Despite Dublin and Belfast being the two most-visited cities in Ireland, the region between the capitals rarely gets in on the tourist action. But while I was visiting family in Ardee, Co. Louth over Christmas, I had the chance to explore the area. So here’s a guide the best attractions and places to visit between Belfast and Dublin.
While it can’t be said to have the dramatic beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way (Ireland’s premier driving route), the region and its handful of hidden gems easily make up a decent road trip with some impressive stops.
Several of the area’s historic sights are also featured in Ireland’s Ancient East, the country’s latest tourism trail, designed to promote the island’s historic roots.
Newry & Warrenpoint
Driving south from Belfast (and Lisburn), Newry is the first large town you’ll come across. Situated close to the ‘border’ with the Republic of Ireland, Newry is a bit of shopping mecca and used to be popular with those driving from Ireland to take advantage of cheaper prices in Sterling. (However, thanks to the low Euro and strong Pound, the opposite is now true.)
Fun fact: Newry was once an answer on the gameshow Pointless for the question: cities in the United Kingdom beginning with ‘N’.
Close to Newry, Warrenpoint is a small scenic town on the shore of the Carlingford Lough. Hemmed in by mountains, the town offers some beautiful views on a clear day. Both Newry and Warrenpoint make good bases for exploring the Mourne Mountains.
There’s no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and very little indicator that you are passing between the two. In fact, the only way you can really tell the difference is the change in the road signage, which is probably more obvious to Brits and the Irish than it would be to foreigners.
The Cooley Mountains
Just south of Carlingford Lough, the Cooley Mountains cover a large area of the Cooley Peninsula. The peaks offer beautiful views of the surrounding area and the lough and are easily covered by car. A service road winds up to the top of the highest peak, which gives you an incredible (but windy) view.
The mountains are home to at least two oddities: the Long Woman’s Grave (the grave of a supposedly-eight-foot Spanish woman who moved to Ireland to marry and died of disappointment) and a spot road where if you turn your car engine off, you will continue to travel uphill. I visited the former and have been assured by many of the existence of the latter, but I’ve no idea where it is…
While the larger area of County Louth, County Meath and Newry has a reputation of being ‘Bandit Country’, this is particularly true of the Cooley Mountains, where IRA members used to hideout and train during the Troubles.
Despite having a population of less than 2,000, this historic village in County Meath is well worth a stop when driving between Belfast and Dublin, thanks to its various sights.
First up is the Hill of Slane, which towers over the village. The hill is significant in Irish folklore as it is here that St Patrick lit a fire at Easter to proclaim Christianity throughout Ireland in the 5th century. The hill retained its religious importance throughout the century and was once home to both a monastery and a Franciscan Friary. The ruins of both can easily be explored today.
Fun fact: on a clear day you can apparently see seven counties of Ireland from the top of the Friary remains.
Close to the centre of the village, you can also find Slane Castle, home to the Conyngham family since the 18th century. Today the castle and its grounds are most famous for hosting concerts attracting the likes of U2, Madonna, David Bowie and Oasis. Unfortunately the castle was closed on the day we passed through.
Another minor point on your roadtrip is the Slane Bridge, a narrow bridge crossing the River Boyne. The beautiful bridge dates from the 14th century and is well worth getting out of your car to take a proper look at.
Fun fact: the crossroads in the centre of Slane have four identical houses on each corner. According to legend, the houses were built by a father for his four suspicious daughters who wanted to keep an eye on each at all times.
Newgrange & Brú na Bóinne
Probably the biggest drawcard along Ireland’s Ancient East, Brú na Bóinne (meaning Palace of the Boyne) is a mundane-looking area on the banks of the river. What sets it apart, however, is the network of over forty different Neolithic burial chambers built here around 2,500 – 3,000 BC.
Newgrange is the largest of these burial chambers and has been extensively reconstructed over the past few decades, along with Knowth and Douth. The chambers pre-date both the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge, with Newgrange reportedly the oldest roofed structure still in existence in the world.
Very little is known about the culture that created the chambers but experts estimate that Newgrange would have taken up to 100 years to create. It is known that the civilisation had engineers as the roof system of Newgrange is entirely waterproof – no water has entered the chamber since its construction over 4,500 years ago.
The biggest quirk of Newgrange, however, is that the inner chamber is lit up by sunlight during the five days Winter Solstice. Just sixty visitors each year are picked via a lottery system to enter the chamber on these days – though sunlight is not guaranteed.
Tours run from the new visitor centre.
The biggest towns between Dublin and Belfast are Drogheda, Dundalk and Newry, which all offer a handful of accommodation options. If you are looking for accommodation in wider County Meath or County Louth, you can search for both on trivago.
Road speeds in the Republic of Ireland show kilometres per hour, while those in Northern Ireland show miles per hour.