Trip idea: Belfast to Connemara

Fill your heart with magical sights, epic adventures and delicious food stories on this eight-day trail from Belfast to Connemara

Somewhere between a life too busy and a life too tame lies a perfect destination that's just a heartbeat away. Explore the hustle and bustle of Belfast, walk on water on a thrilling cliff path, and watch whales in their natural habitat. There are so many ways to fill your heart with Ireland, but you can start here...

Belfast to Connemara

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Day 1

Fine food trails, creative hubs and a maritime heritage that's anchored by the legacy of Titanic.

A driving
St George's Market

A true taste of Belfast

Set yourself up for a day of sightseeing with what's been called the Best Ulster Fry in Northern Ireland. Yes, that's the one served up at George's of the Market in St George's Market. The market was established at the turn of the 19th century, and is a buzzing affair with over 150 traders. Open Friday until Sunday, it's a veritable cornucopia of treats and often rocks with live music from local bands. Want to continue on a foodie theme? Join the award-winning Belfast Food Tour that kicks off from the market doors. According to Gail Bell of the Irish News it was "a friendly, chatty and at times offbeat morning, which ended in Coppi in the Cathedral Quarter for sit-down samples of everything from duck and seafood to bread and cheeses washed down with glasses of Prosecco."

B driving 6 mins
CS Lewis Square

A spire of hope

Belfast's Cathedral Quarter is instantly recognisable if you gaze upwards to the soaring crenellations of St Anne's Cathedral. Enter the hallowed doors to discover beautiful works of art, before hopping across the road to a space that's a homage to the city's wordsmiths, Writer's Square. Here you'll find quotes from famous local writers, CS Lewis, Hanna Bell and John Hewitt, carved in the stone underfoot. Rather apt for an island that does get the odd shower or two, look out for "Umbrella Laneway", AKA Commercial Court (a quaint cobbled alley that was once the commercial heart of the city). The MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre) is your next stop and a hub of creative diversity, while Native – the resident café – will serve you up delicious food if anyone's still feeling peckish.

If you have more time

If you're a fan of CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, CS Lewis Square, with its bronze sculptures of much-loved Narnia characters, is sure to capture your imagination.

C driving 7 mins
Titanic Belfast

Simply awe-inspiring

Next is the Titanic Quarter, the very docks where the Ship of Dreams was imagined, designed and built just over a century ago. At its centre is Titanic Belfast, a must-see, even for those with only a passing interest in Belfast's maritime heritage. Named the World's Leading Tourist Attraction at the World Travel Awards, its shimmering exterior mirrors the height of Titanic and contains nine interactive galleries that tell the Titanic story in fascinating detail. Outside, take a stroll along the slipway from which the Titanic was launched, step back in time on a Titanic Discovery Walking Tour, witness the SS Nomadic (the world’s last remaining White Star vessel) and then hop on a Segway to explore more of the fascinating Titanic Quarter. This is history at its most intriguing.

If you have more time

Hop on board The Wee Tram Tour around the Titanic Quarter, then maybe grab a cocktail in Titanic Hotel Belfast – once the headquarters of legendary shipbuilders, Harland & Wolff.

D
Ox, Belfast

Wind down in style

With hip eateries like Deanes Eipic and James Street South alongside more hearty street food outlets, Belfast is a culinary adventure for hungry folks. Tucked away in the Cathedral Quarter, The Muddlers Club was once the location of a 200-year-old secret society and it still has a feeling of being under-the-radar; Stix & Stones encourages you to cook your steak on a hot stone in its atmospheric surrounds, while Michelin-starred Ox is not only a delicious place to eat, it also houses something rather precious to fans of Game of Thrones® (the HBO series is shot mainly in Northern Ireland): three Valyrian steel blades are on display in Ox Cave, the restaurant's wine bar. Your only job now is choosing where to go.

If you have more time

Built in 1826, the Crown Liquor Saloon is probably the most beautiful pub you'll ever enter, and one of the last Victorian gin palaces on the island. A nightcap before continuing your travels seems like a rather good idea!

Day 2

Discover incredible castles, exhilirating cliff walks and Ireland's oldest distillery along the Causeway Coastal Route.

E driving 21 mins
Carrickfergus Castle

King of the castle

Follow a stretch of idyllic beauty northbound along Belfast Lough to Carrickfergus Castle, taking time to explore the charming village of Carrickfergus. Let your imagination run wild at Whitehead Railway Museum, where you can jump aboard a 19th century steam locomotive, hear stories of butter smuggling and pull levers in the signal cabin before enjoying fresh seafood and local crafts at The Bank House Café.

F driving 18 mins
The Gobbins

Tubular thrills at The Gobbins

Just north of Whitehead along the glorious Causeway Coastal Route, you'll find The Gobbins: a spectacular cliff path that hugs the Antrim coastline. Step through the entrance known as Wise’s Eye and enter a magical place, rich in biodiversity. Pass a natural aquarium of seawater teeming with marine life, explore a smugglers’ cave, and cross the tubular bridge suspended above the choppy sea – you might say it's as close to walking on water as you're ever likely to get! Next, explore the nine Glens of Antrim, each with its own character and community, or stop for seafood at Upstairs At Joe’s in the pretty village of Cushendall. And don't miss a visit to picturesque Cushendun, followed by even more dramatic views between Fair Head, Murlough Bay and Torr Head.

Come at festival time

There are some amazing sounds to be heard at Atlantic Sessions along the Causeway Coastal Route (November).

G
Old Bushmills Distillery

Raise a glass

It's the village of Bushmills next, and the oldest working distillery on the island of Ireland. The Old Bushmills Distillery is also one of the few distilleries in the world to distil, blend and bottle whiskey under the same roof. Maybe have a bite to eat at The French Rooms – a delicious little bistro that also has historical connections to the French Huguenots. Aim for sunset to snatch a glimpse of the ruins of 14th century Dunluce Castle, teetering at the top of a cliff, before moving onto the Walled City of Derry. An evening stroll along the top of the beautiful 17th century walls affords magnificent views across the Renaissance-style street plan and the River Foyle. Top tip: when inside the Walls, keep watch for the bronze oak leaves on the pavements – a reminder of the origins of the city's name, which comes from the Irish word Doire, meaning oak grove.

If you have more time

Walk across the magnificent Peace Bridge to indulge your taste buds at the Walled City Brewery, or taste the distinctive handcrafted local brews from Northbound Brewery in one of the city's many friendly pubs.

Day 3

Lands beloved by Star Wars location scouts, whale-watching boat tours and a tune called Amazing Grace.

H driving 1 hr 41 mins
Northern Lights, Malin Head

Into the wild

Just over an hour north of Derry~Londonderry is the tip of the Inishowen Peninsula, Malin Head. Untamed and rugged in any weather, such is its dramatic beauty, that it was used as a location for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Walk up to Banba’s Crown and keep an eye out for basking sharks breaching the surface of the ocean – these are the moments that will make your heart sing. Or take a boat tour from nearby Bunagee Pier. If you're lucky, you could see minke whale, dolphins, porpoises, basking sharks and sunfish.

If you have more time

Due to its lack of light pollution, the Inishowen Peninsula is the perfect place to see the natural phenomenon of the Northern Lights. Enjoy spectacular views at the prehistoric stone fort of Grianán of Aileach – this incredible structure was even mentioned in the writings of Ptolemy, the ancient Greek mathematician.

I
Lough Swilly © Shutterstock

An inspirational landscape

Amazing Grace is more than just a song. It is a tale of salvation, where a wretch seeks to atone for his past sins. Here in the Donegal town of Buncrana, John Newton, the writer of that famous hymn and the wretch it describes, is a household name. Newton was a foul-mouthed sailor and slave trader who turned to God for mercy in 1748 when a storm off Donegal's coast failed to kill him. He renounced his involvement in the slave trade and penned the evocative Amazing Grace. As you look over Lough Swilly, remember that these were the waters that calmed his soul and saved his life...

If you have more time

Dine out at The Lemon Tree in Letterkenny for contemporary Irish cooking with a French twist. Or head to Nancy’s Barn – winner of the World’s Best Seafood Chowder 2017 – for a bowl of world-class goodness!

Day 4

A beacon of light for weary sailors, a castle with a glamorous past, and sky-high cliffs that give you a glimpse over the edge of the world.

J driving 1 hr 56 mins
Fanad Lighthouse

A beacon of light

This rugged headland is home to grey seals, seabirds and dolphins... and the striking Fanad Lighthouse. This beacon for seafarers was erected in 1817 after the frigate, Saldanha, was wrecked on the rocks. Climb the 76 steps to the top of the tower for superb views, hear tales of parrots and lost gold on the lighthouse tour, or bed down for the night in one of the lightkeepers’ cottages.

K driving 51 mins
Glenveagh Castle

A castle with star power

Once upon a time, Laois man John George Adair, who'd made his fortune in America in the 19th century, decided he wanted to build a castle that would stand out against the jaw-dropping scenery of Glenveagh National Park. His mission was more than successful, with the stronghold of Glenveagh Castle now sitting at the heart of 16,000 hectares of natural beauty. Glenveagh has attracted more than its fair share of glamorous guests in its time, including Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo. Walk the grounds and enjoy refreshments at the Glenveagh Castle Tea Rooms and Restaurant, which offers home-cooking at its very best. Or head on to Leo's Tavern, renowned for being the family home of singers Enya and Moya Brennan, and the group Clannad.

If you have more time

Take the boat to the Irish-speaking Tory Island (founded by St Colmcille in the 6th century) and enjoy the tale of Balor of the Evil Eye! Then when you're back on the mainland, you could pay a visit to the Folk Village in Glencolmcille – it's like stepping back in time.

L
Slieve League cliffs

Sea cliffs and swirling seabirds

You'd be forgiven for thinking you were at the very edge of the world once you reach the viewing platforms of the wondrous Slieve League cliffs – among the highest sea cliffs in Europe at 601m (1,972 feet). Leave your car behind and simply absorb the spectacular views of Donegal Bay and the Sligo Mountains. Keep watch for the white stones that mark out the word "Éire" – this navigational tool was a signal to aircraft during World War II to let them know where they were. At nearby Teelin Harbour, a statue of a brown-cowled figure stands beside a boat as a memorial to the 5th century monks who left these shores to preach Christianity in Iceland.

If you have more time

At Finn Lough in County Fermanagh, the Bubble Domes are so much more than a run-of-the-mill bed for the night. Transparent walls separate you from the forest and the star-filled sky, so you can simply tuck yourself into a luxurious bed and doze away.

Day 5

Monastic beauties, lakelands that lull you with their serenity and landscapes sculpted by the might of the Atlantic Ocean.

M driving 1 hr 54 mins
Devenish Island

Island hopping on the River Erne

With no fewer than 154 islands on the River Erne, including White, Belle Isle and Boa – you can enjoy great island adventures, such as exploring ancient rock carvings, majestic estates and mysterious island sculptures. There is even an island inhabited exclusively by pigs – owned by butcher Pat O'Doherty, known as the Bacon King of Inishcorkish! A real highlight is Devenish Island, originally home to a 6th century monastery, before being raided by Vikings and burned. Thankfully, the oratory of St Molaise and the 12th century round tower did survive, and a short ferry trip from Trory Jetty on the mainland (May to September) takes you to this tranquil island overlooking the silky Erne waters.

If you have more time

Chill out in Enniskillen – a bustling island town – with a craft beer at a fabulous gastropub called The Tap House. Or perhaps tee off nearby at the five-star Lough Erne Golf Resort.

N driving 42 mins
Belleek Pottery

Crafting a piece of history at Belleek

The founder of Belleek Pottery, one of the world's oldest operating potteries, John Caldwell Bloomfield, declared that any piece with even the tiniest flaw should be destroyed. This principle has been followed since 1857, with Belleek's fine Parian china famous across the world for its craftsmanship. The tour covers its colourful history, as well as showing you how each piece of china is created, using traditional methods passed down through the generations. Pop into the Tea Room at Belleek and your food will be served up on its fine tableware, of course.

O driving 27 mins
Bundoran

Ireland's surf capital (and lots more besides)

With the Atlantic regularly pounding along the shoreline, superb surf spots pepper this stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way, culminating in a place that National Geographic voted one of the top 20 surf towns in the world – the seaside town of Bundoran. "Ireland's surf capital" has plenty of surfing schools where you can learn how to tackle the wonderful waves that beat upon the coast. Those who prefer to remain on land should check out the local Fairy Bridges – ancient sea stacks once believed to be haunted by these mischievous beings from Irish folklore. Big wave surfers, though, they go to Mullaghmore Head. If you're not up to joining them, just watch in awe from the beaches. Away from the ocean, perhaps hire a bike, or tee off at Bundoran Golf Club – one of the oldest links courses on the island (founded in 1894). Both options deliver fresh sea air and a far more laid-back type of adrenaline rush.

Come at festival time

The Sea Sessions Music Festival (June) at Bundoran lights up the beach with swirling carnival lights and pumping tunes. Or encounter musical magic, comedic brilliance and breathtaking scenery at Sligo Live (October).

P
Ben Bulben

Rural tradition and creativity in "Yeats Country"

In the shadow of Sligo's tabletop mountain, Ben Bulben, is a farm run by the Feeney family in Streedagh. The Feeneys bought their first sheepdog pup in 1977, and at Atlantic Sheepdogs visitors can now watch the collies do what this breed has done for centuries – herd sheep.

To Yeats, Sligo was "The Land of Heart's Desire" – the place that inspired his most beautiful poetry, reflecting the sense of peace and serenity he felt whenever he was here. Yeats himself is buried at Drumcliffe Cemetery, and at Broc House, you can dine out on some of the finest local organic produce, crafted lovingly by the hosts, before spending an evening by the fireside, as you're regaled with some of the Nobel Laureate's best-loved poems.

If you have more time

Treat your body and your soul at Voya Seaweed Baths in Strandhill. Or if you love the humble spud, drop into Lissadell House, where you'll find a staggering 180 varieties of potatoes lovingly tended in the Victorian kitchen garden.

Day 6

It's all about the ocean right now – food, foraging and feeling the sea spray on your face as you kayak beneath soaring sea cliffs.

Q driving 1 hr 8 mins
Killala Bay

Forage for your own feast

It's time to work for your supper! Denis Quinn of Wild Atlantic Tours is your expert guide as you forage for your food along Killala Bay in County Mayo. A true man of the great outdoors, he loves nothing more than sharing his expert knowledge and will guide you towards tasty wild morsels, sharing his recipes – and all while you take in the ruggedly beautiful Mayo coast. The tour ends with an outdoor seafood feast, so it's good for the mind and the body!

Stop at Downpatrick Head, which stands at nearly 40m (126 feet) above the sea. Once connected to the Dún Briste (Broken Fort) sea stack by a rocky arch, this is also where St Patrick chose to establish a church.

R driving 1 hr 28 mins
Achill Island

Otherworldly beauty on Ireland’s largest island

Stroll any of Achill's five long, sandy beaches and the rest of the world may soon become a hazy memory. At Keem Beach, throw caution to the wind, pull on the wetsuits provided by Achill Surf Adventure and take a guided tour of the Blueway – a network of water trails that weave beneath Achill's towering sea cliffs. Warm up afterwards with cake and coffee in the adorable Beehive Café.

If you have more time

Keep watch for a place that disappeared for decades...Last seen in 1984, Dooagh Beach reemerged from its watery slumber in April 2017, after a stormy ocean blessed the bay with golden sands.

S
Great Western Greenway

Follow the Great Western Greenway

Jump onto what's known as the Great Western Greenway. Ireland's longest off-road cycling and walking trail crosses paths with historic towns, island adventures, nature havens and breathtaking bays between Westport and Achill Island, so you can join it anywhere you like. Put simply, it's a traffic-free pathway packed with some of Ireland’s best scenery – and follows the route of the renowned Westport to Achill railway, which closed in 1937. Hire some bikes in Achill, Mulranny, Newport or Westport and be on your way as quickly or as leisurely as you like!

If you have more time

Explore Westport at night, with its tree-lined streets, graceful Georgian architecture and buzzy traditional pubs, full of warmth and wit. And dine out on Clew Bay lobster at An Port Mór restaurant in the town.

Day 7

According to travel writer Pól O'Conghaile, "Westport works, it clicks, it connects. A lot of that is down to the people and a lot is down to the Clew Bay landscape."

T driving 1 hr 2 mins
Westport House

A stately home with a pirate past

Westport House looks like the home of a grand old dame, but don't be fooled: the owners of the Estate are descended from fearsome pirate queen Grace O'Malley. Bold, assertive and a woman before her time, Grace's life and legacy are celebrated at Westport House, where a tall bronze statue of her stands in the grounds. She has become known as the "Original Wild Atlantic Woman," – according to legend, she cut off her hair and pretended to be a boy before sneaking on to her father’s ship as he set sail. When confronted by an enemy, she simply pulled out a sword and killed him, and so began her infamous career as a pirate. As you tour the house, don't forget to visit the dungeons, which date from Grace's time.

If you have more time

Go on a Hawk Walk through Westport House’s woodland trails with the hawk periodically flying down to land on your gloved hand.

U
Matt Molloy's pub

Whet your appetite in Westport

This elegant town was laid out by Georgian architect, James Wyatt, and it retains its elegance today. Make sure to explore The Mall and the lovely streets reaching out from the Octagon. Meawhile, the Carrowbeg River is picture perfect for a stroll before evening kicks in. Choice is one thing that Westport doesn't lack: McGing's is one of the town's oldest pubs, while Matt Molloy’s – yes, it's THE Matt from well-known Irish trad band, The Chieftains – is a treat of local charm. If you're lucky, you might even hear an impromptu tune from the man himself. And keep watch for The Mescan Brewery craft beer, brewed close to the slopes of Croagh Patrick – it's behind the bar in most of the pubs around town.

Come at festival time

With landscapes like this and the Atlantic on its doorstep, Westport is the ideal location for a mouthwatering festival celebrating all things food. The Westport Food Festival shines a light on Mayo's best and brightest tastes every June.

Day 8

With its wild landscapes and dramatic scenery, Oscar Wilde was onto something when he dubbed Connemara "a savage beauty."

V driving 11 mins
Croagh Patrick

The Sacred Mountain

Just outside Westport is one of the most revered sites of St Patrick: the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick where the saint chose to complete his Lenten pilgrimage of 40 days and nights. Every year thousands of pilgrims take on the scree-covered slopes – sometimes barefoot – in order to prove their devotion. For others, the two-hour climb offers different rewards: "The experience is made by the people you encounter on the way. When I set off, I thought only of the effort ahead," says travel writer, Vanessa Harriss. Other rewards include breathtaking views over Clew Bay and heather-clad hills fading into the distance. If a climb isn't on the cards, visit the Croagh Patrick Visitor Centre, the nearby Famine Monument, or simply rest awhile at The Tavern in Murrisk and warm up with a hearty meal.

If you have more time

If you've climbed the Sacred Mountain, or merely admired it from the ground, Campbell's pub at its base is where many pilgrims rest their feet for a while.

W driving 42 mins
Killary Harbour

From the mountains to the sea

Take a cruise on Killary Harbour, a glacial fjord that forms a natural border between Mayo and Galway, and you might just spot dolphins swimming on the inky waters. Surrounded by mountains that change colour according to the weather, the views have a way of calming the body and soul. At the mouth of the harbour is the village of Leenane, made famous in 1989 with its appearance in the film adaption of John B Keane's play The Field. Gaynor’s pub was the spot where much of the action took place. In real life, the staff serves up great pints and tasty toasted sandwiches. Leaving the fjord behind, enjoy the full-on farm experience at Glen Keen Farm in County Mayo.

Come at festival time

Killary is well known for producing some of Ireland’s most delicious mussels. Taste the celebrated shellfish at the Connemara Mussel Festival in Tullycross at the start of May.

X driving 37 mins
Kylemore Abbey

Castle romance in Connemara

It's 1852, and successful financier, Mitchell Henry, and his new bride, Margaret Vaughan, are on honeymoon in Kylemore, Connemara. Margaret is taken with the beauty of the area, and they dream of living there. Thirteen years later, a castle rose above this Connemara lake, but sadly, their wish to live out their lives here with their growing family was not to be. Poor Margaret died from a fever just a few short years later. A heartbroken Mitchell built one more ode to his adored wife, the neo-Gothic Church that lies in the grounds of Kylemore Abbey.

If you have more time

Nothing warms you up more than a bowl of seafood chowder flecked with meaty mussels. Tuck in at local pubs and restaurants, or try a taste of the sweet local crab dishes, much of it courtesy of the wonderful folks at the Connemara Smokehouse.

Y
Connemara

A diamond amidst "a savage beauty"

Described as "a savage beauty" by wordsmith Oscar Wilde, Connemara can make your heart sing and the rest of the world melt away. It's rural Ireland at its most dramatic, so absorb it all with a walk into nature. Connemara's National Park summarises all that makes this region so special, and a great starting point for exploration has to be the Diamond Hill Loop Walk. With the Atlantic on one side and the famous peaks of the Twelve Ben Mountains on the other, be prepared to stand in awe. But that's what Connemara – and Ireland – is all about: letting go of the mundane and filling your heart with something really quite special.

If you have more time

Roll up to the streets of Connemara's capital, Clifden – ideally via the Sky Road where blues, greens and often a rainbow of hues stretch out before you.

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