While the smallest of Northern Ireland's six counties, Armagh has no shortage of history, culture and scenic landscapes.
Armagh is often known as the 'Orchard County', owing to the rich apple growing country centred around Loughgall in the north of the county. Each May the countryside here comes alive with colour as the pink flowers of apple trees blanket much of the deep green landscape; an annual Apple Blossom Festival celebrates the start of the season and the area's principle variety, the delicious Bramley apple.
Armagh City: where history comes to life
Armagh City is rich in heritage. The city is a fine specimen of Georgian elegance and one of its best known features is its Mall, once the city's racecourse, lined by elegant houses and leafy trees. The settlement and surrounding area have much deeper roots in the past, however, as can be seen at the County Museum, which boasts a fine range of prehistoric artefacts among its numerous collections on the history and culture of the county.
Navan Fort, a short distance to the west of the city, is thought to have been an ancient pagan ceremonial site. It comprises a large circular earthwork surrounding the summit of a drumlin hill and is the site of some fascinating archaeological discoveries. It features prominently in Irish mythology and is thought to have been the earliest capital of Ulster. The Navan Centre explores the history and legends of the site.
Armagh City is perhaps best known for its rich Christian heritage, however, and many of its attractions reflect this aspect of its history. The settlement has been the spiritual capital of Ireland since Saint Patrick founded his first church on the hilltop site of the present Church of Ireland Cathedral around 445AD, and today the heads of both the Catholic and Anglican Churches on the island are seated here.
Armagh boasts a range of other attractions of interest. You can relive the Battle of Barossa, part of the Napoleonic Wars, at the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum. Or the whole family can fast forward to the future of space exploration at Armagh Planetarium, Observatory and Astropark.
Houses and parks
The rest of the county also has much to offer for visitors of all interests. The pretty National Trust properties of Ardress House, the Argory and Derrymore House are fine country estates worth exploring.
Peatlands Park, in the north west of the county, comprises an extensive area of bog woodland and offers over 10 miles of paths through its many and varied habitats; there is also the chance to try your hand at bog snorkelling each July. Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, set within Oxford Island Nature Reserve on the southern shores of Lough Neagh near Lurgan, is an ideal place to explore the landscape of the largest freshwater lake in Ireland or Britain, and includes walks, birdwatching hides and a Loughside café with panoramic views.
Those who enjoy the outdoors should also visit Gosford Forest Park outside Markethill, with its rare breeds of livestock, deer park, walled garden and arboretum. Further south is Slieve Gullion Forest Park which offers a scenic drive around the lower slopes of Slieve Gullion, the highest point in the County at 573 metres. The more adventurous can attempt the trail to the top of the mountain, which plays a prominent role in the mythology of the area with its links to the legendary Cúchulainn, ancient defender of Ulster, and the giant Finn MacCool. Climbers will be rewarded for their efforts with breathtaking views over the Mourne and Cooley Mountain ranges, Carlingford Lough and as far afield as Dublin Bay.
Area of Oustanding Natural Beauty
Slieve Gullion, which is in fact an extinct volcano, sits at the centre of the Ring of Gullion Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This rare geographical landform known as a ring dyke consits of a ring of lower, rugged hills encircling the larger mountain, and boasts some of the best scenery in Northern Ireland.
This southern part of the county also contains many important sites of historical interest including Kilnasaggart Stone near Jonesborough, the oldest inscribed Christian standing stone in Ireland, and Ballymacdermot Cairn, a fine example of a court tomb dating from about 3,500 BC. Another impressive landmark in the area is the 18-arch Craigmore Viaduct, the highest in Ireland, which carries the Belfast to Dublin railway line. Download the Ring of Gullion Guide.
Besides exploring the Armagh landscape by foot, other outdoor activities include watersports, popular on the Craigavon Lakes, and cycling; one of the most enjoyable routes being the 20-mile, mostly traffic-free Newry Canal Way which is shared with walkers. There are also some fine angling spots, including Kinnego Marina adjacent to Oxford Island and the Upper Bann River around Portadown.