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And it is in this coastal county where you will find a combination of historical attractions, beautiful gardens to explore, the stunning Ards Peninsula, as well as the burial grounds of St. Patrick along a trail that uncovers his travels in this ancient part of Ireland.
Finally, the Mountains of Mourne, the highest in Northern Ireland, make this region a must-see on your Ireland vacation itinerary.
Give yourself 3 days for this road trip so that you can fully immerse yourself in this beautiful region.
The following attractions are suggestions only and will depend on your preferences and what you are interested in seeing, and also, how much time you are willing to devote to each place.
Total Distance: Approximately 150 kilometers/93 miles
Length of Time: 3 days
When to do this Road Trip: Late Spring, Summer, or Early Fall/Autumn
Highlights of this Itinerary: Titanic Belfast; Mount Stewart House & Gardens; Greyabbey; Strangford Lough; Castle Ward; Newcastle; St. Patrick’s Centre, Downpatrick; Slieve Donard Walk.
3-Day Belfast to the Mountains of Mourne Itinerary
Day 1: Belfast Bus Tour or Self-Guided Tour of Specific Attractions in Belfast
Day 2: Explore Mount Stewart House & Gardens, Greyabbey, Castle Ward
Day 3: St. Patrick’s Centre, Down Cathedral, Newcastle, Slieve Donard Walk
Day 1: Explore Belfast
Time it takes to get there: From Dublin – 1 hour 42 minutes, 165 km/102 miles.
Begin your Belfast to the Mourne Mountains 3-day road trip in Northern Ireland's capital, Belfast.
The most efficient way to see Belfast is to take the Belfast City Sightseeing Tour, which includes stops at Titanic Belfast, St. George’s Market, Queen’s University, the International Wall Murals, the Falls Road, and Crumlin Road Gaol.
Based on my experience of visiting Belfast, I’d recommend you include at least the following two attractions in your itinerary.
And if you have time, the Grand Opera House, St. George’s Market, the Peace Wall and Crumlin Road Gaol are also worth seeing.
Be prepared to spend a few hours here.
Titanic Belfast contains six floors of Titanic history as it relates to Belfast, but there’s also a whole section devoted to the history of the city itself and how it emerged as an industrial powerhouse in the late 19th/early 20th century.
Kids will love the mini-car ride in the museum’s shipyard section that replicates the Titanic’s rudder. You can listen to and watch the story of Titanic’s creation during the fun ride.
Other interesting areas of the museum include The Launch, which portrays scenes from launch day on May 31st, 1911.
In the museum’s Fit-Out section, you’ll see a large-scale model of the ship, including its interior and three classes of passenger cabins.
The gallery known as The Maiden Voyage explains what exactly happened to make the luxury steam liner go down, including the frantic situation that unfolded as the ship was sinking.
You can purchase your tickets online or buy them at the museum.
Feel free to walk around the Titanic Quarter to explore the areas where the Titanic was built and later launched.
The old pump house, which was used to drain a staggering 21 million gallons of water in just over 90 minutes out of Titanic’s dry dock, has been turned into Belfast’s first distillery in over 100 years.
Titanic Distillers is expected to open in the fall of 2023.
Black Taxi Tours of West Belfast
To get an accurate sense of how the Troubles affected the ordinary people of Belfast, it’s a good idea to take a black taxi tour that will take you to West Belfast, where Catholics and Protestants still live side-by-side.
During the 30-year-long war, sectarian violence broke out regularly across the city, but these neighborhoods were hit particularly hard.
On a taxi tour through the area, you’ll see the main Peace Wall, where dignitaries like the late Nelson Mandela and President Bill Clinton left their signatures, as well as thousands of others, many of them visitors just like you.
In the Catholic-dominated Falls Road, you’ll stop at a memorial to the 1,500 Catholics who were victims of a Loyalist-inspired attack on their homes in 1969.
After the civil rights marches that took place in the city, gangs went through the neighborhood throwing incendiary devices into houses and setting them on fire.
You’ll also see the massive steel and mesh wire cages that still cover the back yards of the restored homes on Bombay Street, which back up to the peace wall on the Protestant side known as Shankill.
Day 2: Explore Mount Stewart House & Gardens, Greyabbey and Castle Ward
Your first stop outside of the city on your Belfast to the Mourne Mountains road trip itinerary will be Mount Stewart House & Gardens in Newtownards managed by The National Trust and home to the Marquesses of London since 1816.
Tourist guides explain the fascinating history of the Mount Stewart mansion as you marvel at its sumptuous rooms.
The gardens, however, are the real attraction here, blending their colorful attributes with a hint of politics thrown in for good measure.
The landscape is the inspiration of Lady Londonderry who lived there during the 18th century, and in one example, her condensed view of Ireland is reflected in an Irish harp-shaped hedge next to royal crowns and a Red Hand of Ulster flowerbed.
Some say the gardens are shaped like a shamrock when viewed from above, making them the most impressive in Northern Ireland.
There’s a lot more to see here, including its Spanish and Italian gardens, the Sunken Garden, and The Temple of Winds, with outstanding views across Strangford Lough.
Greyabbey is only 2 miles from Mount Stewart and the second stop on this road trip.
Wander around the ancient ruin admiring the Gothic arches and buttresses of this once-bustling Cistercian monastery.
It was founded in 1193 by Affreca, the wife of the Norman knight John de Courcey, who was responsible for the construction of Carrickfergus Castle, 30 miles (48 km) away.
The nearby Grey Abbey House & Gardens is a popular filming location for numerous movies and TV series.
The site is free to visit.
Do you want a printer friendly version of this itinerary?
How about an eBook version that can be downloaded onto your computer or mobile device?
The Ireland on a Budget Belfast to the Mournes 3-day itinerary PDF/eBook includes all of the information you’ll find in this post plus my recommended places to stay and eat as a bonus.
This is a 25-page itinerary with additional travel resources that you can download and take with you while you travel in Northern Ireland’s County Down or print at home.
Click here to purchase the eBook on Etsy.
In addition to the famous castle, you’ll also want to take a tour of the 18th-century mansion house, which was designed as a Gothic structure on one side and in a classical Palladian style on the other.
A sunken garden and several trails make for an enjoyable couple of hours.
To get there, drive from Greyabbey to Portaferry where you can take the Strangford Ferry, a daily service that goes between Portaferry and Strangford.
The band of water between the two places is known locally as “The Narrows,” and is an area that is rich in wildlife, including harbor and grey seals.
Each spring close to 4,000 Sandwich, Arctic and common terns arrive from Africa to breed on the nearby islands.
Day 3: Downpatrick, Newcastle, Mourne Mountains
Historians believe that Saint Patrick landed in Ireland at Strangford Lough in 428 A.D. and then made his way to Downpatrick.
The Saint Patrick’s Centre on Downpatrick’s Market Street is the place to go if you want to retrace the footsteps of Ireland’s patron saint.
In fact, it is the world’s only permanent exhibition dedicated to him, giving you a history of Ireland through his eyes and through his journeys across the country.
Hear Irish actor Ciaran Hinds tell the story of Patrick’s life and his adventures across the country, part of the St. Patrick’s Exhibition at the center.
The cost of the experience is £5.75 and can be booked online.
From the 12th century, the cathedral grounds was the site of a Benedictine monastery but in 1541 when King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of all monasteries in England and Ireland, it fell into disrepair, eventually becoming a ruin.
Its restoration began in 1790, which is when it became a Protestant church.
But what makes this beautiful church worth visiting is its original chancel from the 15th century together with crosses from the 9th, 10th and 12th centuries, a pipe organ and beautiful organ case, the boxed pews and the Mayer of Munch stained-glass windows.
Admission is free. Guided tours can be arranged beforehand at a small cost per person.
Exploring the Mourne Mountains Region
The pretty town of Newcastle is the gateway to the Mourne Mountains and is the perfect place to end this road trip.
The town is located at the base of Slieve Donard, the highest peak in the range.
You might want to take a walk along the beach and take in the stunning sweeping views of the Mournes above before you set off on the Slieve Donard Walk, which will take about 4-5 hours to complete.
The 4.6-kilometer (9 miles) hike is best done during the summer months when the days are long.
You will be following the Glen River as you make your way to the summit, which, on a good day, offers extensive views of the Isle of Man, Scotland, and Donegal, and even as far south as Wales and County Wicklow.
If you really want to immerse yourself in the Mournes, there are several other trails that run through the mountain range.
Make sure you are wearing the proper gear, including footwear and layers. Bring water and snacks to keep you sustained on any of the hikes mentioned below.
There are several to choose from, including Slieve Bearnagh, Slieve Binnian, Slieve Doan, Slieve Meelbeg, Meelmore and the Silent Valley, many of which follow what is known as the Mourne Wall, the 22-mile-long structure that was built between 1904 and 1922 to keep livestock in the hills from contaminating water supplies.
Find out more at AllTrails.ie.
Other Ways to Enjoy the Mourne Mountains Region
For nature lovers, the Murlough National Nature Reserve is a good place to spend a couple of hours.
A wander through this 5,000-year-old sand dune system will bring you up close to a wide range of animals and plants.
The region’s wildlife changes with every season, with many species of wader, duck and geese during the summer and autumn/fall migration periods, as well as a plethora of grey seals.
A wide range of plants and animals can also be found here, including badgers and stoats, delicate flowers, and rare, colorful butterflies.
Tollymore Forest Park, about a 10-minute drive from Newcastle, is one of those places where you could do a long walk or a shorter ramble.
Most people who visit comment on its fairytale-like atmosphere.
It’s no wonder then that the Game of Thrones producers chose this lovely spot as one of their key locations.
There are four waymarked trails in the park.
They include the Blue Trail, an arboretum path that is about half a mile in length and is the oldest know arboreta on the island of Ireland; the 3-mile Red Trail, a pretty river trail that winds through woodland before crossing the River Shimna at Parnell’s Bridge; the 5.5-mile Black Trail (Mountain Trail) which parallels the river and passes through woodland, and The Black Trail/Drinna Trail, which adds a further 3 miles on to the previous trail, with stunning views at the top.
Is a Belfast to the Mourne Mountains road trip on your Ireland vacation itinerary? Let me know in the comments below.