Things to Do Ards Peninsula – 1 Day Itinerary

view from Ballyquintin Point across fields toward the Mournes

The Ards Peninsula protrudes from the County Down mainland on the east coast of Northern Ireland and protects Strangford Lough from the Irish Sea. It offers mind-bending discoveries such as neolithic remains older than the pyramids of Egypt or Sudan and a plethora of historic windmills earning its former nickname of ‘Little Holland’. This low-lying peninsula stretches from Charles Vane’s C19 Scrabo Tower in Newtownards to Portaferry in the south.

The home of medieval, Norman Kirkistown Castle, modern day County Down enjoys a reputation for opulence and quiet. This is particularly so of the Ards peninsula that owns its name as a destination for properous, early retirees and youngish yuppees seeking solace from the city. This vibe aside, the further down the arm you travel past its easternmost Burr Point, the Ards Peninsula adopts the feel of a quietly non-conformist island community. Once you pass through roundabout jail via Bangor and the bustle of Newtownards, taking the seaward route toward Groomsport and follow it round, you’ll first reach the history-filled architecture of Donaghadee then pretty Millisle with its pristine beach. Next you’ll pass a few seaside hamlets, the fishing village of Portavogie, the preserved village of Cloughey with tiny clusters of homes, many of which stand on their own lot and enjoy the seclusion and peace of this remote and coastal land arm.

While both people and food establishments are hospitable, there is the sense that the Ards Peninsula is maintained first for the comfort and seclusion of its residents (something I’ll explore more in an upcoming blog post on Island Hopping on the Ards Peninsula). And, since it’s far from any of the main routes through Northern Ireland, there is nothing wrong with that.

things to do ards peninsula_map

If you’re a local who’s grown tired of the wilds of Donegal with its winding lanes and beautiful beaches (and how could you?!), or bored of the glorious sunsets and foodie destinations of the North Antrim Coast, this remote peninsula is worth exploring. Tourists should note that since its two main roads lead only to the ferry from Portferry to Strandford, it has no through traffic, only locals. This provides a relaxed, safe day of road-tripping for couples and families that offers everything from neolithic remains older than the Pyramids of Chitchenitza and medieval castles to foodie oases serving artisan pizza, sourdough, Dutch pancakes, and even the essential ice oat milk latte with a pump of your favourite hazelnut syrup.

What follows is my suggestion for a leisurely day out when you’ve no particular place to go.

08:45 Donaghadee Lighthouse

09:00 Donaghadee lighthouse – stop off for a quick snap of this historical lighthouse situated right at the end of the working harbour.

things to do ards peninsula_donaghadee lighthouse
Image credit: blogger’s own

09:00 Breakfast at The Stormy Cup

The Stormy Cup Donaghadee is a rare combination of somewhere that can serve up a hearty Ulster/Irish fry, but with a coffee and tea menu too.

things to do ards peninsula_inside the stormy cup cafe donaghadee looking at the food displays and menus
Image credit: blogger’s own

It has a curious collection of historical tourism posters and replicas, some of which so hale and hearty as to be written very much tongue-in-cheek, yet date from a time when the NI tourist board was working hard to entice residents of Britain to visit here on holidays.

10:00 Ballycopeland Windmill & Early Lunch

The Ards Peninsula was once known as ‘Little Holland’ because over 100 windmills were peppered across its pretty and hardworking lowlands. They were used to grind everything from grains to paint. Allegedly, only windmills found in Ireland run clockwise. Ballycopeland is the only fully-functioning one remaining with its original mechanism intact.

ballycopeland windmill looking up toward the sails from the back of the building
Image credit: blogger’s own

We stopped off at the Ballyholme windmill only to take a picture, but were welcomed in to buy a ticket and do the full hour tour by the well informed and friendly tour guide. For someone who’s neither that interested nor well informed about our pre-industrial, agrarian past, I have to admit I really enjoyed it. The weather complied and we got some great snaps of the building set against a clear, cornflower sky.

13:00 Millisle Beach Walk

There are lots of little bays and beaches you can visit for walks and snacks while discovering other things to do along the Ards Peninsula. Millisle was one of my favourites and offers a short, sandy beach from Millisle Beach Park across seaweed rocks and shale rock around to the harbour.

millisle beach park looking out toward the beach and sea, then beyond to millisle harbour
Image credit: blogger’s own

13:30 Gothic Revival Architecture at Holy Trinity Church Ballywalter

In the tiny village of Ballywalter, architecture and history geeks can stop off to take some snaps of this Gothic Revival style church that retains many of its original nineteenth century features including stained glass, architectural plans and maps.

The church is set in peaceful gardens and is well worth a stop. Ballywalkter Parish has supplied a Holy Trinity Self Guided Walking Tour, though the building was closed on the day that we visited.

14:00 Kearney Village and Coastal Walk with Highland Cattle

Just up the road lies a slumbering 19th century fishing village typical of the area with lots of tiny whitewashed houses, some of which have been restored by the National Trust.

kearney village looking across the green at a row of houses in the distance
Image credit: blogger’s own

You can enjoy a fairly flat coastal walk of about 2 miles. Kids will enjoy spotting highland cattle grazing blithely under their russet fringes in a little grassy area just off the beach. And, green-fingered types can view rare yellow-horned poppies. It is apparently a great place for bird-spotting and you can ramble as far as Knocknelder and Stinking Point spotting coastal wildlife.

Public toilets are available in a little build that sits on the left on your way in to the village before you reach a small car park.

15:30 Kearney Windmill Remains

There’s not so much to see here except the lower remains of another windmill, but photographers might spot an opportunity. It is set on a working field of crops, so be careful to walk among the rows of green.

kearney windmill remains set among a field of green crops
Image credit: blogger’s own

There is a small, rough car park opposite with an unintentionally comical cliff warning for a drop of about 3 feet.

cliff warning sign
Image credit: blogger’s own

16:00 Quintin Castle

This twelfth century, Anglo-Norman castle is perched right on the coast and has undergone many abandonments, restorations and additions since it was built by John de Courcy in 1184. Pictures on its website also reveal formal, walled gardens, terraces and even its own private jetty.

Its unique design and length preservation came to the attention of the Game of Thrones franchise, and it was featured in Season 5’s Episode 2: The House of Black and White, as Castle Stokeworth.

It is currently owned by The Tayto Group and operates as a secluded wedding and event venue. As a result, you will be unable to see more than a glimpse of its turrets and towers through the trees.

16:30 Millin Bay Neolithic Burial Cairn

Millin Bay Cairn is a 5000 year old burial ground that looks out onto Stranford Lough. While little can be seen above ground except a few stone burial markers, we were astounded to stumble on this ancient religious memorial site by accident.

picture of burial cairn showing grassy area with a few scattered standing burial markers
Image credit: blogger’s own

It is accessible via a pathway that runs up the side of a field and situated right beside what looks like someone’s home, so be sure to respect that as you visit.

17:00 St Cooey’s Well

Continuing on the religious theme, you can stop off at St Cooey’s Well, a site whose seventh century church’s foundation stones are all that remain.

image of covered, outdoor wooden altar at st cooey's well
Image credit: blogger’s own

17:00 Ballyquintin Farm, Nature Reserve & World War II Lookout Bunker

The views across Strangford Lough out toward the dusky heather hues of the Mourne mountains are simply stunning from this natural vantage point.

view from Ballyquintin Point across fields toward the Mournes
Image credit: blogger’s own

As a nature reserve, this is a very peaceful, end-of-the-road spot for a short stroll and culminates in an otherwise unremarkable World War II bunker. You can walk on the reserve via a gate in the fence just before you reach the bunker if you want to spot some birdlife.

Looking for Things To Do on the Ards Peninsula?

I hope this 1-day itinerary has been useful in helping you plan your visit to the Ards Peninsula. If you visit any of the places on my itinerary or discover somewhere different, let me know in a comment.

Have fun and keep an eye on the blog for the next instalment in this Ards Peninsula series.

Dawn Baird
Find me on

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *