The Causeway Coast - 20 things to do on Northern Ireland's coast with the most
Northern Ireland's Causeway Coastal Route easily rivals the best of the Wild Atlantic Way...
Northern Ireland's Causeway Coast may not have the brand recognition of the Wild Atlantic Way, but it's an absolute stunner.
From Belfast to Derry, the route is around 200km, but of course there are myriad stops, distractions, boreens and beaches to explore along the way. Two or three days, or more, could easily be spent on this drive.
Here's a selection of things to do, see and eat on your travels.
1. Begin in Belfast
Lonely Planet once named Belfast and the Causeway Coast as the world's No.1 region to visit - beating the likes of Alaska and Italy's Aeolian Islands to claim the top spot.
Start with an overnight and bite in the city (where swanky new digs include The Regancy, Grand Central and Harrison Chambers of Distinction. Better still, slake your appetite and explore an electric food and craft drinks scene with one of Caroline Wilson's Belfast Bites tours (tasteandtour.co.uk; £65/€74pp for 3.5 hours with tastings).
Titanic Belfast has recently reopened with four new galleries (and artefacts including a deckchair, lifejacket and violin from the liner), and you can take street art city tours with Belfast's Seedhead Arts (seedheadarts.com).
If you can nab a meal at the Muddlers Club (muddlersclubbelfast.com), do. Garreth McCaughey's brilliantly balanced dishes draw from the best Northern produce in a zinger of a room at the heart of the Cathedral Quarter.
Details: visitbelfast.com; discovernorthernireland.com
2. The Gobbins
It sounds like a character from Game of Thrones, but The Gobbins is in fact a 2.5-hour guided cliff path on the Islandmagee peninsula.
Passing through 'Wise's Eye', a gap in the rocks named for the Victorian gent who envisioned and engineered the thing, visitors continue along a coast-hugging adventure involving hidden tunnels, carved staircases and surprising bridges on a rollercoaster intro to the Causeway Coast. Secure GoPro to safety helmet, and off you go! There's a café and picnic facilities at the visitor centre. Read my detailed guide to The Gobbins here.
Details: thegobbinscliffpath.com (£20/€22.70pp; seasonal).
3. A ghost by the coast
A ghost room! I found it by chance en route for a bathroom break. Climbing the spiral staircase at Ballygally Castle Hotel (it dates from 1625) takes you to a chilly room in which a black cloak is draped over a chair overlooking the ocean.
Outside, Scotland's Mull of Kintyre can be seen on clear days, and panels tell the tragic story of a lady named Isabella, who leapt from these heights and occasionally returns to haunt visitors with rising temperatures and... the smell of vanilla.
Oh, and don't forget to snap a selfie by a Game of Thrones door (above) depicting the Battle of the Bastards.
A Game of Thrones-inspired afternoon tea is also available (£32/€36pp; 24 hours notice required) with Jon Snow cakes and Dothraki trifle.
4. The Madman's Window
No, it wasn’t named after my visit. It’s a limestone rock formation by the coast near Glenarm. According to local legend, after a young woman was drowned nearby over two centuries ago, her sweetheart “would sit and gaze through the window waiting for his love to return from the waters”. You'll find a carpark a couple of hundred metres north of the rocks - park here and walk back, taking care at the edges.
5. Carnlough Harbour
As you drive north from Larne (and indeed before that), the Causeway Coastal route starts to come into its own.
"60 million years ago, East Antrim would have looked exactly like present day Iceland or Hawaii," reads a display sign along the way. You are driving through what was once an active volcanic landscape.
Look out for the white limestone ("composed of the skeletons of countless billions of tiny sea creatures") and dark, brooding basalt. Both are features of this coastline, foreshadowing wow moments to come at White Rocks beach (limestone) and the Giant's Causeway (basalt).
Oystercatchers pick along the shoreline, boats bob out at sea, and small towns like Glenarm, Cushendall and Carnlough with its pretty harbour (above) cry out for little pit-stops.
6. The Glens of Antrim
It's not just about the coast, you know. Antrim's deep green glens slice down towards the sea at regular intervals north of Ballygally, bringing with them a genuine danger of driving into the scenery. Diversions range from Slemish Mountain, where St Patrick is said to have tended sheep, to Glenarm Castle and Steenson's jewellery shop and workshop (thesteensons.com). You'll pinch yourself when you realise the land masses visible out to sea are, in fact, Scotland.
7. Explore the Cushendun Caves
The souvenir-sized village of Cushendun is home to Mary McBride’s pub, a good stop for traditional dishes and old-school atmosphere. But it's the caves that are the main attraction here, an easily-accessible warren less than five minutes' walk from the bridge.
The Cushendun Caves are said to have been formed some 400 million years ago, and there's a spooky feeling to the dark recesses, with a soundtrack of seas washing over the pebbled beach alongside. This was another Game of Thrones location (scenes included Melisandre's birthing of the shadow baby in Season Two). They're free to visit.
8. Torr Head and Murlough Bay
"Don’t miss walking at Fair Head and sightseeing at Murlough Bay," says Eimear Flanagan of walking tour operator, Away a Wee Walk. "It’s extraordinary this scenery is so overlooked. Fair Head is the epic headland you can see from Ballycastle - it has numerous signed walks for people who own decent walking boots."
After Cushendun, you can take a straightforward drive on the A2 to Ballycastle, or detour along the windy, nervy Torr Head option. This is not for nervous drivers, and definitely not for camper vans, but the views are panoramic and often jaw-dropping.
Murlough Bay (above) is accessed via another electrifyingly steep and squiggly descent. Be sure to park at the upper car park in peak season (there are very few spaces at the end, and you don't want to reverse back up), and walk along the coast, spotting a little white bothy and fishing hut along the way.
The wooden cross on the hill has a sign featuring a letter from prison by Roger Casement, who wished to be buried here, recalling “the great panorama of island and hill and swirling waters that first made me realise what Ireland was to me”.
The first rope bridge linking the tiny islands off Carrick-a-Rede was erected by salmon fishermen in the 1700s. Streams of fish have long since been replaced by tourists, walking a kilometre along the cliffs before queuing up to cross the surprisingly short, but satisfyingly steep, structure.
The earlier you arrive (tickets are timed at peak periods), the more time and space you'll have, so if you're on a multi-day trip, try to time one day to start here. Seeing the emerald green Atlantic sloshing about 30m below your feet is a buzz, as are the views of chalky cliffs from the island at the other side.
Details: nationaltrust.org.uk/carrickarede; from £13.50/€15.30 (free to National Trust members)
10. Ballycastle and Rathlin Island
Ballycastle is a good base for the Causeway Coastal Route, with overnight options including the three-star Marine Hotel in the centre of town and The Salthouse - a four-star with new lodges set on a height overlooking the coast.
And don't miss Mortons chipper! (Yes, the lines are worth it).
It's also a departure point for ferries to Rathlin Island. Northern Ireland's only inhabited island is a 45-minute crossing away, and famous for its bird colonies (puffins in particular can be seen during breeding season from May through July). It's also home to an upside-down lighthouse, lovely hikes and Robert the Bruce's cave. Aquaholics (aquaholics.co.uk) does sea safaris.
Details: marinehotelballycastle.com; thesalthousehotel.com. For Rathlin Island info, ferry times and more, see rathlincommunity.org/visit
11. Beautiful Ballintoy
Game of Thrones fans will find another excuse to get the Seven Kingdoms selfies going at Ballintoy, a tiny fishing harbour set at the end of a short, corkscrew road just a few minutes west of Carrick-A-Rede.
A glossy sign outlines scenes in which the harbour appears (it doubles as Pyke and the Iron Islands in the HBO series), but TV star power soon fades before the enduring charm of the setting itself... especially since access is too tight to allow coaches.
Look around - there's a dramatic sea cave once used to repair boats, black volcanic rock contrasting with creamy-white limestone, a raised beach, and a wooden stake bearing little mementoes, both tragic and romantic. It's a perfect little post.
Ballintoy is just five minutes from Carrick-A-Rede, but go slowly on the winding road - oncoming traffic can quickly appear without notice.
12. An inglenook at Bushmills
Bushmills Distillery was doing small batch whiskey centuries before the current craft drinks renaissance, as kindred spirits learn on a tour.
Don't forget to stop into the Bushmills Inn, a Blue Book bolthole with its origins in a 17th-century coaching inn. There are some ridiculously cosy spaces here, including a bar with original gas lamps and an irresistible inglenook (a 'chimney corner') by the fireplace next to reception. Nab the rocking chair here, and you might never get up.
The Inn has 41 rooms if you fancy spending the night, or time your stay for a movie in the small but perfectly formed Still Room cinema.
Details: bushmills.com/distillery (£15/€17); bushmillsinn.com
13. Giant's Causeway
Yes, the 'stones', as locals call them, are small. But there are 40,000 of them, and the hexagonal basalt columns still feel like something out of Ripley's Believe It or Not!
The causeway has been a tourist attraction since Victorian times, and today's visitors are greeted by a slick grass-roofed visitor centre slotted into the landscape with minimal impact. You don't have to pass through it (access to the rocks is technically free), but paying the fee helps to maintain the National Trust and Unesco World Heritage site, and entitles you to an audio guide and some context in the interactive exhibitions.
After that, it's a 1km walk (or cheating bus ride) down to the money shot, where visitors swarm like ants over stones ranging from sandy to inky black.
In many ways, the surrounding landscape is just as jaw-dropping... verdant greens and army browns slashed by streaks of oxidised red, or folklore-friendly features like the Giant's Boot and Fionn MacCumhaill's chimneys. Because we all know the Causeway wasn't some freak of geology, but a giant's personal bridge to Scotland, right?
Did you know? A guided Giant's Causeway clifftop hike is available (awayaweewalk.com; 3.5-hours; £30/€34).
Details: Pre-purchase tickets on nationaltrust.org.uk (£13.50/€15.60)
14. White Rocks beach
Locals know all about the breathtaking limestone cliffs marking Whiterocks out as one of Northern Ireland's most beautiful beaches, but visitors need a little nudge... away from Portrush and towards the eastern end. Here, a car park off the Dunluce Road leads through grassy knolls to a sandy stretch scarred with caves and arches, and teeming with seabirds. It's popular with surfers and body-boarders, and lifeguards are on duty in July and August. Visit at low tide for the best opportunity to explore the arches and sea caves.
15. Rock n' roll at Dunluce Castle
This 16th-century ruin sits like a spectre atop of the cliffs. After parking up, you can pay to cross the bridge and stroll around the castle itself, or simply admire it from a height - complete with views stretching to Donegal and Scotland.
Legends surrounding the place include the story of a castle kitchen that collapsed into the sea one stormy night (taking several cooks with it). It may also have been an inspiration for CS Lewis's Cair Paravel in the Chronicles of Narnia (Lewis was born in East Belfast).
Did you know? The Giant's Causeway famously appears on the cover of Led Zeppelin's 1973 album, Houses of the Holy... Dunluce castle features on the inner sleeve.
16. Hit Harry's Shack
Last time I visited, Donal Doherty pointed across the wide strip of sand at Portstewart towards Greencastle, on the Inishowen Peninsula. "That's where the fish comes from," he said.
Ocean and farm to fork is the philosophy here, but that's just the beginning. Harry's is one of those ideas that seems simple in retrospect, but takes real drive and vision to bring to life - a glorified wooden hut with big picture windows and a covered deck overlooking the sea; a simple menu zeroing in on local seafood (don't worry carnivores, there's a good burger too) and a healthy list of local craft beers.
Summer is mad busy (book ahead), but it's open in winter too, complete with a bone-warming, wood-burning stove. Hits on my visit included a lovely, crispy-skinned piece of hake atop of a chorizo and tomato stew with homemade aioli, mussels in wine and pearl barley, potatoes gently seasoned with dulse, and the most popular order - a crackin' fish 'n' chips (gluten-free batter is available).
Did you know? The Royal Portrush Golf Club will once again host the British Open in 2025 (it hosted for Shane Lowry's win in 2019). royalportrush.com
17. Magical Mussenden Temple
"It was once possible to drive a horse and carriage around the temple," reads a sign near this photogenic structure teetering on Co Antrim's edge. "The forces of nature have over the years brought it closer and closer to the edge."The ‘temple’ was actually built as a bishop’s library on the Downhill Estate and was named after his cousin Mrs. Frideswide Mussenden.
"Its walls were once lined with bookcases. A fire was kept constantly burning in the basement and an enclosed flue meant that even in this very exposed location the books never got damp," according to the National Trust, which manages the site today.
Downhill House itself is a ruin, but you can access both by parking up at the National Trust site (£5 for parking, cash or app only). The views down over Downhill beach and over to Donegal are breathtaking... as are the waves rippling up hundreds of yards offshore, before rolling in like carpet and breaking white on long strip orange sand.
18. Where to eat on the Causeway Coast
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If toasties are your thing, hit up Maegden in Bushmills for a grilled sambo oozing with farmhouse goodies like Hegarty’s cheddar or Young buck, a stilton-style blue. cheesemaegden.com
Ursa Minor bakehouse in Ballycastle uses traditional techniques to create crusty bread (the pies and pastries are excellent too). ursaminorbakehouse.com
As well as Harry’s Shack in Portrush, steer towards Native Seafood & Scran in Portstewart for snap-fresh seafood overlooking the strand, or join the queue for stonking monkfish scampi at Morton’s chipper in Ballycastle. Yum! facebook.com/HarrysShack; nativeseafood.co.uk; mortonsfishballycastle.com
Other tips? Try the cinnamon rolls at Scarpellos in Derry, Morelli's ice cream in Ballycastle, Kraken in Portrush for fish n' chips, and more!
You'll find lots of great foodie recommendations at Taste Causeway too. tastecauseway.com.
19. An alternative Causeway Coast
Looking for something different to do on the Causeway Coastal Route?
Broughgammon Farm opens its family farm, cafe and shop to visitors near Ballycastle from Fridays to Sundays (11am-4pm). Guided tours and classes are available too. broughgammon.com
Mussenden Sea Salt offers a 'Mussenden Unwind' experience including a guided tour of Downhill Forest, a dip in the sea and a wild cooked meal. It's time to "disconnect from the to-do lists", they say. mussendenseasalt.com
Ancestral home of the Earls of Antrim, Glenarm Castle has expanded its offering with experiences like a stonemasonry school, mini Land Rover drives, and a tour of the castle with the family butler. glenarmcastle.com
20. Best time to visit the Causeway Coast
Shoulder seasons (April/May and September/October) offer the best mix of weather, open attractions and slightly less crowds then peak holiday periods.
If you want the coast to yourself (well, almost), travel off-peak. My last trip was on a Monday in February, and I had hardly anyone else to share it with. However, I also found many cafés and restaurants closed, and daylight was in short supply.
Summer months bring the queues and crowds - no surprise there.
Detour 1: Do the Dark Hedges
They may be Northern Ireland's most iconic Game of Thrones location, but the Dark Hedges appear only fleetingly in the show - when a cart carrying Arya Stark and friends trundles down the King's Road in Series 2.
The atmospheric avenue of beech trees is about 30km from the coast, and was planted by the Stuart family of Gracehill House in the 18th century, but they could scarcely have imagined how dramatically those branches would twist and turn in the ensuing centuries.
The tunnel of beech is particularly spooky at sunset, appearing to draw you down the avenue, but the trees can be beautiful in early morning sunlight or mist, too.
Storm Gertrude brought several of them crashing down in 2016, and these have been brilliantly recast as Game of Thrones doors like the one in Ballygally Castle Hotel (see above).
Is there a ghost story here, too? But, of course. The Dark Hedges are believed to be haunted by a 'Grey Lady', the spirit of a servant girl said to have disappeared 150 years ago.
Parking on Bregagh Road itself is a bad idea - the verges are tight, it's a nightmare to turn and you'll ruin everyone's photos. Save yourself the hassle by parking at the nearby Hedges Estate Hotel and grabbing a bite there before or after a stroll.
Details: ccght.org/darkhedges; thehedgeshotel.co.uk
Detour 2: A Gin Library
There are plenty of hotels and B&Bs along the Causeway Coast, but two words justify a 40-minute detour to Galgorm Resort & Spa: Gin Library.
Yup, this little haven, secreted away off the hotel's conservatory, has over 300 bottles - with Northern Irish brands ranging from Jawbox to Boatyard and Shortcross.
Galgorm itself has all the feel and facilities of a five-star, from the cosy fireplaces, seductive lighting and parkland setting by the River Maine to the adult playground that is its thermal village and spa garden (changing room walkways are cobbled with creamy stones to get the circulation in your feet going). It's an elegant place in which staff feel at their ease, and I really think we should be shouting more about it.
The only areas I saw for improvement were an underwhelming meal at Gillies (a prawn cocktail drowned in sickly-sweet sauce, for example, or strangely little mention of The North's rapidly improving food produce) and an 11am checkout for standard rooms, which was far too uncivilised for a weekend! It now has a sister hotel, The Rabbit, nearby.
NB: Prices subject to availability; exchange rates correct at time of publication. This feature has been updated since its original publication.
Yes, the 'stones' are small. But there are 40,000 of them. Fair play, Fionn mac Cumhaill! #CausewayCoast @DiscoverNI pic.twitter.com/Y3K3AANESZ— Pól Ó Conghaile (@poloconghaile) November 8, 2017