glens that stretch north from the town of Larne. Each of the green valleys has its own charms—but it is well acknowledged that Glenariff, known as Queen of the Glens, is the loveliest of all. Take a walk in the Glenariff Forest Park to enjoy the woodlands and waterfalls. There’s even a visitor center (but it's only open Easter through October).
Getting There: You can catch Ulsterbus 218 or 219 to Ballymena and then switch to the 150 to Glenariff.
Travel Tip: The glens are wonderfully deserted, but you can find lunch in cozy pubs in the nearby towns of Ballycastle, Cushendun, Cushendall, Waterfoot, or Glenarm.
Carrickfergus: A Castle with 750 Years of History
The most historic castle in the Belfast area is Carrickfergus, which was first built in 1178. The fortified building is named for Fergus, first King of Scotland, whose ship supposedly crashed upon the very rocks that form the foundation of the castle. There is a great visitor center inside and a pretty marina nearby for waterfront walks. Be sure to leave time to explore the historic center of the city as well. One visit to the walled city area might also have you humming along to the classic Irish song "Carrickfergus," an ode to a hometown left behind.
Getting There: Carrickfergus is considered to be a part of the greater Belfast area. Take the 563b towards Kilroot from the Laganside Bus center and you can reach the stop for the castle in about 30 minutes.
Travel Tip: There’s no need to book ahead because tickets can easily be bought on the spot for Carrickfergus Castle. To learn more about medieval history in the area, stop by the Carrickfergus Museum.
Derry offers an interesting look into the country’s past. It is one of the finest walled cities in Europe as its fortified walls have never been breached. Built between 1613 and 1618, the city walls also played an important role in defense during the Troubles period. You can walk along them to get an overlook of the city, or head to the famous Free Derry Corner, which marked the start of the self-declared autonomous nationalist area in 1969.
Getting There: Derry and Belfast are well connected by bus and train. If driving, take the M2 to the A6.
Travel Tip: Bloody Sunday, one of the most tragic incidents during the Troubles, took place in Derry. To get a sense of the impact it left on the city, seek out the 12 Bogside Murals for messages written in street art.