Historically, the Irish provinces were a group of kingdoms with squishy shifting borders and rich history and culture. Modern Ireland has four provinces: Leinster in the east, Connacht in the west, Ulster in the north, and Munster in the south. Every Wednesday this June, we’re bringing you our travel guide to a different province. Last week, we looked at Connacht, and this week, we’re taking you to the nine counties of Ulster (six of which form Northern Ireland), home of Ireland’s last Gaelic kings, Bushmills, the Titanic, and more.
Ulster is one of the four traditional provinces of Ireland. Found at the north, it consists of nine counties, six of which form Northern Ireland and three that belong to the Republic of Ireland. Its Northern Ireland counties are Antrim, Armagh, Derry or Londonderry, Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone, all of which are considered part of the UK. On the other hand, Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan make up the rest of its counties and are part of a separate country altogether — the Republic of Ireland. It can get a bit confusing, but when looked at from a map, they’re all part of one island and lie next to each other as a cohesive region.
Given the large sweep of Ulster, you can look forward to an exciting trip that brings you different kinds of experiences, from the mesmerizing sight of waves crashing hard against a cliff to drinking with friends at a at a pub that’s also a historical monument.
That still covers a huge swathe of land, so we’ve drawn up a list of recommended destinations for you:
MUSSENDEN TEMPLE, CO. DERRY
Tucked away in Londonderry’s Downhill Demesne, the Mussenden Temple looks out over the Atlantic Ocean while perched almost precariously near the edge of the cliff. Built in 1785, it was part of the property of Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol, and it continues to be one of the most photographed destinations in Ireland. Hervey’s romantic, flamboyant personality shines through in the temple’s resemblance to Rome’s Temple of Vesta—an interesting choice, since he intended it to be his personal summer library. In a further salute to Rome, a secret trapdoor on the floor opens to an underground chamber where Catholic priests supposedly held mass.
OLD BUSHMILLS DISTILLERY, CO. ANTRIM
Ireland is known for its whiskey, and the old Bushmills Distillery proudly stands as the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world, having obtained its permit way back in 1608. Considered as the home of Irish malt whiskey, it innovated the triple-distillation method that gives the drink its warm, cheery taste. The technique is passed down from generation to generation, and premium importance is placed on crafting in small batches. A guided tour takes visitors through the current distillery building, which was erected in the 1800s. Learn all about the process, see into the inner workings of the distillery, and taste samples of Bushmill whiskies right at the source.
PATRICK KAVANAGH CENTRE, CO. MONAGHAN
Patrick Kavanagh is one of Ireland’s most renowned poets, and even fifty years of his death, many of his poems are well-loved. The Patrick Kavanagh Resource Centre is located in Kavanagh’s hometown of Inniskeen, where he was also buried after his death. It houses several exhibits containing memorabilia from his life along with a death mask and 12 paintings based on a poem of his. The centre also has an audiovisual theater and research library, but its main highlight is a literary tour that explores the village and nearby areas, focusing on locations that played a key part in Kavanagh’s life.
SLIEVE LEAGUE, CO. DONEGAL
The Slieve League is said to be among the highest cliffs in Europe, jutting out at more than twice the height of the tourist iconic Moher. Rising at 2,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean at its highest point, the view up its steep slopes is simultaneously awe-inspiring and terrifying. But once you’ve gotten over the fear of heights, you’ll appreciate the panoramic view encompassing the Sligo Mountains and Donegal Bay. Sunrise and sunset heighten the drama of the coastline, especially when you’re at the cliff face of Bunglas at the very top. Along the way, you’ll encounter the ruins of a church and a 19thcentury watchtower that was meant to defend against Napoleonic invasion.
TITANIC BELFAST, CO. ANTRIM
Titanic Belfast is one of the youngest attractions in this list, and yet it’s already the most sought after in Northern Ireland, even bagging the title of World’s Leading Tourist Attraction at the World Travel Awards in 2016. Set in the same vicinity as where the original Titanic was constructed, it depicts the grandiose yet tragic story of the Titanic through nine interactive galleries that use mixed media and immerse visitors completely in the experience. Get an in-depth perspective of the Titanic, from its inception all the way to its journey at sea and the legacy that it left behind.
ULSTER AMERICAN FOLK PARK, CO. TYRONE
Take a break from enclosed indoor museums and visit the Ulster American Folk Park, which is set outdoors. It revolves around the story of emigrants who traveled across the Atlantic all the way to the New World of America during the 18thand 19thcenturies. 30 buildings and exhibits are spread out over 40 acres, and there’s a sense of adventure as you wander through cottages, log cabins, and ships. In your explorations, you’ll stumble into characters dressed in full regalia who seem to have stepped out of the past, given their in-depth stories and knowledge of traditional crafts.
GIANT’S CAUSEWAY, CO. ANTRIM
Giant’s Causeway is the only World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland. Surrounded by imposing cliffs and the Atlantic Ocean, the coastline forces one to pause and marvel at the raw majesty of nature. There’s an oddity about this place, though, that conjures legends: around 40,000 polygonal black basalt columns jut out from the sea, dating back to a volcanic eruption from 60 million years ago. As the story goes, an Irish giant called Fionn built it himself as his own personal stomping ground. This is worth pondering as you walk over the stones, the unusual geology only adding to the mystique.
CRUMLIN ROAD GAOL, CO. ANTRIM
The transformation of Crumlin Road Gaol is incredible: from a Grade A prison with a black, forbidding aura to a tourist site that hosts tours and concerts. It started accepting prisoners in 1846 and continued for 150 years. The walls have witnessed a significant part of Ireland’s history, with murderers, suffragettes, and political rebels alike being thrown inside—more than 25,000 people, all in all. Chillingly, the gaol’s yard has also been the site of public executions. The tours cater to different curiosities, from a classic, informative visit through the prison to an investigation of long-standing paranormal activity in the form of sights and noises.
TULLYDERMOT FALLS, CO. CAVAN
The Tullydermot Falls is a simple, serene example of beauty that sprung up on its own, untouched by human hands. Located in the Cuilcaigh Mountains, this waterfall is part of the Marble Arch Geopark and occurs at the upper part of the Claddagh River, which winds its way down the mountains all the way to Swanlinbar. The seclusion, combined with the rich foliage and flowing waters, is deeply relaxing. Although a portion of the waterfall collapsed in 2009, it remains majestic, and information panels are conveniently posted throughout the site.
FLORENCECOURT, CO. FERMANAGH
Quaint and charming, Florence Court is a spacious 18thcentury house at the foothill of Cauilcagh Mountain. One of the major Georgian houses in Ireland, it used to be the home of the Cole family, and it was named after Florence Bourchier Wray, the wife of Sir John Cole who built the house foundations. A specialty collection of Irish furniture as well a exquisite Rococo plasterwork are housed inside. Mountains and forests loom in the distance, and the property is perfect for walking, with 15 km worth of trails containing a walled garden, holiday cottage, and the famous Florence Court Yew—the parent of all Irish yew trees.
LOUGH ERNE, CO. FERMANAGH
Lough Erne consists of two large lakes: the Upper Lough in the south and the Lower Lough in the north, with the bustling town of Enniskillen poised in between. As a whole, Lough Erne is around 60 miles long and 7 miles wide, meandering through County Fermanagh. The depth of the water varies, and there are many coves and inlets where travelers can stop over. While it’s quiet and unspoiled—a countryside paradise—lakeside amenities and castles can be found on nearby land. It’s also one of the best and most scenic cruising regions in Europe and a prime venue for watersports, especially wakeboarding.
MALIN HEAD, CO. DONEGAL
Malin Head is the northernmost point of the entire country of Ireland, and it’s also often the first or last stop along the famous Wild Atlantic Way. Part of one Star Wars film was cast here because of the romantic scenery and hauntingly beautiful landscape. Tall cliffs meet crashing ocean waves, and craggy rocks and other geological formations give plenty of room for exploration. It’s a lovely location for hiking as well as holding picnics. Imbued with a sense of timelessness, historically significant structures remain for visitors to peer at, from the Tower in Banba’s crown to Ireland’s first ever weather stations and lookout posts from World War II.
THE CROWN BAR, CO. ANTRIM
The Crown Liquor Saloon is unlike any pub that you’ve ever seen before. That’s because it’s an ageless Victorian gin palace that dates back to 1826 with much of the original design preserved. A display of dazzling bar architecture, it’s decked out in full Baroque style, featuring floors with stained glass and Italian tiles, lion and gryphon accents, brocaded walls, and fleur-de-lys, to name a few. Right across the long, ornate bar are private wooden snugs where people can drink behind closed doors. These come with gunmetal plates for striking matches and an antique bell system for alerting bar staff.
CARRICK-A-REDE ROPE BRIDGE, CO. ANTRIM
The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is the sole connection between the small island of Carrickarede and Mainland Ireland. Stretching out for 100 feet across the Atlantic Ocean, it was originally built in 1755 by salmon fishermen who wanted to visit the island so they can drop their nets far. No fishermen use it now—instead, it’s on the bucket list of many tourists who dare to brave the nerve-wracking walk. Thankfully, it was renovated away from its wooden plan design in the 1970s and made sturdier, propped up instead with rope and steel wires. The reward is that you get to look all the way across to the Rathlin Island until Scotland and even Giant’s Causeway.
TOLLYMORE FOREST PARK, CO. DOWN
Located at the foot of the Mourne Mountains and covering nearly 630 hectares, Tollymore Forest Park was the first state forest park established in Northern Ireland in 1955. From the outside, it looks like a barn that borrowed some architectural elements from churches, including gothic-style gate arches and stone cones. Anybody who’s fascinated with Victorian follies would enjoy here, given that there are many more scattered throughout its grounds alongside grottos and caves. The mountains and the sea at Newcastle provide a soothing backdrop. The Shimna river runs through the park, and four trails take visitors to the park’s most beautiful areas.
MOUNTAINS OF MOURNE, CO. DOWN
The Mourne Mountains are the tallest and most imposing mountain range in Northern Ireland. Voted as the area’s best walking destination, its 28 peaks stand out clear against the sky, and tracks weave their way through the diverse scenery. Both casual strollers and avid mountaineers will be satisfied here, given that the landscape caters to everyone, from slopes of varying intensity to peaceful lakes. With County Down spread out below, there’s the carefree feel of a playground where one can engage in outdoor activities, including rock-climbing, bird-watching, and golf. Look out for the Mourne Wall, which connects the summits of 15 mountains.
GLENVEAGH NATIONAL PARK, CO. DONEGAL
Glenveagh National Park is one of Ireland’s six beautiful parks, and it’s the largest with a total area of 16,000 hectares right in the Derryveagh Mountains. Lakes, forests, and mountains characterize the landscape, which is hauntingly serene and picturesque. Because it used to be a deer forest, you can find more red deer here than anywhere else in Ireland, and golden eagles, which used to be extinct in the country, now fly around freely. For a manmade attraction, the Victorian castle Glenveagh Castle makes for an idyllic retreat, surrounded by lush greenery and well-preserved with antique interiors.
EXPLORIS AQUARIUM, CO. DOWN
This family-friendly destination is Northern Ireland’s only aquarium and seal sanctuary. Found on the shores of Stranford Lough, its exhibits focus on the nautical life on the Lough and the Irish Sea. A section that always attracts crowds is the Seal Sanctuary, where young seals who are sick or parentless undergo rehabilitation so hey can go back to the wild. Aside from seals, you’ll encounter plenty of other water creatures, with the chance to get up close. Experienced guides are always available, and the aquarium also has a gift shop, café, and a soft play area meant for kids.
Have you been lucky enough to visit any of the sites we’ve mentioned here? Do you have a favorite Ulster spot we might have missed? Let us know in the comments below!