I’m often leery of the “must see” tourist sites in any cool place. I can say NO to Pier 39 in San Francisco, Times Square in New York City or Bocas Town in Buenos Aires. I know what I want and my contrarian attitude allows me to carefully choose how I spend my time while traveling. So I did just that on a recent trip and found myself disobeying the Rick Steves Northern Ireland guide.
I’ve also disobeyed Rick Steves in London, Edinburgh and Madrid. Having said that, I must throw props to Rick. His guide books are thoughtful, well researched and offer a lot for the budget minded traveler. I do use them and so should you. But they aren’t a holy text and you should feel free to disobey Rick Steves’ advice when it suits you.
Rick Steves Northern Ireland Suggestions
Rick Steves uses a system of triangles to rate and prioritize sightseeing. ▲▲▲ for must see sights, ▲▲ for pretty great sites, ▲ for kinda great sites and naught but a mention for others. He combines Northern Ireland into his Ireland guidebook. Which, while practical from a geographical standpoint, is a bit of a disconnect geopolitically. The books do give background on the history of British Northern Ireland as well as the sectarian struggles. But more ink is given to Ireland than Northern Ireland in the guidebooks.
For the Irish Isles collectively, he reserves the ▲▲▲’s for sites in Ireland and rates Belfast (▲▲), the Antrim coast (▲▲) and Derry (▲) somewhat lower. The guide for Rick Steves in Northern Ireland calls out the following sites as worth a visit:
- Belfast: Titanic Belfast, Sectarian Belfast (Falls road/Shankill road) Belfast City Hall and Ulster Folk Museum.
- Antrim Coast: Giants Causeway Bushmills Distillery and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.
- Londonderry: Derry wall walk, Derry Bogside murals and Tower Museum Derry.
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Disobeying Rick Steves in Belfast
Belfast is a small city and is a bit thin on sites. Rick and I agree that 1-1/2 days ought to do it.
I don’t get it. The ship sank on its maiden voyage. Why is there a giant museum dedicated to a failed ship design? Unless you are a ship geek, you had a distant relative die aboard or you have the hots for Leonardo DiCaprio, think hard about whether you have time for it.
Now, here’s is where Rick and I do agree. The sectarian murals were my primary reason for visiting Northern Ireland. Rick recommends a black cab tour and I concur. The neighborhoods are tricky to walk and some of the murals will be difficult to find if you don’t know where to look.
The tour surprised me. I thought that I was going to see some interesting, historical murals…and I did. But the murals don’t chronicle ancient history, or even recent history, it feels more like yesterday’s history. The wounds are still fresh and the gates separating the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods still close at night.
Rick recommends City Hall and it is indeed interesting. The building has some historical murals selling its own version of Northern Irish history. But there is a more modern side to Belfast that you can see by wondering downtown by St. Anne’s Cathedral.
Have your black cab driver drop you at the Cathedral and wander the quadrant south of the church between Talbot, Waring and Hill streets. There you will find yet more street art that is edgy and political but not so sectarian. Grab lunch in one of the many cafes or pubs in the neighborhood.
Some fun pubs in Belfast include the Perch, Kelly’s Cellar and the Duke of York.
Disobeying Rick on the Antrim Coast
You can “do” the trifecta of Giant’s Causeway, Bushmills Distillery and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge as a 1-day bus tour from Belfast…but don’t. The Antrim coastline will better reveal itself to you if you get your own car and take it more slowly.
Do you like whisky? Because if not, then why go to Bushmills? And even if you do like whiskey, you can get your fix by exploring some of the better bars in Belfast like the Merchant Hotel, Henry’s Bar or The Friend at Hand (which also has a mini-museum). They offer a wide selection of Irish whiskeys and local gins and the bartenders will be happy to help you geek out on craft booze while getting you buzzed.
Rick and I are back in agreement regarding Giant’s Causeway. The hexagonal basalt rocks that characterize the coastline have a weird symmetry that defy the imagination.
The visitor’s center and parking lot are only open from 9a-7p. But the causeway itself is open dawn to dusk. So if you are visiting in the summer, it leaves a lot of daylight during which you can visit the causeway sans the tourist hoards.
We chose to spend the night at the Carnside B&B (reviews and book at Trip Advisor or Booking.com) because it’s walking distance to the causeway. We awoke early, walked down and had the site largely to ourselves.
By happy accident, we randomly pulled over into the parking lot for Whitepark bay. We walked down to the water, dodged beachcombing cows and watched the storm clouds fight the sunlight for space in the sky. As with Giant’s Causeway, we had the place largely to ourselves (if you don’t count the cows) and it was a blissful beach walk. This sort of happystance won’t happen on any bus tour.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Despite my contrarian urge to skip what sounded to me like a tourist trap, we went to the rope bridge. It is set on a beautiful stretch of coastline and it offers great sea views. The bridge isn’t as scary as it sounds and no one could realistically call transiting the bridge “adventure travel.” It gets busy there so, again, you’ll have the advantage with a car. That way you can go early or late and beat the tour buses.
Dunluce Castle is located just a few miles south of the town of Bushmills. So if you disobey me and go to the distillery, then you should also make the detour to Dunluce. Rick only gives it one triangle but I give it two. The castle has been standing for seven centuries and a visit there will give you a good overview of the medieval history of the area. And the coastal views south of the castle ore not to be missed.
Game of Thrones sites
I guess that Rick Steves’ Northern Ireland is a land where history and geography trump pop culture. I say this because the guide doesn’t prioritize the many Game of Thrones filming sites in the area. But the Northern Ireland tourist bureau is all over it.
They have both a physical map (available at the airport) as well as an app that will guide you to some of the many filming sites for Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland. I’m more a fan of the books than the HBO series. But even then, by making a scavenger hunt of finding the sites, we were able to explore some corners of the Antrim coast that would have otherwise escaped us.
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Keen to Disobey Rick Steves?
Maybe I didn’t completely disobey Rick Steves in Northern Ireland. I did visit some of his suggested sites and loved them. But by getting a car and crafting my own itinerary, I was able to see more street art and more coastline than I would have seen had I had strictly adhered to the “must see” sites. I suggest that you do the same.
If you are also keen to disobey Rick Steves in Northern Ireland, you should start first by getting the Rick Steves guide to Ireland. Review his suggestions (and mine) and then make up your own mind about how to craft your perfect itinerary. Have fun and happy travels.
If you are also visiting Ireland, check out the following resources
- A 7-10 day Ireland road trip itinerary.
- Tips for planning a trip to Ireland.
- These two different one-day itineraries for Dublin.
- This literary tour of Dublin and also this list of awesome bookshops in Dublin.
- This road trip from Galway to Connemara.
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