Pristine beaches, photogenic castles and areas of outstanding beauty: this is in a nutshell the Northern Irish “Causeway Coastal Route”!
It runs from Belfast to Lough Foyle and is officially 120 miles long. Most tourists drive it in one day. If you really want to do it justice, however, I would recommend staying somewhere overnight. It’ll give you time to walk along the lovely beaches or cliffs, have a closer look at the photogenic castles and take time for a well deserved pint in one of the village pubs!
The Causeway Coastal Route, day 1:
1. Carrickfergus and its Norman Castle
The castle represents over 800 years of military power. It has been in the hands of the Scottish, Irish, English and French and played an important military role until 1928. It remains one of the best preserved medieval structures in Ireland and is open for visits. The castle is right next to Carrickfergus harbour, a nice place for a coffee or beer.
2. Islandmagee and The Gobbins cliffpath
Islandmagee is a peninsula that houses the beautiful little harbour of Portmuck and the sandy beach of Brown’s Bay. Since 2015 it has an extra feature: The Gobbins cliff path! See the waves crashing against the cliffs, admire the numerous birds and enjoy a hike along tunnels, bridges and uneven stones.
3. Ballygally Castle
Nowadays a hotel, the 17th century Ballygally Castle still deserves a stop to admire its cylindrical towers and walls. They are five feet thick with loopholes for muskets. But the most important reason to stop is to visit its haunted tower and look out for ghosts. “Lady Isobel Shaw” for example is said to have a habit of knocking people’s doors. According to the legend, she has fallen from the window after her husband had locked her in her room and starved her.
“Madame Nixon” is another ghost who lived in the hotel in the 19th century and can be heard walking around the hotel in her silk dress.
Have a look for yourself if you dare!
Carnlough has a very picturesque harbour and you should definitely walk up to its walls to admire the coastal views! If you have more time, take the walk up to the Cranny Falls. It follows an old limestone railway track. If it is sunny and warm, the moist air around the waterfall makes you feel like you’re in some tropical forest!
5. Cushendall and Ballycastle
Two small towns that make for a good place to have a bite or rest.
If you break the journey in two, I would suggest you stay overnight in one of these places.
The Causeway Coastal Route: day 2
After Ballycastle starts the most photogenic part and most popular part of the Causeway Coastal Route. Camera ready? Here we go!
6. Carrick-a-Rede Rope bridge
A 20m long ropebridge links the mainland to the tiny island across. Traditionally fishermen have been building bridges to the island for over 350 years to check on their salmon nets. It is no longer used by fishermen nowadays and has been turned into a tourist attraction. The bridge swings 30m above the rocks and on a windy day, it can be quite tricky to cross. The walk towards the bridge and from the small island are gorgeous! You need to pay to cross the bridge, but if you just want to go down to admire the views, it’s free!
7. Ballintoy Harbour
“Game of Thrones”-addicts: beware! The tiny beach near the harbour is where Theon Greyjoy arrives back to the Iron Islands! Apart from that, it has managed to keep its quietness and remains one of the most picturesque little harbours on the Route. The little cafe is a perfect place for a coffee.
My favourite beach in Northern Ireland! It forms a wide arc in between two headlands. Its secluded location means that even on a busy day there is plenty of room for quiet relaxation.
9. Giant’s Causeway
Where to start? The Giant’s Causeway is probably Northern Ireland’s number one tourist attraction. The famous basalt columns are flanked by the wild Atlantic Ocean and the surrounding cliffs give you the opportunity to enjoy the best panorama on the North Coast! There are about 40.000 massive black basalt columns sticking out of the sea, due to volcanic activity about 50 million years ago. But according to the legend, the columns are the remains of a causeway built by a giant! The story goes that the Irish giant, Finn McCool, was challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant, called Benandonner. Finn accepted the challenge and built a causeway across the sea so the two could meet. But when Finn realized that his opponent was a lot bigger than him, he disguised himself as a baby and got tucked away in a craddle by his wife. Benandonner saw the size of what he thought was “the baby” and reckoned that his”father” must be an absolute gigantic creature! He fled back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him so that Finn could never find him again!
A lot of people take the bottom trail from the visitor centre towards the columns, but I would suggest taking the upper trail to take in the beautiful views first and then descend the Shepherd’ Steps to see the wonder itself. If you have time (5 to 6 hours) and you’re feeling energetic, you can even walk all the way from the Rope Bridge to the Giant’s Causeway along the cliffs: unspoilt nature at its best!
10. Bushmills Whiskey Distillery
Bushmills is a small town known for the world famous Irish “Bushmills” whiskey. You can visit the old distillery with the complimentary tasting at the end. A must-do for every self-respecting whiskey fan!
11. Dunluce Castle
A picture-perfect postcard! The now ruined medieval Dunluce Castle is perched on a cliff edge that plunges straight into the Atlantic Ocean! The first record of the castle dates back to 1513, but most of its construction goes back to the 16th and 17th century. At one point, part of the kitchen next to the cliff is said to have collapsed into the sea.
12. White Rocks
A lovely sandy beach just before Portrush, popular with surfers. The must see here is the white limestone rocks that have been carved into a labyrinth of caves and arches. Gorgeous!
Two seaside towns that provide the necessary restaurants, cafes and accomodation. Both have stunning miles-wide beaches. I prefer Portstewart, Portrush being a bit too much of a seaside resort town, although the area around the small harbour definitely has its charms too!
14. Mussenden Temple
Perched on a cliff edge, high above the Atlantic Ocean, the temple was built in 1785 as a summer library and its architecture inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, near Rome. Both the temple and the surrounding views over Downhill beach are among the most photographed scenes of Northern Ireland.
15. Downhill or Benone beach
Benone and Downhill are two different names for the same stretch of miles-long beach. It tends to be quieter here in summer compared to Portstewart and Portrush. The beach gives you stunning views of the Mussenden Temple, perched on the cliff above.
From here on follow the signs towards either the historical town of Londonderry or make your way back to Belfast.
Have you driven the Causeway Coastal Route? Or do you have a favourite road trip?
Looking forward to read it in the comments!