People visit Dublin for all sorts of reasons – to explore the history and architecture in Ireland’s capital, to drink Guinness in its birthplace, and to dress like a leprechaun and celebrate with thousands of other people on St Patrick’s Day among many, many other reasons. Me, I came to see a library. Not just any old library, though, one of the most beautiful libraries in the world – the Old Library at Trinity College. And more specifically, the Long Room within the Old Library.
Trinity College Library is the largest library in Ireland, home to a massive collection of something like 6 million books and manuscripts. To house their ever-growing volume of literary content, several different library buildings have been built on the Trinity College campus over the years, the most visited of which by far (by non-students, anyway) is the Old Library.
Built in the 18th century, the Old Library at Trinity College is one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions thanks to its exhibition of the Book of Kells, a 1,200 year old manuscript containing four extravagantly illustrated volumes of the gospels of the New Testament. Considered to be Ireland’s greatest national treasure, the Book of Kells isn’t the only treasure you’ll find in the Old Library, however. Instead, the highlight for me was getting to see Trinity College Library’s magnificent, library-lust-inducing Long Room.
Dark, oak-paneled walls, an elegant vaulted ceiling, two levels of floor to ceiling bookcases containing 200,000 of the library’s oldest and most valuable books – these are the things library dreams are made of. Stretching over 200 feet in length, the Long Room also features a large collection of marble busts of some of history’s most brilliant philosophers and writers as well as one of the three oldest surviving harps in Ireland.
From a photography standpoint, the Long Room is hard to beat. Like, good luck taking a bad photo in here, because it’s impossible. From a book-lover’s standpoint, you’ll definitely want to move into Dublin’s most beautiful library and never leave. I was really trying to scale down the amount of images in this post, especially since many are quite similar, but then I realized just like you can never have too many books, you can also never have too many pictures of books and the beautiful libraries they live in. And so, you’ll find a whole bunch of my favorite photos from the Long Room for your viewing pleasure below.
The Old Library, the Book of Kells exhibition, and the Long Room are open daily to visitors. Current ticket prices and opening hours can be found here. Note: A ticket to see the Book of Kells also gets you into the Long Room. If you’re interested in a guided tour of Trinity College with admission to the Old Library included, check out this page here.
Only twice have we almost missed a flight back home while traveling. The funny thing is, we were visiting the exact same country on both of these occasions.
Ireland will do that to you, though. It’s so easy to lose track of time when you’re hiking along famous cliffsides, driving some of the prettiest coastal routes in the world, and getting caught up in the excitement of Ireland’s vibrant capital city.
Dublin was the destination for our most recent trip to Ireland. Having only spent time in Ireland’s smaller villages and towns previously, we weren’t really sure what to expect from the country’s busy capital and attempted to arrive without any expectations. Not surprisingly, we discovered a city filled with the same sort of warm, generous people we’d met elsewhere in the country (there are, apparently, no strangers in Ireland), and one that takes great pride in its rich history, yet still feels energetically youthful and modern.
What was maybe a bit more surprising was just how expensive Dublin is. We’re talking London-expensive, maybe even more so. You’ll feel the most impact when it comes to finding accommodations, but food and drink in Dublin will also drain your wallet faster than you can say, “Pass me another Guinness!”
Luckily, there are several ways to balance out, and in some cases avoid, some of the city’s more budget-killing expenses. The easiest (and most fun!) of these is taking advantage of all the free things to do in Dublin, of which there are many. We’ve got 12 of our favorite free things to do in Dublin listed below, along with a few money-saving budget travel tips for Dublin. If you’ve got a few tips of your own, please feel free to share in the comments!
12 FREE THINGS TO DO IN DUBLIN
1. EXPLORE TRINITY COLLEGE
The alma mater of a whole host of famous Irish poets, artists, and politicians, Trinity College is Ireland’s oldest university and, depending on who you talk to, its most prestigious. Its architecture resembling that of its English counterparts at Cambridge and Oxford, no visit to Dublin is complete without a stop to see this beautiful university.
While you’ll have to pay to enter the Long Room of the Old Library and see the Book of Kells, taking a walk among the historic buildings of the campus is free, as is entrance into the Science Gallery inside Trinity’s Naughton Institute which features several art and science exhibitions throughout the year.
2. RELAX IN ST STEPHAN’S GREEN
Providing a respite from the busy streets of the city, many of Dublin’s most beautiful public parks are located right in the city center. Our favorite was St Stephan’s Green off of Grafton Street. With its tree-lined walking trails and open green spaces overlooking a lake, we found ourselves coming here to relax more than once on our short stay in the city.
Besides being a great place to take a quiet walk, the grass beside the gazebo on the lake makes a perfect spot for a picnic on a pretty day. If you’re lucky, you might even get to witness impromptu skits and shows in the gazebo while you’re there!
3. CROSS HA’PENNY BRIDGE
Why does crossing a bridge make the list of free things to do in Dublin? Because it’s an icon, that’s why. Like Tower Bridge in London (albeit on a much, much smaller scale), crossing the Ha’Penny Bridge is just something you do. And these days, there’s not even a half-penny charge to do it.
Connecting the north side of Dublin with the south across the River Liffey, Ha’Penny Bridge is the oldest pedestrian bridge in Dublin. Made of cast iron and painted white, it’s actually a quite pretty one as well. You’ll find Ha’Penny Bridge near the popular Temple Bar district.
4. DISCOVER DUBLIN’S ECLECTIC ART SCENE
From colorful street art to sculpture, you’ll find no shortage of public art displays to appreciate throughout the city. If you take this free walking tour of Dublin, you’ll pass quite a bit of Dublin’s best outdoor art, but you can also explore it on your own simply by paying attention as you walk to and through many of the other sights on this list.
Sidenote: The gold sphere pictured above is called Sfera con Sfera, or Sphere within a Sphere. Found inside Trinity College, this is actually just one piece of a series by Arnaldo Pomodoro found in many locations around the world. (We saw another at the Vatican Museums in Italy!)
5. TAKE A SCENIC WALK ALONG THE CANALS
The inner city of Dublin is encircled by two separate canals – the Royal Canal in the north and the Grand Canal in the south. Both canals connect the River Liffey with the River Shannon further west and were once used for transportation and shipping. These days, the canals serve a more leisurely purpose, both featuring scenic walking and cycling trails.
For a quick, 20-minute walk down the Grand Canal not far from Dublin’s main sights, start at Leeson Street Bridge near St Stephan’s Green and head east until you reach the end of the canal at the Grand Canal Dock. We walked this path and it was lovely, especially in the area near Huband Bridge, pictured above. For a half-hour walk down the Royal Canal that will take you close to the National Botanic Gardens (which are free to enter), follow the Royal Canal Way from Newcomen Bridge near the docklands to Cross Guns Basin.
6. WINDOW SHOP ON DUBLIN’S BEST SHOPPING STREETS
Obviously, if you buy something, then you can no longer count this one as free, but window shopping and admiring all the unique goods for sale in the shops is always free of charge.
Grafton Street is Dublin’s main shopping street featuring mostly popular chain stores with a few independent shops thrown in the mix. We much preferred perusing the boutique shops on South William Street and Drury Street, and especially George’s Street Arcade off of Drury Street, however. This area is known as the Creative Quarter and you’ll no doubt find at least a dozen different things you’d like to carry home in your suitcase. For luxury window shopping, check out Powercourt Centre – a Georgian mansion turned elegant shopping mall.
7. CHECK OUT THE TEMPLE BAR DISTRICT
The Temple Bar district, located on the south bank of the River Liffey, was once an area Dublin’s elite called home, but by the 18th century it had developed into something more akin to Amsterdam’s Red Light district. The area continued to go downhill until the 1990’s when the city began a regeneration project to turn Temple Bar into a cultural quarter. Many different cultural centers are based here, from photography galleries to film institutes, but the thing that draws most tourists to this area of the city is its lively atmosphere and the wide range of pubs offering nightly live music.
Temple Bar is touristy and often overcrowded, yet nonetheless still worth visiting if only for a little people-watching. If you’re into photography, Temple Bar’s cobbled streets and colorful buildings are fun subjects to photograph, but you’ll want to visit early in the morning before the pubs and shops open to capture them before the crowds descend. Even if photography isn’t your reason for visiting, I suggest checking out this area during the day as it’s well-known for getting a little rowdy at night.
8. WALK ALONG THE RIVER LIFFEY FROM O’CONNELL BRIDGE TO SAMUEL BECKETT BRIDGE
The River Liffey flows straight through the city of Dublin and you’ll no doubt cross over it several times during your visit. But instead of just crossing over and giving it a wave as you head on to your next destination, consider taking a walk down its banks. Some of the city’s most interesting architecture can be seen by following the path of the Liffey.
We walked several portions of the river while we were in Dublin, but our favorite route was from O’Connell Bridge to Samuel Beckett Bridge. One-way, the walk takes only 20-minutes and you’ll get to see all sorts of beautiful buildings like the neoclassical Custom House and the futuristic Dublin Convention Center, not to mention the Samuel Beckett Bridge itself which looks like a giant harp stretching across the water.
9. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF DUBLIN’S FREE MUSEUMS & GALLERIES
If only all cities offered as many free museums and art galleries to its residents and visitors as Dublin does – you could spend your whole holiday exploring them and still not see them all! From modern art and photography to ancient artifacts and history, unless you hate visiting museums, you’ll be able to find one in Dublin that interests you.
Our personal favorite was the Natural History Museum, lovingly nicknamed the Dead Zoo. (I swear it’s not as creepy as the nickname makes it sound – ha!) Housed in a historic Victorian building, the Natural History Museum opened in the mid-19th century and hasn’t changed a whole lot since. Its vintage displays and contents have become something of a novelty. If retro displays of insects and ancient taxidermy aren’t your thing, the National Museum of Ireland, the National Gallery of Ireland, the Dublin City Gallery, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art are a few of Dublin’s more popular free museums you might want to check out.
Sidenote: I’ve just discovered Dublin is also home to the National Leprechaun Museum. It’s not free, but with a name like that they could charge whatever they wanted and I’d still check it out!
10. STROLL THROUGH THE GARDENS IN MERRION SQUARE
Another of our favorite public parks in Dublin, Merrion Square is a tranquil Georgian garden square located not too far from St Stephan’s Green. Bordered on three sides by elegant Georgian mansions, walking through Merrion Square feels like taking a walk back in time. At lunchtime, you’ll find many people stretched out in the park, basking in the sunlight and eating their lunch picnic-style.
Walking paths wind through the square’s immaculate gardens where you’ll find a variety of interesting sculptures and installations amidst all the blooming flowers and greenery. The best one is a statue of Oscar Wilde resting on a rock, found in the northwest corner of the square.
11. DISCOVER DUBLIN’S DOORS
One thing you’re bound to notice as you wander through the city is Dublin’s considerable collection of colorful doors. Elegant reds, bumblebee yellows, pastel pinks, electric blues and everything in between – they make front doors in every other country look boring in comparison.
The tradition of painting doors in bold colors dates back to Georgian times when all new homes being built had strict guidelines they had to adhere to, resulting in many neighborhoods taking on a somewhat uniform appearance. To combat the lack of originality in the architecture, homeowners began painting their doors and installing imaginative doorknockers to show off their personality. These special touches remain today and can be seen via guided walking tours like this one, or if you want to explore on your own for free, some of Dublin’s best doors can be found in Merrion Square, Fitzwilliam Square, Upper and Lower Leeson Street, and Lower Baggot Street.
12. ENJOY TRADITIONAL IRISH MUSIC IN THE PUBS
And finally, it’s not a proper trip to Ireland if you haven’t spent an evening listening to traditional Irish music in a pub. You won’t have to search far to find one either, because if there’s one thing Dublin has more of than colorful doors, it’s pubs. And many of them offer free live music every night of the week.
Our favorite spot in Dublin offering nightly Irish folk music was O’Donoghue’s Pub. Recommended by our local hosts, O’Donoghue’s felt like a truly authentic Irish pub, not the touristy version you’ll find in Temple Bar. While the shows are free in most pubs, you will need to purchase something to eat or drink to be able to listen, and don’t forget to tip the band at the end of the night!
BUDGET TRAVEL TIPS FOR DUBLIN
GETTING TO DUBLIN
Usually the journey to a destination costs more than anything else in our budget, but this wasn’t the case in Dublin thanks to the city being the homebase for Ryanair, one of Europe’s major budget airlines. If you’re willing to fly budget, reaching Dublin from London often costs as little as $30 USD one way with Ryanair. Flights from other cities in Europe are frequent and nearly as inexpensive. We’ve found booking directly with the airline to be cheapest, and if you watch, they’ll often have flash sales where tickets go for as little as $20 USD one way.
If you’re coming from Northern Ireland as we were, it’s equally as cheap to travel to Dublin and you won’t even have to worry about flights. Just hop on the Translink train in Belfast and you’ll be in Dublin in under three hours for around $20 USD per person.
GETTING AROUND IN DUBLIN
The Dublin airport is about 6 miles from the city center. The cheapest way to transfer from the airport to the city is to take the Dublin Bus for €3.30. (Number 41 goes to the city center, but you should check the website to see if others will get you closer to your hotel.) Since we were cutting it close when leaving Dublin, we didn’t have time to take the public bus to the airport, so we took the Express Aircoach from Ballsbridge for €8.50 instead. Definitely not the cheapest, but it’s a good option if you’ve got limited time.
Dublin is a pretty compact city, so unless you’re traveling outside of the center, you’ll be able to walk everywhere. We did so much walking in Dublin that we beat our previous record of daily steps while traveling with a whopping 31,000 steps our first day in Dublin. If you’d rather not walk that much or can’t, the public buses are a cheap and convenient way to get around. You can find a list of timetables via the link above. If you plan to use the buses frequently, purchasing a Leap Card will likely end up saving you money.
WHERE TO STAY IN DUBLIN
Be prepared to blow the majority of your holiday budget on your accommodations in Dublin if you want to stay in the city center. A place to sleep in this city does not come cheap. In fact, it’s the first place we’ve been where we couldn’t even find a good deal via Airbnb. (They’re pretty equivalent to hotel prices, which is nuts.)
We ended up calling in a favor and stayed with friends in Dublin to save a little cash, but assuming you don’t have Irish friends who will let you crash in their extra bedroom, consider staying just outside the city center. The Leeson Bridge Guesthouse is located just south of St Stephan’s Green and is where we were looking at booking a room initially. Their guesthouse gets great reviews and their rates are more reasonable than most other hotels in the area at €100 per night for a double room.
Alternatively, if you’re visiting Dublin in the summer, booking a room in the dorms at Trinity College would be a fun and relatively inexpensive way to stay in the center of the city.
Usually, I recommend staying in hotels that offer a free breakfast, but with hotels in Dublin charging such high fees per night, a much cheaper way to get a hearty breakfast is to order a fry up, aka a full Irish breakfast, in a cafe. It’s not exactly healthy, but for under €10 you’ll receive a plate with enough food on it to last you to dinner.
If you do end up needing lunch, a cheaper option than eating in one of Dublin’s cafes or restaurants is to grab take-away sandwiches and salads from somewhere like Cafe Sol (this was our favorite chain in Dublin) and eat in one of Dublin’s public parks. You’ll see a lot of people doing this during the warmer months and it’s a great way to enjoy an inexpensive meal in a beautiful setting.
Cheap dinner options in Dublin, at least the sit-down kind with decent food, are few and far between, so hopefully you saved enough at breakfast and lunch to feel comfortable splurging a little at the end of the day. One of our favorite mid-priced dinner spots in the city center was Matt the Thresher. If you enjoy seafood, we highly recommend eating in their stylish restaurant and bar. For absolutely outstanding food a little outside the city center, Roly’s Bistro is also not to be missed.
Any other budget travel tips or free things to do in Dublin I left out? Leave them in the comments!
If you’re paying a visit to Northern Ireland, it’s practically obligatory that you take a drive along the Causeway Coastal Route at some point during your holiday. Stretching 130 miles from Derry to Belfast, the Causeway Coastal Route is easily one of the world’s most scenic drives. Rugged, emerald cliffs, breathtaking sea views, and the iconic Giant’s Causeway combined with man-made stunners like Dunluce Castle and Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge ensure you’ll find no shortage of scenic places to stop along the way.
While following a guide (like this one) is a great way to get started along the Causeway Coastal Route, leaving yourself enough time for unscheduled stop-offs is essential. As you’re driving along, it’s pretty well guaranteed several places will catch your eye that weren’t listed on any guide. And if you’re anything like us, these accidental discoveries will end up being your most favorite stops along the drive. At least that was the case for us with Kinbane Castle anyway.
Built in the 1500’s by the MacDonnell clan on a dramatic limestone headland projecting off the Co. Antrim coast, Kinbane Castle was once a striking two-story castle. Unfortunately, somewhere around the 18th century, the castle was abandoned and over the following centuries, it fell to ruins. The only pieces remaining today are a portion of the castle tower and an exterior wall.
Since so little of the castle still stands, if you decide to make stopping at Kinbane Castle a priority on your Causeway Coastal Route to-see list, you won’t necessarily be doing it for the castle itself. Instead, the thing that makes coming out here worth it is the view.
GETTING TO KINBANE CASTLE
Located three miles west of the town of Ballycastle, if you’re headed towards Ballycastle from the Giant’s Causeway, you’ll see a small sign labeled ‘Kinbane Head’ along the road about five minutes after passing the turn-off for Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. You’ll make a left turn here and follow a narrow, dirt road until you reach a parking lot at the edge of the cliffs. (Google Maps directions here.) Parking is free, as is entrance into the Kinbane Castle site.
After you’ve parked, it’s a short hike down to the castle via a gravel path with stairsteps in some of the steeper parts. While you can manage getting up and down to the castle wearing pretty much any sort of footwear, if you plan to walk out to the end of the headland, I definitely suggest wearing tennis shoes or hiking boots.
WHY VISIT KINBANE CASTLE?
Besides the wild, unspoiled beauty of the headland itself, Kinbane Castle is also perfectly situated so as to offer impressive views both looking back toward the cliffs along the mainland and out to Rathlin Island and beyond in the North Atlantic Ocean. In other words, if you’re looking to capture landscape photos that embody the dramatic scenery Northern Island is known for, you won’t want to skip this one.
Because it’s often passed over by travelers down the Causeway Coastal Route that don’t even know of its existence, Kinbane Castle feels delightfully isolated. If you’d like to escape the crowds that tend to overwhelm some of Northern Ireland’s more popular destinations, this is a great place to come at mid-day when those places are at their busiest. With little more than seabirds to keep us company during the hour we spent exploring the castle ruins and the headland, Kinbane Castle was by far the most relaxing spot we visited along the coast.
BE CAREFUL WALKING ALONG THE HEADLAND
Kinbane Castle is situated fairly close to the mainland where the headland is a bit wider, so as long as you stay on the path, you’ll be safe. If you decide to venture past the castle, however, the headland (and the path on it) narrows considerably and you’ll definitely want to be wearing that proper footwear I mentioned earlier to keep from slipping. (Which would be a disaster as there is literally nothing to catch you if you fall. Yikes.)
Having walked across Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge the day before, I had already hit my quota of doing scary things on vacation for this trip, so we didn’t walk all the way out to the end of the headland. Instead, we stopped just short of where the path narrows to what looks like tightrope walker-level width and were perfectly happy with the views we had from where we were. I think this probably goes without saying, but if it’s a wet or windy day, don’t take any risks out here!
It was a beautiful, sunny day when we visited, so we plopped down in the soft grass and made flower crowns out of the wildflowers blooming all over the headland and basked in the sunshine for a while on what felt like our own private piece of the Irish coast. Two years later, the simple, quiet moments we spent out here are still one of my favorite travel memories. If you’re driving the Causeway Coastal Route and have enough time to spare, definitely give Kinbane Castle a look. I’d be surprised if it didn’t become one of your favorite spots in Northern Ireland, too.
A strong wind coming off the sea whipped my scarf around my face and I gripped it tight to keep it from blowing away. I watched the bridge in front of me sway from side to side, and heard its wooden boards creak with the weight of the people currently crossing it. Suddenly, the island on the other side looked to be 600 feet away instead of 60.
I felt an all-too-familiar knot form in the pit of my stomach as I took my position at the front of the queue. Looking back, a few dozen faces stared back at mine, waiting for me to move forward. Reluctantly, I turned to face the task ahead. Just why did I think crossing Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge was a good idea again?
WHAT IS CARRICK-A-REDE ROPE BRIDGE?
Once serving as a way for salmon fisherman to reach the island of Carrick-a-Rede from the mainland of Northern Ireland, these days the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a bridge made of nothing more than rope and carefully spaced wooden slats, is a tourist attraction maintained by the National Trust. Several versions of the bridge have existed over the past 250+ years since the first one was erected. The current Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, built in 2008, stretches 65 feet in length, and hangs suspended around 100 feet above the chasm below.
Between the thrill of crossing a seemingly perilous bridge and the phenomenal panoramic views of Northern Ireland’s coast offered from the island on the other side, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge sees quite a few visitors every day. Tickets are timed entry and sold on-site at the ticket booth near the parking lot. To ensure you can cross the bridge at the time of day you prefer (especially during peak season), it’s best to arrive fairly soon after they open in the morning to purchase your tickets. Current ticket prices can be found here.
GETTING TO CARRICK-A-REDE ROPE BRIDGE
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is located in the town of Ballintoy along the coast of Co. Antrim. You can reach the bridge on foot by walking the Causeway Coast Way, but there is also a parking lot where you can park for free if you choose to drive. (The bridge is about 7 miles east of the Giant’s Causeway.) Google Maps directions here.
After parking and purchasing your ticket, you’ll need to walk about 15-20 minutes along the Carrick-a-Rede coastal walk to reach the bridge. It’s an easy path to follow with lovely views the entire way of the coast and fluffy sheep grazing on the hillsides. If you’re nervous about crossing the bridge, this walk is a great way to distract yourself from what’s coming next. :)
CROSSING CARRICK-A-REDE ROPE BRIDGE
Depending on your relationship with heights, crossing Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge will either be exhilarating or some combination of nauseating, harrowing, and panic-inducing. Suffice it to say, if you suffer from vertigo or an extreme fear of heights, this probably isn’t the bridge for you.
Heights and I haven’t seen eye to eye since I was about 25 years old, so typically I avoid situations such as this one like I would any other life or death situation. But in this case, the prospect of being able to capture scenic photos of the coastline from the other side was just too tempting. I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t do it, which leads me to where I left off in the introduction – crossing the bridge.
Taking into consideration the popularity of Carrick-a-Rede, chances are there will be a queue for the bridge when you visit. Whether or not that is a good thing is up for debate. On the one hand, it offers the opportunity to watch several other people successfully cross the bridge without spontaneously tumbling over the side. On the other hand, if you’re a ‘let’s-just-get-it-over-with’ sort of person, the wait is agonizing.
When it was finally our turn to cross (no more than 8 people are allowed on the bridge at a time), I passed my camera off to Cory. I didn’t want anything in my hands but the handropes. (Don’t let my smile fool you. That is my tense, death-grip-on-the-ropes smile.) Which brings me to the proper way to cross this bridge. Hint: It’s not how the man looking over the edge is doing it. He has clearly lost his mind and needs help.
Proper Carrick-a-Rede Bridge Crossing Etiquette:
Wipe sweaty palms on clothes.
Place one hand on each handrope.
Grip tightly so if bridge spontaneously snaps, you can hang on Indiana Jones-style.
Do nothing to make the bridge sway more than it already does.
Walk across bridge without stopping.
Look straight ahead, and do not look down.
I said, DO NOT LOOK DOWN!
Pretend it was all nothing once you reach the other side to save face.
THE VIEW FROM CARRICK-A-REDE ISLAND
Once you reach the other side of the bridge you can start breathing again because you’re officially back on solid ground. And your reward for your bravery is one of the most beautiful views in Northern Ireland.
The cliffs along the coast are stunning here, particularly in the spring when they’re covered in tall, green coastal grass and blooming wildflowers. Looking down, you’ll be able to spot several sea caves carved into the sides of the cliffs, and if you’re lucky, maybe even a few dolphins and porpoises playing in the water. Speaking of the water, its color is more like something you’d find in the Caribbean than the UK – so many vivid greens and blues, and so clear you can see straight through it to the rocky bottom of the seabed. Looking out to sea, the closest landmass is Rathlin Island four miles away, but on a clear day you can even see all the way to Scotland!
Meaning the Rock in the Road, the island of Carrick-a-Rede is really quite small. Besides an old fisherman’s cottage, there isn’t anything to see on the island save for the views. (A path winds around to all corners of the island. If you stray off the path, be careful. It’s a steep drop down.) After a little over half an hour, we were ready to head back over. Well, as ready as you can be to do the same scary thing twice in one afternoon.
CROSSING BACK OVER THE BRIDGE
Just like on the way over, you’ll likely have to queue up before crossing back to the mainland. I mentioned earlier that only 8 people are allowed on the bridge at a time, but I think I forgot to say they all have to be going in the same direction as well. So you’ll never have to actually pass people on the bridge. Thank goodness.
Oddly enough, I had a more difficult time crossing the bridge on the way back over than I did the first time. Maybe it was because I didn’t heed my own advice of not looking down and made the unfortunate observation that it is indeed possible to see through the bottom of the bridge, which is my greatest fear with heights. (If I can’t see through the bottom of whatever I’m standing on, I’m normally okay. If I can, disaster ensues.) Or maybe it was because the bridge was swaying a whole lot more this time around. Whatever the reason, I was this close to sitting on my butt and scooting my way across the bridge, because I am a ridiculous human being when I’m scared.
If you’re struggling, too, just keep in mind the fishermen used to cross this bridge when it had only one handrope while carrying their fishing gear and catch of the day in their other hand. You’ve got two handropes and a much sturdier bridge – you’re going to be fine.
HIKING NEAR CARRICK-A-REDE ROPE BRIDGE
Once safely back on the other side, instead of walking straight back to your car, I recommend taking a little detour and heading east on the Carrick-a-Rede coastal walk first. You won’t have to walk far to get a much wider view of the passage you just crossed. Back at the car park, the Carrick-a-Rede coastal walk joins up with the Causeway Coast Way (full route here), so if you’re up for a lengthier hike, walking a portion of that would be a great way to explore more of the coast.
Tell me, would you be brave enough to cross Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge?
Have you ever anticipated visiting a particular place so much and for so long that when the opportunity to see it finally comes around, you’re actually kind of nervous about it? (Please, please tell me this isn’t just me.) This is how I felt about seeing the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland for the first time and it’s how I still feel about visiting the Grand Canyon, New Zealand’s South Island, and pretty much the entire country of Iceland.
I tend to build places like these up so much in my mind that I fear the act of actually visiting them will somehow end in disappointment – maybe they’ll be too crowded, or the weather will be off, or I’ll take crappy photos and not have anything worthwhile to remember the experience by. (I mean, come on, Sarah, get over yourself.) This bizarre fear of travel disappointment often causes me to delay visiting the places I want to see the most, which explains why it took me three full years of living in the UK to finally make it over to Northern Ireland’s most majestic natural beauty – the Giant’s Causeway.
WHAT IS THE GIANT’S CAUSEWAY?
The Giant’s Causeway is a unique stretch of Northern Ireland’s coast in Co. Antrim featuring a massive network of over 40,000 interlocking stone columns. Some columns are tall, some are short, some are wide, and some are narrow – basically, the Giant’s Causeway is like one enormous rock puzzle beside the sea.
How the Giant’s Causeway came into being is the subject of good-natured debate. Scientists believe it was volcanic activity some 60 million years ago (creationists believe it was a little more recent than that), but by far the most interesting explanation comes from Irish mythology, as all the best explanations do. According to Irish legend, what remains of the Causeway today was once part of a road built by the great Irish giant Finn MacCool that stretched from the coast of Northern Ireland across the North Channel to Scotland so that MacCool could fight one of Scotland’s most notorious giants, Benandonner. The rest of the story involves a little trickery on MacCool’s part, resulting in Benandonner destroying the road (save for the portions remaining along the coast in Northern Ireland and a similar, smaller structure on the Scottish island of Staffa) to keep from having to fight MacCool.
Whichever origin you choose to believe, seeing the dramatic landscape of the Giant’s Causeway in person feels like an otherworldly experience. Assuming you visit at the right time of day, that is. For tips on the best times to visit the Giant’s Causeway, keep on reading!
SUNRISE AT THE GIANT’S CAUSEWAY
The Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO world heritage site and Northern Ireland’s most visited natural attraction, which means if you want to avoid the crowds, you’re going to have to get there early. Like, sunrise early during certain months of the year. Tour buses from Belfast start arriving at the Giant’s Causeway around 10am, so in the winter months when sunrise isn’t until close to 9am, you’d better already be out there. During the summer months when sunrise occurs much earlier, arriving at sun up isn’t quite as necessary, but it’s still best to arrive as early in the morning as you can, especially if the quality of photos you capture is important to you.
On our visit, we didn’t quite make it for sunrise, but we still got to enjoy that lovely warm light that comes afterwards and an almost completely deserted coast. We parked our car in the Giant’s Causeway Railway lot for £6 (if you want to avoid the outrageous fees charged by the official visitor’s center, definitely do this) and then started walking towards the coast. After about a mile, we reached it, and I almost cried with happiness. No crowds, perfect weather, and beautiful morning light – it was everything I could have hoped for. Not to mention that the Giant’s Causeway is even more impressive in person than pictures would lead you to believe. Definitely no over-hyped disappointments here!
Where the stone columns meet the ocean, they rise out of the sea like stairsteps from a hidden underwater civilization and then stretch down the coast as far as your eye can see. Behind them, rugged emerald cliffs separate the Causeway from the rest of the island, and looking ahead there’s nothing to see but the azure waters of the Atlantic disappearing into an infinite horizon. It all makes for a beautifully isolating experience. Just you, a lot of ancient lava, and the sea.
For a couple hours we wandered along the coast with only a handful of other people, taking photos and playing a precarious game of hopscotch as we meandered among the stones. (Finn MacCool may have been able to traverse the columns with ease, but I – a below-average sized human with an above-average tendency towards clumsiness – didn’t manage it nearly as gracefully.) Then, after we’d seen what we wanted to see, we found some comfy sitting stones and watched the tide come in until the tour buses began arriving.
It didn’t happen slowly. Instead, it’s like they all appeared at the same time, dropping hundreds of people onto a previously empty coast within a span of a few minutes. Needless to say, the environment changes drastically when that happens. We took that as our cue to go. We’d already experienced the magic, time to make a little more room to let others do the same.
HIKING AT THE GIANT’S CAUSEWAY
We could have just walked back to our car after leaving the Giant’s Causeway, but there are several hiking and walking trails in the area, a couple of which we wanted to check out. If you’ve got time to spare and want to make the most of your visit, you may want to do the same. Between the cliffs, the coast, and the countryside, you’re pretty well guaranteed a scenic view at all times. A map and instructions for each trail can be found by following the links below.
We’d already walked a good portion of the Red Trail on our way to the Giant’s Causeway, taking the Shepherd’s Steps down from the cliff. So as we left, we hopped on the Blue Trail which takes a gentler route back up the cliff. (Unless you want to feel the burn, I don’t recommend taking the Red Trail up the cliff!)
The Blue Trail ends at the visitor’s center where it connects with the Green Trail. We had a moment of hesitation here, wondering whether we should keep going or head back to the car, but I’m so glad we kept going because the views of the Giant’s Causeway along the Green Trail are outstanding. There is another trail, the Yellow Trail, which heads in the opposite direction from the Green Trail, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to check that one out. Something to do on our next visit, I guess!
SUNSET AT THE GIANT’S CAUSEWAY
In addition to early morning, another great time to visit the Giant’s Causeway is at sunset – not only because the crowds have once again cleared out, but also because it’s one of the best places along the coast to watch the sun go down. Trust me, you won’t want to miss this!
Although the £6 we’d paid earlier was for all-day parking, it turns out the railway lot closes before sunset, so we went on a hunt for another cheap alternative to the visitor’s center and found the Causeway Hotel. You don’t have to be a guest of the hotel to park there, but technically you should at least pop in and buy a tea or coffee from the cafe to justify parking in their lot, which is free. (This is an especially good place to park at evening since the hotel is so close to the coast, and it gets quite dark out here after the sun goes down.)
This time of day, you’re unlikely to be the only one on the Causeway, but it’s still far from overcrowded. You’ll find a few photographers and tourists staying nearby scattered along the coast, but it’s easy to find a great spot to watch the sunset without anyone blocking your view. I recommend arriving about an hour before the sun is scheduled to set. The colors of the setting sun and the sky change continuously over the hour before official sunset and you’re going to want to see all of them. It’s really quite a show.
Watching the sky shift from deep blue to vivid orange and seeing the sun turn into a blazing pink fireball before it finally disappeared beneath the water, all while sitting amidst one of the most extraordinary landscapes on the planet was enough to give me goosebumps. Or maybe that was just the unexpectedly cold temperature. Either way, this sunset definitely goes down as one of my favorite sunsets of all time.
Our last holiday as residents of the UK – ironically, I found choosing a destination for this trip as difficult as our very first. With so many places still unseen, I felt overwhelmed with choices. Wherever we chose needed to be special. Not necessarily elaborate or expensive, but certainly memorable. I’m sure a lot of places could have delivered that, but the one we kept coming back to was Northern Ireland. It was the last of the four countries making up the UK that we had yet to see, and making it our final travel destination before moving on to Asia just seemed right. That decision made, the next step was planning the perfect weekend travel itinerary for Northern Ireland so that our holiday would, indeed, be unforgettable.
Before we started traveling consistently, I wasn’t really sure what kind of travel I liked best. It all sounded fun – city breaks, adventure trips, budget holidays, a touch of luxury now and then – I was up for anything. But over time it became clear what I enjoyed best. I liked being surrounded by beautiful scenery, needing to pack little more than a clean pair of jeans and hiking boots in my suitcase, and coming home from a trip feeling refreshed rather than run ragged. Our holiday in Northern Ireland nailed it in all three areas. Hiking: Check. Scenic: Triple Check. The perfect active, but not too active, itinerary: That’s where this guide comes in. :)
Northern Ireland is the smallest of the countries making up the UK, but don’t let that fool you into thinking there isn’t much to do or see. The opposite is true. With only a weekend to spend in the country, we had to pick and choose carefully what we wanted to see. We decided to focus on the scenic sights and developed our itinerary around Northern Ireland’s impressive natural beauty. For a list of Northern Ireland’s best scenic sights and how to fit them all into a weekend, check out our full travel itinerary below with travel tips at the bottom of the page!
NORTHERN IRELAND TRAVEL ITINERARY: DAY ONE
SUNSET AT DUNLUCE CASTLE
The earlier you can knock off work on Friday the better, because you’re going to want to experience as many sunsets in Northern Ireland as possible.
After you arrive into Belfast and rent a car (scroll to the end for tips on that), drive directly to Dunluce Castle. Located on the edge of a cliff in Co. Antrim, this crumbling medieval castle makes for some seriously stunning images at sunset if the weather is on your side, and especially when the sun sets to the west of the castle. Unfortunately, neither were in our favor when we visited, but the soft sunset light we witnessed was still beautiful and the dramatic setting worthy of photos even without an impressive sunset.
If you’ve still got enough light before sunset, there are steps on the eastern side of the castle that will take you down to the water. You may not want to be in this spot for sunset as your view might be blocked, but this is a great spot for unique photos of Dunluce Castle beside the sea.
NORTHERN IRELAND TRAVEL ITINERARY: DAY TWO
EARLY MORNING AT THE GIANT’S CAUSEWAY
Whether or not you managed to fly into Northern Ireland early enough for sunset the night before, you’re going to want to be up bright and early on Saturday morning because there’s a full day of sightseeing ahead and you’re definitely going to want to beat the crowds to Northern Ireland’s most popular attraction – the Giant’s Causeway.
Steeped in ancient legend, the Giant’s Causeway, located along the coast in Co. Antrim, is a beautiful natural phenomenon featuring a massive network of over 40,000 interlocking stone columns. Created by volcanic eruptions or built by the Irish giant Finn MacCool so he could cross the causeway and fight Scottish giant Benandonner? You can decide which story you prefer, but you won’t want to miss seeing this extraordinary sight!
The tour buses from Belfast begin arriving at the Giant’s Causeway just before 10am, so if you can arrive at least an hour or so before, you’ll find it much easier to take photos and appreciate the scenery. There are several good coastal hiking/walking trails that start from here, too, any of which I recommend taking after the crowds start showing up at the Causeway.
EXPLORE THE TOWN OF BUSHMILLS
After seeing the Giant’s Causeway and working up your appetite hiking along the coast, it’s time to head to the town of Bushmills. A small village near the coast, Bushmills gets its name from the river that flows through it. Featuring a main street lined with shops and restaurants and a few scenic spots to check out near the watermill, Bushmills makes a perfect pit-stop for lunch.
We ate several meals in Bushmills since it was where we based ourselves for the weekend and can recommend Mike’s Coffee Shop (serves breakfast and a cheap, quick lunch), Lilly’s Bakery for dessert and pastries, and The Scotch House for a more filling, sit-down sort of lunch.
Bushmills’ most popular attraction is the Old Bushmills Distillery, the world’s oldest whisky distillery. If you skipped hiking along the coast, a tour of the distillery might be a fun way to pass the time until lunch. We didn’t personally check this out while we were in Bushmills, but you can find more info on daily tours here.
CROSS CARRICK-A-REDE ROPE BRIDGE
If you’re feeling brave enough, your next stop of the day should be Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.
Connecting the mainland with a small island off the coast, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge stretches 65 feet in length and hangs almost 100 feet above the water below. Once used by salmon fisherman, these days tourists are the only ones who risk crossing the bridge. But don’t worry, the risk is small. The bridge is well-maintained, and besides a little swaying as you cross, it’s not too awfully scary. Just don’t look down if heights make you wobbly.
Maintained by the National Trust, there is a fee to cross the bridge. For current prices, check their official website. After crossing back over the bridge, take the Carrick-a-Rede coastal walk heading east for a wider view of the passage you just crossed!
SUNSET AT THE GIANT’S CAUSEWAY
To close out an epic day in Northern Ireland, it’s almost obligatory that you return to the Giant’s Causeway for an equally epic sunset.
If you can arrive an hour before official sunset, you’ll be able to catch all the changing colors as the sun slowly sinks below the sea, plus find the perfect spot for the grand finale. The Giant’s Causeway isn’t particularly busy this time of day as all the tours have already returned to Belfast, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a good spot without other spectators blocking your view. After sunset, quickly make your way back to the path – the stones are way too easy to trip over in the dark!
Alternatively, if you missed getting to see sunset the night before and you’d prefer not to return to the same place twice in one day, give Dunluce Castle a go!
NORTHERN IRELAND TRAVEL ITINERARY: DAY THREE
VISIT THE DARK HEDGES
If you want to check out the first stop on Sunday’s itinerary without a giant parade of other tourists joining you, set your alarm clock for another early morning.
Nicknamed the Dark Hedges, Bregagh Road is a picturesque avenue famous for the ancient beech trees that line it on either side, their branches meeting overhead forming a tunnel. Attracting photographers and artists with its mythical appearance for over a century, it wasn’t until the road featured in Game of Thrones that the Dark Hedges became a true tourist destination.
Having never seen the show and not realizing the road’s increase in popularity because of it, we allowed ourselves a slow morning, arriving at the Dark Hedges just after 10am. Big mistake. The area was already crawling with people and those mysterious, light-filtering-through-the-gnarled-trees shots I was hoping to get were impossible. We waited for quite some time to see if the crowds would clear out, but the tour buses just kept coming. For a more enjoyable experience (and those coveted atmospheric shots of an empty road), arriving prior to the tour buses (before 10am) is a necessity, but sunrise would be awesome if you can swing it!
DRIVE THE CAUSEWAY COASTAL ROUTE
After leaving the Dark Hedges, it’s time to make your way towards Belfast to catch your flight back home. But don’t worry, your trip isn’t over. Far from it, because you’re going to take the Causeway Coastal Route to reach your destination!
Stretching 130 miles from Derry to Belfast, the Causeway Coastal Route is one of the world’s most scenic drives. Unfortunately, with only a weekend in Northern Ireland, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to drive the entire route (factoring in the many stops you’re sure to make), but you’ll still be able to drive a large portion of it on your way back to Belfast.
From the Dark Hedges, make your way towards Ballintoy where you’ll pick up on the route. You’ll have already seen many of the important stops along the Causeway Coastal Route at this point – Dunluce Castle, the Giant’s Causeway, and Carrick-a-Rede – so your first stop will be Ballintoy Harbour. After that, my advice is to just drive, stopping anytime something attracts your eye. Following the route, you’ll find an abundance of scenic look-out points, rugged cliffs, and deserted beaches. For a list of popular stopping points and a map, click here.
SEE THE VIEW FROM KINBANE CASTLE
If you stop at only one spot along the Causeway Coastal Route on your way back to Belfast, make it Kinbane Castle. It’s not the castle so much that made us fall in love with this spot, but the incredible views from it.
Kinbane Castle (or the remains of it) rests on a limestone headland that projects out into the sea making it a prime spot to visit if you want to capture photos looking back toward the cliffs along the mainland. The views out to sea of Rathlin Island are equally as impressive. (Do be careful, though, as you walk along the path to the edge of the headland. It gets extremely narrow in places and there is nothing to break your fall if you slip!)
Kinbane Castle is a popular stopping point along the coastal route, but you’ll still find far less people here than you will at any of the other sights on this list, so take a moment while you’re there to breathe in the crisp, fresh air, relax in the sun, and appreciate the unbelievable beauty Northern Ireland has to offer.
TRAVEL TIPS FOR NORTHERN IRELAND
GETTING TO NORTHERN IRELAND
Northern Ireland is served by two major airports, both in Belfast. We were able to find a great deal on flights from London through Ryanair, but there are many other airlines offering direct flights into Belfast from several destinations in the UK and Europe as well.
If you’re coming from the Republic of Ireland, catching the Translink train from Dublin is a cheap and easy way to reach Belfast.
HOW TO GET AROUND IN NORTHERN IRELAND
Unless you want to be at the mercy of tour bus schedules (and I really don’t think you’ll want to be), you’re going to want to rent a car while you’re in Northern Ireland. It’s the only way you’ll be able to follow our weekend travel itinerary which makes sure you visit Northern Ireland’s best scenic spots at their least crowded times.
If you know how to drive a manual transmission, you’ll be able to rent a car quite cheaply in Northern Ireland. Those of us who are stuck using automatics won’t be nearly as lucky. Still, it’s worth the cost to have the freedom to explore places at your own pace and stop where you want to stop.
FYI: We didn’t find nearly as many narrow roads in Northern Ireland as we did in the Republic of Ireland, so renting the smallest car possible isn’t something you’ll have to worry about here!
WHERE TO STAY
Many visitors to Northern Ireland base themselves in Belfast. Both the ease of staying near where you’ll be flying in and out of and the vast supply of accommodation choices make this a good option. BUT, if your goal is to see the most scenic parts of Northern Ireland, Belfast isn’t the best choice. It’s a 1.5 hour drive from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway – you’re definitely not going to want to do that first thing in the morning!
There are several excellent towns and villages that offer accommodations closer to the sights on our itinerary. Out of these, we picked Bushmills, mainly because of its proximity to the Giant’s Causeway (somewhere we knew we’d be visiting twice), but also because it was centrally located to all of the other sights we wanted to see as well. We stayed at this Airbnb and absolutely loved it. I don’t know what was better – the house itself or the fact that the river flowed just beyond the backyard. It was perfect. If you’re not into Airbnb, you also have the option of staying in a hotel or guest house in Bushmills as well. You’ll find a list of all your options at the link below.
When people ask me when the best time to travel to the UK is, I always tell them to plan their trip around how many daylight hours they need. The weather is too unpredictable to say one month is better than another, but the daylight hours? That you can work with.
To cover everything in our weekend travel itinerary for Northern Ireland with daylight to spare, I recommend visiting from late spring to early autumn. The days are longer during these months and it’ll be much easier to arrive before sunset on a Friday night if sunset isn’t until 9pm or later. (For reference, we made our trip in late May and enjoyed daylight from 5am to 10pm.)
Sidenote: Even visiting in May, you’ll need to bring a warm jacket for after dark. It gets pretty chilly once the sun goes down!
SHOULD YOU INCLUDE BELFAST?
Since our trip focused on the scenic side of Northern Ireland, other than flying into it and taking the train out of it, we didn’t see Belfast on this trip. To be totally honest, I’m not particularly sad about it. Besides the Titanic Museum, I didn’t see anything in Belfast that motivated me to want to stay an extra day. (We were visiting over a bank holiday weekend, so we could have spent Monday in Belfast, but chose instead to take the Translink train on to Dublin instead.)
Given the choice, I’d probably still choose an extra day exploring Northern Ireland’s scenic sights over spending a day in Belfast, but that’s just me. I’ve heard Northern Ireland’s capital is quite the underrated city, so if I missed out by not visiting Belfast, let me know in the comments!
21 years ago I became an expat for the first time when my family moved to Singapore. It was a pretty bold move on my parents’ part, both of them having lived in the same city their entire lives. Back then, in the area of the US where we lived, people just didn’t do that. I had gone to school with the same people all throughout elementary school and junior high because no one ever moved away. And if they did, they certainly didn’t move 10,000 miles away.
That was such an inconceivable notion that when I tried to explain to one of my teachers I only saw once a week that I wouldn’t be returning the following semester, she didn’t believe me. The last time I saw her was the day before Christmas break when I tried to tell her for the last time that I really was moving to Singapore, and she was still like, ‘Okay, sure, Sarah. See you in January.’
I still wish I could have seen her face the following semester when she realized I was telling the truth.
The world is a different place now, though. Cities, even the one I grew up in, are far more transient than they once were. People don’t often stay in the towns they grew up in, and even moving overseas isn’t as wild an idea as it once was. My dad asked me just the other day if I thought I would have chosen the expat life for myself and my own family if him and my mom hadn’t taken the road less traveled by all those years ago. I didn’t have a good answer for him. I’d like to think that even without my experiences as a teenager, I’d have been curious and brave enough to make this choice on my own, but who knows?
All I do know is, I am so freaking thankful my parents did. To be able to experience both life in the US and overseas as a kid was such a gift. One I’ve been so lucky to have been able to give my own daughter these past five years. We are headed “home” in just a little over two months which will mark the end of our expat journey as a family of three. (Sooo many emotions about this right now…) As a fitting farewell to this chapter of our lives, we had my parents and sister’s family fly out here at the end of March for a little Singapore family reunion before we go.
Singapore has changed a lot in the two decades since I first lived here, but having my family here made experiencing “Singapore of the past” possible. The streets I walk down every day were different while they were here. They were the streets of my youth again. The school Lexie attends was suddenly my school again, too. It was such an extraordinary feeling getting to see the city I’ve lived in the past two years in a way that wasn’t possible until my family was here with me.
In usual Sarah-fashion, I took hundreds more photos than necessary of this reunion. A collection of a few of my favorites are below, some of which are Cory’s and my dad’s, so I can’t take credit for all of them. If you’d like to see photos from our first Singapore family reunion back in 2007, blurry evidence of that can be found here.
If your first meal in Singapore is not eaten while sitting around a plastic table surrounded by hawker stalls, you’re doing something wrong.
Running laps around the school track barefoot in a dress is something my teenage self would have done. I definitely would never do that now.
Our old house. My current apartment is approximately 1/100th this size.
We have some pretty intense feelings for roti prata in this family.
My dad enjoys long walks on the beach and the scent of fresh durian in the morning.
I am so excited to live within a single 5-hour flight of this little monster soon!
We also took a quick trip over to Cambodia while everyone was here, which I think marked my 30th new country unless I’m leaving one out. (Which is entirely possible since both my memory and my math skills are total rubbish.) You can expect photos and stories from that trip in approximately 1-2 years. Just kidding. I know it’s been slow-going, but I’m making pretty decent progress through all of our old trips. If this move doesn’t completely take over my life here in a couple months, I might just be caught up to current by the end of the year. Fingers crossed!
We arrived in Oxford on Friday morning of Easter weekend. Expecting the city to be packed with people for the holiday weekend, we were pleasantly surprised to find that after Friday, we practically had the whole place to ourselves. Without realizing it, we had also arrived in Oxford in between terms at the university, which meant most students weren’t in Oxford either. While it was a little eerie touring empty colleges devoid of any activity other than a handful of other tourists walking about, the lack of crowds and quiet atmosphere in the city was completely in tune with the easygoing weekend getaway we’d planned for ourselves.
Other than touring a few colleges and visiting the city’s many Harry Potter filming locations, we had a pretty light sightseeing schedule. A couple museums here, a pub or two there, but mostly we just wandered around admiring the architecture and early spring blooms. When it wasn’t raining, that is.
England’s weather is notoriously difficult to predict at any time of year, but it’s increasingly fickle in that period between winter and spring, which is when we happened to be visiting Oxford. Would it be warm enough for cafe patio sitting? Or would we be walking the streets in six layers, bracing ourselves against the wind? We didn’t have a clue, so we packed for both, and as it turned out, we needed both. It rained a lot while we were in Oxford, but when the sun did come out, it was glorious.
Between the blooming magnolia trees, the sun casting its warm glow over all the honey-colored colleges in the university, and the general loveliness of Oxford at any time of year and in any kind of weather, there were photo opportunities around every corner. As usual, before I close this series, I have one last post to share – a collection of my favorite snapshots of Oxford. (FYI: I had a really hard time limiting myself on this one. I’d have included double the photos if it wouldn’t slow my site down to turtle speed.) For lots of tips on how to spend a weekend in Oxford, check out the guide below!
I never thought I’d be the sort of person to travel somewhere just because one of my favorite movies was filmed there, and yet here we are.* The city of Oxford had been on our radar for some time. At just an hour away from London, we figured we’d get there eventually, but the thing that ultimately sealed the deal and prompted us to finally book our trip was discovering just how many amazing Harry Potter filming locations there are to see in Oxford.
From the Hogwarts Library to the Great Hall, several of the series’ most beloved scenes were filmed within the colleges here. (If you’ve ever been inside any of Oxford’s colleges, that’ll come as no surprise. Half of them could pass as a real-life Hogwarts.) Having fallen in love with Harry Potter after we moved to the UK (so cliché, but I have no regrets), we couldn’t let an opportunity to see these places in person pass us by!
There are seven major Harry Potter filming locations in Oxford, and you’ll find a guide to all of them below with information on how to visit. All of these spots can be seen in a single day, but if you’ve got a little more time to spend in Oxford, there are many other sights in the city worth visiting, too. If you have a whole weekend to spare, definitely check out our weekend guide to Oxford!
*I, apparently, also now find it acceptable to use completely made-up words in my blog titles. Assimilation into genuine Potterhead status: complete.
With its dark, mysterious corners and floor to ceiling shelves of old books and ancient manuscripts, it’s no wonder Duke Humphrey’s Library was chosen to play the Hogwarts Library in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It took three days to complete the scenes filmed here, the most memorable of which is when Harry uses his Cloak of Invisibility for the first time to enter the restricted section of the Hogwarts Library without being seen.
Duke Humphrey’s Library is located within the Bodleian Library, the main research library at the University of Oxford. To visit Duke Humphrey’s Library, you’ll need to sign up for one of the library’s daily tours. The cheapest option is the 30-minute Mini Tour for £6. A list of all tours and times can be found here.
THE DIVINITY SCHOOL
Used in the filming of the first four Harry Potter films, you’ll no doubt recognize the Divinity School which served as the Hogwarts Infirmary. This stunning grand hall is where Harry wakes up at the end of the first film after confronting Voldemort for the first time, where Harry and Hermione use the time turner to save Sirius and Buckbeak in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and where Professor McGonagall teaches Ron how to dance for the Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire among many, many other famous scenes.
Also located within Oxford’s Bodleian Library, you can either visit the Divinity School as part of one of the guided tours mentioned above, or you can buy a ticket for £1 that allows access to the Divinity School only.
NEW COLLEGE CLOISTERS
The hallways of Hogwarts change from movie to movie, but they do share one thing in common – they always look like something straight out of a fairytale castle. The crumbling, castle-like cloisters within New College doubled as the Hogwarts hallways in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It is here where Harry pushes through a crowd of his fellow students as they ridicule him with Potter Stinks badges.
The cloisters are located just off the Front Quadrangle inside New College, one of the oldest colleges in the University of Oxford. Entrance into New College is £5 and your tour will be self-guided, but a small map is provided when you purchase your ticket at the Porters’ Lodge.
NEW COLLEGE COURTYARD
You may recognize this courtyard and gnarled, old tree from the same movie as the cloisters above. The New College courtyard is where Harry tips Cedric off about the dragons they’d be battling in the first task, and the tree (which is actually close to 200 years old) features in the scene immediately following Harry and Cedric’s exchange where Malfoy taunts Harry, prompting Mad-Eye Moody to turn him into a ferret!
Like the cloisters, the New College Courtyard can be seen via a self-guided tour of the college. Opening hours and information for visitors can be found here.
BODLEY TOWER STAIRCASE
One of the most famous Harry Potter filming locations in Oxford, the grand stone staircase inside Bodley Tower features prominently in the first two films. Several memorable scenes were filmed here – from Harry’s first arrival at Hogwarts to a flashback sequence between Tom Riddle and Dumbledore to the scene near the end of the first movie where Harry is reunited with Ron and Hermione after being released from the infirmary. (When Ron and Hermione look over the edge of the staircase at Harry, I get all the warm fuzzies!)
The Bodley Tower staircase is located inside Christ Church college. Entrance tickets cost between £8-10 depending on which time of year you visit. You can check opening hours and purchase tickets online here.
CHRIST CHURCH CLOISTERS
Christ Church’s beautiful cloisters were transformed into Hogwarts hallways in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. After Harry has been made seeker for the Gryffindor quidditch team, Hermione tells Harry being a seeker is “in his blood” and shows him a display case in the hallway containing a quidditch trophy with his dad’s name on it. This scene was filmed in the cloisters here just outside of what is currently a bookshop.
The Christ Church cloisters are included with your entrance ticket into the college. See the section above for how and when to purchase tickets.
CHRIST CHURCH DINING HALL
Though no filming actually took place here, Christ Church’s dining hall provided the main inspiration for Hogwarts’ own Great Hall. It’s easy to spot the similarities between the two – the arched windows lining the walls, the extra long “house tables” – but unfortunately for students at Christ Church, their dining hall features a regular ceiling instead of an enchanted one and lamps instead of floating candles. (They still get to wear their robes to dinner, though, so don’t feel too sorry for them!)
The dining hall is also included with your ticket into Christ Church. Be prepared for crowds here, as well as on the staircase during peak season. The staircase leads into the hall, and during busy times it’s where everyone queues to enter. The only way to avoid the crowds is to arrive as soon as the college opens to visitors. Check the official website before your visit as opening hours tend to fluctuate.
Have you seen any Harry Potter filming locations in person? How far would you travel to see where your favorite movie was filmed?
Before our visit to Oxford, the only college campus I’d ever set foot on was the one I graduated from. In my home country, most people only take a tour of a particular college or university if they plan to attend there. In Oxford (and nearby Cambridge), that is definitely not the case. People often visit both of these cities just to see the colleges within them, even if they have no intention of ever studying there. And it’s not hard to see why. Centuries of history, beautiful architecture, and a lengthy list of famous and highly revered alumni – I mean, who wouldn’t want to see where Albert Einstein, Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Hugh Grant studied? (Yes, I also find it questionable that I place Hugh Grant at the same level as Albert Einstein.)
The University of Oxford is made up of 38 different colleges and 6 private halls. Unlike in the US where we use the words ‘college’ and ‘university’ interchangeably, at Oxford, they mean two different things. Students of the University of Oxford are also students of a particular college within the university. These separate colleges (you can think of them as academic communities) each have their own identity and are where students live, eat, study, and socialize. And they are all beautiful. Think: landscaped gardens and quads, crumbling medieval cloisters, grand dining halls, and ancient libraries with private reading nooks – certainly nothing like the dorms we’re used to back home!
Each college and hall within the University of Oxford has its own history, famous past residents, and other reasons for visiting, but unless you’ve got unlimited time in Oxford, you’ll have to choose just a few to tour. For a weekend stay in Oxford that also includes seeing some of the city’s other sights (hint: the guide below has everything you need to know), I’d recommend limiting yourself to just 5-6 colleges. Most are within walking distance of each other, but it can take some time to tour a few of the larger ones. Picking which colleges to visit in Oxford is no easy task, but if you’re looking for pretty colleges steeped in history with more literary and film connections than you can shake a wand at (obligatory Harry Potter reference), then you can’t go wrong with the ones below!
One of the most popular colleges to visit in Oxford, Christ Church is also one of the largest with 175 acres of public parkland, private gardens, and academic buildings. The college is home to Christ Church Cathedral which is not only the college chapel, but also the cathedral of the diocese of Oxford. Christ Church counts 13 British Prime Ministers, Albert Einstein, and Lewis Carroll among its alumni, but perhaps the thing that brings more visitors to the college than anything else is the opportunity to see several Harry Potter filming locations in person. Both the grand staircase in Bodley Tower and the cloisters were used during filming of the Harry Potter series. The college’s dining hall also served as inspiration for Hogwarts’ Great Hall. (FYI: A formal dinner is held every evening in the Christ Church dining hall where all students are required to wear their robes. I’m pretty sure that’s as close to a real-life Hogwarts experience as it gets!)
Entrance into Christ Church costs between £8-10 depending on which time of year you visit. Included in the ticket price is access to the quads, the cloisters, the grand staircase, the dining hall, and the cathedral. Christ Church has a quirky visitors schedule – not everything is open at the same time, so you have to plan it just right if you want to see everything included with your ticket. Opening hours and closures are posted on the website two weeks in advance, so I recommend checking a week or so before you plan to visit.
Check opening hours for Christ Church and purchase tickets online here.
Located on Broad Street near the center of Oxford, Trinity College was built on the grounds of a former home for Benedictine monks and once required all of its fellows to take Holy Orders and remain unmarried. Trinity’s enormous quads, beautiful gardens, and amazing architecture have been used in the filming of several movies and British TV shows. The college also has a highly regarded Chapel Choir, one of the largest in the university, consisting of several choral scholars and voluntary singers from within Trinity College. The choir performs a Choral Evensong in the college chapel every Sunday at 6pm which all visitors are invited to attend. (Unrelated: Naming a college Trinity College is like the equivalent of naming your kid Mary or John. There are a ridiculous number of them in the world!)
Entrance into Trinity College is only £3 and includes access to the chapel, the gardens, and the dining hall. Some of the gardens, including the Fellows’ Garden, are not open to visitors, but you can still have a peek through the gates.
The Bodleian Library is the main research library within the University of Oxford. While it’s not an actual college itself, its stunning architecture and historic rooms and libraries aren’t to be missed. Duke Humphrey’s Library is the oldest reading room within the Bodleian. Its dark interior and floor to ceiling shelves packed full of old books are a bookworm’s dream come true. (Not surprisingly, this library was used as the Hogwarts library in the HP films.) Just downstairs from Duke Humphrey’s Library is the Divinity School where lectures and oral exams used to take place. With its soaring ceiling and oodles of natural light, it is quite possibly the most photogenic room within the entire university. The Bodleian Library is also where you’ll find Convocation House, the room where British Parliament met during the English Civil War and the Great Plague.
Entrance into Weston Library, Blackwell Hall, and the Old Schools Quadrangle at the Bodleian Library is free. To see the best parts of the Bodleian Library, however, you’ll need to join one of the daily guided tours. The tours range in price from £6-14 depending on how many areas you wish to see. I recommend choosing either the Standard Tour or the Extended Tour which also includes entrance to the Radcliffe Camera.
Check opening hours for the Bodleian Library and purchase tickets online here.
Part of the Bodleian Library, the Radcliffe Camera is located in Radcliffe Square just across from the Bodleian. This circular library with its striking facade and neoclassical dome is one of the most iconic sights in Oxford, and you can get a unique view of it by climbing the tower within the University Church that sits opposite it. Inside, the Radcliffe Camera consists of two levels of reading rooms, an upper gallery, and an underground library housing over half a million books and manuscripts. (P.S. Camera means ‘room’ in Latin.)
Unless you are a student of Oxford, the only way to gain entrance into the Radcliffe Camera is via one of two Extended Tours offered by the Bodleian Library. The fee for either tour is £14 and both tours last around 90 minutes.
Check opening hours for the Radcliffe Camera and purchase tickets online here.
BRIDGE OF SIGHS
Like the Radcliffe Camera, the Bridge of Sighs at Hertford College is somewhat of an icon in Oxford. Officially called the Hertford Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs gets its nickname due to its resemblance to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. To see the bridge, you don’t actually need to enter Hertford College at all. The bridge is located off of Catte Street, connecting two of Hertford College’s buildings over New College Lane. The best view of the bridge is looking towards Catte Street from the far end of New College Lane. (You’ll get the Sheldonian Theatre in your shots that way, too!)
Unfortunately, since Hertford College is a small college, you won’t actually be able to enter and walk across the bridge, but the best views are from the street anyway!
Exeter College is one of the oldest colleges within the University of Oxford. Smaller in size than some of the others, Exeter is still a gem well worth visiting. The college features a chapel modeled after Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, gardens with a view of the Radcliffe Camera, and gorgeous medieval architecture. Fans of the ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy by Philip Pullman won’t want to miss this one either – Exeter College formed the basis for Jordan College in the series and many scenes from The Golden Compass were shot here. Besides Philip Pullman, both William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien spent their college years at Exeter.
Entrance into Exeter College is free. Visitors are allowed access to the quads, the gardens, the dining hall, and the college chapel.
With its many towers and spires stretching towards the sky, I think it’s highly likely All Souls College was exactly what poet Matthew Arnold was thinking about when he called Oxford “that sweet city with her dreaming spires” in his poem ‘Thyrsis’. This cathedral-like college is for graduate and post-graduate students only and boasts several famous fellows including Sir Christopher Wren (aka the architect behind St Paul’s Cathedral in London). While you can enter All Souls College for free and have a look around, the best way to take in the beauty of the college is to climb to the top of the University Church tower and look down.
Entrance into All Souls College is free, however, visitors are restricted to the quads and chapel only.
Turns out, New College isn’t actually all that new at all. At over 600 years old, it’s one of the oldest colleges within the university. Both Hugh Grant and Kate Beckinsale are former students of New College, as is Sophie Kinsella whose name you’ll probably only recognize if you’re a fan of chick lit. Guiltily raises hand. As for reasons to visit, New College pretty much has it all – castle-like cloisters, an impressive chapel, the oldest dining hall in the English-speaking world, the prettiest gardens out of all the colleges we visited, and the chance to check out several more Harry Potter filming locations. (The cloisters and a gnarled, old tree beside them were used in the filming of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.) You definitely don’t want to skip this one!
Entrance into New College is £5 and included with your entrance ticket is access to the quads, cloisters, the chapel, the dining hall, the gardens, and the city wall. If they have them, grab one of the leaflet guides from the ticket area. They provide a lot of useful info on the areas you’ll have access to.
Unexpected closures are common at all colleges within the University of Oxford. Usually, just a single area will be off-limits, but occasionally the entire college will be closed to visitors. If there’s something specific you’re hoping to see at a particular college, I recommend checking the college’s website at least a couple days before your visit to see if any closures have been listed. Many of the colleges that see a lot of tourists will list closures, but some of the smaller ones you will have to call to check on.
Have you been to any of these colleges? What are your favorite colleges to visit in Oxford?
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