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The Guardian: Northern Ireland: where legends are born

The Guardian: Northern Ireland: where legends are born

So what’s it to be? Walking the beach at “Dragonstone” (aka Downhill) where the Seven Idols – of Game of Thrones fame – were burned, or gasping at the size of the Arrol Gantry used to build the world-famous Titanic? An evening of soaring choral music in “music city” Derry-Londonderry or the majestic ruins of Dunluce Castle?
The good news is, you don’t have to choose. Northern Ireland packs a huge amount of romance, culture and landscape into its compact size, and as it’s so accessible it’s easy to explore. Visit in the autumn and you get the added bonus of spectacular reds and golds as the trees in the parks and across the countryside change their wardrobe for the season.

The beauty of Belfast is that it does both big and small, beautifully. Titanic Belfast is, obviously, big! The state-of-the-art visitor experience takes you on a journey from the liner’s construction through its launch to its tragic end. For something smaller, head to the Oh Yeah music centre, and its permanent exhibition devoted to Northern Ireland music heroes.

Oh Yeah is in the heart of the city’s Cathedral Quarter, the perfect place to immerse yourself in the city’s rich culture. Along with its clutch of fine buildings, including St Anne’s Cathedral with its Irish marble and glass mosaics and the Italianate Merchant Hotel, the area has a lively arts scene. Check out the John Hewitt bar for wonderful live music and the Belfast Print Workshop and Gallery, where you can take the lift to the top floor to watch the artists at work.

From Belfast, head out on the Causeway Coastal Route. As well as iconic landmarks – the Giant’s Causeway and Dunluce Castle – this is Game of Thrones country. The medieval fantasy-world of George RR Martin, now a global television phenomenon, was shot along this coastline. Find Cushendun Caves, where sorceress Melisandre gave birth to a shadow baby …

Another beautiful drive is the 92-mile St Patrick’s Trail between Bangor and Armagh. After leaving Bangor – where the now-demolished 6th-century Abbey was once Ireland’s most important seat of learning – stroll the grounds of the Cistercian Grey Abbey, discover Downpatrick’s quaint Saul Church – where St Patrick began his ministry – and explore the town’s Saint Patrick Centre, which tells the 5th-century saint’s remarkable story. Journey’s end is Armagh, with its elegant Georgian streets and duo of “St Patrick” cathedrals: the Church of Ireland cathedral, built on the site of the saint’s first stone church, and the striking twin-spired Catholic cathedral. Be sure to savour the breathtaking views from the former.

By now you may fancy a little entertainment, so set the satnav for Derry-Londonderry. Last year’s UK City of Culture has this year designated itself “Music City”. Soak up the melodies at Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, the city’s stunning cultural centre, which hosts a programme of modern and traditional music. Or squeeze into Peadar O’Donnell’s bar, famed for its impromptu music sessions. But the big event in the city this autumn is the International Choral Festival (22-26 October), which brings over 70 choirs from around the world to the city.
It’s not the only party this season. Head to the Belfast Festival at Queen’s (16 October-1 November), Northern Ireland’s leading contemporary international arts festival, and you can catch acts including Elvis Costello and folk supergroup The Gloaming. Or for something quieter, try From Bolshoi to Belfast: the Theatre of Costume, at Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol.

As well as all this, there’s Ghosts in the Glens storytelling in Cushendall (16-19 Oct); the Banks of the Foyle Hallowe’en Carnival in Derry-Londonderry (29 Oct-2 Nov); Atlantic Sessions on the North Coast music festival (13-16 Nov); and the CS Lewis Festival in Belfast (20-23 Nov).

Autumn is a season of music, culture and incredible beauty in Northern Ireland. The only way to make the most of it is to be there.

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