In 2019 freshly relocated to Dublin from southern Spain, we decided we wanted to get to know the emerald isle, the stunning island that has been our home for almost two years now.
We already knew Dublin from our previous trip in 2017, and our long strolls around the city looking for houses on the first days following our arrival to the “fair city”. Thus, we decided to rent a car and explore the rest of (or at least a good part) Ireland, including the Northern part that legally belongs to the United Kingdom.
In retrospect, this has been the trip that made us fell in love with this incredible island and its outstanding countryside. Of course, it could not be an all-encompassing trip of all the places worth a visit on the island, but we visited many places and loved almost all of them. I would add the Ring of Kerry in an all-embracing trip, which, though, we decided to visit in a subsequent moment. You can find our tour of the Ring of Kerry here.
Let us buckle up now, and, without further ado, let us dive in in this unforgettable 5-day itinerary through Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Disclaimer: I will tell the story of this “unforgettable 5-day itinerary through Ireland and Northern Ireland” in two parts for the sack of exhaustiveness. The first part will cover the first two days of the itinerary, while the second the last three days. Read the second part by clicking here.
We started our trip from a rent a car agency in Dublin and, from there, we headed to our first stop, Newgrange, County Meath.
Newgrange is a 5,200-year-old passage tomb in Ireland’s Ancient East, situated in the Boyne Valley. The mound is 85m (279ft) in diameter and 13m (43ft) high, with an area of around 1 acre. It was built by Stone Age (Neolithic) farmers.
The entrance stone is the most striking of the 97 large stones, called kerbstones, that surround Newgrange, some of which are etched with megalithic art.
A 19m (62ft) passage leads to a chamber with three alcoves. In the mornings around the Winter Solstice, they are all aligned with the rising sun. From December 19th to 23rd, at dawn, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof box and enters the floor, eventually spreading to the rear. As the sun rises higher in the sky, the spotlight inside the chamber widens, illuminating the entire cell dramatically. This event starts at 9 a.m. and lasts 17 minutes. When you know that Newgrange was built 500 years before the Great Pyramids and more than 1,000 years before Stonehenge, its accuracy as a time-telling device is astounding.
The Stone Age farmers who built Newgrange probably intended to mark the start of the new year. It could also have acted as a powerful symbol of life triumphing over death.
Newgrange was, at first, known as a passage tomb by archaeologists, but it is now recognized as much more. An Ancient Temple is a better classification since it is a place of astrological, metaphysical, religious, and ceremonial significance, similar to how modern cathedrals are places of prestige and worship where dignitaries may be laid to rest.
It is the most well-known monument within the Neolithic “Br na Bóinne” complex, and it is part of the “Br na Bóinne” UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the related passage tomb mounds of Knowth and Dowth.
Access to the Newgrange monument is via the “Brú na Bóinne” Visitors Centre.
Admission fee: 18€/ 21.6$.
We spent the rest of this first day visiting the city of Belfast.
We started our tour of the Northern Ireland capital from Belfast City Hall in Donegall Square.
2.1 Belfast City Hall
Belfast City Hall is the civic building of Belfast City Council. Opened in 1906, it is one of the most iconic buildings in the city.
Its classical Renaissance architecture is a source of pride for Belfast residents, and it is easy to see why. In the Hall, you can find beautiful stained glass windows portraying Celtic myths and legends, such as the Cattle Raid of Cooley, and commemorating victims of the Great Famine and those who served in the First and Second World Wars.
The City Hall building is illuminated over 50 times a year to commemorate religious festivals, holidays, and solidarity days that honour an increasingly diverse community worldwide.
Every day, you can take a free public tour of Belfast City Hall. It lasts about an hour and covers the past of Belfast City Hall and some of its most notable features.
The Titanic Memorial Garden, the grand 11-foot statue of Queen Victoria, the Belfast Cenotaph, a 9/11 plaque, and a statue of Sir Edward Harland, the Yorkshire-born marine engineer who created the Harland & Wolff shipyards and served as mayor of Belfast, can all be found in the vicinity of City Hall.
An extensive park and gardens area surrounds the building and is a prominent meeting and gathering spot.
From there, if you happen to visit Belfast on a weekend (from Friday to Sunday), go to the next stop, St George’s market, otherwise, skip to Albert Memorial Clock.
To reach St George’s market take Linenhall Street, and turn left onto Franklin Street. Continue onto Sussex Place, and onto Hamilton Street. Finally, turn left onto East Bridge Street, and you will find St George’s Market on your left.
2.2 St George's Market
St George’s Market is the last surviving Victorian covered market in Belfast.
Historians say it was an open meat market with a slaughterhouse and a meat market before the 20th century. St. George’s Market is now a thriving marketplace with over 300 merchants, artists, performers, and food vendors.
It is a great place to get a taste of Northern Irish culture, with food, arts and crafts, local fashion, jewellery, and entertainment available all year.
From there, take Cromac Street, and continue onto Victoria Street. You will find the Albert Memorial Clock on your right and at the beginning of Queen’s Square.
2.3 Albert Memorial Clock
The Albert Memorial Clock is a clock tower built in 1869, and one of the most well-known landmarks of Belfast. In the late 1860s, this neo-Gothic Victorian monument was erected in honour of Queen Victoria’s consort and husband, Prince Albert.
The clock tower stands 113 feet (34 meters) tall and features several intricate carvings. A statue of Prince Albert in his Knight of the Garter robes is the centrepiece. The clock’s bell is 2 tons in weight. Both German WW2 bombs and IRA bombs have caused damage.
From there, cross all Queen’s Square, and reach the waterfront. There you will find our next stop, the Big Fish.
2.4 The Big Fish
The Big Fish is a printed 10-metre(33-foot)-long ceramic mosaic sculpture by John Kindness in 1999.
It is a representation of the Salmon of Knowledge, an Irish mythological creature. It is often associated with “Fintan mac Bóchra“, who was once turned into a salmon and known as “The Wise“.
They say that after eating hazelnuts from a holy tree, the Salmon of Wisdom obtained all of the knowledge in the world. If captured, it has the potential to bestow universal wisdom on whoever consumes it.
Each of the printed ceramic tiles covering the Big Fish sculpture tells a different tale about the past of the city. From historical photographs to sketches by local schoolchildren, the tiles provide a wide range of details and images.
From there, go back to Albert Memorial Clock and take High Street. Turn right onto Skipper Street, and, then, continue onto Hill Street and Exchange Street West. You will find Saint Anne’s Cathedral on your left.
2.5 Saint Anne’s Cathedral
St Anne’s Cathedral, also known as Belfast Cathedral, is an Episcopalian (Anglican) cathedral, and one of the best-known churches in Belfast.
The foundation stone of the Cathedral was laid in 1899, on the site of a small older church also dedicated to St Anne, and the building itself, neo-Romanesque in style, continued to grow over the years. The 40-metre/131-foot stainless steel Spire of Hope was added in 2007 and is usually illuminated at night.
If you wish to visit the church, there are many elements to see. The Good Samaritan Window (the only piece of the 1776 St. Anne’s Church that has survived), mosaics on the roof of the baptistery and Chapel of the Holy Spirit (St. Patrick is depicted), and the Titanic funeral pall are among them.
The sanctuary has only one grave, that of Lord Edward Carson, a prominent Irish unionist politician in the 20th century. He is one of the few non-royal citizens to ever be given a state funeral in the United Kingdom.
From there, take Church Street, turn right onto North Street, and, then, left onto Royal Avenue, our next stop.
2.6 Royal Avenue
Royal Avenue is the principal shopping thoroughfare of the city since its establishment in 1881. It has many Victorian and Edwardian buildings, including the Belfast Central Library and the Haymarket Building, along with newer, modern structures and shopping complexes.
Throughout the Troubles (a period of conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted about 30 years for primarily political and nationalistic reasons), it was targeted by the Provisional IRA due to its economic importance as a commercial zone and the presence of the British Army military barracks.
From there, continue onto Donegall Place, the other principal shopping artery of the city, and, then, take a black taxi tour. It will cost you around 40£/ 46€/ 55.4$ for two persons.
2.7. Black taxi tour
Signing up for a Black Taxi Tour is one of the best ways to see Belfast’s iconic wall art. Drivers have an engaging history lesson peppered with local tidbits that illustrate both the city’s inherent traditions and the tale of the Troubles.
Most of the drivers were also drivers during the Troubles and can tell you about their experiences. Drivers attempt to provide impartial and neutral information; but, as you would expect, this is difficult given that many were on one side or the other of the conflict. Besides, during the Troubles, the majority of Belfast residents lost family and/or friends, and there are several different “versions of the facts” about such cases.
With this tour ends this first day of “An unforgettable 5-day itinerary through Ireland and Northern Ireland.
On this second day of our itinerary, we will visit two of the most precious gems of Northern Ireland, Gleno Waterfall and the Giant’s Causeway, to continue with Slieve League, one of the most breathtaking cliffs in all Ireland, and conclude the day in Sligo.
3. Gleno Waterfall
Gleno, a majestic 30-foot (9-meter) waterfall nestled in the Glens of Antrim and owned by the National Trust, is one of the lesser-known “hidden gems” of Northern Ireland.
A quick walk from the car park takes you through the woods to a viewing bridge where you can see one of the most beautiful waterfalls of Northern Ireland, nestled in a small lush glen.
4. Giant’s Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway, on the edge of the Antrim plateau, is a stunning region of global geological significance. The exposure of some 40,000 wide, regularly formed polygonal columns of basalt in perfect horizontal sections, descending gently into the sea or forming a pavement, is the site’s most distinctive and special feature. The cliffs’ solidified lava is up to 28 meters (92 feet) thick in places, and the tallest is about 12 meters (39 feet) tall.
The stones were either created by underwater volcanic actions nearly 60 million years ago or by an Irish giant called Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool), who lived along the North Antrim Coast, depending on who you believe.
According to legend, the Scottish giant Benandonner challenged the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) from the Fenian Cycle of Gaelic mythology to a battle. Fionn welcomed the challenge and constructed the causeway that connected the two giants across the North Channel. Fionn defeats Benandonner in one version of the novel. Fionn hides from Benandonner in another version, when he realizes his adversary is much larger than he is. Sadhbh, Fionn’s wife, dresses him up as a baby and places him in a cradle. When Benandonner sees the “baby’s” size, he assumes its father, Fionn, is a giant among giants. In fright, he flees back to Scotland, damaging the causeway in the process, so that Fionn will not be able to track him down. Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish isle of Staffa has similar basalt columns (part of the same ancient lava flow) across the sea, and this likely inspired the tale.
In 1986, UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage Site, and the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland classified it as a national nature reserve in 1987.
Admission fee: 13£/ 15€/ 18$.
5. Slieve League
Slieve League (Sliabh Liag) is one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe, rising nearly 2000 feet (598 meters) from the Atlantic and roughly three times the height of its more prominent Clare cousins, the Cliffs of Moher.
A spectacular sea vista and scenery open up before you as you stand at the observation platform. From here, we can see counties Letrim, Sligo, and Mayo through Donegal Bay, and out to the west, the Atlantic Ocean stretches as far as the eye can see. Rathlin O’ Byrne Island and Glencolmcille are to the northwest.
One of the early Christian monastic sites, where the ruins of Ade McBric’s chapel can still be seen, is located at the top of Slieve League. Along with the chapel, there are the ruins of the monks’ stone houses, also known as “beehive huts.” There was a Christian pilgrimage to these holy mountains for over a thousand years to appreciate their cultural heritage.
To fully enjoy the spectacle of the Slieve League, leave your car at the car park and walk to the cliffs. I strongly recommend wearing some hiking shoes or boots.
In Sligo, you took a walk through the city centre, and we visited Sligo Abbey.
6.1 Sligo Abbey
Sligo Abbey was a Dominican convent founded in 1253. It was constructed in the Romanesque style, with later additions and modifications. The abbey was partly ruined by fire in 1414 when it was set ablaze by an unattended torch, and it was further mutilated during the 1641 Rebellion.
Despite the ravages of time, the abbey has a rich collection of carvings, including Gothic and Renaissance tomb sculpture, a well-preserved cloister, and a sculptured 15th-century high altar, the only one of its kind in any Irish monastic church.
Admission fee: 5€/ 6$.
With Sligo Abbey, even this second day of “An unforgettable 5-day itinerary through Ireland and Northern Ireland comes to an end. Read the second part of this article by clicking here.
P.S. Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter to receive a heads-up as soon as a new travel article will be released. You do not want to miss it!