Following Saint Patrick’s Trail in 3 days

Down Cathedral Interior, County Down
Down Cathedral Interior, County Down

Tracing St Patrick’s footsteps in Northern Ireland

Welcome to Northern Ireland’s "St Patrick’s Country". Heralded as one of the world's most beloved saints, St Patrick has left behind a rich legacy in Northern Ireland, from majestic cathedrals to ancient monastic sites.

We’ve mapped out the perfect route between Belfast, Armagh and Downpatrick. On this three-day trail, soak up spectacular architecture and colourful history, and embark on your own spiritual journey as you follow in Patrick's footsteps.

Day 1

Belfast to Armagh 60.4km (40 miles)/80 minutes at 30mph

A great music scene, buzzing restaurants and atmospheric old pubs have made Belfast one of the best city-break destinations in Europe. And if it's world-class sightseeing you're after, then head for the dazzling Titanic Belfast – a shining light in a city laden with attractions.

Take a few days to relax and enjoy what Belfast has to offer, before joining the St Patrick's Trail for nearby Armagh. It's only a 50-minute drive, so why not make a detour at Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles.

On the shores of this scenic lough you’ll find the Ardboe Cross – one of the finest high crosses in Ireland. According to local legend, it was built with the help of a cow, which sustained the workmen with cream, milk and butter during construction.

You can take various boat trips around the lough, and out to its islands, or why not just chill out shore-side with a picnic before heading south into the ancient city of Armagh.

The smallest of Northern Ireland’s six counties, Armagh still packs a high-grade historical punch. You might not guess it from the elegant Georgian streets and the lively bars and restaurants, but this genteel little spot has been the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland since the 5th century.

Soak up some of the city's laid-back atmosphere at The Mall, a pretty tree-lined central promenade with a surprisingly shady past (think horse races, cock fights and bull baiting).

If you get the feeling that you’re being watched… well, you are. Hidden behind windows and inside nooks and crannies all over Armagh are small, intricate and (as far as we know) inanimate bronze sculptures of gargoyles, chimeras and angels. These are all part of the city’s sacred architecture – and are fascinating curiosities to keep an eye out for.

You might also want to stop by the Armagh Public Library. Here, you’ll find a first edition of Gulliver’s Travels, complete with Jonathan Swift’s handwritten notes in the margins. Or nip into the Armagh County Museum and uncover archaeological finds from the early Christian period.

St Patrick's Cathedrals

You’ve probably heard that St Patrick’s Cathedral is a must-see for anyone visiting Armagh, but did you know there are two of them? The Church of Ireland cathedral sits proudly on Sally Hill, with a superb view stretching for miles. Underneath, you'll find a dramatic crypt that dates back to 1268.

The cathedral is also famous for being home to Irish royalty – Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland who defeated the Norsemen in 1014, is buried in the North Wall here. The battle cost him his life.

On the opposite hill is the twin-spired Catholic St Patrick's Cathedral, guarded by two magnificent marble archbishops, and flanked by seven flights of steps to the arcade of statues peering down from the main exterior doorway.

Armagh

Ever wanted to touch a meteorite? Well now you can, at the Armagh Planetarium. And not just any meteorite, but Ireland’s largest one; 4.5 billion years old and weighing in at 24 stone. Also on the intergalactic menu is an exhibition of spaceships and satellite models. For kids (or kids at heart) you can even build one yourself.

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Pop into the museum at No. 5 Vicar’s Hill and you'll see the sparkling collection of gems and early Christian artefacts collected by Archbishops Robinson and Beresford. Keep your eyes peeled for the macabre-sounding Bell of the Blood, reputedly blessed by the man himself, St Patrick. Architecture buffs will be happy to know that the building has retained many of its original features. Not bad for a structure that’s almost 250 years old. 

Armagh isn’t just about history, of course: this is a town that knows a good time when it sees it. The Hole in the Wall bar (used as an informal courthouse in the 17th century) and Red Ned’s are just two examples of the city’s quirky side.

For a central location to spend the night, the Armagh City Hotel has panoramic views overlooking the city.

Day 2

Armagh to Downpatrick 82.6km (51.3 miles)/102 minutes at 30mph

Getting on the road and leaving Armagh, the next stage on the journey is Downpatrick, where St Patrick first started his mission to spread Christianity. Poignantly, it's also where the saint is thought to be buried.

The town is about an hour’s drive from Armagh, but make sure you stop off in the lively town of Newry on the way. If you can tear yourself away from the city's bustling shopping scene, pay a visit to the fascinating Bagenal’s Castle, a Cistercian monastery founded in 1153. Amazingly, this building houses a set of robes from the order of St Patrick – well worth a look!

Next up is Down Cathedral, burial place of St Patrick. This is one of the most important sights you’ll come across on your journey. The cathedral stands on the site of a Benedictine monastery, built in the 12th century.

St Patrick’s remains are marked by a massive granite stone, and the cathedral itself is stunning – magnificent stained-glass windows, box pews and an impressively large organ will take your breath away.

And so it’s on to Down County Museum for an eerie afternoon courtesy of the County Gaol of Down. This Georgian gaol may have closed almost 200 years ago, but the spirits of the inmates still linger.

Occupy your own cell for a taste of incarceration, Georgian-style. If you feel someone creep up behind you, don’t worry, it’s probably just one of the life-sized figures of prisoners and their jailers. Probably…

The Saint Patrick Centre

The Saint Patrick Centre is the only permanent exhibition in the world dedicated to telling the story of Ireland’s patron saint. Expect a state-of-the-art IMAX presentation and engaging interactive displays.

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The next place you’ll want to visit is Streull Wells, blessed by St Patrick when he first arrived in Downpatrick. These wells are said to have healing powers, and they draw thousands of visitors every year. Close by is Saul Church, adjacent to Slieve Patrick, where you can see the tallest statue of St Patrick in the world!

Tired after a day of excitement? You can rest your head at the nearby Dunnanelly Country House and enjoy stunning views of the Mourne Mountains and Slieve Croob. Belfast is now less than a 30-minute drive away.

Day 3

Downpatrick to Belfast 34.9km (21.6 miles)

It may only be a short drive back to Belfast, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to see along the way. This beautiful stretch of the island has several impressive Cistercian abbeys to admire. Grey Abbey, built in 1193, is one of the best examples of Anglo-Norman religious architecture in Northern Ireland.

A visit to its herb garden shows how medicine has moved on, as the plants are mainly those of a medicinal variety, which would have been used at that time.

On the outskirts of Newtownards you’ll find Movilla Abbey; plundered by Vikings in 824AD only to be founded again in the 12th century by the Augustinians.

Among those buried in the old graveyard here is legendary jazz and blues singer Ottilie Patterson.

At the meeting of two rivers, and on the edge of the idyllic Strangford Lough, lies your next stop: Comber. An abbey stood here from 1199 to 1543, but today all that remains are the Comber Stones. The distinctive mason’s marks on these stones were carved there by long-forgotten craftsmen as a way of signing their work.

An incredible example of a pre-Norman monastic site, Nendrum is thought to have been set up by St Machaoi in the 5th century, and is also linked to St Patrick. The monastery consists of three round, dry stone-wall enclosures, one within the other. At the visitor centre, meanwhile, you’ll find interactive displays, models, artefacts and videos.

St Patrick's Day Festival

Northern Ireland has a wonderfully enjoyable array of events celebrating Ireland's patron saint on St Patrick's Day, 17 March. Expect carnivals, parades and themed walks, to name but a few.

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Swing back up north again you'll come across Bangor Abbey, a hugely important monastic centre from the Middle Ages that had a reputation for austerity and learnedness. Once known as the "Light of the World", it was from here that St Columbanus set out on his famous missionary journey to Europe.

Holywood’s Old Priory, a monastery founded by St Laiseran in the early 7th century, is also worth a visit. The adjoining graveyard is inhabited by the Dunville family (of the whiskey brand) and world-famous mathematician Sir Joseph Larmor. 

Back in Belfast, why not wind down your trail with a tipple in Kelly's, Belfast's oldest pub (built in 1720), or a quiet dinner at John Hewitt’s Bar and Restaurant – an exceptional bar with no television or gaming machines, only good old-fashioned conversation and craic.

Here, you can sit back, relax, and raise a toast to St Patrick. And why not.

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