Ballymena is a town historically in County Antrim in Northern Ireland. These counties have been abolished and the town is now part of the Borough of Mid and East Antrim. It was badly scarred by The Troubles, by economic decline, and associated social problems. It's nowadays a commuter town for Belfast and in 2011 had a population of 29,551. The TIC is in the Braid Centre on Bridge St.
In Irish Baile Meánach means "the middle townland" and it is more or less central in the historic county, standing midway between Belfast and Derry. It was one of the earliest Plantation towns; in 1626 the area passed to the Adair family, who held it until 1904.
Ballymena is best known as the buckle of the "Bible Belt" of Northern Ireland, and the powerbase of The Reverend Dr Ian Paisley (1926-2014). To call him a Protestant and Unionist does not begin to describe the biliousness of his position. In a political and religious career spanning over 60 years, he was fanatically opposed to civil rights or any other concessions to the Roman Catholic minority population, and he encouraged the formation of Protestant militias. He founded the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, a bible-literalist sect who halted the teaching of evolution in Ballymena schools. He preached that the Pope was the Antichrist, and when Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother met Pope John XXIII in 1958, Paisley condemned them for "committing spiritual fornication and adultery with the Antichrist". Later he became convinced that the European Union was a Popish plot. In 1971 he founded the Democratic Unionist Party, and was elected MP (and later MEP) by huge majorities for decade after decade. From 1977 he campaigned to "Save Ulster From Sodomy" but was unable to prevent the decriminalisation of homosexual acts. Nor was he able to block the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. He mellowed somewhat under power-sharing, in 2007 becoming First Minister of Northern Ireland, with a decent working relationship with deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin (the duo were dubbed "The Chuckle Brothers"). He retired from politics and his ministry in 2010, with his son Ian Paisley Jr succeeding him as MP for Mid-Antrim.
Trains run hourly, daily from Belfast Great Victoria Street via Lanyon Place and other Belfast stations, and Antrim (for International Airport), taking 40 min to Ballymena. They continue to Coleraine, Castlerock and Derry. Change at Coleraine for trains to Ulster University and Portrush.
Ballymena 1 railway and bus station is quarter of a mile west of town centre.
Goldline Bus 218 / 219 runs every two hours from Belfast Europa station via Antrim, taking an hour to Ballymena, and continuing to Cloughmills, Ballymoney and Coleraine.
Ulsterbus 130 runs three times M-Sa from Larne (for ferries from Stranraer), taking 45 min to Ballymena.
Bus 131 / 217 runs from Ballycastle (for summer ferries from Campbeltown and Islay) via Cloughmills, taking 70 min to Ballymena. There are five M-F and two on Saturday.
By road from Belfast follow M2 / A26 and reckon 30 min.
The town is easy to walk but you need wheels for outlying sites. For example Bus 128 to Broughshane only runs once or twice a day.
- The Braid, 1-29 Bridge St BT43 5EJ, ☏ . Complex within the bright modern Town Hall housing the Mid Antrim Museum and Braid Arts Centre.
- St Patrick's Church (C of I) on Castle St was opened in 1855, burnt down, and re-built to the identical design to re-open in 1881. It has a notable peal of 12 bells. It replaced a church of 1707: the tower of this remains, and there's an old graveyard.
- 1 Harryville Motte and Bailey just south of the river is a grassy hillock with views. It was a 12th century fort, probably Norman, with ditch and wooden palisade but never upgraded to a stone castle.
- 2 Broughshane is a scenic village on A42 four miles northeast of Ballymena. It's famous for its residents' gardens. By the riverside is a wildlife park, think swans and rabbits not big game.
- 3 Slemish or Sliabh Mis is the plug of an ancient volcano. It formed in the Paleogene or Tertiary Period some 23-66 million years ago, the period when mammals came to the fore. It's 437 m / 1434 ft, a "Marilyn" rising abruptly from the lowland fields - ascend from the car park to its west on Carnstroan Lane, a short, steep, rocky path. Views stretch from the Sperrins to Scotland, unless the rain's set in again. Slemish is a pilgrimage site on St Patrick's Day, as when the young Patrick was first abducted to Ireland, he worked as a herdsman here for six years.
- 4 Gracehill was founded as a Moravian settlement in 1765. It has attractive Georgian buildings focused on the church.
- 5 Arthur Cottage on Breen Rd near Cullybackey was the birthplace of the father of the 21st President of the US. In 1881 Chester A. Arthur was US Vice-President when Garfield was assassinated, so he became President until 1885; his health was poor and he didn't run for a second term. The cottage is sometimes open in summer but didn't open in 2020.
- 6 Portglenone Woods stretch beside the River Bann south of Portglenone village. They're carpeted with bluebells in early summer.
- Cinemas: IMC Cinema is off A26 at the southeast edge of town. Braid Film Theatre is within The Braid, see above.
- People's Park is north side of town on Doury Rd.
- Seven Towers Leisure Centre is southside, at the foot of Trostan Ave by the A26 roundabout.
- Walk: there are pleasant walks along both sides of the river, though people complain about the amount of dog poo. On the east bank Ecos Centre is just a conference venue.
- Ballymena United play soccer in the NIFL (Danske Bank) Premiership, the game's top tier in Northern Ireland. Their stadium is The Showgrounds, capacity 4390, east of town centre. There used to be stock-car racing here also, but that's closed.
- Golf: Ballymena Golf Club is on Raceview Rd A42, two miles northeast of town towards Broughshane. It's 5249 yards, par 68, visitor round £18.
- Galgorm Castle is a Jacobean mansion that is now an event venue and golf club. The course (white tees) is 6678 yards, par 72.
- Tower Centre is the big retail mall in town. Fairhill is half a mile north.
- Farmers Market is Sa 07:00-14:00 in the car park of Seven Towers Leisure Centre. Or else! According to the charter of 1626, if they don't hold the Saturday market until the end of time, they have to hand the town back to the monarch.
- Lots of cheap and cheerful places in town centre. For upscale dining, see the hotels listed in Sleep.
- Gatto's, 88 Lower Mill St BT43 5AF, ☏ . M-Th 17:00-21:00, F Sa 12:00-22:00, Su 14:00-21:00. Italian cuisine, good quality for what you pay.
- Nobel Cafe, 102-104 Church St BT43 6DF, ☏ . M-Sa 08:00-17:00. Great for a traditional Ulster Fry, breakfast is served all day. Cash only.
- The main cluster of pubs is north side of the centre, with Fountain Bar, Blackstone Bar, Fairhill Bar, Slemish Bar, Charlie's, and Smoking Monkey (below).
- Smoking Monkey, 7 Springwell St BT43 6AT, ☏ . W 17:00-23:00, Th-Su 11:30-01:00. The Grouse complex contains Smoking Monkey Bar, Grouse Restaurant and Origin Nightclub.
- The Thatch Inn is a country pub and bistro in Broughshane, 5 miles northeast on A42.
- There are no campsites or caravan parks near Ballymena, and the hostel "Living Rivers" is a refugee for homeless people.
- Lots of small B&Bs, though most were closed in 2020 because covid-distancing was impractical for them.
- McNaughton Guestrooms is a modern place on Bridge St in town centre.
- 1 Adair Arms, 1 Ballymoney Rd BT43 5BS, ☏ . Very comfy welcoming place in 1846 building, central. B&B double £110.
- 2 Leighinmohr House Hotel, Leighinmohr Ave BT42 2AN, ☏ . Smart friendly place, great dining. B&B double £150.
- 3 Oranmore Guest House, 147 Galgorm Rd BT42 1DE, ☏ . High quality B&B a mile west of centre. Dog-friendly. B&B double £130.
- 4 Tullyglass Hotel, 178 Galgorm Rd BT42 1HJ (A mile west of centre), ☏ . Excellent hotel and restaurant in a Victorian mansion, often used as a wedding venue. B&B double £120.
- 5 Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort, 136 Fenaghy Rd BT42 1EA (4 miles northeast of town), ☏ . Splendid upscale place on riverside, gets great reviews for comfort and service. B&B double £290.
As of Jan 2021, Ballymena town centre has 4G with all UK carriers, but the Vodafone signal is patchy further out. 5G has not reached this area.
- The Antrim Glens along the coast are very scenic, and quiet once you get past the Giant's Causeway.
- Antrim's one prehistoric fort and two entire castles have gone missing in action, but there are pleasant gardens on their sites. Boat trips go out on Lough Neagh.
- Circle Lough Neagh to Cookstown, where the kings of Tyrone were enthroned; lots of prehistoric sites around here.
- County Londonderry starts a few miles west, and historic Derry is a must-see.