County Down is one of Ireland's most interesting counties. Being bordered in the north by Belfast, most of its north-eastern towns are satellites of the city. The county actually includes the part of Belfast that lies east of the river Lagan. In the east, the Ards Peninsula encloses Strangford Lough - the Lough itself being an extension of the Irish sea rather than a lake. Strangford Lough, together with Bangor, Donaghadee, Newcastle and Warrenpoint, forms a line of fine resorts on the beautiful Down coast. Although Down is known for its low, beautifully cultivated, round hills, the south is occupied, in striking contrast by the Mourne Mountains, eleven peaks rising to over 2,000 feet.
Travelling from Belfast to Newtownards, Stormont Castle can be seen, and driving down past Newtownards, the road becomes parallel to Strangford Lough. From April to September, the tourist may stop to visit the Mount Stewart House and Gardens on the way; it will be well worth spending a few hours of tranquility here.
Further south and not far away is Grey Abbey, one of the first gothic buildings in Ireland, now in ruins, and at the mouth of the lough, there's Portaferry, a seaside resort that houses a highly advanced aquarium.
For the driver who chooses the A2, this will be a coastal drive heading to Bangor, through Hollywood. Bangor is set in a bay and it offers great views over Belfast Lough; it has become almost a suburb of Belfast, but it has plenty of attractions, good restaurants and it is a good place to go to for the yacht enthusiast.
Heading down the coast, there's the Ards Peninsula, with Strangford Lough, visited once by the poet John Keats, and, not far away, Donaghadee; one of the attractions here is the Lighthouse, painted by Brendan Behan. A few miles off the coast, the Copeland Islands offer true wildlife sanctuaries.
Down is second only to Armagh in its associations with Saint Patrick. There has even been a bitter debate, for several centuries, as to whether he is buried in Armagh or here, in Downpatrick. At the Benedictine Abbey in Downpatrick, there are three ancient graves, reputed to be of the saints Patrick, Brigid and Columba. Downpatrick was home to the Red Branch Knights as well, before it was home to St. Patrick, and one of the largest Celtic forts ever was situated on the Hill of Down. The legend of Cúchulainn has echoes in this area, too.
The Mountains of Mourne are more than just a popular area for tourists. They have become a symbol for the Irish diaspora all over the world. The range is not huge in dimensions, only about 80 square miles, but it has some impressive peaks: Slieve Donard, 2796 feet high, and Slieve Binnian are only two of them. There are walking trails one can follow in order to get to these peaks. Slieve Binnian walk and Glen River walk are said to be the best. Tourists may also drive through the Mournes, on the roadway running from Kilkeel through Spelga Dam (said to be great for fishing), that rises to about 1,200 feet.
In a nutshell, Down is great to visit as much for the historic sites and ancient monuments, as for the climbing, walking and sightseeing attractions.