National Museums of Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland has some amazing history and stories, and visiting any of its four national museums will transport you back in time.
Whether you are seeing artefacts from the Celts or the Vikings, getting a taste of life in Ulster 100 years ago in a real-life village, or inspecting a collection of historic trams, buses and old cars, a visit to one of these museums is a must for your Northern Ireland trip.
Among the collection of 1.4 million objects are dinosaur bones, ancient Egyptian mummies, contemporary artworks and even a slice of a meteorite from space.
A visit to the Ulster Museum in the Queen’s Quarter in Belfast will take you on a journey around the world through history, nature and art. The building itself dates from 1821 and is in a beautiful setting beside the Botanic Gardens. It is the largest of the four National Museums NI. There are new exhibitions regularly and some permanent exhibits like Edmontosaurus, the 6-metre-long skeleton of a real dinosaur from 70 million years ago. This is part of the Window on the World gallery, which also has an Irish wolfhound, a polar bear, a life-size cast of a Triceratops, and a slice of a meteorite.
The history exhibits tell stories of everything from the Spanish Armada, with treasures recovered from shipwrecks sunk off the north coast in the 1500s, to the story of the Early Peoples in Ireland with examples of ancient gold, or the history of The Troubles. The exhibits about nature and the living world show unusual creatures, and compare species like living algal stromatolites to fossils of the same species two billion years ago. You can also learn about species which have recently become extinct, such as the North American passenger pigeon. The Ice Age gallery explains the glacial features in the Irish landscape – and the animals that roamed the planet during this period.
There are two floors full of art, with exhibitions on Irish and European art, particularly from the 18th century to contemporary times, with examples of local Belleek pottery and Irish ceramics, glass and silver, such as the 28-piece Kildare Toilet Service, a dressing-table set presented by the Earl of Kildare as a gift to his wife. In addition, the museum hosts regular talks, events and workshops.
A visit to the Ulster Folk Museum in Holywood, 12km from Belfast city centre, will take you back in time to the Ulster of 100 years ago. This is a living history museum telling the story of the past with real-life exhibits, and allowing you to see how people – perhaps your own ancestors – lived in Ulster at that time. In the town section, you can walk on cobbled streets past period buildings including shops, a bank, post office, church, school and pub – and buy sweets at the corner shop. You can also get a glimpse of the skills of the time — look out for the carpenter’s workshop and the house and workshop of the shoemaker. You can chat to characters in costume who will demonstrate local crafts such as basket weaving or furniture making. The town even has tearooms and a museum shop.
The next section of the museum focuses on the countryside, where you can walk through parkland to old thatched cottages and explore a weaver’s house, and flax and corn mills. Look out for the forge, where you might see a blacksmith at work, and the farms where pigs, chickens, horses and donkeys roam.
Across a bridge from the Folk Museum, the Ulster Transport Museum in Holywood will appeal to anyone who likes old trains, cars or trams. A visit here will take you on a journey through various different modes of transport, with everything from horsedrawn carriages and old post vans to innovative cars.
There are beautiful old trams and buses with their old route numbers and advertising signs. You can also see a magnificent selection of steam locomotive trains on show, for example the unusual Guinness locomotive and the beautiful Maedb steam locomotive, built by Great Southern Railways in 1939, plus the hydro-electric Giant’s Causeway Tram which ran from 1883 to 1949.
Car buffs will love the car gallery with models like the 1911 Ford Model T and lots of others including Mercedes and Morris. In the Land Sea and Sky galleries, you can see a show about the famous “futuristic” DeLorean sports car which was made in Northern Ireland from 1981 to 1983 and starred in the film, Back to the Future. There’s also a TITANICa exhibition with lots of artefacts from Titanic and the White Star Line.
The Ulster American Folk Park is another living museum that will take you back in time, this time focusing on the story those who emigrated to America in search of a better life. The museum is in Omagh, County Tyrone, 8km from Omagh town centre and around 45km from Derry~Londonderry or 115km from Belfast.
You can see the conditions that emigrants left behind as they headed to America, with examples of original houses and cottages, which have been transported to the site. There are people demonstrating traditional skills such as spinning wool, and a blacksmith at work in a forge.
You can also board the replica of a ship, the Brig Union, which gives an idea of the hardships of the transatlantic crossing. Finally, the New World section gives you an insight into the lives that people found across the Atlantic and how they adapted to the different style of living, with examples of the houses and farms where they lived and worked.
The museum will be of particular interest to anyone with Ulster or Irish heritage, whose ancestors emigrated from Ireland to America.
Need to know:
Walk-in tickets for the museums are limited so you should pre-book your visit online and select a timeslot.
Entry to the Ulster Museum is free but there are entrance fees for the three other museums. Discounted rates are available for children, students and seniors.
Each museum has a shop and picnic areas. An insider tip is to take your picnic into the Botanic Gardens next door after your visit to the Ulster Museum.
There is no parking at the Ulster Museum but there is street parking nearby. You can also get there by bus and Botanic Station is around 800m (10 minutes’ walk from the museum). Car parking at the other museums is free.
A typical visit to any of the museums should take between 2.5 and 3 hours.
All the national museums in Northern Ireland are closed on a Monday so plan your visit from Tuesday to Sunday.