It’s true that you can drive from Dublin to Belfast in just under two hours, but you will be zooming past many truly amazing visitor sites – ancient Stone Age tombs, the Mountains of Mourne, St Patrick country, Game of Thrones filming locations, forests, a Royal Palace, the Peace Maze and both Carlingford and Strangford Loughs.
If you have time, slow down and take a leisurely drive up North, picking and choosing a few sites to visit along the way. At the very least you should loop through Rostrevor and over the Mournes but in fact, with so much to do, you could consider spending a few days in this beautiful area.
1. Dublin to Newgrange / Brú ná Boinne
44 min (51 km / 32 miles)
Visitor Centre, Donore, Drogheda, Co. Meath, Republic of Ireland, A92 EH5C – website
Newgrange, also known as Brú ná Boinne (Palace on the Boyne), is a 5,200-year-old passage tomb and is designated as a World Heritage site. The tomb is particularly remarkable as the central passageway is aligned so that the winter solstice (22 December) sun shines directly down this central passageway to the core of the structure in an amazing example of Stone Age ingenuity.
You can only visit the site by taking an organised tour from the the newly refurbished Visitor Centre, which is located a little distance from the tomb itself. You’ll also find an exhibition at the Visitor Centre that explores the seasonal nature of Stone Age society, the significance of the solar cycle, ceremonies and the monument building process.
Tickets for individuals or small groups of 14 or fewer people are issued on a daily first come first served basis only and at the moment, will not be available for pre-booking. Tickets are limited and tours fill up so this makes the process a bit hit and miss. However, in early 2020 we are promised an online booking system for new tour options from 1st March 2020.
2. Newgrange to Rostrevor
Head toward Rostrevor (58 min (77 km / 48 miles)) via Newry, a cathedral city. You will cross the border into Northern Ireland (the UK) on this sector of your journey although the only significant indication is that the speed signs change to miles per hour not kilometres, so watch your speed.
After Newry you will drive past Narrow Water Castle (for me this is The Narrows from Game of Thrones). It guards the entrance to the Newry river as it enters Carlingford Lough. The Northern Ireland / Republic of Ireland border runs down the centre of the Lough. You will be driving along the Northern shore, looking over the Lough to the Cooley Mountains of the Republic, and with the Mournes above you to your left.
Rostrevor is an attractive town on the Lough with a pretty river running through it. We’ve stayed at the Rostrevor Inn on one of our Mourne hiking weekends – comfortable rooms, hot showers, a great breakfast and live traditional music in the downstairs bar most evenings.
However, you do not need to go into Rostrevor but can continue your drive along Carlingford Lough.
3. Rostrevor to Tollymore Forest Park via the Mournes scenic loop
This is truly what I think of as the Real Ireland. This road climbs up the mountain and around the mountain and loops back around and down into the lovely seaside town of Newcastle. If you do nothing else, take this drive.
Tollymore Forest Park
£5 / car entry fee
The 6.3km square park is a pleasant place for a walk or a picnic, but the main attraction for visitors is that the forest was used as a filming location for Game of Thrones. The particular scene in question was filmed near the Altavaddy Bridge where in Episode 1, Series 1 the direwolf pups are found by Ned, Robb, Bran, Jon and Theon. View a map of the park here.
4. Tollymore Forest Park to The Peace Maze at Castlewellan Forest Park
9 minutes (6.5 km / 4 miles), Castlewellan, Co. Down BT31 9BU – £5 / car entrance
The Peace Maze is a thing of beauty with the Mournes as a backdrop. The whole maze covers nearly 3 acres and has 2.18 miles of pathway and until 2007 the Peace Maze was the largest permanent hedge maze in the world. It was opened in 2001, and was largely funded by the European Union Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
If you decide to stay in the area, or have a little more time you can explore the parkland and get active. Castlewellan Forest Park features a 40 hectare lake, forests, gardens, a kids’ activity centre, a campsite, a coffee shop as well as The Peace Maze. There is also an outdoors activity centre where you can hire Stand Up Paddle boards, canoes and mountain bikes for reasonable fees. The elegant stately home on the site is now a Christian conference centre and is not open to the public, but it is pretty to look at. For MTB fans, there are 27km of trails, and walkers will find a network of forest trails to explore.
5. Castlewellan to Downpatrick (St Patrick’s Country)
17 min (17.7 km / 11 miles)
There’s a lot going down in Downpatrick with its cathedral and St Patrick’s grave, the St Patrick’s Visitor Centre and the Down Museum.
The Down Museum (free) is set up in the buildings of the old County Down Gaol. It was from this prison that many ‘convicts’ were transported to Australia and there is a fascinating exhibition about the transportation which includes stories about descendants of some of these people who have visited the museum in recent years. The museum also contains exhibits of early Christian artefacts including the fascinating Downpatrick High Cross.
It was also here that co-founder and leader of the United Irishmen, Thomas Russell, was hung then beheaded in 1803 for his role in the insurrection against English rule.
The massive St Patrick’s Visitor Centre will update you on all you need to know about St Patrick. Other St Patrick’s attractions include Saul Church, said to be built on the site where St Patrick built his first wooden church when he returned to Ireland (after escaping his first tour in Ireland as a slave), and Slieve (mountain) Patrick – a small hill with a massive St Patrick’s statue on top. Read more about the Mournes area here.
If you fancy something to eat, or even a bed for the night, consider the famous Denvirs Coaching Inn established in 1642.
6. Downpatrick to Belfast
From Downpatrick it is a 35 km / 22 mile drive (40 minutes approx) through the rolling farmland of County Down along the A7 to Belfast. You can also travel a longer route along faster roads going via Lisburn. This route is 27 miles and will also take about 40 minutes, but this route allows you the option to take a slight detour to visit Hillsborough Castle, Northern Ireland’s own Royal Palace where the British Royal family stay when visiting Northern Ireland. We recommend the guided tour of the palace which is fascinating – so much history!