Belfast & Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's Most Scenic Road Trips

more than a year ago
Coastlines and countryside are connected by a network of open roads ready to deliver your car or camper van to some outstanding viewpoints.

Here's our selection of some faves:

1. Causeway Coastal Route

We're starting big, and they don't come more packed with picture postcard stops than this waymarked journey that runs from Belfast to Derry via the epic Antrim Coast Road. This, good people, is NI's Route 66.

Though it's around 150 miles long and could, in theory, be done in a day, you're much better stretching it out across two or three days to really do the journey justice. Not least because you will need time to explore such iconic sights as the Giant's Causeway, Old Bushmills DistilleryDunluce Castle, Mussenden Temple and the walled city of Derry.

The North Atlantic beachside towns and villages of Ballycastle, Ballintoy, Portballantrae and Castlerock are as picturesque as you'd expect. While seaside big hitters Portrush and Portstewart provide a playful escape for all the caravanners and daytrippers in search of a fun vibe, wonderfully tacky amusement arcades and the annual North West 200 motorcycle road race.

All this and we haven't even covered stunning detours and stops such as Carrickfergus CastleThe Gobbins, Glens of Antrim and the villages of Cushendun and CushendallBroughshane and Slemish mountain, Binevenagh mountain and Rathlin Island. Each town and village has plenty of overnight options and food and drink distractions to have you lingering longer, so do your homework and plan that itinerary before embarking on a road trip to remember.

2. Ards Peninsula 

This 18.5 mile stretch of road hugs Strangford Lough from the Co. Down market town of Newtownards in the north to the pretty coastal village of Portaferry (pic) at its mouth. En route you'll encounter the most beautiful scenery as the tranquil tidal lough, said to be bejewelled with 365 islands, stretches out with the silhouetted Mourne Mountains in the background.

Mount Stewart, a resplendent 19th century residence and globally-renowned gardens, is owned by the National Trust Northern Ireland and definitely worthy of a day-trip all its own. Motor on and you'll encounter quaint Greyabbey village with a small selection of cafes and antique shops. There's a cute beach stop at Kirkubbin and, if you get your timing right, a fab chip van serving amazing maritime morsels. While nearby Echlinville Distillery showcases its award-winning whiskeys and gins to discerning visitors.

Once in Portaferry, you can either hop on the quick ferry crossing to Strangford and visit the National Trust's 18th century Castle Ward mansion or take the 27 or so mile return leg up the Irish Sea side of the Peninsula where villages and attractions such as Kearney, Cloughey, PortavogieMillisle, Donaghadee Lighthouse and Ballycopeland Windmill await.

3. Strangford Lough 

An alternative route to the Ards Peninsula drive, this journey also begins at Newtownards but heads down the western side of Strangford Lough taking in the market town of Comber, famed for its Comber Earlies potatoes and birthplace of Titanic chief engineer Thomas Andrews (who went down with the vessel and after whom the town's primary school is named). You can see a Titanic memorial in the town square. 

Just south of Comber on Strangford's shoreline is Islandhill, a small island connected to the shore by a narrow stone walkway. Get your timing right or you could get caught out by the lough's epic tide. A couple of miles further south is Castle Espie (pic), a celebration of the area's flotilla of wildfowl, with outdoor viewpoints, children's play areas and a cafe and gift shop with those stunning loughshore views.

Continue onto Mahee Island, home to Nendrum Monastic Site, a 5th century ruin with links to St. Patrick. Back on the main road, you'll pass Lisbane village with its thatched Old Post Office tea room, award-winning Poacher's Pocket gastro pub and, back towards the lough and through yet more of its necklace of connected islands, the renowned Daft Eddy's pub.

Keep motoring to Killinchy and Balloo House, one of Northern Ireland's most renowned restaurants, and on to Killyleagh, birthplace of Sir Hans Sloane, the eminent naturalist whose vast collection formed the origins of the British Museum. Privately-owned Killyleagh Castle, a Disney-esque dwelling with fairytale turrets and imposing gatehouse, stands proud at the top of this little village. 

As you wend your way to Downpatrick, take time to visit Delamont Country Park with its playpark, miniature railway, and Strangford Stone erected to mark the Millennium. And call into Fodder NI, a fab teepee cafe serving cooked meats fresh from Finnebrogue Farm where walking trails and bushcraft courses are also on site.

Heading into Downpatrick, look out for Quoile Countryside Park whose eponymous river flows from the south west corner of Strangford Lough. In Downpatrick you'll find Down Cathedral and the burial site of Saint Patrick, as well as the contemporary Saint Patrick Centre, telling the story of Ireland's Patron Saint, and Down Country Museum and 18th century Gaol. Downpatrick & Co. Down Railway runs heritage trains from the town centre to Inch Abbey and has a great museum telling the story of this sadly defunct line. From Downpatrick you can either retrace your journey or take the ferry from Strangford to Portaferry and back to Newtownards where fantastic views from Scrabo Hill and Tower await.

4. Mourne Coastal Route

This waymarked road trip starts in Belfast and travels along the Ards Peninsula as covered above. We'll pick it up further south at the holiday destination of Newcastle and follow it for a circular 63 miles via the Mourne Mountains and northern shore of Carlingford Lough.

Newcastle town (pic) is a bustling affair beloved of locals for its amusement arcades, beach promenade, Royal County Down Golf Course and landmark Slieve Donard Hotel & Spa, named after NI's highest peak which, at 822m, dominates the townscape. Keeping on driving along the Irish Sea shore towards the fishing village of Annalong then turn inland for a magnificent stop-off at Silent Valley Mountain Park and Reservoir

Head back to the coast and Kilkeel, NI's main fishing town, then onwards to Rostrevor, another quaint village on the shores of Carlingford Lough and home of the celebrated annual Fiddler's Green Festival of folk music. Equally pretty Warrenpoint town is also home to 16th century Narrow Water Castle which is privately owned but available for self-catering accommodation and event hire. The large town of Newry is next, with its canal, cathedral and plenty of shops and cafes for your spending pleasure. 

The drive now heads through the Mourne Mountains towards Hilltown, a village named after the prosperous Anglo political Hill family (also of Hillsborough fame) and not, as you'd imagine, its mountain locale. Next stop is spooky Spelga Dam, built in the 1950s and containing 2.7million cubic metres of water. We say spooky because not only is this concrete construction eerily imposing in its own right, but if you drive your car up the short road to its main building and turn off the engine and handbrake, you'll feel like you're moving uphill backwards. The final return leg to Newcastle showcases the Mournes in all their rugged glory.

5. Sperrins Scenic Driving Routes

The North, Central, East and South Sperrins waymarked routes range from 50 to 90 miles and cover sizeable chunks of Counties Derry and Tyrone. What NI's most extensive mountain range lacks in stature (highest peak Sawel Mountain rises to 678m), it more than makes up for with its sheer raw beauty. Each route offers up a diverse selection of untouched landscape and manmade attractions designed to tell the story of the land and its people. Take each one in isolation or merge two or more for a thorough exploration of this less well-trodden part of NI.

The North Sperrins Drive takes in Dungiven town, Banagher Glen Nature ReserveTirnoney Dolmen prehistoric tomb and Errigal Glen.

The South Sperrins Drive traverses Omagh town, Gortin Glen Forest Park, the hugely impressive Ulster American Folk Park and privately owned Baronscourt Estate.

The Central Sperrins Drive passes through Strabane town, Sion Mills village, Newtownstewart and An Creagan Visitor Centre

East Sperrins Drive highlights include National Trust owned Springhill House and Wellbrook Beetling Mill, Jungle NI outdoor activity centre, Davagh Forest's mountain bike trails and OM Dary Sky Observatory, Bronze Age Beaghmore Stone Circles and privately-owned Killymoon Castle outside Cookstown.



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