Insider’s guide to: Northern Ireland

Catherine Maguire 29 May 2014

Forget everything you think you know about Northern Ireland; in recent years the province has truly flourished. We are not blessed with land mass – one can cross in around two hours – but that is precisely what makes it so special. This is a land of rugged coastlines, urban hubs, and rural idylls, all within a stone’s throw of one another, making it ideal for a quick, inexpensive, and breath-taking escape.

Some are quick to fault the dominance of Belfast in local affairs, but no visit to Northern Ireland is complete without exploring a city whose buzz is positively palpable. Forget the bombs and bullets; the capital’s Cathedral Quarter boasts no fewer than five popular nightclubs, with the opulent Ollie’s proving particularly popular with the locals. Another must-see is the newly opened Titanic Belfast museum, guiding visitors through the history of the fated vessel. Her construction in Belfast is a source of great pride to the locals, who will fondly tell you that it was "the Irish who built her and the English who sank her". Teeming with both mainstream and independent shops, pubs, and restaurants, the capital city is a vibrant, youthful urban space.

If you are looking to escape the throbbing intensity of city life, a one hour car journey will transport you into the Ireland of folklore and legend. The Causeway Coastal Route, which stretches to the far north west of the country, has been rated as one of the world’s top five road trips, and it’s easy to see why. Even the locals are awestruck by the coastline’s dramatic cliffs, rolling emerald hills and refreshing sea air. Benone is a must-see: an eleven kilometre beach dotted with sand dunes, overseen by the ethereal Mussenden Temple.

Further west takes you into the city of Derry-Londonderry – though do not worry about the name! The city’s reputation speaks for itself; once one of the province’s most dangerous areas, 2013 saw a plethora of cultural events cement its status as the UK’s first City of Culture. It is Ireland’s only remaining completely intact walled city, but it also plays host to some stellar bars: I’d recommend heading to Peader O’Donnell’s where you can indulge in impromptu performances of traditional Irish music, and a decent pint of the black stuff. You don’t need me to tell you that Guinness is far superior on this side of the Irish Sea. Once again, urban criss-crosses rural, as a thirty-minute journey takes you to the border county of Donegal, whose wild, untamed countryside and 1235km of unspoiled coastline requires no Instagram filter.

The fondness that we Irish share for our “wee country” is testament to its beauty and indomitable spirit. Why not try a less mainstream escape and pay us a visit? The craic is mighty, as they say, and we’re only over the water. If I can’t persuade you, perhaps one of our most famous exports will: aah, go on, go on, go on.