Strangford Lough Drive | A Scenic Road Trip Itinerary
A road trip is always a great way to explore the picturesque beauty of Northern Ireland and its numerous heritage sites. But do you know where to go? Planning a road trip is not always a simple task, especially when you don’t know the destination well enough. Here comes my suggestion: Strangford Lough. On an unusually hot end-of-summer day, I embarked on the picturesque Strangford Lough drive during a two-day road trip in County Down, and I’m here to share all the sights and delights with you.
Rich in history dating back thousands of years, the shores of Strangford Lough are a treasure trove of historic sites. From 12th-century abbeys to 18th-century mansions, the places to explore around Strangford Lough are awe-inspiring. Add to that the scenic drive around a protected natural habitat. Driving around Strangford Lough is a fantastic way to discover a beautiful part of Northern Ireland at your own pace.
This post may contain affiliate links. If you click on a link, I earn a little money at no extra cost to you.
Essential Tips for Planning Your Strangford Lough Drive
- Getting There | I always fly in and out of Dublin with Aer Lingus or Air France, my favourite airlines. You can also fly to Belfast from the rest of the UK with EasyJet and Ryanair.
- Renting a Car | You can easily rent a car at Dublin airport. For the best deal, I use comparison site RentalCars.com and DiscoverCars.com.
- Bringing Your Own Car | You can bring your own car over on the ferry to Ireland. Check departures from France and the UK with Irish Ferries, Brittany Ferries and Stena Line.
- Planning | Lonely Planet Ireland and The Rough Guide to Ireland are the two most comprehensive guides out there.
- Travel Insurance | Buy travel insurance with Heymondo; its nifty app will help you get the assistance you need while on the go.
- The Strangford Lough Drive | What You Need to Know
- Strangford Lough Drive | A Road Trip Itinerary
- Strangford Lough Ferry | Crossing From Portaferry to Strangford
- Where to Stay near Strangford Lough
- Where to Eat near Strangford Lough
The Strangford Lough Drive | What You Need to Know
Let’s start with some essential info regarding Strangford Lough.
What is Strangford Lough?
A lough is an Irish word for lake that signifies “a long, narrow bay or arm of the sea,” essentially describing a salty lake typically found along the coast of Ireland.
Strangford Lough, situated in County Down in the east of Northern Ireland, is the largest sea lough on the island of Ireland (26 km long and 6 km wide), connected to the Irish Sea through a narrow channel at its southeastern edge. The lough derives its name from the Old Norse “Strangfjörthr,” meaning “fjord of the strong current,” originally referring to the channel linking the lough to the sea.
Newtownards, located on the northern tip of Strangford Lough, is only a half-hour drive from Belfast, which makes the lough an ideal destination for a day trip from the city. On the opposite side of the lough, the village of Strangford is 2 to 3 hours from Dublin.
Why driving around Strangford Lough?
Driving the picturesque roads around Strangford Lough offers a chance to explore a region brimming with unique natural beauty and wildlife. The scenic drive along the shoreline allows you to appreciate a stunning, yet often overlooked, part of Northern Ireland, and is also a great way to extend your Dublin to Belfast road trip.
Famous for its numerous islands, islets, bays, coves, headlands, and mudflats, Strangford Lough has held the status of a Marine Conservation Zone since 2013 and has been designated a Special Area of Conservation due to its significant wildlife. Additionally, it holds the distinction of being an Important Bird Area, serving as a crucial destination for winter migrations.
Beyond the beauty of its natural surroundings, Strangford Lough is also famous for its rich history going back to the Neolithic period. It is believed that St. Patrick himself sailed through the lough in the 5th century, introducing Christianity to the region. Evidence of significant monastic settlements dating from the mid-6th century can be found in the vicinity of Strangford Lough.
Between the 9th and 11th centuries, inhabitants and monks had to regularly deal with the Vikings, partly drawn by the monasteries they aimed to plunder. By the 12th century, the area came under Anglo-Norman control, leading to the construction of castles and the establishment of important Cistercian abbeys. The shores of Strangford Lough also provided an ideal backdrop for magnificent country houses in the 18th and 19th centuries.
What better way to discover this breathtaking region of Northern Ireland than to get behind the wheel and drive around Strangford Lough? The drive is approximately 75 km long and could be completed in under two hours, but you would be missing out on numerous historic sites if you did not take the time to explore along the way. My own road trip from Strangford to Portaferry took two days, allowing for a leisurely visit to all the major sites. It was truly magical!
To rent a car at the best price in Ireland, I would recommend reputable comparison websites such as Rentalcars.com or DiscoverCars.com. They list all the major car rental agencies at your chosen location so you can easily find the right car for you. Always book early to get the best price.
Strangford Lough Drive | A Road Trip Itinerary
For my Strangford Lough road trip, I started my itinerary at the southern tip of the lough, beginning in Strangford as I arrived from Dublin.
I proceeded to drive clockwise around the lake to reach Portaferry, the small town located on the opposite side of the channel across from Strangford. I then caught the ferry in Portaferry to get back to Strangford.
Strangford is one of those heritage villages that brings its undeniable charm to Northern Ireland. It boasts a picturesque harbour, dominated by a fortified tower house, a testament to its rich history. Along the harbour, inviting benches lure visitors to meditate a moment by the tranquil waters, only disrupted by the coming and going of the ferry.
The village square stands as the social hub. Surrounding it, shops and friendly restaurants like The Cuan (I recommend) create a lively atmosphere where locals engage in conversations and share the latest news. For fans of the epic series Game of Thrones, an exciting titbit awaits: one of the doors crafted from trees felled in 2016 by storm Gertrude, and lining the Kingsroad on screen, now resides in Strangford, narrating a tale from Season 6. I’ll leave the thrill of discovering its location to you!
From Strangford, Castle Ward is just a short drive. Managed by the National Trust, this vast estate is home to several noteworthy places to explore. The manicured Victorian walled garden, adorned with vibrant colours, impeccably cut hedges, and a pristine lawn, serves as an impressive introduction to the historic property.
Next on your list should be the grand 18th-century mansion built by the Ward family, made unique by its eccentric dual architecture—Palladian style chosen by the 1st Viscount of Bangor for the side entrance and Gothic style insisted upon by Lady Anne for the rear. Inside, the wood-panelled dining room and the exquisite ceiling of the boudoir are among the many treasures within Castle Ward that you must see.
The estate offers numerous trails leading to different corners, providing hours of delightful exploration. If you are short on time, make sure to venture first to the shore of Strangford Lough to discover Old Castle Ward, a historic fortified tower house from the 17th century. Recognizable to Game of Thrones enthusiasts as a filming location for scenes like Bran’s fall and King Robert’s arrival at Winterfell, the tower stands proudly in the midst of the house’s farmyard.
The next stop on my Strangford Lough road trip itinerary is Inch Abbey, located on the outskirts of Downpatrick. The ruins are situated at the end of a narrow cul-de-sac, so approach the site with caution. Built in the 12th century along the banks of the River Quoile, Inch Abbey’s name, derived from the Irish “inis” meaning island, hints at its original setting surrounded by water. The Cistercian abbey was founded by John de Courcy, a powerful Anglo-Norman knight involved in the 12th-century invasion of Ireland, who conquered this part of the country.
Despite its current state of ruin, Inch Abbey remains remarkable. The visible foundations allow visitors to easily envision the monks’ daily life in this secluded part of the countryside. The still-standing, thick and tall walls of the church impressively reflect the former richness and glory of the site. Notably, Inch Abbey also served as a filming location for Game of Thrones.
From Inch Abbey, head north towards Newtownards and make a stop at Island Hill, just 4 km before the city. As mentioned earlier, Strangford Lough is a nature reserve, and it would be a shame not to take a moment to enjoy its beauty along the way.
Island Hill is among the best spots, particularly for birdwatchers, offering a fantastic vantage point. If you visit in September or October, you might be fortunate enough to witness around 25,000 light-bellied Brent geese returning from Arctic Canada to Strangford Lough.
Upon leaving Comber Road, you will find a free and convenient car park upon reaching Island Hill. At low tide, a concrete causeway allows access to Rough Island (ensure to check the tide online before heading there), a popular destination for walkers providing a magnificent view over the lough.
The Scrabo Tower
Don’t depart the area without climbing Scrabo Hill, located approximately a 5-minute drive from Island Hill. You will find a free car park there. At its summit stands the impressive Scrabo Tower, constructed in the 19th century in Scottish baronial style, reminiscent of the Wallace Monument in Stirling, Scotland.
A memorial to the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry of the Stewart family, the monument now known as Scrabo Tower stands at 41 metres tall. Perched on a rocky outcrop, the tower captivates with the sheer size of its square body, crowned with turrets and a crenellated roof. While the tower may not always be open to visitors, the panoramic view from the hilltop alone justifies the climb. The vista over Strangford Lough is truly breathtaking, and on clear days, it is said you can even catch a glimpse of the Scottish coast.
As you drive through the town of Newtownards, the next stop on your Strangford Lough drive should be Mount Stewart, situated on the eastern shore of the lake. The estate, managed by the National Trust, houses one of the most splendid mansions and arguably the most beautiful garden in all of Northern Ireland—an absolute must-see!
Purchased in 1744 by the Stewarts, Mount Stewart is an expansive property featuring woodlands, a lake, and a 19th-century country house surrounded by a unique and intricate Arts and Crafts-like garden. The current interior of the house and the garden’s design are owed to Edith, Lady Londonderry, who arrived at Mount Stewart in 1921. She revitalized the property, turning it into a family home where famous guests, from politicians to artists, sought to relax away from the public eye.
Inside the house, National Trust guides stand ready to provide you with the most extraordinary details about the decor, the paintings, and the people who lived there, transforming your self-guided tour into an exceptional visit filled with unbelievable anecdotes.
Outside, the map provided at the entrance will prove invaluable for navigating the garden. From the Sunk Garden to the Spanish Garden and the Mairi Garden, among others, you could easily spend hours exploring this whimsical landscape shaped by Lady Edith’s artistic vision. With fountains where exuberant lilies thrive, vivid flower beds, palm trees and eccentric statues of the dodo, Mount Stewart is an endless source of astonishment that should not be missed.
As you continue driving clockwise around Strangford Lough, now heading south along the breathtaking eastern shores, you will quickly reach Greyabbey. This picturesque village, where antique shops appear to be the main trade, is a delightful stop deserving some of your time. Accessed through an arched gateway, the Hoops Courtyard, in particular, is the ideal spot to relax. The courtyard houses jewellery and antique shops to explore, as well as a café selling delectable treats to enjoy al fresco, surrounded by flowers and mini palm trees in pots.
Greyabbey’s gem, however, is the abbey from which the village took its name. Founded in 1193 by Affreca, wife of conqueror John de Courcy and daughter of the King of the Isles, the ruined Cistercian abbey is a marvel. Thought to be the first Gothic church built in Ireland, the historic building boasts archways of impressive height for its time. While only the foundations of the rest of the building remain, a map in hand reveals the extraordinary size of the religious settlement, set around its cloister. The community was dissolved in 1541, and the abbey slowly decayed, leaving us with this awe-inspiring architectural gem.
The final destination on my two-day itinerary around Strangford Lough was Portaferry, a small town in County Down situated at the southern end of the lough. The 16th-century tower house and the Market House dominating the main square lend plenty of charm to this bustling coastal town. Portaferry offers a great range of restaurants and cafés for a final meal before boarding the ferry back to Strangford.
On a warm summer day, the seafront buzzes with kids diving into the water until late in the evening, seemingly impervious to the cold sea. The few benches overlooking Strangford Narrows, the channel connecting the lough to the open sea, are highly sought after and seldom remain vacant for long. At sunset, they provide one of the best spots to admire the sun as it disappears behind the horizon.
Strangford Lough Ferry | Crossing From Portaferry to Strangford
To return to Strangford from Portaferry, there’s no need to drive all the way back around Strangford Lough; a ferry will take you there.
Established by the Anglo-Norman Savage family in 1188, the Portaferry-Strangford ferry is believed to be the longest-existing ferry service in the world, and we thank them for that! Although the crossing barely takes 10 minutes, the view from the ferry is spectacular.
There is a departure every 30 minutes, 364 days a year. You don’t need to book a slot to cross with your car, although I would recommend arriving 20 minutes early to be well-positioned in the queue for the next boarding. Once the ferry is ready for boarding, follow the staff’s instructions to get your car on the ferry. Someone will meet you at your car for payment (around £6), and cards are accepted. Enjoy the ride; soon, you’ll be on the other side of the channel.
Where to Stay near Strangford Lough
A local I met along my road trip confirmed to me that Strangford Lough doesn’t see many tourists, hence the limited number of hotels available in the region. In this predominantly rural area of Northern Ireland, B&Bs and self-catering accommodations will be your primary options near Strangford Lough.
With its restaurants and picturesque surroundings, one of the best places to stay is undoubtedly the village of Strangford. At its heart lies The Cuan, a cosy boutique hotel (a rare find in the area) with plenty of charm. I stayed at The Castle Apartment, a top-rated ground floor apartment in a lovingly restored house. It has its own courtyard at the back for al fresco breakfasts, and parking is easily available in front of the house.
Along the western shore, my options for accommodation were somewhat limited, but two great B&Bs were on my radar when planning my road trip. The first one was The Old Schoolhouse Inn, right by the lough. This award-winning guesthouse, formerly a school, offers luxury rooms to its travelling guests. The Mulberrys B&B was also very tempting, with guests raving about their stay at this 19th-century farm cottage.
After leaving Strangford, I decided to spend my second night on the eastern shore of the lough, not too far from Portaferry, to easily take advantage of the food scene there. I stumbled upon Ardkeen House, a cosy B&B a 10-min drive from Portaferry, conveniently located on the main road from Greyabbey. The peaceful surroundings and comfortable rooms make for a superb place to rest. Its hostess is full of advice and recommendations about things to see in the area.
For those who prefer to stay the night in Portaferry and enjoy the evening without a car, you’ll find in town one of the rare hotels in the area—the Portaferry Hotel. This 3-star accommodation offers rooms with sea views and family rooms if you are travelling with kids. Guests love its friendly atmosphere and helpful staff.
Where to Eat near Strangford Lough
As mentioned earlier, the village of Strangford is a great place to stay and dine. A quick walk around the main square, and you will already find a few options. I can’t recommend The Cuan enough. This restaurant at the heart of Strangford offers a diverse and affordable menu, ranging from traditional seafood chowder and fish and chips to delicious burgers and sirloin steaks.
On the road to Inch Abbey, I stumbled upon Wackoz. On the outskirts of Downpatrick, these folks serve delicious breakfast baps, gourmet burgers, and treats from their container-turned café. This quirky place on a quiet lawn away from the traffic is the perfect spot for a snack during a summer trip to Strangford Lough.
The town of Newtownards is worth exploring if you are looking for a place to eat on the northern shore of the lough. But if you are heading to Mount Stewart nearby, know that there is a café on-site. I didn’t find the menu very satisfying, though. But it was very convenient.
In Greyabbey, pay a visit to the Hoops Courtyard. Right on the left as you pass through the archway, you will find a charming little café where you can have a coffee with a treat and simply relax.
In Portaferry, you will find plenty of options along High Street, around the Square, and along the seafront. Bull and Claw is a popular place on the Strand, while the Salthouse a few minutes down the road gets rave reviews.
I hope this road trip adventure around Strangford Lough will bring you as much joy as it did to me. The Northern Irish countryside is fabulous, and its people are so welcoming. Another place not to be missed in Northern Ireland is of course its capital city. I would recommend spending at least 2 days in Belfast to enjoy the sights and the amazing food scene without feeling rushed.
Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. If you click on a link, I earn a little money at no extra cost to you.