Northern Ireland (Irish: Tuaisceart na hÉireann, Ulster Scots: Norlin Airlann) is part of the island of Ireland and is one of the four constituent nations and regions of the United Kingdom. While it has had a reputation for being violent and dangerous, the political situation has mostly stabilised, and the country is as safe to visit as any other part of the UK or Ireland.
Northern Ireland has the Giant's Causeway (a world heritage site), stunning landscapes, vibrant cities, and welcoming locals interested in your own stories. The hit television series Game of Thrones was produced in Northern Ireland, which is also home to many of its filming locations.
|County Antrim |
Walk in the footsteps of giants on the north coast, then ponder the tragedy of a giant ship in a museum in revived Belfast.
|County Armagh |
Drumlins (rounded glacial hills) spread across this county like a basket of eggs and in Armagh town two important cathedrals sit on drumlins.
|County Londonderry |
Lively Derry with its intact walled town and a great Atlantic coast of big beaches and a cliff top temple.
|County Down |
A coastline of working fishing ports and stong currents at Strangford. The Mournes form the backdrop to the southern part of the county. East of Belfast, the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum houses a great collection of relocated builidngs from across the region.
|County Fermanagh |
Drowned drumlins draw fishers and boaters in this lough landscape.
|County Tyrone |
Walk off the beaten track in the windswept Sperrins and visit the great Ulster American Folk Museum
The "County" part in county names is regularly abbreviated "Co". Thus e.g. "Co Down" stands for County Down.
Cities and towns
- 1 Belfast is the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland, with the major transport hubs and the best visitor facilities. West Belfast was torn by over 30 years of paramilitary and British Military conflict, which its sights reflect. The university area is cosmopolitan and houses a good regional museum. The docks have been revitalised by the Titanic Quarter, which houses a good museum about the Titanic. Dramatic views can be had from Divis and Black Mountain.
- 2 Lisburn was the seat of Ireland's linen industry, depicted in its museum.
- 3 Bangor is a large coastal town, was a seaside resort. Good base for the Ards Peninsula, home to the island's largest marina and good shopping.
- 4 Armagh is the ecclesiastic capital of Ireland, for both the (Anglican) Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church. Nearby Navan Fort is one of the most important ancient sites in Ireland. Home to many myths and legends.
- 5 Coleraine on the River Bann in County Londonderry, 5 km from the sea, it has an impressive history dating back to Ireland’s earliest known settlers. Coleraine today is a major gateway to the popular Causeway Coast area. Coleraine is a good shopping town and also has a major performance theatre at the University of Ulster in the town.
- 6 Derry, or Londonderry (Doire Cholmcille, "the Maiden City"), gateway to Donegal. Vibrant cultural life, intact city walls and the city where the Troubles started.
- 7 Enniskillen is the picturesque main town of County Fermanagh, perfect for exploring the lakes around Lough Erne.
- 8 Newry , most people visit the town for the shopping. Nearby is Slieve Gullion and the attractive village of Rostrevor. They somehow mislaid their entire castle in the back-end of a bakery.
- 9 Omagh home to the very good Ulster American Folk Park, an outdoor museum of the story of emigration from Ulster to America in the 18th and 19th centuries.
- 1 Mourne Mountains (na Beanna Boirche) — the Mourne Mountains are a walker’s paradise where old mountain tracks take you past lakes, rivers, woodland and up to the many fine peaks and the famous Mourne Wall. The Mournes also offer fine rock climbing opportunities. Slieve Donnard standing at 852 m (2,796 ft) is the highest mountain in the Mournes range and also the highest mountain in Northern Ireland. It offers spectacular views from the summit towards England and Scotland.
- 2 North Coast (Causeway Coast) — the north coast of Northern Ireland has some of the best scenery in Europe and has to be seen to be believed. This coastline is of outstanding natural beauty where breathtaking and rugged coastline merge into the romantic landscape of deep silent glens and lush forest parks. There are also spectacular waterfalls, dramatic castles and mysterious ruins. The world-famous Giant's Causeway (Northern Ireland's only UNESCO World Heritage site) with its array of hexagonal basalt columns and tales of ancient Irish giants, and 'Old Bushmills', the world's oldest licensed whiskey distillery, are just two attractions, which are a must for every visit to Northern Ireland. There are fantastic golf courses at Portstewart, Castlerock and most notably at Portrush (Royal Portrush). Beautiful, unspoilt sandy beaches also extend along the coast.
- 3 Rathlin Island (Reachlainn) — Northern Ireland's only inhabited off-shore island, connected to the mainland by a regular ferry service.
- 4 Lough Neagh (Loch nEathach) — at 51 square miles (392 km²) is the largest lake by area in Ireland and Britain. Five of the six counties of Northern Ireland have shores on the Lough. Popular destination for fishing and birdwatching.
|Currency||pound sterling (GBP)|
|Population||1.8 million (2015)|
|Electricity||230 volt / 50 hertz (BS 1363)|
|Time zone||UTC±00:00, Europe/Belfast, UTC+01:00|
|edit on Wikidata|
Northern Ireland was created in 1921 when Ireland was partitioned by the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The larger part of the island became independent in 1922 as the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland). Northern Ireland comprises six of the nine historic counties of Ulster, one of the four ancient Irish provinces, with the remaining three (Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal) staying in what is now the modern day Republic of Ireland. For this reason, Northern Ireland is sometimes referred to as "Ulster", even if that name is not in the strictest sense geographically accurate. Such usage does however have unionist connotations and will generally be rejected by nationalists.
Although a few extremist paramilitary organisations are still active, the province is much safer to visit than formerly.
Like the rest of Ireland and Britain, the weather here is dominated by weather systems coming in from the Atlantic, this makes for wet and windy weather. In the west, annual rainfall is 2000mm and on the east coast it is 850mm. The sun does shine too, on the Co Down coast the annual average total of sunshine is 1450 hours. The best advice is to pack wet weather gear and footwear (unless you are content to stay indoors when those are needed) and to look regularly at weather forecasts, Met Office is a good one.
The population of Northern Ireland is largely made up of two groups. Although there had always been population movements between the west of Scotland and the north-east of Ireland, during the 16th and 17th centuries there was an organised settlement of people from Scotland known as the Ulster Plantation. Most came to work on new plantations which had been established in the area (by the forced removal of the indigenous Irish population). The indigenous Irish population was predominantly Roman Catholic (at a time when this was the only Western Christian religion), whilst Scottish settlers after the Reformation were predominantly Protestant.
The religious difference turned into a political split: most Protestants are Unionists or (more extreme) Loyalists, supporting continued union with Great Britain, while most Catholics are Nationalists or (more extreme) Republicans. Nationalists and Republicans both want a united Ireland, but Nationalists use peaceful political means; whereas the Republican movement sought violence as a means to a united Ireland up until 2004. Loyalists also then used violence to maintain the Union. Although segregation always existed, the situation reached boiling point in 1969 when the campaign for Civil Rights for Catholics turned violent when protesters were attacked by Loyalist supporters. That was the start of the period known euphemistically as "The Troubles." In 1972, British Forces fired live rounds rather than plastic bullets at unarmed protesters. 14 were laid to rest, on a day that has become known as "Bloody Sunday". The British Government gave reparations to the families of the victims. This was a major turning point in the support for the Republican movement as the Catholic population felt they had nowhere left to turn. This also effectively re-polarised segregation along religious lines. Previously inactive paramilitary groups became re-established in the province, and new ones emerged, which sat precariously on the brink of civil war for many years. During The Troubles there were many killings by extremists, and by cessation of violence, the death toll was over 1,000 police and soldiers, and approximately 370 Republicans and 160 Loyalists.
In 1998, after years of sporadic negotiations between the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and the paramilitary groups and local political parties, The Agreement was signed, signalling the end of violence in the province. This is often referred to as the Belfast Agreement or the Good Friday Agreement after the place or day on which it was signed. Although there was an almost immediate drop in the level of terrorist acts and rioting, it took several years for stability to settle on the region and for agreement to be reached concerning the devolved government. As part of the agreement, Northern Ireland was granted a separate legislature from Westminster, known as the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as limited autonomy to legislate for its internal affairs.
The 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union ("Brexit") resulted in an overall majority in the United Kingdom of just under 52% of those voting being in favour of leaving, while 56% of Northern Ireland voters were in favour of the UK staying inside the EU. However, the "leave" vote was much more prevalent in mainly Protestant areas and several Unionist parties have expressed euro-skeptic positions. Irish Republicans, including Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams meanwhile have taken the vote as grounds for renewed calls for a vote on Northern Ireland joining the Republic of Ireland. The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic has been open since the Good Friday Agreement and remains open post-Brexit.
Most people visiting have heard of the varying allegiances of Northern Ireland's people. However, the people of Northern Ireland are friendly and warm towards visitors. You get the feeling that the people know the allegiances of each other, but it can be hard for visitors to ascertain.
Citizens can self-identify as Irish or British solely or Northern Irish. Similar divides exist in referring to places, for example the small city in the north west of the region on the banks of the River Foyle is Derry to Nationalists, while to Unionists it is Londonderry. Although Northern Irish people are British citizens from birth, they have the right to claim Irish citizenship and so may have an Irish passport in addition to or instead of a British passport.
English is spoken everywhere, although the distinctive Ulster accent can be more difficult to understand than other Irish dialects. Ulster Scots (Ulstèr-Scotch) and Irish (Gaeilge) of the Ulster dialect (Canuint Uladh) are used in some small communities. These three are the officially recognised local languages. When speaking English, the Northern Irish tend to speak quite rapidly compared to most English speakers, and use a huge array of local words. Expect to hear words such as 'aye' (yes), 'wee' (little), 'hallion' (person who behaves in a deliberately careless manner), 'we'un' (literally 'wee one', meaning child), 'dander' (casual walk) and 'craic' (a good time/fun/a laugh, with no connotations of any controlled substances whatsoever). Accents and dialects differ considerably throughout the country and even foreign visitors fluent in English may find it hard to understand people with certain accents. However, most Northern Irish people will slow down and speak more clearly if they think you are having a hard time understanding them.
In schools, English is taught as both a literature subject and a language subject. In most Catholic schools and some grammar schools it is normal for students to be taught Irish (although this is not widely used) and therefore certain schools have bilingual signs etc. French, Spanish and German, and sometimes Latin, are taught in most schools, or at least a few of these languages will be taught mainly at secondary school level. Unfortunately for speakers of other languages, there is often no desire for native English speakers to learn a foreign language; therefore, most Northern Irish people won't be able to speak to you in your native language but will try to make their English more understandable for a foreign visitor.
While used in various government and public organisations, Irish and Ulster Scots are rarely seen written and even less spoken. Nearly all education in the country is in English; therefore, there is no need to learn Irish, partly because most non-Catholic schools do not teach it. Many Northern Irish people have little if any knowledge of Ulster Irish or Ulster Scots. The Falls Road area of Belfast has branded itself as a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) Quarter; otherwise, Irish is spoken mainly in limited social networks, and is a lot less common than in the Republic. That said, the BBC broadcasts a limited number of programmes in Ulster Irish on BBC Two Northern Ireland. Scots was formerly widespread in eastern Ulster, particularly in County Antrim, but is now largely moribund except for a few rural communities, although many Scots words and turns of phrase have made their way into Ulster English.
Immigration, visa, and customs requirements
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, so it has exactly the same entry requirements as England, Scotland and Wales.
- Citizens of the UK and Crown Dependencies can travel to Northern Ireland without a passport and have the automatic right to reside, work and take up benefits.
- Citizens of Ireland have the same entitlement as UK citizens.
- Citizens of other European Union countries do not require a visa for short visits (e.g. holiday, family visits, business meetings) but do require a visa for work or study in the UK. See Brexit for details.
- Citizens of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland have (and will probably continue to have) the same rules as for the EU.
- Citizens of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, the United States and Uruguay do not require a visa for visits of less than 6 months.
- Most other countries will require a visa, which can be obtained from the nearest British Embassy, High Commission or Consulate.
- There is no passport control or border check between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. However visitors must carry any relevant documents that permit them entry to the UK, such as passport / identity card and visa.
- The UK has a Working Holidaymaker Scheme for citizens of the Commonwealth of Nations and British dependent territories. This allows residency in the UK for up to 2 years, with limited working rights.
- There are restrictions in terms of goods one can bring from elsewhere in the UK to Northern Ireland and vice versa. Importing certain goods may incur tariffs. See the Brexit article and UK government website for more infornation.
For more information on these requirements, see the UK government's website.
Almost all direct flights to Northern Ireland are from UK, Western Europe and the Mediterranean. There are no flights from the Republic of Ireland, as the distances are too short.
George Best Belfast City Airport (BHD IATA) is 2 miles east of Belfast city centre, with flights mainly from the UK. British Airways flies from London Heathrow and KLM from Amsterdam, both with global connections. There's a frequent bus to the city, or you can take the free shuttle bus to Sydenham railway station, see Belfast#Get in for details.
Belfast International Airport (BFS IATA), also known as Aldergrove, is 20 miles west of Belfast. This has several UK connections and is the main airport for flights from Europe, mostly by EasyJet. There's a bus to Belfast city centre, and another between Lisburn and Antrim for transport elsewhere in Northern Ireland; see Belfast#Get in.
From Dublin Connolly station the Enterprise Train runs eight times M-Sa and five on Sunday via Drogheda, Dundalk, Newry and Portadown to Belfast Lanyon Place. It doesn't serve Great Victoria Street station which is next to the Europa main bus station.
Other trains stop at several Belfast stations:
From Portadown every 30 min via Lisburn and a dozen city stations, Sydenham (for Belfast City Airport) and Bangor.
From Larne hourly via Carrickfergus to Lanyon Place and Great Victoria Street.
Dublin Coach Route 400 runs an hourly non-stop service (5:30AM-8:30PM daily) from Dublin Custom House Quay to Belfast Glengall Street. As of Oct 2020, tickets are £8 or €10 for a single and £16 or €20 for a return, and two kids can travel free with one adult. Translink coaches run every 1-2 hr (7AM-8PM daily) from Dublin Busáras and Airport to Belfast Europa Bus Centre; some stop at Newry, and all stop at Banbridge and Sprucefield Shopping Centre on the edge of Lisburn. Adult fares are very similar but the child fare is more expensive and payment is only accepted in euros.
The Citylink/Ulsterbus runs 2-3 times a day from Edinburgh via Glasgow, Ayr and the Cairnryan ferry to Belfast.
There are normally National Express buses daily from London Victoria and Manchester via Cairnryan to Belfast, but these remain suspended as of Oct 2020. Their journey planner suggests taking a bus to Glasgow and changing for the Citylink, but it's probably simpler to travel via Dublin.
The M1 / N1 / A1 links Dublin to Belfast and there are multiple other crossing points from the Republic. There are no checks, and all you see at the border is a reminder northbound that speed limits are in miles per hour. Southbound you're offered a choice of speed limits in km/h or teorainneacha luais ciliméadair san uair. It's up to you to check that you're eligible to enter the UK (see above), that you have any necessary travel documents with you, and that your car insurance or rental agreement is valid for Northern Ireland - this should be automatic on any rental from the Republic.
Foot passengers should always look for through-tickets by bus / train and ferry, as these are considerably cheaper than separate tickets.
- From Cairnryan near Stranraer in Scotland, Stena Line sail to Belfast five times a day, 2 hr 15 min.
- Also from Cairnryan, P & O Ferries sail to Larne six times a day, 2 hr.
- From Birkenhead near Liverpool, Stena Line sail daily to Belfast, 8 hr.
- From the Isle of Man, IOM Steam Packet ferries sail to Belfast 4 days a week, taking just under 3 hr.
- Ferries sail to Dublin from Birkenhead, Holyhead (this is the quickest route from England), Isle of Man and the Continent. Dublin port is connected by tunnel to the motorway north, so motorists dodge the city centre traffic and reach Northern Ireland within 3 hours.
- From Campbeltown in Scotland a foot-passenger ferry sails April-Sept to Ballycastle then onward to Islay, returning in the afternoon. It's scheduled for day excursions but you can take a one-way trip. It didn't sail in 2020 and the 2021 schedule is tba.
- From Greenore east of Dundalk in the Republic, a ferry crosses the opening of Carlingford Lough to Greencastle in County Down. It carries vehicles but only sails in summer, see Newry#Get in for details.
- From Greencastle in County Donegal, a ferry crosses the outlet of Lough Foyle to MacGilligans Point north of Derry. It likewise carries vehicles but only sails in summer, see County Londonderry#Get in.
If you are able to rent a car then driving around Northern Ireland is a very pleasant experience. Most drivers follow the rules of the road (except for speeding) and are quite polite towards other drivers. In some areas it is a pleasant gesture to wave at a passing car even if you do not know the person. Many of the roads on the North Coast are quite twisty but offer some beautiful scenery and there are many places to stop along the way and take in the natural beauty.
Northern Ireland's motorway system connects Belfast to Dungannon, Ballymena and Newtownabbey. All large towns and cities are well connected by road. The speed limits are:
Motorways and Dual Carriageways - 70 miles per hour (112 km/h)
Other roads (outside urban areas) - 60 miles per hour (96 km/h)
Urban areas (towns and cities) - 30 miles per hour (48 km/h) and occasionally 40 mph if signposted.
Many drivers constantly speed, usually 10 to 20 miles per hour above the speed limit. It is common for someone to be driving at 60 or 70 miles per hour and be overtaken by many other cars. It is no surprise then that speed traps and cameras are often quite sparse, except for in Belfast and near the border, and many drivers take this to their advantage. There have been many advertising campaigns over the years to combat the problem of speeding and drink driving ran by the Department of Environment which often include graphical adverts of the consequences of speeding and drink driving. A notorious accident blackspot in Northern Ireland is the circuit of main roads around Coleraine, Portstewart and Portrush which host the annual NorthWest 200 motorcycle road race - and as a result aggressive motorcycle riding is commonplace and the roads are heavily patrolled at most times of the year as a result.
Most main A roads are of a very good standard with many having overtaking lanes at certain points to allow you to pass slower traffic. B roads are often small country roads that are very narrow and have little, if any, road markings. Drivers must be careful on B roads when passing other traffic and may have to slow down and pull in when meeting larger traffic.
There is a comparatively high incidence of road accidents in Northern Ireland, and the province employs slightly different driving laws to the rest of the UK. One notable difference is that newly qualified drivers can be identified by 'R' plates which are displayed on the car for the first twelve months after their licence is issued. These plates are mandatory. Drivers displaying these plates are limited to 45 miles per hour (72 km/h) on all roads, including dual carriageways and motorways. As with 'L' plates in the rest of the UK, drivers displaying 'R' plates are often the target of road rage and are not accorded a great deal of patience. Many Northern Irish people feel that 'R' drivers are a hazard on the road when travelling at 45 mph as it means other drivers are more likely to overtake in risky situations.
Police security checkpoints are becoming very common once again. When approaching a checkpoint, dip your headlights and stop if indicated to do so. The police may want to check your licence and look in your boot: don't worry, it's all perfectly routine.
If you find a place selling diesel at a price too good to be true, you're probably right and it will be "scrubbed" diesel that may well wreck your engine. Gangs buy tax-free "Green" or "Red" diesel and then use a noxious and illegal chemical process to remove the dye and make big illicit profits.
You should be prepared for the difference in distance measurements when crossing the border from the Republic of Ireland (kilometres vs. miles).
Northern Ireland is not as well served by car rental companies as is the Republic. Some Irish car rental companies offer a drop off option in Belfast while others have locations in Belfast City. Check with your car rental company if you are covered to go south of the border - it isn't always included automatically.
By bus and train
See also Rail travel in Ireland
Translink operate the Northern Ireland public transport system.
Buses are usually the most common form of public transport due the small rail network. Depending on where you are going, you may find that parties of two or more may save money by renting a car if planning on travelling throughout the province.
Fares are reasonable, for example £12.30 from Derry/Londonderry to Belfast, after 9:30AM Monday to Saturday on the train, then it's £8.00 for a "Day Tracker" ticket which enables you to travel anywhere on the NI railways network on a Sunday and jump on and off all trains (except you cannot cross the border).
If you are considering touring in Northern Ireland, it's worth considering buying the maps and guides produced by Sustrans to accompany the national routes they have helped develop. The routes can be found on Open Cycle Map, but Sustrans' guides are helpful for nearby places to stay or visit.
- Giant's Causeway - World Heritage Site and National Nature Reserve. The Giants Causeway is essentially an area of coastline and cliffs with very unusual and distinctive volcanic stone formations. The name comes from the local Legend of Fionn McCool, as it was said that the rocks were once part of a bridge (or causeway) which ended in similar rocks directly across the sea, in Scotland, but the connecting rocks were torn down by Benandonner when Fionn's wife tricked him into believing that Fionn was huge.
- Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, near Ballycastle - The name literally means the rock in the road. Carrick-A-Rede is a rope bridge connecting the mainland to an island that salmon fishers first put up years ago for the excellent salmon fishing. It became a tourist attraction because of the rope bridge in a really windy area.
- Ulster American Folk Park is an open-air museum near Omagh in County Tyrone, depicting the story of emigration from Ulster to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is an Old World section, the voyage itself, then emigrant life in the New World.
- Marble Arch Caves — Global Geopark near Belcoo in Co. Fermanagh.
- Political murals are common in the "interface areas" where Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods adjoin, so west Belfast and Derry have plenty. They're painted on gable walls of buildings and proclaim local allegiances. They come and go with political events - in 2014 one notable series in Strabane expressed solidarity with Palestine - so ask around if there are any examples worth tracking down.
Like all parts of life in Northern Ireland, some sports are culturally part of either unionist or nationalist communities. Typically, those in the nationalist community support the Republic of Ireland football team, while the unionist community are proud of the Northern Ireland football team. Gaelic Athletic Games are played by the Irish community.
- Rugby Union is played on an all-Ireland basis, with the Irish national team featuring players from both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Ulster Rugby are one of the four Irish professional teams playing in Pro14 a major league also contested by Italian, Scottish, South African and Welsh teams. Ulster's home ground is Ravenhill (sponsored as Kingspan Stadium) in south Belfast.
- Football (soccer) is less developed, and the quality of the domestic league is low as nearly all the top Northern Irish players play for English clubs. Northern Ireland has its own national team, which plays in international tournaments with limited success. The main club competition is the NIFL or Danske Bank Premiership of 12 teams. Linfield FC have often won it - they and the national team play at Windsor Park in south Belfast. Derry City is the only Northern Ireland club to play in the Republic of Ireland's League of Ireland Premier Division.
- Gaelic athletic games. Gaelic Football is played in Irish communities, from parish teams to county teams. County teams that win the Ulster championship get to play in the All Ireland championship. The ancient game of hurling and the female equivalent camogie are also play.
- Learn Irish: the language is making a comeback. The Gaeltacht of Donegal is the best place near Northern Ireland to hear it spoken everyday by native speakers. An Chultúrlann in west Belfast holds regular classes for all levels of ability and has Irish books and other learning materials.
- Watch an Orange Order Parade. The parades are a piece of living history, quintessential Northern Ireland, so catch one if you can. They wear their full-fig regalia and Carsonite bowler hats and strut down the street to the shrill of fife and tuck of drum. They are of course contentious: they symbolise Protestant and unionist dominance in the north, the lyrics of their tunes are anything but inclusive, and they have drawn (and gone looking for) trouble. However they're now regulated by the Parades Commission, which vets their route and won't let them march through neighbourhoods where they would cause offence. The marching bands nowadays equivocate about their Protestant/Unionist roots, and bandy the word "community" a lot, though it's still a gutsy Catholic that would join one. The summer marching season culminates on the 12th of July, a public holiday commemorating the 1690 Battle of the Boyne which cemented Protestant hegemony in Ireland for the next 200 years - and for 300 in Northern Ireland. (When the 12th is a Sunday, the marches and public holiday are on Monday 13th - this next occurs in 2026.) All the main towns have parades, and Belfast's is huge. Morning parades are peaceful because everyone's sober and knows their mothers are watching. Afternoon parades are like football crowds after a day in the pub, there may be alcohol-fuelled disorder, just use your commonsense to swerve clear. For the full schedule of parades see the Commission website: they regulate all such events not just the Orange Order, but don't need to deliberate too long over the antique tractor rallies or Santa's Charity Sleigh.
The official currency of Northern Ireland is the pound sterling. Although Bank of England notes are universally accepted, the three Northern Irish banks (AIB, Bank of Ireland, Danske Bank, and Ulster Bank) also print their own versions, which tend to be used more often. Northern Irish notes are not universally accepted in the rest of the UK, although some mainland shopkeepers accept them. Northern Irish banknotes can be exchanged for Bank of England notes for free at any bank elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland does a large amount of trade with the Republic of Ireland, where the euro is used, and therefore many outlets in border areas and urban centres accept the euro. Most retailers will display whether they accept euros or not. Whilst euro notes may be accepted, coins will not.
Virtually all shops and pubs in Derry, Strabane, Enniskillen and Newry will accept the euro as payment. In addition, many major pubs and shopping outlets in Belfast city centre now accept it. In particular, the pub company Botanic Inns Ltd and the shopping centre Castle Court accept the euro. Many phone kiosks in Northern Ireland also accept euro coins, but by no means all outside Belfast. Vendors in Northern Ireland are under no obligation, though, to accept euro as they are not the official currency.
A popular dish is an assortment of fried food, called the "Ulster Fry". It consists of eggs, bacon, tomatoes, sausages, potato bread and soda bread. Some versions include mushrooms or baked beans. Fries are generally prepared as the name suggests, everything is fried in a pan. Traditionally lard was used, but due to health concerns, it has been replaced with oils such as rapeseed and olive. Historically, it was popular with the working class.
Some shops on the north coast close to Ballycastle sell a local delicacy called dulse. This is a certain type of seaweed, usually collected, washed and sun-dried from the middle of summer through to the middle of autumn. Additionally, in August, the lamas fair is held in Ballycastle, and a traditional sweet, called "yellow man" is sold in huge quantities. As you can tell from the name, it's yellow in colour, it's also very sweet, and can get quite sticky. If you can, try to sample some yellow man, just make sure you have use of a toothbrush shortly after eating it... it'll rot your teeth!
The cuisine in Northern Ireland is similar to that in the United Kingdom and Ireland as a whole, with dishes such as fish and chips a popular fast food choice. Local dishes such as various types of stew and potato-based foods are also very popular. 'Champ' is a local speciality consisting of creamed potatoes mixed with scallions.
With the advent of the peace process, the improvements in economic conditions for many people in Northern Ireland, there has been a great increase in the number of good restaurants, especially in the larger towns such as Belfast and Derry. Indeed it would be difficult for a visitor to either of those cities not to find a fine-dining establishment to suit their tastes, and wallet.
There is a strong emphasis on local produce. Locally produced meats, cheeses and drinks can be found in any supermarket. For the real Northern Irish experience, sample Tayto brand cheese and onion flavoured crisps: these are nothing short of being a local icon and are available everywhere.
The legal drinking age in Northern Ireland is 18. People of 16-17 may be served beer and wine with meals if accompanied by a sober adult. Pubs are generally open Su-Th until 23:00 and F Sa to 01:00.
- Bushmills Whiskey is made in that town on the north coast. The distillery tours are very much on the tourist circuit.
- Guinness: it's a Marmite thing, you either like that burnt flavour or you don't, and there's no shame in not liking it. It's just as popular in Northern Ireland as in the Republic, and the Guinness family were famously Protestant. But Guinness established such commercial dominance that other breweries struggled, and it was easier to find continental beers in Northern Ireland than anything brewed locally. Micro- and craft breweries are now appearing - they're described for individual towns so try their products, but few offer tours. One that does is Hilden in Lisburn.
- Belfast Distillery is nowadays just a retail park, commemorated in several street names. There are plans to convert cells within the former Crumlin Road jail into a whiskey distillery, but in 2020 the only spirits you might encounter are the unquiet dead on the jail's "paranormal tours". Belfast Artisan Distillery makes gin several miles north at Newtownabbey; no tours.
- Echlinville Distillery in Kircubbin south of Newtownards produce whiskey, which first came to market in 2016; no tours.
- Niche Drinks in Derry produce a blended whiskey, but their main line is cream liqueurs, Irish coffee and the like; no tours.
Northern Ireland has changed greatly in the years since the peace agreement was signed in 1998, though its troubles have not entirely ceased. There remains a high frequency of terrorist incidents in Northern Ireland, with the UK Home Office defining the current threat level as 'severe'. Tourists, however, are not the target of such terrorist incidents and therefore are highly unlikely to be affected. There is a significant risk of disruption caused by incidents of civil unrest during the contentious 'marching season' which takes place each year over the summer months. The U.S. State Department advises visitors to Northern Ireland to remain 'alert' during their visit and to keep themselves abreast of political developments.
Most visits to Northern Ireland, however, are trouble-free, and visitors are unlikely to frequent the areas that are usually affected by violence. Northern Ireland has a significantly lower crime rate than the rest of the United Kingdom, with tourists being less likely to encounter criminality in Belfast than any other UK capital.
Northern Ireland has one of the lowest crime rates among industrialised countries. According to statistics from the U.N. International Crime Victimisation Survey (ICVS 2004), Northern Ireland has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe, lower than the United States and the rest of the United Kingdom, and even during the Troubles, the murder rate was still lower than in most large American cities (although this does not take into account the vastly lower population figures). The latest ICVS show that Japan is the only industrialised place safer than Northern Ireland. Almost all visitors experience a trouble-free stay.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (formerly the Royal Ulster Constabulary or RUC) is the police force in Northern Ireland. Unlike the Garda Síochána in the Republic, the PSNI are routinely armed with handguns and/or long arms. The police still use heavily-armoured Land Rover vehicles; do not be concerned by this, as it doesn't mean that trouble is about to break out. There is a visible police presence in Belfast and Derry, and the police are approachable and helpful. Almost all police stations in Northern Ireland are reinforced with fencing or high, blast-proof walls. It is important to remember that there is still a necessity for this type of protection and that it is a visible reminder of the province's past.
As with most places, avoid being alone at night in urban areas. In addition, avoid wearing clothes that could identify you, correctly or not, as being from one community or the other, for example Celtic or Rangers football kits. Do not express a political viewpoint (pro-Nationalist or pro-Unionist) unless you are absolutely sure you are in company that will not become hostile towards you for doing so. Even then, you should be sure that you know what you're talking about. It would be even better to act as if you either don't know about the conflict or don't care. Avoid political gatherings where possible. Many pubs have a largely cultural and political atmosphere (such as on the Falls Road, the mostly Nationalist main road in West Belfast, and the Newtownards Roads in predominantly Unionist East Belfast), but expressing an opinion among good company, especially if you share the same view, will usually not lead to any negative consequences. People are generally more lenient on tourists if they happen to say something controversial, and most will not expect you to know much about the situation.
Traffic through many towns and cities in Northern Ireland tends to become difficult at times for at least a few days surrounding the 12th July due to the Orange Parades and some shops may close for the day or for a few hours. The parades have been known to get a bit rowdy in certain areas but have vastly improved. Additionally, the last Saturday in August is known as "Black Saturday" which is the end of the marching season. Trouble can break out without warning, though locals or Police officers will be more than happy to advise visitors on where to avoid. The Twelfth Festival in Belfast is being re-branded as a tourist-friendly family experience and efforts are being made to enforce no-alcohol rules aimed at reducing trouble.
Pickpockets and violent crime are rare so you can generally walk around the main streets of Belfast or any other city or town without fear during the day.
If you are dialling from one telephone in Northern Ireland to another, you do not need to add any area code. If dialling from the rest of the UK use the code (028). If dialling from elsewhere you can dial a Northern Ireland number by using the UK country code 44, followed by the Northern Ireland area code 28. If dialling from the Republic of Ireland, you can use the code (048), or you can dial internationally using the UK country code.
International phone cards are widely available in large towns and cities within Northern Ireland, and phone boxes accept payment in GBP£ and Euro. Buying a cheap pay as you go phone is also an option which can be purchased from any of the five main phone networks, O2-UK, Orange, Vodafone, T-Mobile and Three. O2 will have the best nationwide coverage and is the most popular network choice for many people. Any phone that is bought in Northern Ireland uses the United Kingdom's cell network and therefore when entering the Republic of Ireland you will be subjected to the usual EU roaming charges. It's quite common for phones in Northern Ireland to switch over to Irish networks when near border areas such as in the North West near Donegal etc. This is also true the other way around, as you can travel some distance into the Republic of Ireland while still maintaining a UK phone signal. The networks available in the Republic of Ireland are O2-IE, Meteor, Three and Vodafone IE so ensure not to get confused between the UK and Irish versions of O2, Three and Vodafone.
Free Wi-Fi is available at various hotels and restaurants across the country. Wi-Fi may also be available in various locations from unsecured networks from local businesses or pubs/clubs, etc. Internet cafes are less common in Northern Ireland but there are computers for use at the libraries which you may use after registering with the library service. Broadband speeds in Northern Ireland vary from fast to non existent. In towns and cities expect the Internet to be quite speedy but the further you get out from the towns the slower the Internet may become.
The province's troubled past has created a uniquely complex situation within Northern Ireland's society. Integration, or even interaction, between the two main religious groups varies hugely depending on where you are: for example, in affluent South Belfast or Bangor, those from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds live side by side, as they have for generations, whereas in West Belfast, the two communities are separated by a wall.
If you are not British or Irish, the main thing to avoid is pontificating about the situation or taking one particular side over the other. Local people do not appreciate it and you will surely offend someone. Comments from outsiders will likely be seen as arrogant and ill-informed. This applies particularly to Americans (or others) who claim Irish ancestry and may therefore feel they have more of a right to comment on the situation (the majority of people in Northern Ireland would beg to differ). A good rule of thumb is simply to keep your opinions to yourself and avoid conversations that might be overheard.
Generally speaking, people from Northern Ireland are welcoming, friendly and well-humoured people, and they will often be curious to get to know you and ask you why you're visiting. However that does not mean that, on occasion, there are no taboos. Avoid bringing up issues like the IRA, UVF, UDA, INLA, or political parties, as it will not be appreciated. Other than that, there are no real dangers to causing tension among the Northern Irish people. As with virtually all cultures, don't do anything you wouldn't do at home.
Foreign nationals claiming they are ‘Irish’ just because of an ancestor will likely be met with amusement, although this may become annoyance or anger should they then express their views related to The Troubles.
Unlike in parts of Europe, there is no social taboo associated with appearing drunk in bars or public places. Though it is advisable to avoid political conversations in general, this is particularly true when alcohol is involved. People from all backgrounds congregate in Belfast city centre to enjoy its nightlife; avoiding political discussions is an unwritten rule.
On a related note, do not try to order an Irish Car Bomb or a Black and Tan. Some establishments will refuse to serve it to you if you use those names. More acceptable names are an Irish Slammer or a half-and-half.
Also, Northern Irish people have a habit of gently refusing gifts or gestures you may offer them. Do not be offended, because they really mean that they like the gesture. Also, you are expected to do the same, so as not to appear slightly greedy. It is a confusing system but is not likely to get you in trouble.
Tours of Belfast often include a visit to the Peace Lines, the steel barriers that separate housing estates along sectarian lines. These are particularly visible in West Belfast. It is common for private or taxi tours to stop here and some tourists take the opportunity to write messages on the wall. It is important to remember that there is a real reason why these barriers have not been removed, and that they provide security for those living on either side of them. Messages questioning the need for these security measures, or those encouraging the residents to 'embrace peace' etc., are not appreciated by members of the community who live with the barriers on a day-to-day basis, and such behaviour is generally regarded as arrogant and patronising.
The terms which refer to the two communities in Northern Ireland have changed. During the Troubles, the terms 'Republican' and 'Loyalist' were commonplace. These are seen as slightly 'extreme', probably because they were terms used by the paramilitaries. It is more common to use the terms 'Nationalist' and 'Unionist' today; these terms are more politically neutral. 'Loyalist' and 'Republican' still refer to particular political viewpoints.
Unionists tend to identify as British, and may be offended if referred to as Irish. Conversely, Nationalists tend to identify as Irish, and may find it offensive if referred to as British. If you are not sure about someone's political leanings, it is best to just use the term "Northern Irish" until you are prompted to do otherwise.
A number of politically-charged names for Northern Ireland are used by some residents, the most contentious being "The Six Counties" (used by Nationalists) and "Ulster" (used by Unionists to refer only to NI). Visitors are not expected to know, or use, these or any other politically-sensitive terms, which will only be encountered if you choose to engage in political discussions.
Should it be necessary to refer to Northern Ireland as either a geographical or political entity, the term "Northern Ireland" (at least, when used by people from outside Ireland) is accepted by the vast majority of people.
If you need to refer to Ireland as a geographical whole, a reference to "the island of Ireland" or "all-Ireland" has no political connotations, and will always be understood.
Visitors might be more aware that the second city of Northern Ireland has two English-language names, "Londonderry" (official) and "Derry" (used by the local government district and on road signs in the Republic). Nationalists, and everyone in the Republic, will invariably use the name "Derry", whereas Unionists strongly prefer "Londonderry". It is wise not to question anyone's use of either name over the other, and if you are asked "Did you mean Derry" or "Did you mean Londonderry?" you should politely say yes.
It may all seem confusing, but Northern Irish people won't expect you to know or care about every detail of the situation and, as mentioned above, will openly welcome you to their country. Young people tend to be more open-minded about it all and are much less politically motivated than their parents or grandparents.
The people in Northern Ireland are generally warm and open - always ready with good conversation. Of course, being such a small, isolated country with a troubled past has also led to a decidedly noticeable lack in social diversity.
The majority of people you will encounter will be white. It isn't unusual to go a few days without encountering any multiculturalism, apart from other visitors or Chinese restaurants. This will make quite a change if you are from countries such as England or the US.
Racism is not generally an issue; however, due to the openness and rather frank humour in Northern Ireland, small, sarcastic comments may be made about the issue, in jest, if a local encounters someone outside of his or her own nationality. It is best not to react to this, as it is most likely just a joke, and should be treated as such. In Northern Ireland, a "mixed marriage" refers to a Catholic marrying a Protestant.
Some citizens of Northern Ireland are not the most accepting when it comes to homosexuality. While a small and dwindling minority, fundamentalist Christians hold greater political sway in Northern Ireland than almost anywhere else in western Europe. Homophobic crimes are rare but still more common than in the rest of the UK and Ireland. There are virtually no examples of any gay and lesbian communities outside Central Belfast. However, parts of the capital (for example the University Quarter) are perfectly safe and accepting of gay and lesbian people, with both of Belfast's universities incorporating active LGBT societies. Same-sex marriage was legalised in 2020 and a ban on conversion therapy is due to come into force later in 2021.
There have been issues of more severe racism in parts of the province. Belfast is the most ethnically diverse area, but even so the city is over 97% white. Typically, incidents of racism have been confined to South Belfast, which has a higher mix of non-white ethnicities due to its location near Queen's University. After decades of little or no immigration, some people find it hard to accept outsiders moving in, and racist attacks are usually on an immigrant's property, rather than the immigrants themselves.