Northern Ireland: An Irish stew of surprises
For most of its 95-year existence, Northern Ireland has been known for the Protestant-Catholic divide. But agreements involving leaders of the IRA, Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom (which still governs Northern Ireland) between 1998 and 2005 ended "The Troubles," bringing peace and a growing prosperity boosted by tourism ever since. Northern Ireland has become not only a stopover for visitors to the Emerald Isle, but a destination of its own.
Best of Belfast
Belfast is the island of Ireland's second-largest and second-most-visited city, behind Dublin, with its own international airport. Once you arrive, head over to the city center. You can't miss the towering, copper-domed City Hall, which offers free tours that include a visit to the adjacent Titanic Memorial Garden. Within walking distance are Belfast's Botanic Gardens and four-story Ulster Museum, the Grand Opera House, Lyric Theatre (partly funded by Northern Ireland native son and actor Liam Neeson), and a lively restaurant and pub district.
Also close to the city center is the Titanic Quarter, highlighted by the ultramodern Titanic Belfast, a six-story tribute to the sunken luxury cruise ship that's located at the spot where the Titanic was built and was launched in 1912. The interactive museum on the River Lagan, where it flows out to the Irish Sea, was recently named Europe's best visitor attraction. Also in the Quarter is The Odyssey, a sprawling, family-oriented complex that includes the W5 children's science and discovery museum.
Poised on the northern tip of Northern Ireland, the Antrim Coast offers arguably the best coastal scenery in all of Ireland. On the 18-mile stretch between Portrush and Ballycastle, you can visit the medieval Dunluce Castle ruins, sip whiskey at the world's oldest distillery — Old Bushmills, hike on the Giant's Causeway — a World Heritage Site, walk across the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge to a small island, and take a 25-minute ferry from Ballycastle to Rathlin Island where birds and seals far outnumber the 75 residents.
The town of Derry (also called Londonderry) was a flash point during "The Troubles," but now it's the best place to learn about them, as well as the long, rich history of Northern Ireland. The Tower Museum is a good place to start. You can learn more on a walking tour or bus tour — or on a self-guided walk atop the 20-foot-high, one-mile-long 400-year-old city wall, which leads you past the new Siege Museum, the Bogside Murals and the Bloody Sunday Monument.
If you go
United flies direct to Belfast from New York/Newark, with additional routes through many other U.S. cities. Visit united.com or use the United app to plan your Northern Ireland trip. Once you arrive, be prepared to drive your rental car on the left side and to spend British pounds — although if you cross into Ireland (a seamless border requiring no passport stop), you'll need Euros. But you may end up spending so much time in the north that you'll want to save a visit to Ireland for another trip.