With 6 counties to explore, you’re sure to find lots to do in the villages and small towns to visit in Northern Ireland. There's a diverse range of attractions to enjoy in each community, from festival frolics and creamy pints to bustling market towns and fine-dining restaurants. 

    From lakeside hamlets on the shores of Lower Lough Erne to pristine harbour villages on the rugged Antrim coast, you’ll surely be impressed by the natural beauty that surrounds you. The villages and towns below are all well worth a detour on your road trip through Northern Ireland.

    1

    Glenarm, Co. Antrim

    Take in the rugged Antrim coastline from this picturesque outpost

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    Glenarm marks the 1st of Antrim’s 9 glens heading north towards the stunning Causeway Coast. This picturesque little settlement is well worth a stop for a stroll through the well-preserved architecture of its Georgian streets. There’s the restored harbour and limestone marina to explore, not to mention the 16th-century Glenarm Castle.

    There are plenty of walking trails through the nearby Glenarm forest and the glen itself. The Layde Walk is particularly popular for the stunning views it offers over the rugged Antrim coastline. The local visitor centre has plenty of information to help you get started. Glenarm lies just north of Larne, making it a very convenient destination for those arriving by ferry from Scotland. There are many festivals throughout the year in the village, many recognising the Ulster-Scots heritage. Glenarm also serves as a regular location for the Highland Games.

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    2

    Rostrevor, Co. Down

    Savour spectacular vistas over an impressive fjord

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    Rostrevor occupies a stunning location at the southern edge of the famous Mourne Mountains, with vistas over the equally impressive fjord Carlingford Lough and the Cooley Mountains. There’s a wealth of outdoor activities available, particularly in the nearby forest park on the slopes of Slieve Martin. You can enjoy excellent picnic and camping facilities, as well as some great hiking and mountain biking trails. There’s also an adventure playground for the kids and an outdoor gym for adults.

    Rostrevor itself has a lively pub scene with lots of traditional music, especially during July when the Fiddler’s Green International Festival highlights Irish arts and culture. There are also several good quality restaurants in the village, such as The Old Schoolhouse Cafe and The Church.

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    3

    Camlough, Co. Armagh

    Soak up a bit of culture in this hidden South Armagh gem

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    Camlough is a small village named after a nearby lake of the same name, which means ‘crooked lake’ in Irish. The large lake is a hive of water-based activities, including swimming, boating, and fishing. Camlough Mountain looms large over it on one side, with the nearby Slieve Gullion on the other side. Both mountains offer scenic hiking trails that overlook the Ring of Gullion Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Slieve Gullion also has a fantastic forest park on the other side of the mountain – well worth a visit.

    The village of Camlough is as lively as it is small. With several pubs and restaurants, there’s plenty of choice for an empty belly after a long day of outdoor activities. Every summer, the village hosts the Feile Chamlocha festival, which includes a packed program of traditional music, arts, drama – there’s even a triathlon for those wishing to push their bodies to the limits. Camlough is about 3.5 miles from the small city of Newry, which offers many accommodations, entertainment, and shopping options.

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    4

    Portstewart, Co. Derry

    Enjoy the bustle of this busy northern beach town

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    Portstewart is a small harbour town on the scenic northern Atlantic coast. Laid out along a busy promenade, the town hosts a couple of art galleries, a handful of boutique shops selling handcrafted clothes and accessories, as well as ample pubs and restaurants. Many day-trippers enjoy ice cream and a stroll along the promenade. Just outside the town, you’ll find Portstewart Strand. This 2-mile stretch of golden sand is backed by dunes and fronted by Blue Flag-winning water, perfect for swimming and surfing. 

    There are plenty of attractions to enjoy near Portstewart. Mountsandel Fort in nearby Coleraine is an Iron Age fort that stands as the earliest know human settlement in Ireland – it dates back to almost 8,000 BC.

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    5

    Gortin, Co. Tyrone

    Sip on a pint after sampling the spectacular Sperrins

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    Gortin is a small village overlooked by the Sperrin Mountains. The stunning natural setting is the area’s main draw. The nearby Gortin Lakes offers great hiking and even better views out across the Sperrins. However, the main attraction here is Gortin Forest Park. There’s a 5-mile drive complete with ‘vista’ car parks where you can pull in to enjoy the spectacular views out over the surrounding landscape. If you prefer exploring at your own pace, there are plenty of hiking trails that will get you closer to the local wildlife. You may even catch a glimpse of the local herd of Sika deer on your walk.

    After a long day’s hiking and outdoor adventuring, head back to Gortin village and enjoy a full meal and drinks at Mossey’s Bar. This is one of Ireland’s oldest family-owned pubs. It regularly hosts traditional music, open mics, and quiz nights.

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    6

    Kesh, Co. Fermanagh

    A village on the edge of Lower Lough Erne

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    Kesh has an enviable location just 1 mile from Lower Lough Erne making it a popular spot for tourists. With 2 caravan parks, a pub and restaurant, and a small appealing marina, the village is well set up for visitors to the area.

    There are lots to do in the surrounding area. About 1 mile to the south of the village, you’ll find Muckross, a lakeside ‘beach’ that is popular with jet skiers. If you prefer a quieter means of enjoying Lower Lough Erne, take a jaunt a few miles to the west of the village, where you’ll find Boa Island and its wealth of stone carvings dating back to the Iron Age. The wider area offers ample opportunities for hiking, fishing, and boating. If you fancy a trip to the Atlantic coast, the seaside resort of Rossnowlagh is just a 40-minute drive west of Kesh.

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    7

    Ballintoy, Co. Antrim

    This idyllic harbour town was featured in Game of Thrones

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    Ballintoy is a small village and popular stop for those travelling on the Causeway Coastal Route. About 1 mile from the village, a white parish church sits on top of a hill overlooking the idyllic little harbour. Game of Thrones fans might recognise some of the scenery as the village served as Pyke, the capital of the Iron Islands. The village itself is small and charming, with plenty of nice shops to explore. The Ballintoy Harbour Café makes for a good pitstop for coffee and cake. If you’re hungry, the Irish stew is highly recommended.

    There’s plenty to see in the surrounding area. Just to the east, you’ll find the famous Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Now a tourist attraction, this bridge was first erected by salmon fishermen in 1755. A little west of Ballintoy, you’ll discover a beautiful 3-mile stretch of sandy beach named Whitepark Bay. You can see Rathlin Island and even the Scottish Island of Islay on clear days.

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    8

    Castlewellan, Co. Down

    Enjoy the dramatic setting of this bustling little town

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    Castlewellan’s location is nothing short of dramatic, with the Irish Sea to the east and the stunning Mourne Mountains to the south. A great base for exploring the outdoors, it sits on the edge of a forest park with a mile-long lake, walking trails, mountain bike trails, sculptures, fountains, a maze, and a Victorian castle to explore. Kids will particularly enjoy the town's play structure known as Animal Wood. They can slide down a fireman’s pole, clamber up a climbing wall, and scramble over a rope bridge.

    Castlewellan has plenty of shops, pubs, and restaurants. The town hosts several festivals throughout the year, one of which is Soma Festival in July. This art, culture and food festival attracts notable names in the Irish music scene. It also places a strong emphasis on the Irish language, offering workshops, classes, and poetry for everyone.

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    9

    Cushendall, Co. Antrim

    Sample a whiskey or 2 and enjoy the ‘craic’

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    Cushendall is a distinctive and lively village in the Glens of Antrim. From the striking red sandstone Curfew Tower to the rows of distinct cottages, the streets here are full of character, charm and pubs! If the pubs here are full of the mythical craic (entertainment), then Mary McBride’s is craic central. One of Ireland’s smallest pubs, this is a great place to strike up a conversation with a friendly local, enjoy a sing-song, or sample 1 or more of the over 50 varieties of Irish whiskey stocked.

    Billed as the ‘Heart of the Glens’, it’s no surprise that the great outdoors is one of Cushendall's main attractions. The Cushendall Cliff Path Walk offers spectacular views out over the Sea of Moyle to Scotland. Inland, about 6 miles from the village. Glenariff Forest Park offers walking trails, horse riding, and picnic and barbecue facilities. The park is home to many protected species – if you’re lucky, you might spot the Irish hare, red squirrel, and hen harrier during your visit. 

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    10

    Belleek, Co Fermanagh

    Enjoy the bustle of this busy market village

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    Belleek, though small in size, is a busy market village that straddles the border between the counties of Fermanagh and Donegal. It’s best known for being the home of Belleek Pottery, the oldest and still-operating pottery in Ireland. Its fine Parian china is highly valued by collectors. The pottery has a visitor centre offers guided tours for those interested in the history of pottery in the village. The facility also has a museum and tearoom, where food and drinks are served on Belleek tableware.

    The village of Belleek is lively with lots of coffee shops, restaurants, and pubs to enjoy. The Black Cat Cove is a friendly spot for a pint, meal, and a chat with locals. It has live music most nights throughout the summer. Nearby, Lough Erne offers fantastic angling and boating. there’s also some great hiking along the Castle Caldwell Forest Walk, just 4 miles outside town.

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    Shane Mac Donnchaidh | Autor

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