County Down is one of the six counties of Ulster that comprise Northern Ireland. It contains part of Belfast, the capital and transport hub, so most visitors to the province are destined to pass through. It's worth taking the extra time to explore the Victorian resorts east along the coast, the religious centre of Downpatrick, and the scenic Mourne Mountains.
Cities and towns
- 1 Belfast is the lively capital of Northern Ireland, a mix of modern and Victorian that needs several days to explore. Most of it is in County Antrim, but the east-side County Down section is crucial: it includes the powerbase of Stormont, and the Titanic Quarter which re-launched the city as a tourist destination after 30 years of paramilitary conflict.
- 2 Holywood on the edge of Belfast has the Ulster Folk and Transport Museums.
- 3 Bangor is a large resort on the coast.
- 4 Newtownards has the Somme Heritage Centre. Down the Ards Peninsula is Mount Stewart House and Grey Abbey.
- 5 Strangford has a grand mansion, two ruined castles and a prehistoric tomb.
- 6 Downpatrick, believed to be the burial place of Saint Patrick, has a cathedral and ruined abbey.
- 7 Newcastle is a seaside resort, and a good base for exploring the Mourne Mountains.
- 8 Newry is split between the counties of Armagh and Down, with a town hall spanning the river between them. In the 1990s they discovered a medieval castle in a disused bakery. The Ring of Gullion rises to the west.
- 9 Lisburn is mostly in County Antrim and is where the Irish linen industry was founded. It was also notorious during the Troubles as the site of Long Kesh / Maze / "H-blocks" prison.
- 10 Hillsborough is a village with Georgian architecture, including the residence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
- 11 Banbridge has the last remaining traditional Irish linen weaver in Ireland.
- 1 Mourne Mountains are Northern Ireland's highest peaks, easily accessed for hill-walking.
- 2 Strangford Lough is a 16 mile (26 km) sea inlet, named for the tide-race through the strait at its south end, where there's a ferry. It's dotted with islands, wetlands, and prehistoric and medieval sites. For those at its north end and on the Ards Peninsula, see Newtownards. For the south end see Strangford and Downpatrick.
- 3 Copeland Islands were inhabited until their lighthouses were automated. They're now birdlife reserves, reached by boat trips from Donaghadee.
The Normans divided Ireland into shires or counties, but this had no effect on Ulster which remained ruled by Irish chieftains or petty kings right up to the 17th century. Then the Nine Years War deposed the last of the chieftains, who fled to the continent, their lands were seized, and the new southern overlords started making up for lost time. To prevent further rebellion Ulster was settled with loyal British subjects, mostly from Protestant Scotland. This was concentrated around Belfast and in the lowland areas of Counties Down, Antrim and Armagh, which developed industry - initially linen, later metal-bashing and other smokestack trades. The British monarch was Catholic until 1688, when Down was one of the first areas to rebel against the rule of James II - they were beaten at first, but reinforcements arrived and cemented the Protestant rule of William III. By the time of Irish independence in 1921, County Down was one of the six counties of Ulster that were predominantly Protestant and that remained within the United Kingdom in the entity called Northern Ireland.
In Irish a dún is a fort, usually on a hilltop, and the landscape is dotted with them. County Down took its name from its administrative seat at Dún Pádraig, Downpatrick, the fort or hill of St Patrick who is believed to be buried there. Belfast burgeoned as an industrial city, a seaside resort grew up at Bangor, Downpatrick stood in farmland amidst the drumlin or "basket of eggs" rolling country near Stangford Lough, while further south were rain-lashed mountains: see Mourne Mountains for how fire, mud and ice forged this region.
The county boundaries often follow rivers which divide towns: Belfast, Lisburn and Newry are all bisected. It was only a minor inconvenience, and Belfast was a self-governing metropolis. It also helped that County Down did not have a land border with the Republic, so it escaped the blight and banditry that afflicted Tyrone and Armagh. (At Carlingford Lough however it's separated only by a narrow sea channel, which facilitated the IRA's Warrenpoint massacre of 1979.) There were other problems with the county structure of Northern Ireland so in 2011 they were abolished as units of government. County Down is now divided into the districts of Belfast City, Ards and North Down, Newry Mourne and Down, and Armagh City Banbridge and Craigavon which is mostly in County Armagh. None of this makes the slightest difference to visitors, the counties still make sense for planning itineraries, and these pages continue to reflect the previous structure.
English is the primary language, although the local rapid, hard accent can be a challenge to understand; it's quite unlike the lilt of other Irish accents. Very few in Down speak the Irish language, which for over a century has been seen as republican, identifying with the south. However west Belfast has an Irish-speaking cultural centre and lessons, and the Newry Mourne and Down District is actively seeking to revive the language and culture.
Belfast is the transport hub, with two airports (City or George Best just east, with mostly UK flights, and International or Aldergrove 20 miles west, with European plus some UK flights), ferries from Stranraer, Birkenhead and the Isle of Man, trains from Dublin and Derry, and buses from Dublin and across Northern Ireland.
From the south the usual approach is to cross the border at Newry then follow A1. A scenic route into the Mourne Mountains is by the Carlingford Ferry across the opening of the lough east of Dundalk. See Newry#Get in for details, but in autumn 2020 the ferry is suspended.
Most bus routes fan out from Belfast Europa bus station, which is next to Great Victoria Street railway station. However buses for Holywood, Bangor, Newtownards and Ards Peninsula (for Strangford) run from Laganside bus station, which is next to Lanyon Place railway station. At the tip of the peninsula, a ferry links Portaferry with Strangford.
It's a large county, and several places of interest are well out in the countryside, so you need a car.
A network of national cycleways crosses the county, though they're mostly on road.
- Belfast needs several days to explore.
- The Ulster Transport and Folk Museums are in Holywood.
- The area's religious heritage is best seen at Downpatrick, where Saint Patrick himself is believed to be buried.
- Stately mansions are dotted about: Hillsborough for an official powerbase, Mount Stewart at Newtownards for Victorian aristocracy, and Strangford for Game of Thrones.
- Prehistoric monuments are found even near Belfast. The best example is at Castlewellan near Newcastle.
- The Invisible Tree is in Rostrevor in the Mourne Mountains, but for obvious reasons it can't be depicted here.
- Mourne Mountains for hiking and climbing. Newcastle is the best base for exploring them.
- Golf: the principal courses are Royal Belfast at Holywood, Royal County Down at Newcastle and Down Royal near Lisburn.
- Watch Gaelic Games: the County GAA play Gaelic football and hurling at Páirc Esler in Newry. There are some 40 club teams across the county.
- Belfast has the greatest range. The Great Room restaurant within Merchant Hotel is splurge surroundings for a mid-budget price.
- Lisburn has Lithuanian fare at Baltic Coast.
- Bangor and Newcastle have a good range; elsewhere seek out the bars and golfing hotels.
- Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast is a must-try, a gorgeous Victorian bar opposite Europa bus station.
- There are breweries in Holywood and Lisburn.
- Local whiskey: Echlinville Distillery, 10 miles south of Newtownards, has produced whiskey since 2016. No tours.
- There are also micro-distilleries in Moira and Saintfield, both near Lisburn.
- Next door County Antrim is a cider-producing region, look out for local products.
- Belfast is the transport hub, so all of Northern Ireland, plus Dublin and the prehistoric complex of Brú Na Bóinne, is within a day trip.
- County Antrim has scenic glens and a fine coastline - don't just rush to the touristy Giant's Causeway.
- Armagh is the ecclesiastic capital of Ireland with two cathedrals and a prehistoric "fort" that was clearly religious not defensive.