County Antrim

Harland and Wolff shipyards, Belfast
Harland and Wolff shipyards, Belfast

Belfast may be its beating heart, but County Antrim doesn’t stop at the city limits. It stretches all the way from the mythical nine glens to the Giant’s Causeway

Antrim’s main event is undoubtedly Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital city. The RMS Titanic was built in this port city: “she was fine when she left here,” as locals like to quip. A century later, the iconic new Titanic Belfast visitor attraction is the centre piece of a rejuvenated quarter named after the ill-fated liner.

If 20th Century Belfast was strangled by political strife, today it's energetic and outward-looking. Belfast has hosted Lady Gaga and the MTV Europe Music Awards. It’s home to the brand new Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) and to gleaming hotels and shopping malls.

Most tellingly, former no-go areas, such as the Falls and Shankill Roads, are now the focus of brilliant Black Taxi Tours. Sit back, relax and let the taxi drivers do the talking. They’ve certainly got lots to talk about.

Beyond Belfast

Beyond Belfast, Antrim is where you’ll find the largest lake in Ireland or Britain (Lough Neagh); the birthplace of Hollywood hunk Liam Neeson (Ballymena); and one of the most recognisable Unesco World Heritage Sites in western Europe: the Giant’s Causeway.

If you go with Lonely Planet’s take on Northern Ireland’s north coast as “a giant geology classroom”, then the Giant’s Causeway is lesson number one.

Taking the form of 40,000 basalt columns cascading into the Irish Sea, the Causeway was created by millions of years of volcanic and geologic activity. Or, if you prefer, by mythical giant Fionn mac Cumhaill as a series of steps to transport him to Scotland.

A new visitor centre gives the low-down on both versions of events.

By the bridge

If you do visit the Causeway, don’t miss the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge nearby. Originally erected by fishermen to check salmon nets, today the structure takes you on a precarious path over a 20m-wide (and 23m-deep) chasm to Carrick Island.

Just try not to look down! If you do, don’t fret. Back on solid ground, there’s tonic in wait at the Old Bushmills whiskey distillery.

From glen to glen

Between city and coast, Antrim also offers up a fine road-trip in the shape of a meander through the Glens of Antrim. The nine, deeply-carved glens are spread within 20 square miles of the Antrim Coast Road. They offer the chance to see not just glacial valleys, but sandy beaches, vertical cliffs and waterfalls interspersed with ancient cultural sites.

Getting a taste for the Irish outdoors? Don’t stop there. There is great surfing in the Atlantic rollers off the Antrim coast, scuba diving from Rathlin Island, and a world-class links course at the Royal Portrush Golf Club, host to the 2012 Irish Open. Fore!