Pristine beaches, photogenic castles and areas of outstanding beauty: this is in a nutshell the Northern Irish “Causeway Coastal Route”! In 2018, Lonely Planet has chosen the area as the number one region to visit, so that is saying something!
The Causeway Coastal Route runs from the Northern Irish capital of Belfast to the historic city of Derry/Londonderry 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! Ready? Off we go!
This is the official start of the Causeway Coastal Route.
The capital city of Northern Ireland deserves a weekend break in its own right and is a great place to start your road trip. There is a lot crammed in in this relative small capital: history, traditional pubs, markets and not to mention the Titanic Museum.
After spending a few days here, it is time to hit the road!
2. The Norman Castle of Carrickfergus
After a 25 minute drive, it is time for stop number 1: the Norman castle of Carrickfergus. 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, which is a nice place for a coffee or beer.
3. Islandmagee and The Gobbins cliffpath
A mere 15 minutes from Carrickfergus castle, take a right towards the lovely peninsula of Islandmagee. It boasts 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! A 2.5 hour guided walk (book in advance!) will take you along the cliffs. Crashing waves, numerous sea birds, tunnels, bridges and uneven stones make this a good introduction to the north coast further up.
4. 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. Or how about checking out the haunted tower and looking out for ghosts? Lady Isobel Shaw 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! The harbour was one of the Game of Thrones filming locations in Northern Ireland and featured as the place where Arya crawled up from the stony staircase after being stabbed by the troublesome Waif.
If you have more time, take the walk up to the Cranny Falls. The walk 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!
6. The Glens of Antrim
The nine different glens or valleys of Antrim make for a scenic drive in their own right, but if you would have to choose one, I’d suggest you pick Glenariff, nicknamed the “Queen of the Glens”! Glenariff Forest Park boasts beautiful walks and hidden waterfalls. It’s a great place to stretch the legs for a few hours!
7. Torr Head and Murlough Bay
We’re going slightly off-route here, but trust me, it’s worth it! On the main Causeway Coastal Route, slightly before Cushendun, take the signposted scenic road towards Torr Head. It will only add half an hour to your journey, but on a sunny day it might well be your favourite part of the trip! As the winding road climbs higher and higher, look out for dolphins and seals in the waters below. All the way, the views are truly spectacular and reach even as far as Scotland!
Continue on the same road and drive down towards Murlough Bay, a gorgeous bay at the foot of Northern Ireland’s tallest cliff face, Fair Head. Views reach as far as Rathlin Island and The Mull of Kintyre. (Scotland)
A few miles east of Ballycastle, situated on a long and narrow headland, are the ruins of Kinbane Castle. From the small car park, you can’t really see what is ahead of you, but as soon as you go down (be prepared for a steep climb back up) the steps, the rocky outcrop becomes clear. As has become the norm on this route, you will be awarded with stunning views over the Atlantic Ocean and when looking back from the ruins inland, various waterfalls trickle from the cliffs above. I really don’t like to use the word “hidden gem”, but if there is one, this would be it!
9. Carrick-a-Rede Rope bridge
From this stop on, we’re getting into the most popular stretch of the Causeway Coastal Route, so prepare for crowds, especially during summer!
Carrick-a-Rede is a 20m long rope bridge that 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 (£9), but if you just want to go down to admire the views, it’s free!
10. 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, Ballintoy harbour has managed to keep its remoteness and remains one of the most picturesque little harbours on the north coast. The little café is a perfect place for a coffee and cake.
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 space for everyone! The beach is backed by dunes and grasslands. In the western corner is the tiny hamlet of Portbradden, which used to be an ancient salmon fishing station. It used to house the smallest church in Ireland, which has unfortunately been demolished in 2017.
12. Giant’s Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s number one tourist attraction. 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 saw that his opponent was a lot bigger than him, he quickly retreated and disguised himself as a baby, tucked away in a craddle by his wife. When Benandonner saw the size of what he thought was”the baby” he 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!
13. Bushmills Whiskey Distillery
Bushmills is a small town known for the world famous “Bushmills” whiskey. You can visit the old distillery with a complimentary tasting at the end. A must-do for every self-respecting whiskey fan!
14. 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!
15. White Rocks
A lovely sandy beach just before Portrush, popular with surfers. Don’t miss the white limestone rocks that have been carved into a labyrinth of caves and arches.
Two seaside towns that provide the necessary restaurants, cafés and accommodation. Both have stunning miles-wide beaches. I prefer Portstewart, which offers some of the best surfing spots in Ireland. Portrush is a bit more of a seaside resort town, although the area around the small harbour definitely has its charms too! I can highly recommend a pint of Guinness in the Harbour Bar!
17. Mussenden Temple
Perched on a cliff edge, high above the Atlantic Ocean, the temple was built in 1785 as a summer library. The architecture is 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.
18. 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.
19. Binevenagh cliffs
The dramatic basalt cliffs of Binevenagh mean the end of the coastal section of this road trip. From here on, the route turns inland towards Derry/Londonderry. You can simply drive up to the summit of Binevenagh, but I would encourage you to follow one of the scenic hiking trails to the top.
You have arrived! And what better place to end this road trip than in one of the most historical cities of Northern Ireland? Have a few pints and book a night to discover everything Derry/Londonderry has to offer!
And why not venture a bit further and check out the other exciting things Northern Ireland has in store for you!
If you are planning on crossing the border into the Republic of Ireland from here, then this 10-day itinerary for Ireland will show you the most beautiful corners of the Emerald Isle.