Here’s a rather long Isle of Man travel guide, which still doesn’t manage to cover everything I wanted it to – I’ve tried to include things to do, where to eat, places to visit and unique finds I’ve loved from our trips.
The Isle of Man is a totally underrated little island – like a mini version of mainland Britain, with all of its different landscapes on a small scale. The Manx scenery rivals that of the Lake District and Highlands but it doesn’t have the volume of tourists, which makes it much better.
It’s often even quiet enough for you to get beaches or glens entirely to yourself. And we all know that there is nothing better than being away from other people…
A little introduction to visiting the Isle of Man
The Isle of Man is only 32 miles long and 14 miles wide (cheers, Wikipedia) so is nice and compact for a short break. It’s plopped almost right in the central point of the Irish Sea between the coasts of Scotland, England, Northern Island and Wales. Oh and it’s in the British Isles but not the UK. I really enjoy this fact.
It has a really varied coastline (craggy, sandy, pebbly, shelly – every flavour of beach is available). Also, it has plenty of mountains, forests, cute towns and villages.
You can get the ferry to the Isle of Man from Liverpool, where I grew up. Despite this, somehow I had never been until I met Chris. He has Manx heritage and had all his childhood holidays there. I suppose it’s unfortunately known for being a tax haven and hosting the TT (a motorbike race thing), which is probably why I’d never had the slightest interest in visiting before. Actually, it’s also known for having adorable cats with no tails, so really I have no excuse. A cat-based holiday has always been right up my street. Anyway, I finally went in 2012 and loved it. We’ve been back a few times since. It’s gorgeous, quirky and unspoilt by tourism.
So, in no particular order, here’s our picks of our favourite places to see and things to do…
Douglas: begin with the capital
It makes sense to start with the capital, Douglas. This is where you’ll probably kick off your trip anyway, because it’s where the ferry comes in.
One of the most famous attractions in the Isle of Man is the horse tram. As a horsey person, I’m always wary of any tourist stuff involving horses, but these are exceptionally well looked after. They’re all Shires, Clydesdales or crosses. It’s only £3 a go and takes you along the full length of the waterfront.
With Douglas being the capital, it’s obviously where most of the good places to eat and drink are.
- Our absolute favourite is The Little Fish Café on the North Quay. Manx queenies (scallops) are a big deal in the Isle of Man, and you can get some amazing ones there. It’s also really pretty inside.
- 14 North is another good shout for posher evening meals.
- For lunch/brunch, you can’t miss our favourite veggie-friendly and rather hipster Noa Bakehouse. It features courgette cake. What more can you ask for?
- For a drink in the evening (bear in mind, Douglas is only a small capital so you’re probs not going to have a mad one), we like Bath & Bottle. They do craft beers, including local ones from breweries on the island, and amazing cocktails.
Oh and don’t miss a mooch through the seafront gardens in Douglas. It only takes a few minutes but is really nice in summer. Probably best to do it before the cocktails.
Niarbyl: the best place on the island
This is my favourite place in the whole of the Isle of Man, so excuse the upcoming photo overload…
Niarbyl (meaning ‘the tail’ in Manx) is a craggy, rocky beach with a really good café overlooking it on the edge of a cliff. As you might expect, the views are amazing from the café. But the food is top notch too, including fresh local crab. Try and get the table upstairs for the full-on sea view. They have local bottled beer, but you have to ask for it – specifically nag for Okell’s.
The beach is the best one in the whole of the Isle of Man for rootling round in rockpools. If you catch it at the right tide time, you’ll see crabs, seabirds and the odd jellyfish. There’s a tiny cottage on the beach that makes for a gorgeous photo. Don’t bother nosing through the window, because it’s not that cosy inside. Just some Ikea furniture. It’ll only spoil the illusion.
There are also loads of wild flowers (harebells and more) along the cliffs, which you can go and walk along for some gorgeous views.
Bride village: lighthouse views
I bet this tiny village doesn’t make it onto most Isle of Man travel guides… if there are that many out there in the blogosphere. But it is definitely worth a visit. There’s a carpark and from there you can go and find the viewpoint. It’s in a field, but it is well signposted. You can see the Point of Ayre lighthouse in all its lighthousey glory, along with rolling countryside and of course, the sea. On a clear day, you can even see Scotland. There’s also a playground on the way back into the village with excellent swings. I’m sure no one would see if anyone over 12 had a go on them. Just saying.
There are also some beautiful little cottages and houses in Bride village, which you can gawp at before wandering round the churchyard. I know it sounds odd to want to walk round a churchyard but it’s a really nice one, with another excellent view.
Round it off with a trip to Bride Tearooms. We usually bring the average age down in here but it’s lovely for a lunch or tea and cake mid-afternoon. Just be warned, from what I can remember, they only take cash. We’re so used to using contactless cards everywhere that we’ve ended up frantically running to the car to scrabble for coins under the seats before. Suitably prepared, it’s probably the best place for a scone in the Isle of Man. Therefore, a very important landmark.
Groudle Glen: the best views in the island
Whenever we go to the Isle of Man, we more often than not stay in Groudle, despite not really being able to afford it. This is a tradition from Chris’s childhood so even though there are probably easier/cheaper places to stay, we have to do it. And it does mean that we’re lucky enough to have all of Groudle’s loveliness on the doorstep.
As well as some nice woodland walks, you can get a little train from within the glen (how cosy does that sound?!) up to the cliff edge. The train station has loads of amazing retro posters for beer and soap and things. It takes you to Sea Lion Rocks, where there’s a little café and the best views in the whole island.
Despite the gorgeous views, the history of Sea Lion Rocks is really depressing. In Victoria times, sad polar bears, brown bears and sea lions were kept in horrible tiny cages and a cove there. You can still see the cove, with an artificial wall built into it. It was a major tourist attraction in its day.
Laxey: a great big wheel
Laxey is another nice little beach and village, set into a valley that makes for some beautiful scenery with all the houses lining the hills. Also, for anyone into cycling, this is where Mark Cavendish is from. Fact.
The Laxey Wheel, or Lady Isabella to her mates, is the big deal in Laxey. It’s a huge, bright red waterwheel set into the hillside above the village and you can go up it to look at the view – although I think it makes the view in itself, so quite like just looking at it from outside. You can have a good lunch at the Ballacregga Corn Mill Tea Room next to it.
Laxey also has one of my favourite beaches. It’s almost always raining when we go, so I don’t have an acceptable photo of it with a bit of light on it. The rain is alright though, because we do that nostalgic thing of eating an ice cream in the car while the rain beats down, staring out to sea. Surely one of the top 10 cosiest holiday activities? I really feel for people who didn’t have childhood holidays that featured that kind of thing.
Peel: not just for the castle
What’s this, another seaside town? Correct, but there’s a bit more going on in this one.
Peel has a castle on the seafront. An actual castle. Well, it’s more of a ruin, but still pretty impressive. You can do a lap of it if it’s not too windy, and then walk down the beach to the other end of the town.
Aside from Peel Castle, there’s the House of Manannan. This is a museum all about the Isle of Man’s Celtic and Viking history, including a replica of a Viking longboat. Manannan is a mythical sea god and he guides you around the museum with an amusing voice. The whole thing takes about an hour, but is pretty entertaining and good for understanding a bit more about the island. Afterwards, you can call in at the famous kipper factory next door to stock up on all your kippery needs.
Peel also has a really pretty harbour, full of the sound of boats bobbing and jangling about. Just next to this is an absolute treat – The Boatyard Restaurant. It does a quirky afternoon tea served in a picnic hamper. Yes. Served in a picnic hamper. 10/10 on the cute scale.
Ramsey: for a shop and/or sit in the square
I always think parts of Ramsey look continental in the sun. It’s up in the north of the island, and like pretty much everywhere I’ve mentioned so far, looks out onto the sea. The seafront isn’t that exciting though, unless you catch the lifeboat being taken out for a test drive. It’s one of those things where you end up watching for longer than you planned.
Our favourite thing in Ramsey is the crazy golf at Mooragh Park. Not exactly unique to the Isle of Man, but hilarious fun nonetheless.
Anyway, the centre of Ramsey has some really nice shops, including my favourite The Tide. You can find all kinds of trinkets and Isle-of-Man-themed goodies, as well as some nice clothes (women’s only). They stock Seasalt clothing, which is a bit ‘southern yummy mummy’ but it is ethically produced in the UK and I’m all about that. I bought an emergency cardigan there years ago (pictured below, actually) and it’s still going strong.
You can get to Ramsey on the electric railway from Douglas. It’s so good! The train goes through stunning countryside, along the coast and past Laxey. It stops at loads of scenic little stations on the way that have brilliant floral displays in summer. My only warning is to sit on an outdoor carriage at your peril. It will absolutely wreck your hair.
The Sound: seal spotting
If you’re lucky, this is where you’ll spot some seals. It’s right down in the south of the Isle of Man and full of wildlife. Dolphins and basking sharks also sometimes call in, but your best bet is a sunbathing seal on the rocks. And loads of seabirds.
The best place to spot seals is to the left (if you’re facing out to sea). You can find some little steps that go down the rocks to a small seating area. Try not to fall and die. From there, you can quietly watch seals playing and feeding, on a good day.
The Sound Cafe is also brilliant. It’s designed so that most tables have a panoramic view of the Sound and the Calf of Man. And the food is excellent too – if you have the crab salad, you can decide whether it rivals Niarbyl’s crabby standards. A cup of tea and a cake looking out at the view is a must do. Yes, I am that old.
Point of Ayre: get blown away (literally)
Have you ever seen a more lighthousey lighthouse?
The Point of Ayre is the northernmost tip of the Isle of Man. If you can brave the wind at this rather barren area, you can get some excellent photos of the brooding skies with the pop of colour from the oldest lighthouse on the island. The land around it is attractively bleak, if that makes sense. Out to sea, it’s only 16 miles south the Scottish coast and the sea goes really deep really fast. This means you’ll often see surprisingly large ships up close and it’s a popular fishing area.
You can’t go in the lighthouse, so you don’t need long for a visit – it’s worth going to though, if you like lighthouses. Or wind.
Traditional Manx cottages
It doesn’t get more Pinterest-worthy than this. Thatched roves, red doors, whitewashed walls: a traditional Manx cottage is beautiful. You’ll find them dotted around the island.
The first photo below is the cottage Chris’s great auntie lived in up until the 90s. It’s so picture-perfect that it’s been featured on postcards and other tourist things over the years.
You can see a whole host of similar cottages in Cregneash. You can also go inside one there. They’ve got it all set up how it was back in the day. Personally, I’d go for a more Scandi look, but there’s no accounting for taste.
The Home of Rest for Horses
Just outside Douglas, the Home of Rest for Horses is my favourite thing to do on the whole island. Horse owners or any animal lover will be in heaven. It’s a retirement home not only for the old tramway horses, but for all kinds of equines, including some fantastic and noisy donkeys. It makes me cry (in a happy way) seeing all the oldies having such a good time. Chris has a particular thing with a small palomino who took a liking to him on our first visit.
There’s also a café if you need sustenance while you’re there, and also a gift shop. My favourite tea towel (this what life has come to) is one we got from there.
The backdrop of rolling hills is stunning and it’s just an all-round heartwarming way to spend a few hours. Sobbing happily.
Manx cats: they have no tail
While you’re exploring the Isle of Man, keep an eye out for a classic Manx icon: the lovely tailless cats. Who needs a tail when you’re this fluffy?
If you like kitties, there’s also a cat sanctuary you can go and visit. We’ve not been yet, but it’s on our to-do list for next time. It’s not exclusively for Manx cats but it has hundreds of cats of all types roaming about for you to meet.
Side note: this innocent-looking Manx cat murdered a vole just after we photographed him. Classic cat behaviour.
Tynwald: the world’s oldest continuous parliament
If you thought Iceland had the world’s oldest parliament, think again. And I’m not just saying this because we didn’t really like Reykjavik… The Isle of Man has (or claims to) the oldest continuous parliament going. It kicked off in Celtic and Viking days, and is still going now.
The island’s national day is called Tynwald Day, on 5 July. On this day, thousands of people rock up at Tynwald Hill in St John’s, pictured below, where the parliament meets for a procession and ceremony. The hill is where the original parliament used to meet (they modernised and moved indoors). There’s an adjoining church and a little exhibition centre to nose round.
We usually do this before a look round the neighbouring Tynwald Mills outlet shopping centre, which I highly recommend for cheap Cath Kidston seconds. And thus, all your friends’ birthday presents sorted for the next year.
To end: the Isle of Man has the loveliest scenery
I wanted to end our little Isle of Man travel guide with a small overload of scenic photos that didn’t really fit into any other category.
The Isle of Man has some of the best scenery you can find round Great Britain and the UK (while of course remaining out of the UK!) and is just totally underrated all round. It has such a good variety of countryside and beaches that you feel like you’ve visited all different places in one holiday. Basically, it’s a mini version of mainland Britain – so you get the highlands, the varied coastline, the rolling countryside – but all in one little island. Best of all, you’re never more than a few minutes from a view of the sea.
I’d better stop here, or this is going to be War and Peace and your thumb will die from scrolling.
There’s loads more I want to write about too, like Port Jack Chippy for the best fish and chips on the island, the Snaefell Mountain Railway, Castle Rushen and the famous fairy bridge. Also a special shout out to Jurby Junk (RIP). But it’s not like we ever go long without a trip so I’ll definitely write up some more Manx blogs. I also really want to go riding on some of its beaches so need to look into that for next time…
Isle of Man travel guide: useful information
How to get there (and away)
We usually get the ferry from Liverpool with our little car. It’s an experience in itself and takes just under 3 hours. You can also fly into Ronaldsway airport. This is what we did on our last trip, flying from Liverpool with EasyJet. An amusingly short flight. It worked out at roughly the same cost. Public transport with the GO card was really reasonable, so I think it worked out better overall for a short break, especially if you hate driving like me.
Where to stay
There are loads of self-catering places and also B&Bs all over the island. On our last trip, we stayed at the frankly amazing Raymonds B&B. We had a really gorgeous massive room and it was only £75 a night, complete with brilliant veggie breakfast. Being in or near Douglas is your best bet for getting to most places easily. There’s the most going on there at night too, so you can have a drink in the evening and not worry about paying loads for a taxi ‘home’. You’ve also got all the Douglas restaurants to hand. But it depends what you want from your holiday – I can definitely see the appeal of a cottage in the middle of nowhere. The only thing is, you may struggle for anywhere convenient to eat of an evening if you’re too far out in the sticks.
How to get around
The only downside to the Isle of Man is that some of the best bits are most easily done by car (much like my other fave, Kirkcudbright). This is a problem because we both hate driving. However, it can be done by bus and historic railways too. We did this recently for a long weekend and it worked out beautifully. You should get a GO card, which you can find out about here. You can use it on all public transport and I think it must have saved us a small fortune considering how much we crammed into 3 days. The buses are very reliable in my experience. As is the steam train!
When to go
We usually go in August, but June or July would be equally good. This goes against all my child-avoiding logic, being in the middle of their summer holidays, but it’s never that inundated so you can always avoid them. Also, the weather is slightly more reliable and everything is open, which is always a bonus.
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You might also like my other Isle of Man posts:
- 60 things to do in the Isle of Man
- 20 of the best Isle of Man restaurants and places to eat and drink
- 3 days in the Isle of Man by public transport [coming soon].
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