Because we are moving to Mexico from the UK, we wanted to show our kids a little of their own country before we leave. I have long wanted to see the Giant’s Causeway so this seemed like a good opportunity to look selfless whilst doing exactly what I wanted! Let me show you how to also make the most of a long weekend in Northern Ireland…
We flew with a particular budget airline from London (ish) to Belfast. The flight itself was uneventful although if you’d like to read about how they destroyed one of our suitcases and then tried hard not to replace it, I would direct you to my article all about that joyful situation, Broken Luggage Article.
Where to Stay
Northern Ireland is small and it’s perfectly possible to drive between multiple attractions in one day, ensuring you can fit in everything you want to see in a short time pretty no much no matter where you stay. We chose to stay just outside Bushmills in a bed and breakfast called Valley View. This couldn’t have been a better option. As a family with two small children B&Bs can be difficult. We don’t really love going to bed at the same time as the kids so stumbling upon Valerie and her amazing B&B where we could put the kids to bed and then retire to the living room just downstairs was perfect. The beds were comfortable, the breakfast was impeccable and there was even a swing set for kids. We could barely see another house yet were just ten minutes drive from Bushmills town.
Where to Eat
If I’m honest, we expected very little from restaurants in Northern Ireland. That is probably quite snobbish of me but as a Londoner, I find that food outside of the capital can be distinctly ‘meh’ unless you are people who do a lot of research first. We are not those people. We rarely manage to do more than a quick five minute google once we realise we’re hungry.
The Bushmills Inn was genuinely great. In fact, it was so great, we ate there twice and really enjoyed ourselves both times. We just rocked up and got a table at lunch time but when we wanted an evening meal we were unable to just walk in, turns out they’re as popular as they deserve to be. We found our kids were also really well tolerated there. It wasn’t cheap but since we only ate out once a day we could cope. We made a picnic at least once a day, having purchased bits and pieces in the local Co-Op.
We also ate just outside of town at the Smugglers’ Inn. This was not quite up to the standard of The Bushmills Inn but wasn’t bad at all. I did, however, discover that I loved Bushmills whiskey whilst eating there. Upon taking a small child outside to try and calm her down, I also learned that the sunset can be quite spectacular from the steps if you can tear your eyes away from your beastly child long enough to notice it.
(Sadly, we did not make it to the Bushmills distillery, which is a shame given how delicious their whiskey is)
We tried to get a table at The French Rooms, also in Bushmills, as we read that it is incredible but it was so busy they didn’t have a table for us on any night we were there.
What to Do
The Giant’s Causeway: obviously. This is why we were in Northern Ireland so we actually visited it twice in four days. The first visit was in the pouring rain but we weren’t deterred, we simply donned our wellies and raincoats and marched off down the hill.
- The Causeway itself is free. If you want to park in the National Trust car park (obviously free to members) or use the visitors’ centre then there is a fee but the site itself will cost you zero pennies.
- There are shuttle buses going from the visitors’ centre to the causeway for a princely sum of £1 per adult (50p per child).
- There is a cheaper car park just to the left of the vistors’ centre, by the little railway line. I think this was about £4 a car. Unfortunately for us the train wasn’t running the weekend we were there but it generally does run between Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway. If it is running, I’d recommend taking the train rather than driving there given the difficulty of parking.
I’d heard so many reports of people being disappointed by the Giants’ Causeway: too small, not impressive, too many people etc. etc. Well, you know what? It was incredible. I loved it, the kids loved it and I can’t imagine how anyone could not love it. I am pretty picky and not always easily impressed but I freaking loved this place. The rocks are hexagonal, what’s not to love? You can clamber over the rocks, your kids can climb and skip and explore to their hearts’ content. How is this not a site to love? We found a rock in the shape of an armchair, we found a path up the hill that was covered in blackberry bushes and we found plenty of rock pools to examine.
Honestly, as far as day trips with small kids go, this was a total winner and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.
Dark Hedges: I probably need to prefix this paragraph by admitting I haven’t seen or read anything to do with The Game of Thrones (sorry world) so I wasn’t super excited about this as an attraction. However, my husband is a fan so we duly got up early and drove there. It was fine. The trees were impressive but I have definitely driven down more cooler tree lined roads elsewhere.
- Park in the car park to the Gracehill House, the stately home to which the Dark Hedges road was the drive.
- Get there very early or very late to have the road to yourself, otherwise you’ll have to contend with coachloads of tourists
- Do walk the entire length of the road
- Look out for the awesome tree that has split open so you your kids can hide in it
If you have been sensible enough to park in Gracehill House then you’ll need to take an hour to explore the grounds and discover all the fairy houses dotted around the place. Our kids had a fabulous time running on the immaculate grass and marvelling at the adorable fairy houses and doors we found everywhere.
Dunluce Castle: We headed straight here from the Dark Hedges. It was raining so we quickly gobbled our picnic in the car. Had the weather been better we would definitely have enjoyed eating it on the grass.
Entry is £5 per adults, £3 for kids (4-16)/students/seniors/people receiving benefits. It’s free for under 4s.
The views from the castle are spectacular, as is the castle itself. Everyone in my family loves exploring a good ruin and this more than satisfied our needs, even in the rain. The kids particularly loved the ovens (yeah, I know, they’re a bit strange) and spent a good hour pretending to be pizzas cooking in the oven (no, not pretending to cook pizzas, pretending to be the pizzas). Although there were plenty of other visitors, we never felt that the kids couldn’t run around, people seemed quite pleased to see small children so obviously enjoying a bit of history.
The castle seems to have been built around 1500 and in 1639 the kitchens fell in to the sea during a huge storm. When you visit and see that the castle is literally on a cliff edge, this isn’t as surprising as it is a cool fact!
- Save the visitor centre for a rainy point in your visit as it’s quite interesting but also a good place to shelter should it rain!
- Take the audio guide as it actually very interesting
- Have a slice of cake in the touristy looking cafe opposite the entrance. It might look kitsch but the cakes are delicious, the staff are super friendly and they even have a selection of kids’ books lying around to keep the small ones entertained while you collapse in to cake. The manager told my small boy that the green cake was crushed leprechauns, which made me laugh even if it did concern him slightly
From the castle I could see incredible looking beaches so I demanded that our next stop would be one of these. I piled everyone in the car and set the driver/husband off on a hunt for the perfect beach. We found…
White Rocks Beach: We parked and followed the path down to the beach not knowing what to expect. We were blown away. I’d read that Northern Irish beaches were pretty special but I don’t think I was expecting this level of beauty. For miles we could see smooth sand. To our right were the rocks I had seen from the castle, to our left I spied an incredible wall of sand. Naturally we headed straight for the wall of sand.
This wall, I guess really it was part of a sand dune, must have been higher than a normal house and was at a pretty steep angle. We couldn’t simply walk up it, we went up on all fours, and promptly threw ourselves straight down it again. What crazy fun! We weren’t the only ones up there, a few local kids and some other tourists were similarly throwing themselves down and whooping with joy. We must have spent a good hour mucking about on the sand wall before we decided to walk towards the cliffs. We had a whale of a time exploring the rocks and we even found an elephant shaped rock!
- This place is amazing, do not miss out. Even in the rain it was super fun.
Carrick-a-Rede: This is the famous rope bridge. It belongs to the National Trust so usual National Trust rules apply. It is basically a rope bridge that was erected in the 18th century by fishermen needing access to Carrick-a-Rede island (home to just one fisherman’s cottage). The bridge is 30m above the violent sea and is just 20m long. Somehow the clever old National Trust has made a tourist attraction out of a small and scary bridge! No, that’s not fair, the views are spectacular all the way along and it’s probably worth going over the bridge just to say you’ve done it. I think.
We assumed that because we have been trekking in the Himalayas and therefore, crossed many much longer rope bridges, that this would be a piece of cake for us. Well, for my husband, it was but I must admit that my heart was in my mouth as I crossed over the angry sea on this flimsy rope bridge. I guess the difference was in the taking of two small people whose lives matter to us. I don’t envy the early fishermen who would edge over, one piece of rope under their feet and one in a hand whilst carrying all their gear.
We were there on a particularly windy day so we weren’t permitted to do much on the island except head straight back to the mainland.
We ate lunch in the small cafe on site. It was fine. After lunch we stayed around the site and actually had one of the most exciting times we had in Northern Ireland. We walked from the lower car park down the cliffs. There are paths but we weren’t sure about using them as there was no one else around. I am so glad we followed our instincts and kept going down and down until we hit the beach. We found a rocky beach full of rock pools and caves where we spent about two hours climbing and exploring before finally admitting we were all tired and returning to the car to head back to the Giant’s Causeway for a second bash at climbing there too.
- Remember that the tickets are timed so only buy a ticket as you start the walk
- Know that there is a longish walk from the ticket office to the bridge so prepare the kids for a long walk (45 mins to an hour)
- Get there early so you beat the tour buses. Only a few people are allowed on the bridge at anyone time and obviously everyone has to use the bridge twice! We were there around 1030 and still had to queue for twenty minutes to get on the bridge
- If you’re taking kids, then take snacks. Obviously
- Give yourself time to also explore the cliffs and beach area. It was probably more fun for us all than the bridge
Titanic Belfast: We only had time for a short activity before our flight home after our long weekend exploring Northern Ireland. We decided to head to Belfast to check out the new Titanic Centre. We weren’t sure it’d be a hit with the kids but it really was. They loved it all, there was plenty for them to touch and watch (!) and there’s even a big ride as part of the exhibition. The kids enjoyed the ride so much we actually did it twice and we even learned stuff about how the Titanic was made in the process.
Included in the (high) price was entry on to a small ship parked outside. Again, we weren’t sure this would be interesting for the kids but it was. In fact, they enjoyed it so much we have recently visited HMS Belfast in London (also a huge kid win).
We bought tickets on line and picked them up as we arrived. It cost us £18 per adult and £8 for our five year old. Thankfully, the little one was free.
What to Take: It’s Northern Ireland so at any time of year I’d take wet weather gear and a warm jumper or two! Other than that you will be fine.
Northern Ireland is a fantastic option for a long weekend (if you live in the UK or Ireland, obviously). We found everyone to be incredibly welcoming, indeed. Locals were always more than happy to stop and chat or offer advice and we were spoiled for choice of things to do in our relatively short time there. The only thing we found odd was the sheer number of Union Jack flags on view. We just aren’t used to such obvious shows of patriotism and found that pretty uncomfortable.
Book your ticket quick! Northern Ireland is fast becoming an incredibly popular tourist destination. Our B&B host told us that the filming of parts of Game of Thrones has radically changed the country’s position as tourist hotspot. I’m sure this is only set to increase.