You’ve arrived not only at the last leg of your journey, but also in an entirely different country. Although you haven’t left the Emerald Isle, crossing the River Foyle just before reaching Londonderry marked your departure from the Republic of Ireland and your arrival in Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom. Although it’s a mere 3 and a half hours driving time from Londonderry back to where you started in Dublin, many will choose to break this leg into two days in order to spend more time in the capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast. However you choose to divide up the final stage of your journey, it’s sure to be packed with amazing experiences, given the places you’ll be travelling through.
The city of Londonderry, more commonly known as Derry, is an ancient place which has truly come into its own in the 21st century. In fact, Derry has positively flourished in the last couple peaceful decades and emerged as a modern, vibrant and welcoming city. That doesn’t mean that links with its fascinating past have been forgotten.
One of the best ways to connect with Derry’s past is by exploring the city’s imposing 17th century stone walls. This is the only completely walled city remaining in Ireland, and taking a tour of the walls will introduce visitors to the tumultuous history of Derry. It’s a longish walk around the perimeter of the walls but not a difficult one and the combination of scenic views and intriguing historical insights makes this an essential Derry experience.
Housed in an historic tower within the city walls themselves is the Tower Museum, the perfect place to really get a good grasp of where Derry came from and where it’s going. In addition to its excellent exhibition on the history of the city, you can discover the story of the La Trinidad Valencera, a vessel from the infamous Spanish Armada that was shipwrecked off the Irish coast in 1588.
The 20th century was not an easy time for this city - the Troubles, a conflict over the political status of Northern Ireland, arguably started in Derry with the Battle of the Bogside in 1969 and the city continued to suffer in the midst of the Troubles for the next few decades. A visit to Free Derry Corner in the Bogside neighbourhood will give you a moving insight into the struggles of those who lived through this period. As well as the historic freestanding wall painted with ‘YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY’, there are a number of murals evoking the chaos, heartbreak and strength of spirit that characterised the time period.
The road to Belfast
Although following the direct route along the A6 and M1 from Londonderry to Belfast would only take about an hour and a half, a campervan road trip is all about freedom and exploration - so why take the most direct route when there are so many amazing things to along Northern Ireland’s coastline?
Heading to Bushmills will put you within striking range of several unique attractions. The Old Bushmills Distillery traces its roots back to 1608 when Thomas Phillipps was granted a licence to distill whiskey by King James I, and Old Bushmills became official in 1784. Offering both guided distillery tours and a tasting experience, this is a chance to be part of the oldest whiskey tradition in Ireland.
Less than 5 kilometres to the north of Bushmills is the Giant's Causeway. Around 60 million years ago a volcanic eruption formed the distinctive series of interlocking hexagonal stone columns. If mythology is to be believed however, the remarkable landmark is the remnant of a causeway between Ireland and Scotland, built by the giant Fionn mac Cumhaill so he could fight the Scottish giant Benandonner. Regardless of the Causeway’s origins, make sure you take the chance to see this striking place for yourself.
Before you leave the area, those with a stomach for heights should head out Ballintoy way to the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. The bridge connects the small island of Carrickarede to the mainland - fishermen have been constructing bridges out the island for hundreds of years to take advantage of prime salmon fishing spots. Visitors who brave the walk across the swaying bridge, 30 metres above the rocks, will be rewarded with exceptional views of Scotland and Rathlin Island.
Drive on down Ireland’s northeastern coast to discover a series of picturesque coastal villages, each more lovely than the last, before turning onto the A8 in Larne and heading for Belfast.
Although this city was one of those hardest hit by the turmoil and violence during the Troubles, Belfast has bounced back during the long period of relative peace and security that it’s enjoyed since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The city has maintained its longtime status as an industrial powerhouse, while also becoming centre for business, arts and education.
One of the most popular ways to dive into Belfast’s culture and history will have you temporarily trading your campervan rental for a cab. The Belfast Famous Black Cab Tours have a stellar reputation with travellers and offer a range of different destinations. The upside of a cab tour is that not only will you get to see the most fascinating spots in the city but your driver will provide you with intriguing and entertaining insights into each feature and attraction.
Music lovers will find themselves right at home in Belfast. The city has a proud musical heritage which carries through to this day - if you’re sticking around for a day or so, be sure to catch a live gig in the evening. The Black Box and Empire Music Hall are a couple of popular spots to sample some of the local talent, and the Oh Yeah Music Centre is must-visit for music aficionados. Oh Yeah features a performance space, exhibitions and a drop in area - the centre has provided a nurturing environment for young artists since 2008 and is still going strong.
For a fascinating glimpse of the darker side of the city, take a tour of Crumlin Road Gaol. This was a working prison for over 150 years until its closure in 1996 - the very walls are steeped in history. This enticingly eerie experience will leave you not only with a better understanding of Belfast but an indelible impression of what it must have been like for those who lived and died within the walls of the Crumlin Road Gaol. It can get quite chilly inside, so remember to bring warm clothing.
Those who would rather forgo tours and simply wander around city at their own pace would do well to visit Cathedral Quarter, set between the Belfast Central Library and the Dunbar Link. This is the perfect spot to grab a bite to eat or enjoy a drink before taking a walk through the beautiful public spaces. Check beforehand to see what’s on here, as you’ll often be able to catch a performance or get caught up in a festival as you wander through.
Dublin is only two hours drive south from Belfast, so once you’re finally ready to say goodbye to Northern Ireland and bring your ultimate Ireland road trip to a close, you won’t have far to go.