8 of the most scenic Northern Irish Sunday drive routes to enjoy
From the rolling hills of the countryside to beautiful coastal stretches, a drive through Northern Ireland can not only make for a unique day out but also a source of constant inspiration.
By Conor McAteer
Published 6th Jan 2024, 08:00 GMT
While best known for its seemingly endless cloudy days brought on by Ireland’s Atlantic position, when clear skies roll in, we are suddenly blessed with an aesthetic spread that unfurls the raw beauty of the region.
When that happens there’s no better way to experience the great views than taking a scenic drive along one of the many routes across Northern Ireland.
1. Fermanagh Lakelands
You’ve heard of vacation - why not ‘carcation?’ In the far west of Northern Ireland, County Fermanagh is perfect for road cruisers, with its wide stretches of island-dotted waterways and secluded bays surrounded by lush green fields, soft undulating hillsides and fresh forests. The journey begins at Boa Island, 16 miles from Enniskillen, and the largest island in Lower Lough Erne. From there, head west to Belleek, the westernmost settlement in the United Kingdom, renowned worldwide for its pottery expertise. Head southeast along Lough Navar Forest Drive until you reach the awe-inspiring viewpoint of the ‘Cliffs of Magho’ some 1000 ft above Lower Lough Erne. The edifice commands views of Donegal’s Blue Stack Mountains, the Sperrin Mountains of Derry and Tyrone, and even the Atlantic on a clear day. Stop off at Enniskillen for lunch, before heading west towards Upper Lough Erne. You’ll venture into the Cuilcagh Lakelands Geopark, which includes such sites as the Burren Park on the border with County Cavan and the Pollnagollum Caves of the Belmore Forest, used as Hollow Hill in the third season of Game of Thrones. Photo: Fermanagh Lakelands website
2. Ards Peninsula
The easternmost tip of Northern Ireland, is a particularly picturesque part of Northern Ireland, but when spending a day there, it’s important to maximise the area’s natural beauty. Starting at Newtownards, and driving down the east side of the lough, you’ll encounter some of Northern Ireland’s most beautiful scenery as the lough, with its 365 islands, stretches out with the Mourne Mountains rising on the horizon. The resplendent 19th-century estate Mount Stewart, with its world-renowned gardens, is owned by the National Trust and is worthy of a day-trip all of its own. Motor on to the quaint village of Greyabbey, with its small selection of cafes and vintage shops. There’s a small beach stop at Kircubbin where, if you time it right, a chip van serves delectable maritime morsels. Nearby Echlinville Distillery showcases its award-winning whiskeys and gins to discerning visitors. Once in Portaferry, which hosts Northern Ireland’s only dedicated aquarium (Exploris), you can take the ferry crossing to Strangford or take the return leg along the Irish Sea coast to see Portavogie, Millisle, Donaghadee Lighthouse and Ballycopeland Windmill. Photo: Visit Ards and North Down
3. Binevenagh Scenic Route
This 20-mile long route takes eight miles off the Causeway Coastal Route, specifically the section that crosses Magilligan. The route can be joined at Downhill when approaching from Coleraine or one kilometre after crossing the River Roe from Limavady. From Coleraine, you will pass Castlerock and see a sign for the Binevenagh Route on your left once you reach sea level at Downhill. The drive follows the steep Bishops Road to the top of the mountain which has some truly spectacular views of Magilligan and Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula in the distance. When the weather is right, you might catch a glimpse of gilders from Bellarena skimming along the cliff tops. Further along the drive, you’ll find an access road leading to a lake on the top of Binevenagh. From here, the route drops back down to Magilligan and takes you past St Aidan’s Church before rejoining the Causeway Coastal Route at Bellarena Primary School. Photo: Causeway Coast and Glens
The North, Central, East and South Sperrins Routes, ranging from 50 to 90 miles, cover sizeable chunks of Counties Derry & Tyrone. What Northern Ireland’s most geographically extensive mountain range lacks in stature (its highest point, Sawel, comes to 678 metres), it more than compensates for in raw beauty. Each route offers up a diverse selection of historic manmade attractions and untouched beauty. Take each one in isolation or merge multiple ones if you want to maximise your time in this less-trodden part of Northern Ireland.
South: Omagh, Gortin Glen Forest Park, Ulster American Folk Park, and Baronscourt Estate (privately owned).
East: Springhill House, Jungle NI, Desertmartin, Davagh Forest and OM Dark Sky Observatory, Beaghmore Stone Circles, Wellbrook Beetling Mill, and Killymoon Castle.
Central: Strabane, Sion Mills, Newtownstewart, and An Creagan Visitor Centre.
North: Dungiven, Banagher Glen & Dam, Tirnoney Dolmen prehistoric tomb and Errigal Glen. Photo: Sperrins senic driving routes