Outside the city: Belfast

Sailing on Strangford Lough, County Down
Sailing on Strangford Lough, County Down

The beauty of Belfast is that getting outside the city limits isn’t a long-haul affair…

1. Strangford Lough, County Down

This harbour is practically on Belfast’s doorstep yet feels a whole other world away.Without the regular ferry and ship traffic of Belfast Lough and the North Channel, this sea water inlet is pure pleasure. It’s also an adrenaline junkie’s heaven! NI Kitesurfing and Killyleagh Outdoor Education Centre will have you off your feet, and perhaps a little wet too!

If you prefer things a little more leisurely, then swan about Castle Ward where you’ll see the real-deal locations for HBO’s Game of Thrones. This doubled up as Winterfell’s castle yard on many occasions in the series.

Nearby is ClearSky Adventure Centre, whose Sea Safari will take you out on the lough and further while at Castle Espie is where almost the entire world’s population of Brent Geese resides during the winter months.

2. Tollymore Forest Park, County Down

Another one of GOT’s prime locations is still Tollymore Forest Park, in fact, the very first scene in episode one was filmed here (and where we were given our first glimpse of the dreaded White Walkers).

Northern Ireland is so full of crumbling castles, epic scenery and that ‘lived in feel’ that when HBO’s scouts came looking for where they could bring George RR Martin’s fantasy world to life, this place was the obvious choice. 

On a far less gruesome note, the forest also contains the possible inspiration for CS Lewis's Narnia, who would have stumbled across a carved stone lion’s head as a young boy – Aslan, anyone? If anything, a walk through Tollymore is guaranteed to have your camera snapping from start to finish.

3. Bangor, County Down

Bangor is a seaside town with plenty of water-based fun on offer such as sailing on Bangor Lough, strolling along the seafront and visiting the Marina. Bangor has a vibrant music scene and there are live gigs happening around the town every week. It has produced very successful musicians including up and coming indie rock band Two Door Cinema Club and four of the original members of Snow Patrol (lead singer Gary Lightbody moved back there in 2009). Comedian Eddie Izzard began life in Bangor too, leaving when he was five years old.

4. The Causeway Coast, County Antrim

Starting just outside Belfast is this remarkable trail, which can be driven, walked or cycled. Winding along the North Antrim coast, it takes in the Giant’s Causeway, Bushmill’s Distillery, Rathlin Island and Mussenden Temple to name a few. Closer to the city though is the first of the nine Glens of Antrim – Glenarm. The Glens have been designated Areas of Outstanding Beauty so have the cameras at the ready.

Take a detour to Magheramorne where film studio and the surrounding landscape were used to film Game of Thrones. The quarry there featured as the grounds of Castle Black, home of the Night’s Watch.

5. Hilden Brewery, County Down

Before reaching Ireland’s oldest independent brewery, stop off in the Lagan Valley Regional Park. Here you can indulge in outdoor activities, birdwatching and exploring the ruins and monuments within the grounds.

Onwards to Hilden Brewery, which also has a Titanic connection: this is the former residence of Helen Barbour who was the daughter of the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews. It’s open to the public, so indulge your curiosity with a brewery tour and demonstrations. Afterwards, enjoy the wares on the menu in the onsite Tap Room restaurant, accompanied with a pint of the finest brew, of course.

It’s time to head back to Belfast just in time for dinner: maybe check out the city’s Cathedral Quarter and its plethora of eateries, followed by a cocktail at the chic Merchant Hotel as a nightcap.