Ulster. The name of the province is synonymous with Northern Ireland, but did you know that Ulster province is made up of more than just the six counties of the north? Having visited every county in Ulster for myself, I know that each one has its own character and highlights. If your Ulster travel knowledge needs a boost, here are some great suggestions for what to see in each county!
The nine (yes NINE) counties that make up the province of Ulster are spread across both sides of the United Kingdom/Ireland border. From north to south – roughly! – they are:
County Donegal – Ireland
County Londonderry – United Kingdom
County Antrim – United Kingdom
County Tyrone – United Kingdom
County Fermanagh – United Kingdom
County Armagh – United Kingdom
County Down – United Kingdom
County Monaghan – Ireland
County Cavan – Ireland
Did you know the most northerly point of the whole of Ireland is actually in the “south”? Malin Head is the tip of Ireland, and the starting point of the Wild Atlantic Way that winds down the western coast in a series of breathtaking vistas. Donegal has a reputation for wild beauty that is well deserved.
Glenveagh National Park
Combining spectacular moorland with picturesque loughs, Glenveagh National Park is not to be missed. Try visiting Lough Beagh, where a lakeside walk takes you to a beautiful Irish castle and tea rooms. The walk from the visitors centre is approximately 45 minutes each way, or take one of the shuttle buses and just enjoy the view!
The Slieve League cliffs are rivalled only by the Cliffs of Moher further south for sheer awe-inspiring magnificence. Rising 600m from the Atlantic Ocean as it crashes far below, the cliffs will take your breath away. Easily accessible by car.
The town which gives the county its name is compact and quintessentially Irish. Check out the traditional pubs and Donegal castle, or take a boat trip. It’s a great place to stay the night on your travels around Ulster.
Across the international border (in reality, there are no border controls; see my post Crossing the Irish border for more information), County Londonderry has a troubled history. But look beyond the city that bears its name and there is much to see and do along the beautiful coastline.
The city with two names is famous for the Bogside district and its peace murals. But Derry (to use the shorter form) is so much more. There are medieval city walls to explore, as well as a great food scene. Check out Discover the highlights of Derry/Londonderry more information.
Downhill Demesne and Mussenden Temple
High on the clifftops of Northern Ireland’s north coast, the atmospheric ruins of the Downhill Demesne are a photographer’s dream. As you explore the wild hillside, make your way to the cliff edge to check out Mussenden Temple, a folly which seems to teeter on the very cliff itself. Spectacular views can be had all the way along the northern coast.
The seaside town of Portstewart is a popular spot for family holidays on the Northern Irish coast. Child-friendly beaches are backed by caravan parks, and an international golf course which plays host to the Irish Open every summer. If you want to experience a typical British/Irish seaside resort, this is the place to come.
If I had to pick one county which is overflowing with things to do and see, it would be County Antrim. The Giant’s Causeway, the Glens of Antrim, Carnlough, Slemish, Dark Hedges and Ballintoy (both made internationally famous by Game of Thrones), Lough Neagh… there is so much to cover in this county that it is hard to pick out favourites.
Sitting on the Northern Coast just west of the Giant’s Causeway, Dunluce is a ruined castle which perches on a headland overlooking crashing waves below. If you want to get a sense of the Ireland of the Middle Ages, wild and historic, this is a great place to come. There is a charge to enter the castle ruins themselves, but it is free to negotiate the steep steps down the cliff to the lower levels with ruined archways and fairy grottos. Dunluce is a lovely spot to visit on a summer evening, and offers spectacular photo opportunities.
Famous as the home of Northern Ireland’s favourite whiskey (note the E which differentiates Ireland’s tipple from its Scottish equivalent), Bushmills is a pretty small town with plenty of restaurants and places to wander. Visit the distillery itself to taste Ulster’s finest, and buy a few bottles to take home!
Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge
Located just off the Causeway Coastal Route which winds around the coast of Northern Ireland from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-rede is not for the fainthearted! A 10-minute walk from the car park brings you to the bridge itself, suspended high above the crashing Atlantic. Fishermen have long used the tiny island of Carrickarede to launch their boats, using the rope bridge to cross from the mainland. The bridge itself has of course been modernised and is completely safe, but still a vertigo-inducing walk if you’re brave enough!
If you fancy a stop on your tour of County Antrim, there is no better place than Cushendall. This hilly small town on the edge of the Glens of Antrim has a number of great restaurants, including the original Harry’s Restaurant, famous across the province for its local food, and fish in particular. Make bookings in high season, and enjoy the best local produce.
Just south of County Londonderry is landlocked County Tyrone. Home to Omagh, the town that suffered one of the most notorious bombings of the Troubles, Tyrone now is a peaceful county with pretty country roads and villages.
The Sperrin Mountains lie along the border between County Tyrone and County Londonderry, and make for spectacular walking on their high moorland. Wild and untouched, they are a haven for wildlife. Walkers can enjoy the heather-covered hillsides and stone circles that remind you, in case you forget, that Ireland’s history goes back into ancient times.
Ulster-American Folk Park
Located just north of Omagh, the Ulster-American Folk Park is a world-class outdoor museum that recalls the mass migrations of Irish men and women to the United States during the 19th century. The museum takes you past historic buildings ranging from farmhouses to schools and shopping streets as you explore the Ireland of times gone by. Heading through a mock-up of a migrant ship, you then pass into the streets of New York City and finally into the American hinterland where so many of the Irish population found a new life. If you enjoy exploring historic buildings and want to know more about the reasons for Irish migration and the challenges migrants faced, this is somewhere not to be missed.
With borders with both County Donegal and County Cavan to the south, County Fermanagh marks the southwestern extremity of Northern Ireland.
The town of Enniskillen is another Northern Irish name synonymous with the Troubles. Today it is a functional, day-to-day town which is a great jumping-off point for the waterways of County Fermanagh
Fermanagh’s crowning glory is its loughs, and Lough Erne is the greatest of them. While away your time on the water, where public jetties provide plenty of opportunities to moor up and explore. A peaceful part of the province, and a world away from the big cities, this is another popular spot for locals looking for a short break.
Armagh is not one of Northern Ireland’s more dramatic counties, and is home to the Belfast commuter belt towns of Portadown and Craigavon as well as the county town of Armagh. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to do.
The county town is home to St Patrick’s Cathedral, a spectacular Roman Catholic building which is well worth a visit. Armagh is a great place to stroll, and has some fantastic restaurants.
Ring of Gullion
Topped by the mountain of Slieve Gullion, the Ring of Gullion is a series of hills rising high above the Armagh landscape. With walking trails and a scenic driving route, it is a great day out.
Bordering several counties including large stretches of County Antrim and County Tyrone, Lough Neagh also has shoreline in County Armagh. The largest stretch of fresh water in the British Isles, Lough Neagh dominates maps of Ireland and is a great place for boat trips, discovering the local bird life, or just strolling along the shoreline.
Just south of Northern Ireland’s great city of Belfast, County Down holds some of Ulster’s greatest hidden gems.
Seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the governing body of Northern Ireland, Stormont Castle is set in magnificent grounds lined with sweeping driveways and planted with groves of different native trees. It’s a great place for an afternoon stroll, and displays also teach visitors a little about Northern Ireland’s political history at the same time.
Southeast of Belfast, Strangford Lough is an inlet from the Irish Sea which offers picturesque coastline and plenty of places to stop and admire the view.
The town of Newcastle, on the edge of the Irish Sea, offers what is arguably Northern Ireland’s premier hotel, the Slieve Donard Hotel. It takes its name from Slieve Donard, the high peak which is unmissable from the town. Newcastle is a bustling small down with shops and great restaurants, as well as a great wheelchair-accessible promenade along the seafront. Don’t miss the quirky building and street art down side streets near the beach. And if your budget won’t stretch to 5* luxury, check out the more affordable Donard Hotel in the town centre, which is a comfortable hotel in the traditional Irish style, which does a great Irish breakfast!
The Mourne Mountains
The Mournes are probably the most spectacular region of Northern Ireland, or even of Ulster in general. The mountains are not high by international standards – Slieve Donard is the highest at 850m – but offer stunning moorland grazed by fluffy sheep, beautiful mountain view falling down to the sea, and the best walking in the province. Explore the many walking trails through the mountains, but beware – the weather can be unpredictable and can change quickly, and every year a handful of unwary hikers come to grief here, so stick to marked paths and let people know where you’re going. For a tamer walk, but one that still offers gorgeous mountain views and a close-up encounter with the historic Mourne Wall, try Silent Valley Nature Park near the town of Annalong in the southwest of the mountains.
Back across the border into the nation of Ireland, County Monaghan is a gentle county full of winding roads, bucolic landscapes and attractive places to drive. Monaghan, the county town, is a great place to stop off and explore.
Lough Muckno is home to world-class angling and wakeboarding. Located in the east of the county close to Castleblayney, Lough Muckno Leisure Park also offers walking trails and waterskiing for those who like an active day out.
Clones lace and Carrickmacross lace are techniques which have been used for Royal wedding dresses for centuries. The traditional hails from County Monaghan, and lace is a theme you will encounter all over the county.
The last stop on our Ulster travel tour is County Cavan, arguably the least known of the counties of Ulster and one that is not typically on the tourist region. But like its neighbour across the northern border, County Fermanagh, Cavan is a hidden gem where lakes are its crowning glory.
Cavan County Museum
Located in the town of Ballyjamesduff in the south of the country (“Bally” is a common prefix for town names in this part of the country, and is derived from the Irish word for “town”), the Cavan County Museum is an award-winning museum which will take you through the history of County Cavan, with special exhibitions on medieval times and the Great Famine of the 1840s which was the catalyst for much of the Irish migration to the New World.
Cavan is overflowing with forest parks offering beautiful woodland walks around picturesque loughs. It is one of the joys of the county, and not to be missed when you are exploring County Cavan.
So there we have it – the joys of each one of the nine counties of Ulster. Has it inspired your own dreams of Ulster travel? Have you ever been to any of the Ulster counties? Let me know in the comments!