Considering a family holiday in Northern Ireland? Following our brilliant summer trip, I’ve put together a list of some of the best things to do in Northern Ireland with kids. From amazing beaches to the best family-friendly pubs in Northern Ireland, I hope this compilation of fun things to do in Northern Ireland helps you decide that this is the year for you to explore this incredible country.
Northern Ireland for kids
In the crazy summer of 2020, we somehow managed to take quite an extensive driving holiday across some of the most beautiful parts of the U.K. The main destination on our UK road trip was Northern Ireland, where we spent 10 days. Despite its diminutive size, there is a wealth of attractions in Northern Ireland for families and we packed in some incredible sights including the Giant’s Causeway and the Titanic Museum in Belfast. Although I’d been before, I hadn’t realised there were so many things to do in Northern Ireland for kids.
We only scratched the surface during our visit and our children are already plotting a return trip – let me know in the comments below if you have any recommendations of things to do with kids in Northern Ireland.
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How to get to Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland is well served by both flights and ferries. It is also easily accessible from the Republic of Ireland in case your flight originates in a destination which does not have direct flights to Northern Ireland.
Ferry to Northern Ireland and Ireland
If you are visiting Northern Ireland from the UK, the best option is to drive. There are several ferry routes across the Irish Sea to the island of Ireland.
England: Liverpool to Belfast (8 hours with StenaLine, day and night crossings)
Scotland: Cairnryan to Belfast (2 hours 15 minutes with StenaLine) or to Larne (around 2 hours with P and O Ferries)
On our recent trip to Northern Ireland, we went out with Stena on the speedy Cairnryan to Belfast route and returned via Dublin to Holyhead. Our children loved being able to explore England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all in one trip.
Flying to Northern Ireland
There are three airports in Northern Ireland: Belfast International airport, City of Derry airport and George Best Belfast City airport. It is also only around two hours from Dublin airport to Belfast by car so you can easily fly into the Republic of Ireland and use this as your starting point for a holiday in Northern Ireland.
Where to stay in Northern Ireland with kids
There’s a really good range of accommodation in Northern Ireland – from hotels to self catering options. We had two bases during our holiday to Northern Ireland and both worked really well.
We wanted to split our time between the Antrim Coast, for beaches, and the Lisburn area in County Down, where my husband grew up. The latter is a useful base for day trips to Belfast, the Mourne Mountains and the beaches of the Down coast.
Holiday cottages in Northern Ireland
If you’re visiting Northern Ireland with kids, the Antrim Coast running from Belfast to Derry-Londonderry is an essential place to spend some of your time. Highlights include the village of Cushendun, Ballintoy Harbour, the Giant’s Causeway and Bushmills whiskey distillery. The Antrim coast also has some of the best beaches in the U.K.
While there is plenty of beachfront Portstewart and Portrush holiday rentals, if you’d like a more characterful stay, I recommend hiring one of the white stone cottages which are a feature of much of the Antrim coastline. There are several groups of cottages which are perfect if you’d like to meet other families on holiday.
We stayed at Ballylinny Holiday Cottages which is a collection of nine cottages with incredible views across the coast. We stayed in Portnaboe cottage which had sunset views from our living room.
Ballylinny is a mile from the Giant’s Causeway and a short drive to the village of Bushmills which has a range of shops and places to eat. There are enough beaches close by to keep you occupied all summer.
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Our second stop was in a delightful barn conversion in a rural spot between Hillsborough and Annahilt in County Down. We really struck gold with this property. We had access to a lovely garden, tennis court and a trampoline. Inside, there were toys and books galore for the kids. I would highly recommend this property. From our lovely rural base we took day trips to Belfast, Tollymore Forest Park on the edge of the Mournes and Murlough Bay near the seaside town of Newcastle.
What is the weather like in Northern Ireland?
Bring a wetsuit – more on this later.
I’ve visited Northern Ireland twice. The first time, I spent 10 days driving around both the Republic and Northern Ireland and during that time I saw only one day of rain (coincidentally this was also the day that I punctured a hole in my tent with a tent peg, but that’s another story). Perhaps this good weather was an early sign of global warming or maybe it was just very good fortune. Whatever the reason, it was rather unusual.
The island of Ireland receives lots of fierce weather fronts which build up across the Atlantic Ocean, so Irish weather is rather changeable and certainly cooler than what you’ll find on mainland U.K. During our recent 10 day stay we saw quite a bit of rain but we also had enough sunny days to spend a lot of time at the beach.
The key is to wear a wetsuit. A wetsuit is really a remarkable piece of engineering and I’d say it’s as important as boots and a coat when you’re planning what to pack for a family holiday to Northern Ireland. We saw wetsuited kids on the beach who were at a full-time surf school in the driving rain and they all had smiles on their faces and none of them were shivering.
Please do not let the weather put you off taking a trip to Northern Ireland. Due to the pandemic, we spent much of our holiday outside – most of the indoor attractions were shut. We were outdoors for many of our meals and enjoyed sunny evening walks at the beach. We also witnessed some utterly incredible sunsets thanks to the clouds playing with the evening sun.
The National Trust in Northern Ireland
As with Cornwall, quite a few of the best beaches in Northern Ireland are managed by the National Trust so if you are not a member of this charity it’s worth considering joining it if you think you might make use of it elsewhere during the course of the year.
As well as car parking charges along the coast, two of the most child-friendly attractions in Northern Ireland are run by the National Trust – the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.
The best things to do in Northern Ireland
Holidays are expensive – travelling to the destination, the cost of holiday accommodation, endless ice creams and entrance charges for visitor attractions. So you’ll be pleased to know that there’s a great range of free things to do in Northern Ireland for kids. Due to the pandemic, we spent most of our time outside and aside from the car parking charges, we didn’t have to pay for most of our top things to do in Northern Ireland.
One of our favourite things to do with kids in Northern Ireland: visit the beach
Although I had been to some of the beaches in Northern Ireland on a previous visit, I had forgotten just how beautiful they are. And even in the height of summer, they were pretty quiet. We visited during the summer of 2020 so there were very few international visitors due to Covid-19.
I had expected there to be lots of domestic tourists at the beach but there were very few. Or maybe it felt that way because I’m used to the beaches in England which I share with many more people.
All of the beaches we visited had good facilities – car parks and toilets – so they’re perfect for families.
Enjoy the rock formations at Whiterocks Beach on the Antrim Coast
We spent a really fun morning playing at Whiterocks Beach. Anyone with even a passing interest in geology or geography will marvel at the caves, arches and other features of this vast beach. It was a rather grey day during our visit but our kids loved jumping through the waves and we could see people sliding down the giant sand dunes further along the beach.
Look for shells (and jellyfish) at Murlough Beach in County Down
Local friends suggested this was the best beach to head for on the Down coast. It’s another vast stretch of sand and pebbles and perfect for children. We loved the dramatic backdrop of the Mourne Mountains.
The beach is littered with shells and often washed-up jellyfish. The children had lots of fun looking for sea life (or sea afterlife).
The beach is part of Murlough National Nature Reserve run by the National Trust. Reached via a wooden boardwalk through the sand dunes from the car park, the beach stretches some four miles. If you can tear your children away from the beach (we couldn’t), there are some lovely walks in the nature reserve.
Drive onto the beach at Portstewart
I’d like to say it was the stunning scenery which made Portstewart Strand my favourite beach in Northern Ireland – miles of sand as far as the eye can see, backed by dunes. However, with young children in tow, I rather liked the practicalities of Portstewart – you can drive your car right onto the beach and park up with all of your paraphernalia, it’s so easy. Add to that the brilliant Harry’s Shack beach café and you’ve got the perfect day out. We even had brilliant weather.
Bodyboard or surf at Portrush
Although I preferred the more low key feel of Portstewart, there’s no denying the fun factor of neighbouring Portrush. The weather was chilly and wet during our visit to Portrush, but the kids somehow managed to have a brilliant time playing in the sand and we watched lots of people enjoying waves with their surfboards.
Portrush has all the usual seaside fun – amusement arcades, ice cream parlours and a great range of places to eat.
Giant’s Causeway for kids
I speak from experience when I say that the Giant’s Causeway is a beautiful destination even in the rain. Our children utterly loved this volcanic landscape, it’s a brilliant natural playground and one of the best days out for kids in Northern Ireland.
The Giant’s Causeway has an excellent National Trust visitor centre with plenty of interactive exhibits which children will enjoy exploring. There’s a down hill (buggy and wheelchair friendly) walk from the visitor centre to the Causeway and then you’re free to explore to your heart’s content.
My younger child is usually on the go non-stop and while he did have lots of fun climbing around on the rocks, he spent a surprising amount of time simply staring at the sea. The Giant’s Causeway is a really special place and I’d go so far as to say it’s worth visiting Northern Ireland simply to see this natural wonder.
From the Causeway, there’s a path which continues along the coast and then up the cliff and circles back along the clifftop to the visitor centre. The path up to the top is scenic but with steps so if you have a buggy or wheelchair you’ll need to retrace your steps.
Although the area is managed by the National Trust, it is possible to visit the Giant’s Causeway without going through the visitor centre and paying the entry charge there.
Summit a peak in the Mourne Mountains
Sadly, we didn’t quite get round to climbing any mountains on our holiday to Northern Ireland. The kids decided the beach was a priority, but I’m determined to spend some time in this atmospheric mountain range on our next visit.
There’s a good selection of trails in the Mourne Mountains, ranging from easy walks to more challenging full-day hikes.
One of the best family days out in Northern Ireland: Tollymore Forest Park
The next best thing to being in the Mourne Mountains is a visit to this park close by. We spent a whole day following the Shimna River through Tollymore Forest Park. There are numerous stepping stone crossing points along the way and interesting features – old stone bridges and crumbling stone follies to keep children engaged. Even the promise of a trip to the beach fell on deaf ears, such was the draw of this lovely area.
We stopped for a picnic on the banks of the river and happened to spot a red squirrel darting up and down on a tree on the opposite bank.
Tollymore Forest Park has a children’s play area and a coffee kiosk. There are toilets next to the car park. We followed the three mile river trail loop but there are shorter walks if you have little children in tow.
Enjoy the scenery around Dunseverick Castle on the Antrim Coast
We went for an evening walk to look for the ruins of Dunseverick Castle. Although there isn’t a great deal left of the castle, the crumbling remains are in an incredible setting on top of a cliff. There’s a small pebbly beach below the cliffs, great for kids who like chucking stones into the sea. If you fancy a longer walk, there’s a National Trust maintained walk along the coast to the Giant’s Causeway.
Explore Dunluce Castle
We visited the medieval ruins of Dunluce Castle on a really wet and windy day but I like to think this added to the atmosphere of the place. At least that’s what I told myself as I was drying everyone’s clothes on the radiators after a much-needed cup of tea.
Dunluce Castle sits on the edge of a cliff and we had a great time clambering up one of the towers and exploring the many rooms and courtyards. We had the place to ourselves and it felt incredibly atmospheric with the dark storm clouds blowing across the sky and the waves crashing against the rocks below.
Take a boat trip to Rathlin Island
Of the activities in Northern Ireland which we didn’t manage to fit in, a visit to Rathlin Island is my main regret. Rathlin Island, around six miles off the Antrim Coast, is just six miles long and a mile wide and it’s a great place to cycle or walk around. There’s a bike hire shop on the island.
Rathlin Island is a real wildlife treat. One of the island’s main attractions is puffins which nest on Rathlin in the summer months along with various other sea birds. Visitors can also view seals on the shores of the island.
Rathlin Island isn’t just home to wildlife, there’s a community of around 140 residents so visitors will find a good range of facilities on the island including a visitor centre, cafes and a play area.
For more family-friendly cycling destinations across the UK, check out my article about the best cycle trails for families.
Explore the harbour at Ballintoy
It’s worth visiting Ballintoy Harbour even if you’re not on the GoT trail (it’s featured in the series). It’s like a mini Giant’s Causeway with a lovely natural pool to paddle or swim in and lots of rocks to climb on. There’s also a great looking café which we didn’t have a chance to try.
Walk the city walls in Derry – Londonderry
Derry – Londonderry is a compact city and easy to explore on foot. If you have small children, the 17th century city walls, with cannons trained over the city below are fun to walk along. If you visit in summertime, Shipquay Place has water fountains in front of the Guildhall for kids to play in. The Peace Bridge, stretching across the River Foyle is an attractive highlight too.
Watch the sunset on the Antrim Coast
The sunsets are brilliant in Northern Ireland. Our cottage at Ballylinny was perfect for taking in the ever-changing evening skies.
We enjoyed some great walks down by the sea in the evenings with some incredible light.
Brave the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Another attraction affected by COVID was the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge near Ballintoy. I did walk across it on a previous visit to Northern Ireland and know my kids will love it when we visit on another occasion. The bridge is suspended 30 metres above the sea and stretches from the mainland to the little rocky outcrop of Carrick-a-Rede. However, I do think it is quite a pricey outing if you do not have National Trust membership.
Things to do in Northern Ireland on a rainy day
Provided you have a wetsuit, the rain shouldn’t affect your time in Northern Ireland too much. We enjoyed days at the beach even when the weather was less than perfect and we had a very atmospheric trip to Dunluce Castle in the driving rain. However, if you really want to seek shelter from the elements, there are some great things to do indoors in Northern Ireland.
One of the best things to do in Belfast with kids: the Titanic
One of my children has a rather indifferent relationship with museums so it’s testament to the excellent interactive exhibits at the Titanic Museum that my son’s attention was held for almost two hours. And he didn’t even complain about wearing a facemask for the whole visit (facemasks weren’t compulsory for kids but this was at the start of the relaxing of indoor restrictions and we were a bit cautious).
We loved the visual effects of moving through the various floors of the ship, as if in a giant transparent elevator. The children insisted on travelling twice through the shipyard on the clever cable cars (the museum was very quiet during our visit but I’ve heard there can be queues for this attraction usually).
There’s plenty to learn with information boards offering light overviews as well as more detailed explanations, depending on your time and inclination.
The final fate of the ship and its passengers is very sympathetically exhibited. Anyone looking for a shocking and dramatic finale might be disappointed, but I thought it was handled well and my children were able to understand what happened without being traumatised by what was a terrible tragedy.
Ulster Folk Museum
Aside from the Titanic, we missed out on most of the museums on our visit to Northern Ireland due to the pandemic. The Ulster Folk Museum and its sister museum mentioned below are both brilliant experiences for families. Visitors can explore how rural Ireland was over 100 years ago by visiting this recreated town complete with shops, houses, farm buildings and workshops. You can take a look inside an old school, a church, a theatre – it sounds like a really interesting day out.
Ulster American Folk Park
This part indoor, part outdoor living history museum charts the history of Irish migration to America. The museum explores life in 18th and 19th century Ulster as well as showing the experiences of migrants in the New World.
I’ve discovered that living museums and open-air museums are a great way to enjoy history with children. If you’d like to find similar museums near you, read my article about the best open air museums in the UK.
Ulster Transport Museum
This museum examines the history of transport in Ireland and it’s packed with vehicles from bikes to steam engines and it’s very popular with children. As my Northern Irish husband likes to remind me the DeLorean car from Back to the Future is a Northern Irish export and you’ll find a model of it in the museum.
Explore Marble Arch Caves
This is somewhere we didn’t get the chance to visit although my husband enjoyed it when he was a child. Marble Arch Caves are an extensive limestone cave system stretching some 11 kilometres. Visitors can explore the caves by boat on subterranean waterways and wander through vast caverns.
Take a Game of Thrones tour in Northern Ireland
I have to admit that I’ve yet to watch even one episode of Game of Thrones so there’s no shot here of the famous Dark Hedges. If you are a fan, there are plenty of places where filming took place including lovely Ballintoy Harbour and Cushendun Caves.
Drive the Causeway Coastal Route
Forget the Great Ocean Road or the Amalfi Coast… if you want an incredible coastal drive without any other tourists messing up the experience, the Causeway Coastal route running from Belfast to Derry is stunning. We only drove sections of the road – the most enjoyable part was from Cushendall to Portrush.
I had expected the coast to be relatively busy with staycationing locals but the population of Northern Ireland is so small and its coastline so long that there’s plenty of space for everyone. I guess a normal year would see more international tourists, especially with the Game of Thrones boost but I get the impression that the Antrim Coast is never busy in the way that Cornwall or Devon are.
Where to eat in Northern Ireland with kids
It’s pretty easy to find child-friendly places to eat in Northern Ireland. Most restaurants and pubs have a child’s menu with the usual kid-friendly fare. We enjoyed lots of good meals out including several highlights which I’ve detailed here.
Lunch at Harry’s Shack on Portstewart Beach
We loved Harry’s Shack so much that we ate there twice during our five day visit to the Causeway Coast. Owned by the National Trust but independently managed, this café has an excellent menu – grilled cod cheeks were particularly delicious.
Harry’s Shack overlooks Portstewart Beach which is itself a place worth visiting more than once. Great food and a huge expanse of sand equals a perfect day out for both parents and kids.
Dinner at Bushmills Inn
We enjoyed a delicious meal at Bushmills Inn. There is plenty of outdoor seating but it’s particularly cosy indoors with dark nooks and log fires. There’s a good menu at the Inn and a decent range of choices for children.
Unfortunately, as our visit to Northern Ireland coincided with the gradual lifting of lockdown, the Bushmills Distillery had yet to reopen. However, if you have children over the age of eight, you can take a Bushmills Distillery tour and learn about the brewing process.
The Fullerton Arms: one for GoT fans
Despite my ignorance of Game of Thrones, I admit to taking a few selfies of the Iron Throne at the Fullerton Arms pub near Ballintoy Harbour. We had a great meal at the pub, and we enjoyed a lovely evening walk along the coast near Dunsverick Castle ruins afterwards.
Have you visited Northern Ireland? Which things to see in Northern Ireland do you recommend? Let me know in the comments below.
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