Traveling to Ireland for the first time? If there is one thing I am certain of after my trip to this beautiful country, it is that Northern Ireland should absolutely be on your itinerary. From the sweeping views, rugged coastline, and incredible history, Northern Ireland remains the highlight of my trip. Thankfully, visiting this region of the country is much easier than you’d expect thanks to the many amazing day tours being offered to and from all corners of this beautiful country.
Like many other countries, Ireland makes much of its revenue through tourism. In some areas like the Aran Islands tourism serves as the only direct source of income. Ireland is a relatively small country, that spans just under 33,000 square miles. Many visitors elect to rent a banged up stick shift and navigate the narrow, stone-lined roads on their own. But for those out there who would rather not get behind the wheel, day tours are the way to go.
Dublin served as our hub for most of the trip. From here you’ll find day tours to all of Ireland’s most popular attractions and counties. Now when I say “day tour” I mean ALL DAY. We’re talking a 7am to 8pm kind of tour. While it is certainly a long day, there is no better way to see this country. All you have to do is sit back, relax, take a nap if you need to, and listen to your tour guide.
My favorite day tour of the trip was from Dublin to Northern Ireland offered through the Paddywagon Tour Company. For only 60 Euro you’ll get to see the Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge, Dark Hedges, Dunluce Castle, Ballintoy, the Antrim Coast, and Belfast City. While food is not included in that price, I find that to be completely fair. There are loads of places to purchase food and snacks, or you can choose to pack some for the day. You’ll definitely want to bring a water bottle because there is a lot of walking!
We loaded onto our bus at 7am and were introduced to our tour guide, Darron. The first hour or so of the trip he let us sleep before we stopped off the highway to grab snacks and coffee. The drive into Northern Ireland was only about 2 hours. Darron spent that time telling us about the boarder that once divided Northern Ireland from the Republic and the history of the violence there. In the past, a drive into Northern Ireland would require a two hour car search by police. Today, the boarder is marked only by a subtle change of road signs which switch from Kilometers to Miles Per Hour.
Before long we had arrived at The Dark Hedges. These enormous beech trees became an immensely popular tourist location after its use as a set piece on the hit TV show “Game of Thrones.” Trust me, I was geeking out. Sadly, many of the passengers on my tour bus didn’t watch the show but we were equally impressed by their beauty and size. Over 150 of these enormous beech trees line the entrance to the historic Gracehill Estate. In the last 10 years, the area has become one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland.
The road itself is just under a mile long, and on a sunny day like ours the tunnel effect of the branches above cast a beautiful mix of light and shadow. In 2016, Storm Gertrude broke many of the 200 year old trees and left them laying damaged in the road, which left many visitors and locals upset. Because much of the tourism generated here is thanks to its appearance on Game of Thrones, Tourism Ireland decided to repurpose the broken trees in a truly special way.
They partnered with HBO to create ten intricately carved doors with the wood from the fallen beech trees. Each of the doors is linked to an iconic Game of Thrones set in Northern Ireland. Now, tourists are able to go on “Game of Thrones” tours that focus exclusively on those sets and sites featured on the show. It’s a win-win for a country that has been home to the production team since Season 1 in Belfast.
The next stop on the tour was the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge in Ballintoy County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The bridge, which connects the island to the mainland, was first constructed by salmon fisherman in 1755. The water beyond the shores are notably special. From here you can see the exact spot where the Irish Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. These coastal waters are home to all sorts of wildlife. For hundreds of years, these fisherman kept their boats on the island before it became a popular tourist attraction.
This beautiful location is characterized by its bright turquoise waters. The color is reminiscent of the water in the caribbean. When juxtaposed with the bright green grass and steep white cliffs, this place is almost too pretty to believe! We had a gorgeous day in terms of weather. The sunshine and clear skies made it possible for us to see Scotland in the distance. From this point it is only 12 miles away.
The cliff walk to the bridge only takes about 15 minutes, but the views atop the 200 foot cliffs are well worth it. The rope bridge sits 100ft above the water and holds up to 8 people at a time. Just like the rest of Ireland, much of the island has been kept completely untouched, i.e. no fences or walls built for safety. This means walking around the edges at your own risk, and beautiful pictures free of any obstructions! This place was by far my favorite stop of the trip and an absolute must see.
After two hours at the rope bridge we drove 15 minutes to the Giant’s Causeway. By the time we arrived the weather had already taken a turn to windy and overcast. That’s Ireland for you! We quickly grabbed our audio guides and set off for the Causeway. This unique hexagonal rock formation is composed of basalt from an ancient volcanic eruption. Legend has it that the Causeway was built by a giant named Fionn Mac Cumhaill, who was challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant. They say that Fionn built the Causeway as a way to connect the two islands, and the rest is history.
We explored the hexagonal rock structures for an hour before heading back up to the visitors center. Inside there are troves of local artwork and items on sale and plenty of additional information surrounding the Causeway. Afterwards we grabbed an ice cream at the Inn beside the visitors center. As an ice cream connoisseur, let me be the first to say that ice cream in Ireland is the best!
Our last stop of the day was to the city of Belfast for a late lunch/early dinner. We spent the drive discussing the history of Belfast City with Darron. There is something to be said for learning about a countries history through a local’s perspective. He was so insightful and passionate about the history of his country. You could tell that he really loves his job and the opportunity to teach so many people every day. Of all the day trips we went on and guides we had, Daron was by far the best.
Our last stop of the day was in Belfast, where I was able to meet my third cousin for the first time! On our way back to the highway, Darron made a few unscheduled stops. We got to see the leaning clock tower, the Titanic Museum (how many of you knew that the Titanic was built in Belfast?), and many of the iconic street art and murals scattered throughout the city.
These amazing works of art help to illustrate the cities dark history and serve as a reminder of the horrors those streets have seen. While Northern Ireland remains a park of the United Kingdom, many of those from Northern Ireland who do not identify as Protestant believe that they should break away from Britain and unite Ireland as a whole. While that may not happen for many years, many remain optimistic that Ireland will stand united someday very soon.
This tour was by far the best one we went on during our time in Ireland. I would venture so far as to say it is a must for your trip to Ireland. It is definitely the best bang for your buck. I would highly recommend Paddywagon Tours for your next trip, and specifically your trip to Northern Ireland!