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Dublin to Belfast – the Scenic Mournes Driving Route

An itinerary taking in Newgrange, the Mournes, Carlingford Lough, Downpatrick, the Peace Maze, Tollymore... and more

Updated 8 December 2023

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’s 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.

Although you will be crossing a country border from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland which is part of the United Kingdom, the only indication will be a change in the road signs from kilometres to miles. While there are no border checks, you should ensure that you are entitled to enter into the UK.  Visit the Visit Britain website to learn more.   You should also note that while the Republic uses Euros and kilometres, Northern Ireland uses sterling (pounds and pence) and miles for road signs. At the moment, the exchange rate for sterling against the US$ and Euro makes Northern Ireland an economical place to visit!

If you are hiring a car be sure to let the rental company know so they can make sure the insurance covers you. There might be a small additional charge for the additional insurance cover.

Dublin to Belfast Scenic Driving Route

Route Overview

  1. Dublin to Newgrange / Brú ná Boinne (44 min – 51 km / 32 miles)
  2. Newgrange to Rostrevor (58 min – 77 km / 48 miles)
  3. Rostrevor to Tollymore Forest Park via the Mournes scenic loop (1 hr 6 mins – 37 km / 23 miles)*
  4. Tollymore Forest Park to The Peace Maze at Castlewellan Forest Park  (9 minutes – 6.5 km / 4 miles)
  5. Castlewellan to Downpatrick (St Patrick’s Country) – 17 min (17.7 km / 11 miles)
  6. Downpatrick to Belfast (via Hillsborough Castle and/or Game of Thrones Studio Tour) – 35 km / 22 mile drive (40 minutes approx)

Please also see our more detailed guide to the Mournes 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

Bru Na Boinne Newgrange - ancient site
Older than the pyramids – Bru Na Boinne Newgrange ancient site

 

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 passageway to the core of the structure in an amazing example of Stone Age ingenuity.

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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.

You can only visit the site by taking an organised tour, set for a specific time, from the the newly refurbished Visitor Centre which is located a little distance from the tomb itself. Bookings must be made online and can be made up to 30 days in advance. Tickets cost €10.00 for adults and €5.00 for young adults aged 12 –17 years of age. Children aged 11 and under get free entry. Check the website for concessions for students and seniors, and there are family packages.

Bru Na Boinne Newgrange entrance to the chamber
Bru Na Boinne / Newgrange – entrance to the chamber and entry tunne


2. Newgrange to Rostrevor

Pretty Rostrevor – a great place to spend the night. We spent a few days at the Rostrevor Inn a few years back, visiting the area and enjoying the amazing breakfasts, and live music in the bar in the evenings

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 and the Narnia Connection

Rostrevor is  pretty village with several pubs and the Kilbroney forest park with mountain biking and hiking trails. A popular hike is through the forest park and up to the huge Cloughmore Stone and on to Kodak Corner, giving you fantastic views across the lough. This is also the area where Belfast-born writer C.S. Lewis holidayed as a child and the area said to be an important inspiration for the magical Kingdom of Narnia from the Chronicles of Narnia, or as is often better known,  ‘The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe’ series.

Image result for the narrow water castle newry
The Narrow Water Castle between Newry and Rostrevor

Route Option – the Carlingford Lough Ferry

You may also consider turning off after Dundalk, and heading for Carlingford and ultimately the Carlingford Lough car ferry  which runs in the summer months from Greenore, in the Republic, to Greencastle in Northern Ireland. No passports required!

After crossing you can follow the route described below, driving along the coast towards Newcastle and Tollymore Forest Park. This option cuts out Newry dogleg.


3. Rostrevor to Tollymore Forest Park via the Mournes scenic loop

Via High Mournes Driving Route (pass through Attical) head to Tollymore Forest Park, Bryansford Rd, Newcastle BT33 0PR – 1 hr 6 mins (37 km / 23 miles)

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Passing Rostrevor you will continue along the Lough shore until you see a signpost for Attical. Turn left and head on up over the High Mournes Driving Route. This is quite a short stretch but gives you a taste of the Mournes, a popular hiking area for visitors and residents alike.

If you are spending a while in the area, a side trip from this route would be to the dramatic Silent Valley reservoir. See our

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.


The coastal route around the MournesRoute Option – The Mournes Coast

Rather than taking the High Mournes Driving Route, you can continue to follow the Lough shore towards Kilkeel and follow the coast line up to Newcastle. The Mournes will tower above you, sweeping down to the shore, and you’ll have the opportunity to visit the harbour-town of Annalong with its pretty 19th century cornmill.

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

Peace Maze

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.

St Patrick's Grave
Saint Patrick’s Grave at Downpatrick Cathedral

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 ‘Exploring Saint Patrick’s Country’ here.

If you fancy something to eat, or even a bed for the night, consider the famous Denvirs Coaching Inn established in 1642.


Hillsborough Castle
Hillsborough Castle, the Northern Ireland residence for the UK Royals

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!

Another spot to stop may well be the new Game of Thrones Studio Tour near Banbridge. To be fair, this is a bit of a detour if your final destination is Belfast, but for fans of Game of Thrones this would be a detour worth taking!

Then you’re just up the road to Belfast!

 


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