Ah, Northern Ireland- Game of Thrones country.
Even if the tv show isn’t your thing (I’ve only watched up to season six), there’s no denying the beauty of the Causeway Coast.
Regarded as one of the most beautiful drives in the world, it’s the kind of rugged coastline you won’t see anywhere else in the UK, Ireland, and even most of Europe.
How to Get Around
Having travelled the Causeway Coast twice- once by guided tour- and once on my own, self-driving, I can’t encourage going the rental car route enough.
The guided tour was great, but you also miss so much out on so much when on big group tours. Sure, you may see the highlights, but you won’t have any control over how long you spend at each place, or be able to check out the ‘off the beaten path’ destinations.
Roads in Northern Ireland are in great condition- if you drive one way along the coast, and the other back inland via highway, you’ll have no issue. And, for anyone worried about driving on the left- I learned how to drive on the right, but actually feel more comfortable driving on the left. Sure, that’s after living in the UK for three years, travelling Asia/Australia/New Zealand for a year, and living in Ireland for a year- all ‘drive on the left’ destinations. But, I promise you get used to it quickly.
Both times I’ve visited the Causeway Coast, I’ve underestimated just how much there is to see and do. If you can swing it, I’d recommend spending three days along the coast. But, if you’ve only got two days before you head on to Belfast or to the west coast of Ireland, here’s how I’d structure my time.
Assuming you’re arriving from Dublin or flying into Northern Ireland, start in Belfast. Once you’ve seen Belfast for a day or two, leave the city early morning and start your day driving north along the coast. Spend the entire day driving through cute towns and scenic views.
- Key stops: Carnlough; Cushendall; Cusendun Caves; Corner House Cafe; Giant’s Causeway; Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge; Sunset at White Rocks Beach in Portrush
Spend the night in Portrush, one of Northern Ireland’s larger towns with plenty of options for dinner. There’s so much to see along the coast, if you can split this day into two, you could a few more things, like Tor Head and really take your time soaking in the views.
The next day, hit a few more stops along the coast before ending your day with a short hike. This route assumes you’re headed back to Belfast or Dublin, but could easily be adjusted if you’re headed elsewhere- to Enniskillen or west Ireland.
- Key stops: White Rocks Beach; Dunluce Castle; Bushmills; The Dark Hedges; Kinbane Castle; Glenariff Forest Park
Are the above day splits aggressive? Yes, a bit. But, if you have good weather and head out in the morning, returning in the evening, they’re doable for an adventure packed weekend.
Can’t Miss Stops Along the Causeway Coast
Carnlough: Hello, quaint Irish coastal village. A half hour stop here is just enough time to walk around the harbour and main street of town.
Cushenden Caves: Scenes from GOT were filmed here, so if that’s your thing, this may be a really exciting stop for you. If you’re not into GOT, the cafes are still very cool. After perusing the caves for a bit, walk through the town and stop at the cosy Corner House Cafe for the best raspberry scones you’ll ever try (ps. the chocolate cake is unbelievable, too).
Giant’s Causeway: A definite highlight of driving the Causeway Coast, Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As the most spectacular spot along the Causeway Coastal Route, the Giant’s Causeway actually lends its name to the whole driving route.
Giant’s Causeway’s unique look was formed by volcanic activity 60 million years ago. Although, local legend would have you believe otherwise. Legend says a giant by the name of Finn McCool was having trouble with someone across the water. The Scottish giant Benandonner was thought to be threatening Ireland. An enraged Finn grabbed chunks of the Antrim coast and threw them into the sea, forming a path for Finn to follow to teach Benandonner a lesson.
Folklore aside, the causeway is spectacular, so unique in appearance, it’s hard to believe it’s real. Some of the columns are appear symmetrical, it seems only logical they’d be human crafted but that’s not the case.
Having visited Giant’s Causeway twice and hiked along the cliffs a bit, words truly fail describing the magic of this place. It’s definitely the kind of place you want as much time as possible- at least 2 hours to truly appreciate the exceptionalness of it all.
My first time visiting, Giant’s Causeway was crowded, but still enjoyable. Visiting in 2020, access was more limited (keeping with COVID compliance), and a much better experience- I know I’ve got Giant’s Causeway listed as a mid-day visit in my ‘key stops’ list, but if you’re able, I’d come first thing in the morning or near closing to experience the sight with fewer people around.
If you’re visiting in COVID times, consider reserving a ticket to have access to the visitor center (main perks: no line for toilets; parking adjacent to the visitor center). Any other time though, you can park nearby (plan to pay for parking or walk a half mile to a mile to reach the visitor’s center), and visit Giant’s Causeway for free.
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge: The rope bridge played a big role in Northern Ireland’s history, with salmon fisherman crossing the bridge daily during fishing season with their daily catch. Since the bridge opened to the public, they’ve ensured safety features, like two side handles for crossers to grip while walking across.
Ready to challenge my fear of heights, we picked up our bridge tickets and walked 20 minutes to the start of the bridge. We couldn’t have been more lucky with the weather- 60 degrees F, sunny and a light breeze keeping us cool from the water.
A few years ago, crossing the rope bridge wouldn’t have been laughable for me- I had such a paralysing fear of heights, I couldn’t even look at the window of high office buildings. Since then, I’ve made major progress in becoming more comfortable off the ground, even skydiving once. That said, while the bridge is high (but not unbelievably high), I did find myself taking deep breaths across the bridge each time I crossed it.
Even if you don’t want to cross the bridge, seeing it and walking along the adjacent cliffs is reason enough to visit.
Before or after the bridge, be sure to stop at Larrybane, a limestone quarry with gorgeous views, where scenes from GOT were shot.
White Rocks Beach (Portrush): One of the most beautiful beaches in Northern Ireland (and Ireland), White Rocks Beach is just as it sounds- a sandy beach, adjacent to towering, spectacular white rocks. Don’t miss the overlook point between the beach access and Dunluce Castle.
I’ve put White Rocks Beach on my ‘must see’ list twice in Northern Ireland because it’s an equally gorgeous place at sunset and during the day.
Dunluce Castle: Roofless castle ruins on the edge of a cliff? Breathtaking.
Exploring the castle grounds only costs a few pounds, and is well worth the cost- the medieval castle is also said to be inspiration for many fantasy writers. Check with the ticket shop to see if the hillside is open, and if it is, climb down for gorgeous views of the castle sea-level.
Bushmills: The town is the perfect size for a late morning/early afternoon snack (read: a bunch of cafe and restaurant options), and if you’re into whiskey, don’t miss a tasting or tour at the distillery.
The Dark Hedges: The hedges are almost surreal- towering hedges shading part of a country road, surrounded by farm side. Famed for an appearance in GOT, the trees date back to the eighteenth century. The Stuart family planted these rows of beech trees, their purpose was to create an impressive sight for visitors as they approached the Stuart home, Gracehill House.
On my most recent visit, I was relieved to see road traffic was cut off. In September 2020, I was able to park on the side of the road (Google Maps location for The Dark Hedges), and leisurely stroll up and down the road, without fear of being run over – a big improvement to my first visit in 2018.
Kinbane Castle: A bit of a hidden gem- hike down a cliffside to reach castle ruins on a stretch of land only accessible when the tide is out.
The views from the top of the bit the ruins sit on is unbelievable- hike to the top for the most incredible views.
Glenariff Forest Park: Hailed as one of the best places in Northern Ireland to experience nature, make don’t miss driving through the Glens of Antrim. There are nine in total and each has its own charming and unique character that is incredible to explore.
Once you’ve arrived, make sure to explore the forest. With its rugged beauty and cascading waterfalls, it’s known as the “Queen of the Glens”. There are several walks you can take from the main parking lot, including two perfect for a quick exploration:
- Viewpoint trail (1 km): From the viewpoint on the trail you can look down the Glen to the sea in the distance. The walk takes you past the café and back to the car park via the ornamental garden
- Waterfall walk trail (3 km): Seeing the Glenariff waterfalls and boardwalk, which wind through Glenariff Nature Reserve is a must do. Access to the waterfalls is via foot, starting from the main car park or the restaurant car park beside the lodge. Although the trail isn’t that long, be prepared for a steep climb and plenty of steps
Even though I’ve been to Northern Ireland twice, I can’t wait to return. On a future trip, I’d love to stop at:
- DunDrum Castle
- Carrickfergus Castle: One of the best preserved medieval castles in Ireland, it may not look that exciting but is gorgeous at sunset
- Tollymore Forest: At the base of the Mourne Mountains, the forest is one of the most beautiful places in Northern Ireland
- Craigmore Viaduct: Known locally as the ’18 Arches’, the viaduct opened in 1852. Trains between Dublin and Belfast still cross the bridge to this day
- Enniskillen: I’ve seen enough from this area of Northern Ireland to know it’s worth spending a day or two in the area to take in all the natural beauty
- Castle Roche: Located in Ireland (very close to the border), Castle Roche is everything my Irish drone flying dreams are made of
Have you ever been to Northern Ireland? Which stop from this list would be a ‘must visit’ for you?
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One thought on “The ‘Can’t Miss’ Guide to Northern Ireland’s Most Beautiful Places”
I’ve neither been to Northern Ireland nor seen an episode of Game of Thrones, but wow are those views STUNNING! Northern Ireland has intrigued me for a while, and it’s a shame that I didn’t get to pop over when I was in the UK and Ireland five years ago…your photos inspire me to make the trek should I return to that part of Europe someday, and hopefully someday soon!