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A world of breathtaking scenery awaits visitors north of the border

Tom Breathnach, Travel Editor, unearths a treasure trove of natural wonders and great activities in Northern Ireland

Armagh

Armagh may be known as the Orchard County and it certainly has a good crop of attractions. The county town itself (officially a city since 2015) is known for its stunning architecture from its cathedrals to its stunning Georgian shop fronts while if you’re there on Tuesdays’ pay a visit to the town’s lively market to pick up anything from fresh bread plants.

It’s also home to the town’s planetarium which is a great spot for any budding astronauts in your family. Beyond attractions, you’ll discover some of Ireland’s most unheralded scenery too. For a spectacular detour, just off the A1, take the scenic road trip up Sliabh Gullion, the legendary mountain said to be the home of Cú Chulainn.

A really impressive road trip takes you all around the mountain where you can soak in views from several counties as curious mountain sheep watch you.

You are still in apple country, so while here pay a visit to one of the county’s lush orchards and even partake in a spot of cider tasting.

Belfast

As if the city wasn’t trending as a staycation city break already, Belfast is now enjoying its latest moment in the spotlight thanks to PR boost from Hollywood blockbuster, Belfast. The city is expecting a big flux in villages this summer, all drawn to the city’s lively city centre and popular attractions from St. George’s Market to the vibrant Cathedral Quarter. The perfect city for walking, you can stretch your sea legs by strolling out to The Maritime Mile, of Europe’s great urban renewals stories, best known for Titanic Belfast, but also excellent hotels, restaurants and food-trucks (keep an eye out on a new distillery opening this summer too!).

Other visiting highlights included the Queens Quarter with the exquisite university campus which will make you feel like you’re at Hogwarts, the impressive Ulster Museum and the vibrant food scene along Malone Road.

For alternative outing pay a visit to Belfast’s Gaeltacht Quarter or take a hike up Cave Hill for stunning views over the city.

Antrim

Perhaps a little overshadowed by the Wild Atlantic Way along the western seaboard, make no mistake that the Antrim Coast is nothing short of blockbuster.

Stretching from Carrickfergus to Portstewart, the 120 mile route (keep an eye out for Scotland in the distance) is stacked with both iconic highlights from the Giants Causeway to Dunluce Castle to hidden sports like Torr Head and Murlough Beach (there’s also a hump in the road between Ballycastle and Bushmills which will literally take your breath away.

To really experience Antrim’s beauty, from its towering basalt cliffs to hidden coastal waterfalls, take a boat trip or embark on a kayaking adventure with one of the many outfitters operating out from Ballycastle. If that’s given you sea legs, make the trip out to Rathlin Island, which makes a destination with everything from an upside down lighthouse to curious puffin population. And don’t overlook the inland highlights, too, Antrims glens and mountain passes will leave with a taste of ... well, moor.

Derry

Derry may be well known for its friendly natives and festivals, craic and culture, but if you’ve not already paid a visit Foyleside, prepare yourself for what is also perhaps Ireland’s most impressive city centre.

Derry’s five hundred year old stone walls, buttressing what is one of the world’s best preserved medieval centres, are a true urban Irish treasure and guided walks of the loop are popular activity for visitors. Down in the city, you’ll also be wooed to eclectic attractions from Museum of Free Derry and Tower Museum, to embarking on a Derry Girls tour or wandering across the iconic Peace Bridge (treat yourself to craft beer at the Walled City Brewery). Elsewhere in the county, don’t overlook its spectacular coastal strip while paddle-board tours on the Foyle offer an alternative perspective on the Northwest.

Tyrone

Tyrone may be Northern Ireland’s largest county but it could also be one of the island’s most hidden escapes.

Often bypassed by the Belfast to Derry to criss-cross, the county is well worth a detour with everything from its colourful food scene to its spectacular mountains.

The Sperrin range is home to some of the best hiking in Ireland while a new range of cabin accommodations in the area are now really allowing guests to feel the outdoors indoors.

To fuel up, enjoy an afternoon tea at one of the county’s estates or country inns, or better still make your own baked goods with a class at Wee Buns cookery school.

Fermanagh

Fermanagh’s tranquil waters have traditionally made the county a popular destination for Continental Europeans, drawn to the region’s peace, calm (and great fishing) of its loughs.

But since lockdown, the county has been trending as one of the most popular inland destinations for staycationers too as visitors seek getaways a little more off the beaten coast.

Beyond Lough Erne and its smattering of historic islands, The Stairway to Heaven, a boardwalk route up the stunning Cuilcagh mountain is one of the most dramatic hikes in Ireland (just be sure to get there early, this is one trending spot!

For another uncovered gem, Looking for another hidden gem?

The Magho Cliffs at Lough Navar Forest are one of the island’s highest inland cliffs.

Down

The trip up to Down isn’t as far away as you may think, you know! The Mourne mountains lie as far south as parts of North Mayo and with great motorway access up the east coast, you can be where the hills sweep down to the sea in a jiffy.

For an alternative and more epic arrival, the ferry journey from Carlingford Lough in County Louth across to Greencastle makes an epic start to your Down getaway.

Once there, explore stunning hiking options across the iconic Mournes, pay a visit to an artisan microbrewery tucked away in the foothills or dig into some candy floss (or sandcastle building) in Victorian coastal resorts like Newcastle.

Outdoor enthusiasts will love the unheralded treasure that is Castlewellan Forest Park where you can hike, bike or even pitch a tent in one of the most beautiful forest and lakeland settings on the island of Ireland.

Further up the coast, continue your ferry hopping from Stranford to Portaferry and make your journey up along the rugged Ards peninsula as you wind north to Belfast. You’ll find a trove of charming fishing villages, brimming with great seafood restaurants en route: St. John’s Point Lighthouse makes a great photo-stop along the way!

Useful link: www.discovernorthernireland.com