Northern Ireland is known for its natural beauty and green countryside, but it also has an up-and-coming cultural scene worth exploring. A two-day trip will give you a quick taste of what this little-known UK destination has to offer. Divento’s itinerary planner is so helpful when it comes to this because you can select the places you want to go and let it do the legwork of finding opening times, planning routes and putting everything together. A weekend trip might end up looking a bit like this.
By Emma Rutter
Leave Belfast head up North to your first destination, Benvarden Gardens. It has been described as one of the best Irish gardens in private hands by Irish writer Terence Reeves-Smith, and it’s a good place to stretch your legs after the drive. Once refreshed, all you have to do is follow Divento’s handy map to the Giant’s Causeway, just 20 minutes’ drive away. Whether you believe Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage site, was formed by a giant or by a volcano, the 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns that meet the sea at the Causeway are breathtaking. Pop into the National Trust visitor centre for a guided audio tour, or choose to explore the causeway yourself for free. Try taking the clifftop Red Trail, a steep walk from the cliffs down to the causeway which will give you a great view on your way down.
The best way to head back to Belfast after lunch is via the Causeway Coastal Route. It snakes around the North Coast and is often rated as one of the top scenic road trips in the world. Starting from the Giant’s Causeway, head round the coastline, passing the green hills of the Glens of Antrim as you go. Make a stop at Glenarm Castle Gardens or Carrickfergus Castle on your way back. According to Divento.com, Glenarm has belonged to the Earls of Antrim since 1636 and the gardens have roses, water features and sculptures made with material from around the province. Carrickfergus Castle is older - Norman-built - and has been occupied by English, French and Irish troops over the years. However, if you’re feeling too tired for either of these, you can easily swap or delete activities from your itinerary planner, which will alter your route accordingly. Once back in Belfast, enjoy a night of rest.
The next day is city-based, and you’ll be mostly on foot so you can see the city at your own pace. Print off your Divento itinerary and start off in the Cathedral Quarter, Belfast’s cultural and creative hub. After fueling up on cinnamon rolls and coffee at Established Coffee, wander into the main foyer of the Metropolitan Arts Centre next door to look at the permanent art installation by Mark Garry, then head upstairs to visit some of the galleries. At the time of writing, there’s an exciting exhibition coming up by Peter Liversidge, who started painting the signs saying ‘Thank You NHS’ during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Once you’ve had your fill of art, nip over to St Anne’s Cathedral across the road. Divento.com gives you a handy summary of key facts about the cathedral, which was built in 1899 and is the seat of not one, but two, bishops. It’s worth getting a closer look at the artistic details in the cathedral’s interior, like the mosaic roof of the baptistry, the carved pillars in the nave, and the Titanic funeral pall, made of blue felt and silver thread.
Five minutes’ walk from the Cathedral, you’ll find the Titanic Memorial in the Belfast City Hall gardens, completed in 1920 to commemorate the victims of the disaster. Spend a moment there before continuing on up to the Botanic Gardens. Grab a sandwich at French Village on your way, a favourite with locals for its quality food and budget prices. If the weather’s good (you’d be lucky!) you can take your lunch out to eat in the Botanic Gardens. They were built by the Belfast Botanic and Horticultural Society in 1828 and still have many of the plants from that period. Make sure to visit the Palm House, which was built in 1852 and is one of the earliest examples of a glasshouse made from curved iron and glass, even older than the one at Kew Gardens.
At the other side of the Botanic Gardens you’ll find the Ulster Museum, the next stop on your itinerary. It’s the largest museum in the province and its massive square structure is one of the most important examples of Brutalism in NI. Divento.com recommends having a look at the Egyptian mummified body of Takabuti, an exhibit that’s been in the museum for many years. But it’s also worth paying a visit to The Troubles and Beyond gallery: an essential trip to understand a bit more about NI’s problematic past through photographs, artefacts and paintings.
Loop back to the city centre via the Grand Opera House. It’s been part of Belfast’s landscape since 1895 and survived several bomb blasts during the Troubles. It’s one of the best examples of oriental theatre architecture in the UK, and it’s where Luciano Pavarotti made his UK debut in Madame Butterfly. You can spend your final evening here watching a performance or concert, or cross the road, where you’ll find a couple of bustling bars and restaurants to toast off your weekend trip. The Perch has our vote for rooftop chic, but the Crown Liquor Saloon is worth visiting for its ornate Victorian interior. In both places, you’ll see why Northern Ireland is famed for its hospitality.