Planning Your Time
Though Northern Ireland may not look that big on paper, tackling a fair share of its many attractions in less than a week isn't possible without exhausting yourself in the process. If your time is limited, choose the eastern half (Belfast, the Antrim Coast, and the Mountains of Mourne) or the western half (Derry and the border counties). The cities are small enough to tour in a day or two. But remember that the rural wonders—the Antrim Coast, the Fermanagh lakes, the Mountains of Mourne—cast their spell easily. You may head out to enjoy them for a day trip and find yourself wishing that you'd factored in more time to explore the endless string of postcard-worthy villages, misty glens, and rugged mountains. Distances are not great, but neither are the roads—you'll spend most of your time traveling smaller roads, not major express highways. If you have three days, spend an extra night and day in Derry. A half-day side trip should also be made to the top-class Ulster-American Folk Park at Omagh, where the contribution of Northern Irish people to American history is traced.
Festivals and Events
When planning your visit, remember that Northern Ireland is a great place for festivals: almost every town has its own theme festival of some sort. The Belfast Festival (www.belfastfestival.com), held in October at Queen's University, is one of the biggest, with a packed program of arts, music, and literature. Belfast's Cathedral Arts Quarter Festival (www.cqaf.com), held late April to early May, uses established, new, and unusual venues throughout the oldest part of the city center for two weeks of music, theater, and visual arts. In early April the Titanic Festival commemorates the anniversary of the sinking in 1912 of RMS Titanic, built in Belfast. Féile an Phobail, the West Belfast Festival (www.feilebelfast.com), held in early August, is a 10-day schedule of events with a political and international theme. Hillsborough International Oyster Festival (www.hillsboroughoysterfestival.com), held in September, is three days of good food and entertainment.
Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The country's main arts agency supports a range of cultural events, including many Belfast festivals, and has information about them. MacNeice House, 77 Malone Rd., University Area, Belfast, BT9 6AQ. 028/9038–5200; www.artscouncil-ni.org.
Belfast Festival at Queen's. This long-established festival at Queen's University lasts for three weeks (from late October into early November) and is the city's major arts festival. Festival office, 8 Fitzwilliam St., University Area, Belfast, Co. Antrim, BT9 6AN. 028/9097–1034; www.belfastfestival.com.
Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. This early-May festival, always buzzing with energy, attracts local, national, and international visual and performing artists. Its base of operations is the Black Box on Hill Street, at the heart of the Cathedral Quarter, where a café serves snacks during the day and light lunches. The same organization runs the very successful Out to Lunch festival in January. Hill St., Cathedral Quarter, Belfast, BT1 2LA. 028/9023–2403; www.cqaf.com.
The Ould Lammas Fair. Every year since 1606, on the last Monday and Tuesday in August, Ballycastle has hosted the Ould Lammas Fair, a modern version of the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Lughnasa (Irish for "August"). Ireland's oldest fair, this is a very popular two-day event with entertainers, several hundred shopping stalls, and even a pony show. Treat yourself to the fair's traditional snacks, dulse (sun-dried seaweed), and yellowman (rock-hard yellow toffee). Ballycastle, www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/ACalend/LammasFair.html.