Rick Steves Snapshot Northern Ireland


By Rick Steves

By Pat O’Connor

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You can count on Rick Steves to tell you what you really need to know when traveling in Northern Ireland.

In this compact guide, Rick Steves and Pat O’Connor offer their best travel tips on Northern Ireland, including Belfast, Portrush, the Antrim Coast, Derry, and County Donegal. Visit the Ulster Museum in Belfast, tour the Dunluce Castle or Giant’s Causeway along the Antrim Coast, or peruse Derry’s political murals. You’ll get firsthand advice on the best sights, eating, sleeping, and nightlife, and the maps and self-guided tours will ensure you make the most of your experience. More than just reviews and directions, a Rick Steves Snapshot guide is a tour guide in your pocket.

Rick Steves Snapshot guides consist of excerpted chapters from Rick Steves European country guidebooks. Snapshot guides are a great choice for travelers visiting a specific city or region, rather than multiple European destinations. These slim guides offer all of Rick’s up-to-date advice on what sights are worth your time and money. They include good-value hotel and restaurant recommendations, with no introductory information (such as overall trip planning, when to go, and travel practicalities).



This Snapshot guide, excerpted from my guidebook Rick Steves Ireland, introduces you to Northern Ireland—an underrated and often overlooked part of the Emerald Isle that surprises visitors with its friendliness. I’ve included a lively mix of cities (Belfast and Derry), smaller towns (Portrush and Bangor), and plenty of lazy rural sights. History is palpable atop the brooding walls of Derry and in the remote and traditional countryside. And, while it’s perfectly safe for a visit, Northern Ireland gives you a feel for Ireland’s 20th-century “Troubles” as nowhere else—especially the provocative political murals in Derry’s Bogside neighborhood, and on Belfast’s Falls Road and Shankill Road. You’ll also find enjoyable escapes: From the breezy seaside resort of Portrush, you can visit the scenic Antrim Coast—which boasts the unique staggered-columns geology of the Giant’s Causeway, the spectacularly set Dunluce Castle, and a chance to sample whiskey at Old Bushmills Distillery.

To help you have the best trip possible, I’ve included the following topics in this book:

Planning Your Time, with advice on how to make the most of your limited time

Orientation, including tourist information (abbreviated as TI), tips on public transportation, local tour options, and helpful hints

Sights with ratings:

▲▲▲—Don’t miss

▲▲—Try hard to see

—Worthwhile if you can make it

No rating—Worth knowing about

Sleeping and Eating, with good-value recommendations in every price range

Connections, with tips on trains, buses, and driving

Practicalities, near the end of this book, has information on money, staying connected, hotel reservations, transportation, and more.

To travel smartly, read this little book in its entirety before you go. It’s my hope that this guide will make your trip more meaningful and rewarding. Traveling like a temporary local, you’ll get the absolute most out of every mile, minute, and dollar.

Happy travels!



Northern Ireland is a different country from the Republic—both politically (it’s part of the United Kingdom) and culturally (a combination of Irish, Scottish, and English influences). Occupying the northern one-sixth of the island of Ireland, it’s only about 13 miles from Scotland at the narrowest point of the North Channel, and bordered on the south and west by the Republic.

That border is almost invisible. But when you leave the Republic of Ireland and enter Northern Ireland, you are crossing an international border (although you don’t have to flash your passport). The 2016 British referendum vote to leave the EU may change the way this border crossing is handled in the future, but for now it’s business as usual (see “The Brexit Effect” sidebar, later).

You won’t use euros here; Northern Ireland issues its own Ulster pound, which, like the Scottish pound, is interchangeable with the English pound (€1 = about £0.88; £1 = about $1.30). Price differences create a lively daily shopping trade for those living near the border. Some establishments near the border may take euros, but at a lousy exchange rate. Keep any euros for your return to the Republic, and get pounds from an ATM inside Northern Ireland instead. And if you’re heading to Britain next, it’s best to change your Ulster pounds into English ones (free at any bank in Northern Ireland, England, Wales, or Scotland).

A generation ago, Northern Ireland was a sadly contorted corner of the world. On my first visit, I remember thinking that even the name of this region sounded painful (“Ulster” seemed to me like a combination of “ulcer” and “blister”). But today, Northern Ireland has emerged from the dark shadow of the decades-long political strife and violence known as the Troubles. And while not as popular among tourists as its neighbor to the south, Northern Ireland offers plenty to see and do...and learn.

It’s important for visitors to Northern Ireland to understand the ways in which its population is segregated along political, religious, and cultural lines. Roughly speaking, the eastern seaboard is more Unionist, Protestant, and of English-Scottish heritage, while the south and west (bordering the Republic of Ireland) are Nationalist, Catholic, and of indigenous Irish descent. Cities are often clearly divided between neighborhoods of one group or the other. Early in life, locals learn to identify the highly symbolic (and highly charged) colors, jewelry, music, names, accents, and vocabulary that distinguish the cultural groups.

Over the last century, the conflict between these two groups has been not about faith, but about politics: Will Northern Ireland stay part of the United Kingdom (Unionists), or become part of the Republic of Ireland (Nationalists)?

The roots of Protestant and Catholic differences date back to the time when Ireland was a colony of Great Britain. Four hundred years ago, Protestant settlers from England and Scotland were strategically “planted” in Catholic Ireland to help assimilate the island into the British economy. In 1620, the dominant English powerbase in London felt entitled to call both islands—Ireland as well as Britain—the “British Isles” on maps (a geographic label that irritates Irish Nationalists to this day). These Protestant settlers established their own cultural toehold on the island, laying claim to the most fertile land. Might made right, and God was on their side. Meanwhile, the underdog Catholic Irish held strong to their Gaelic culture on their ever-diminishing, boggy, rocky farms.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the sparse Protestant population could no longer control the entire island. When Ireland won its independence in 1921 (after a bloody guerrilla war against British rule), 26 of the island’s 32 counties became the Irish Free State, ruled from Dublin with dominion status in the British Commonwealth—similar to Canada’s level of sovereignty. In 1949, these 26 counties left the Commonwealth altogether and became the Republic of Ireland, severing all political ties with Britain. Meanwhile, the six remaining northeastern counties—the only ones with a Protestant majority who considered themselves British—chose not to join the Irish Free State and remained part of the UK.

But within these six counties—now joined as the political entity called Northern Ireland—was a large, disaffected Irish (mostly Catholic) minority who felt marginalized by the drawing of the new international border. This sentiment was represented by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who wanted all 32 of Ireland’s counties to be united in one Irish nation—their political goals were “Nationalist.” Their political opponents were the “Unionists”—Protestant British eager to defend the union with Britain, who were primarily led by two groups: the long-established Orange Order, and the military muscle of the newly mobilized Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

In World War II, the Republic stayed neutral while the North enthusiastically supported the Allied cause—winning a spot close to London’s heart. Derry (a.k.a. Londonderry) became an essential Allied convoy port, while Belfast lost more than 800 civilians during four Luftwaffe bombing raids in 1941. After the war, the split between North and South seemed permanent, and Britain invested heavily in Northern Ireland to bring it solidly into the UK fold.

In the Republic of Ireland (the South), where the population was 94 percent Catholic and only 6 percent Protestant, there was a clearly dominant majority. But in the North, at the time it was formed, Catholics were a sizable 35 percent of the population—enough to demand attention when they complained about anti-Catholic discrimination on the part of the Protestant government. It was this discrimination that led to the Troubles, the conflict that filled headlines from the late 1960s to the late 1990s.

Partly inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in America—beamed into Irish living rooms by the new magic of television news—in the 1960s the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland began a nonviolent struggle to end discrimination, advocating for better jobs and housing. Extremists polarized issues, and once-peaceful demonstrations—also broadcast on TV news—became violent.

Unionists were afraid that if the island became one nation, the relatively poor Republic of Ireland would drag down the comparatively affluent North, and feared losing political power to a Catholic majority. As the two sides clashed in 1969, the British Army entered the fray. Their role, initially a peacekeeping one, gradually evolved into acting as muscle for the Unionist government. In 1972, a tragic watershed year, more than 500 people died as combatants moved from petrol bombs to guns, and a new, more violent IRA emerged. In the 30-year (1968-1998) chapter of the struggle for an independent and united Ireland, more than 3,000 people died.

In the 1990s—with the UK (and Ireland’s) membership in the EU, the growth of its economy, and the weakening of the Catholic Church’s authority—the influence of the Republic of Ireland became less threatening to the Unionists. Optimists hailed the signing of a breakthrough peace plan in 1998, called the “Good Friday Peace Accord” by Nationalists, or the “Belfast Agreement” by Unionists. This led to the release of political prisoners on both sides in 2000—a highly emotional event.

British Army surveillance towers in Northern Ireland cities were dismantled in 2006, and the army formally ended its 38-year-long Operation Banner campaign in 2007. In 2010, the peace process was jolted forward by a surprisingly forthright apology offered by then British Prime Minister David Cameron, who expressed regret for the British Army’s offenses on Bloody Sunday. The apology was prompted by the Saville Report—the results of an investigation conducted by the UK government as part of the Good Friday Peace Accord. It found that the 1972 shootings of Nationalist civil-rights marchers on Bloody Sunday by British soldiers was “unjustified” and the victims innocent (vindication for the victims’ families, who had fought since 1972 to clear their loved ones’ names).

Major hurdles to a lasting peace persist, but downtown checkpoints and “bomb-damage clearance sales” have been gone for decades. Replacing them are a forest of construction cranes, especially in rejuvenated Belfast. Tourists in Northern Ireland were once considered courageous (or reckless). Today, more tourists than ever are venturing north to Belfast and Derry, and cruise-ship crowds disembark in Belfast to board charter buses that fan out to visit the Giant’s Causeway and Old Bushmills Distillery.

When locals spot you with a map and a lost look on your face, they’re likely to ask, “Wot yer lookin fer?” in their distinctive Northern accent. They’re not suspicious of you, but trying to help you find your way. They may even “giggle” (Google) it for you. You’re safer in Belfast than in many UK cities—and far safer, statistically, than in most major US cities. You’d have to look for trouble to find it here. Just don’t seek out spit-and-sawdust pubs in working-class neighborhoods and spew simplistic opinions about sensitive local topics. Tourists notice lingering tension mainly during the “marching season” (Easter-Aug, peaking in early July). July 12—“the Twelfth”—is traditionally the most confrontational day of the year in the North, when proud Protestant Unionist Orangemen march to celebrate their Britishness (often through staunchly Nationalist Catholic neighborhoods—it’s still good advice to lie low if you stumble onto any big Orange parades).


On Sale
Jan 16, 2018
Page Count
108 pages
Rick Steves

Rick Steves

About the Author

Since 1973, Rick Steves has spent about four months a year exploring Europe. His mission: to empower Americans to have European trips that are fun, affordable, and culturally broadening. Rick produces a best-selling guidebook series, a public television series, and a public radio show, and organizes small-group tours that take over 30,000 travelers to Europe annually.  He does all of this with the help of more than 100 well-traveled staff members at Rick Steves’ Europe in Edmonds, WA (near Seattle). When not on the road, Rick is active in his church and with advocacy groups focused on economic and social justice, drug policy reform, and ending hunger. To recharge, Rick plays piano, relaxes at his family cabin in the Cascade Mountains, and spends time with his son Andy and daughter Jackie. Find out more about Rick at http://www.ricksteves.com and on Facebook.

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