Exploring Holywood Town – Northern Ireland


Updated On: April 22, 2024 by   Dina EssawyDina Essawy

Holywood is a town located in County Down, Northern Ireland. It lies on the shore of Belfast Lough, between Belfast and Bangor. The English name Holywood comes from the Latin Sanctus Boscus, meaning ‘holy wood’. This was the name the Normans gave to the woodland surrounding the monastery of St Laiseran, son of Nasca.

The Irish name for Holywood is Ard Mhic Nasca, meaning “high ground of Mac Nasca”.

History of Holywood Town

Holywood Town Belfast – Places to Visit in Northern Ireland

In the early 19th century, Holywood became famous as a resort city where many wealthy Belfast merchants chose to dwell. Today, it is a popular residential area with high-end shops, boutiques, arts and crafts.

Famous Attractions

Holywood is famous for its maypole in the centre of town. According to local folklore, it dates back to 1700, when a Dutch ship was shipwrecked nearby. The crew erected the broken mast to show appreciation for the townsfolk’s assistance. The maypole is still used for dancing at the annual May Day fair.

Another famous attraction in town is the Maypole Bar, known as Ned’s.

The town also hosts an annual jazz and blues festival.

Ulster Museum

Ulster Museum
Ulster Museum – Holywood

Considered the largest museum in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Museum is located within the Belfast Botanic Gardens in Cultra, Holywood, with around 8,000 square metres of display space. It features a wide variety of artefacts, including fine and applied art, archaeology, ethnography, treasures from the Spanish Armada, local history, numismatics, industrial archaeology, botany, zoology, and geology.

History of the Museum

The Ulster Museum was founded as the Belfast Natural History Society in 1821 and began showcasing different exhibits in 1833. Originally named as the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery, its location was changed to its present site in Stranmillis in 1929 and was designed by James Cumming Wynne.

1962, it was renamed the Ulster Museum and was formally recognised as a national museum. An extension was constructed by McLaughlin & Harvey Ltd in 1972 based on the designs by Francis Pym.

In 1998, the Ulster Museum merged with the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and the Ulster-American Folk Park to form the National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland.

In July 2005, refurbishment of the museum was announced, estimated at £17m, and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The museum reopened in October 2009 on the 80th anniversary of its inauguration.

The Architecture of Ulster Museum

In the autumn of 1913, an open competition was announced for building the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery, with Scottish architect John James Burnet as the presiding judge. In 1914, James Cumming Wynnes of Edinburgh’s neo-classical design won. It mainly consisted of a central courtyard flanked by four wings and presenting the museum as a ‘temple’.

Following the outbreak of World War One, the construction of the museum was postponed until it finally commenced in 1924. However, its Neo-Classical style was outdated when the museum opened on 22 October 1929.

In 1962, the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery became the Ulster Museum, and the following year, a competition was launched to extend the museum, with Sir Leslie Martin as assessor. The winning design was created by collaborating with Francis Pym and a 22-year-old architectural assistant from Portaferry, County Down, Paddy Lawson.

The new design merged the existing building and the proposed extension, completely fusing old and new.

In later years, several alterations to the museum took place. Then, in 2006, the museum underwent significant redevelopment led by Belfast-based Hamilton Architects. The museum reopened on 22 October 2009, boasting additional exhibition space and a transformed interior.

Ulster Museum Tours

Ulster Folk Museum – Holywood – Early 20th Century Life

Welcome Tour

The Ulster Museum offers visitors a free one-hour welcome tour of the entire museum. The tour is limited to 10 people per group and is provided on a first-come, first-served basis.

The tours are offered from Tuesday to Friday at 2.30 pm and Sundays at 1.30 pm.


The Ulster Museum contains a wide variety of collections of Irish birds, mammals, insects, molluscs, marine invertebrates, flowering plants, and algae, as well as books and manuscripts on Irish natural history.

Take a journey through the centuries, from the Plantation of English and Scottish in Gaelic Ulster to the famine and the Industrial Revolution in Belfast and its social consequences.

Wildlife Art

The Zoology Department also features collections of wildlife art, including works by Peter Scott, John Gerrard Keulemans, Charles Tunnicliffe, Robert Gillmor and Archibald Thorburn.


The Ulster Museum’s herbarium (BEL) contains more than 100,000 specimens obtained from the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club, the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, and the herbarium (BFT) of the Botany Department of The Queen’s University, Belfast, acquired in 1968.

Interesting Displays

Takabuti, the Egyptian Mummy

Takabuti, a mistress of a high-standing Egyptian house, lived in Ancient Egypt about 3,000 years ago. Not only is her mummified body on display, but also a headpiece made to envisage what she would have looked like when alive in ancient Egypt. The mummy has been on display in Belfast for over 100 years. She can be located in the History Zone.

Chambers Car

The Chambers brothers built their first car in Belfast in 1904, and they liked it so much that they started a family business making cars and small lorries. The display is placed within the museum’s Window on Our World Section.

Salamander (Armada — the Fate of the Girona)

This gold and ruby salamander pendant is one of the many objects archaeologists could recover from the shipwreck of the Girona, from the Spanish Armada, that sank off the Giant’s Causeway in 1588. You can find this amazing discovery in the History Zone.

Gold pendant

This gold pendant, created by London jewellers Child and Child in 1900, shows a cat playing with branches and flowers. It is now in the museum’s Art Zone.

Gold lunula

Around 4,000 years ago, gold was considered a symbol of wealth and power during the Early Bronze Age. This lunula neck ornament would have been made by beating a piece of gold into a paper-thin crescent moon shape. You can find it in the History Zone.

The Fairy Fountain (c.1900-1)

The Fairy Fountain was carved in marble by Rosamund Praeger of Holywood, County Down, a writer and illustrator of children’s books best known for her sculpture. This beautiful discovery is now situated in the Art Zone.

Morpho Rhetenor

There are over 80 types of Morpho butterflies, but Morpho Rhentenor is considered the most beautiful. Like all butterflies, it drinks its food, tastes with its legs, and smells with its antennae. This butterfly is a lovely iridescent blue in the Nature Zone.

Edmontosaurus Dinosaur

The Edmontosaurus Dinosaurs moved across the plains in what is now North America around 70 million years ago. They strolled on four legs when grazing but could move faster on two when chased by Tyrannosaurus rex. You can find him in the Window on Our World section.

Peter the Polar Bear

Peter the polar bear lived at Belfast Zoo. He came to the Ulster Museum in 1972 after he died. Polar bears come from the Arctic. They are the largest land carnivores, feeding primarily on seals. You can find him in the Window on Our World section.

St. Christopher Carrying the Christ Child by Jacob Jordaens

This 400-year-old painting tells the story of how Christ was helped across a river as a child by a strong man. The name Christopher means Christ-carrier. It can be found in the Art Zone.

Francisco Goya: The Disasters of War

This display depicts the turmoil that followed Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain in 1808. This is the first time these images are displayed in Northern Ireland. The works are by Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828), a painter to the King of Spain and best known for his incisive and unflattering portraits of the Royal Family and the court. He lived through the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, greatly influencing his later work.

Re-imagined Painting Features Game of Thrones Themes

Six years after the hit HBO TV show Game of Thrones began filming in Belfast, Northern Ireland, it has become part and parcel of Irish culture. Therefore, the museum saw it fitting to modify a painting to include some of the themes from the show in one of its displayed paintings, titled “Landscape with Sheep Giant and Dragon)” by William Mark Fisher.

Upcoming Displays

Weeping Window

In 2017, the museum will house an installation entitled ‘Weeping Window’. This work of art, a collaboration between artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper, commemorates lives lost in WWI and was initially displayed at the Tower of London in 2014.

‘Dippy’ the Diplodocus

The sculpture will find its new home at the Ulster Museum in September 2018 as part of a trip across the UK, as it ventures outside of London for the very first time since 1905.

This tour, funded by the Garfield Weston Foundation, aims to spark the imagination of the next generation of scientists and connect them with nature.

The 292-bone skeleton is 21.3 metres long, 4.3 metres wide, and 4.25 metres high. The Diplodocus was a dinosaur species between 156 and 145 million years ago. Railroad workers first discovered the fossilised bones of a Diplodocus in Wyoming, USA, in 1898.

 Discovery Centre at Ulster Museum

The museum’s discovery centres allow visitors to explore and come into contact with natural elements to create souvenirs they can take home.

Discover Art

Patrons can create artwork to take home, play games or puzzles, and make discoveries about art and artists.

Discover Nature

Visitors can use real bones, fossils, shells, and gemstones to see a dinosaur egg. They can also examine exotic butterflies and beetles under the microscope.

Discover History

Visitors can uncover history, archaeology, and world cultures by becoming archaeologists through different activities, such as rebuilding pots and skulls, exploring how our homes have changed, dressing like Victorians, and writing like ancient Egyptians.

  Temporary Exhibitions

Remembering 1916: Your Stories (25 March 2016 – 19 March 2017)

1916 was a pivotal year in Irish history. The exhibition will highlight the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising and include two other sections titled ‘War and Society’ and ‘Legacy’. Visitors will also be able to enjoy audio-visual displays and interactive touch-table tracing the timeline of the war, as well as 3D scans, short films and interviews.

Creative Centenaries #MakingHistory 1916 (3 June 2016 – 18 September 2016)

The exhibition focuses on the creative spark of individuals who helped shape history, such as the people involved in a war or rebellion who were able to tell their versions of the 1916 events in personal diaries, drawings, or audio recordings. It contains five sections comprising artefacts from the Imperial War Museum, National Museums Northern Ireland, National Library of Ireland, and PRONI.

Framed: People & Place in Irish Photography (19 June 2015 – 30 May 2016)

The exhibition features historic photographs dating back to the 1850s, including thousands of images relating to Ireland’s history, topography and personalities.

Order and Revolution (5 February 2016 to 2 May 2016)

This exhibition highlights the period between 1740 and 1840, considered a ‘golden age’ in British and Irish art. Portraits by Reynolds and Gainsborough will be on display, alongside landscape painting, sculpture and furniture, to illustrate the order and formal elegance of the period.

Bare Life  (12 February 2016 to 26 February 2017)

This exhibition traced the development of twentieth-century British art, focusing on the post-war period. The title Bare Life refers to the experimental way in which several artists, such as Walter Sickert, Francis Bacon, Gilbert, George, and Matt Collishaw, depicted the human figure during this period.

The BP Portrait Award 2015 (11 March 2016 to 12 June 2016)

Selected from a record-breaking 2,748 entries by artists from 92 countries worldwide. The BP Portrait Award 2015 represents the best contemporary portrait paintings.

Light and Life (25 March 2016 to 26 March 2017)

This exhibition explores how seventeenth-century artists used light and shadow to create a sense of immediacy and realism in their paintings, focusing on Dutch, Italian, and Flemish historical paintings.


Collecting the Troubles and Beyond

As part of a new project, the Ulster Museum has invited the public to share their experiences during the turbulent Troubles events. The project aims to expand the museum’s contemporary collection relating to this particular period of Northern Ireland’s history through community collecting events, workshops, and outreach activities. The gallery is due to open in the Spring of 2017.

The Ulster Folk & Transport Museum in Holywood Town

Ulster Transport Museum; Ulster Folk and Transport Museum

The museum is dedicated to recapturing 100 years of history by displaying cottages, farms, schools, and shops. You’ll also meet guides in costumes demonstrating traditional crafts. Visitors can climb on and off majestic steam locomotives or horse-drawn carriages, electric trams, motorbikes, fire engines, and vintage cars.

Established in 1958, the Folk Museum aims to preserve a rural way of life that is in danger of disappearing forever due to increasing urbanisation and industrialisation in Northern Ireland. The museum site was acquired from the Estate of Sir Robert Kennedy. The museum officially opened to the public for the first time in 1964. In 1967, the Folk Museum merged with the Belfast Transport Museum to form the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

Model Railway Day

One of the most prominent exhibits of its kind in Ireland, visitors flocked to the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum on 12 November to view 30 railway layouts and associated exhibits.

Have you ever been to any of these attractions in Holywood? Are you planning a trip to Holywood? We would love to hear all about it 🙂

Also, don’t forget to check out some of our other blogs that might interest you: Ulster Folk Museum, Down County Museum, Carrickfergus Museum, Botanic Gardens Belfast.

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