Like most travellers, I love going to new places and adding destinations to the list of the ones I’ve already visited. But, every so often, I cherish the chance to go back to a place where I’ve already been. Sometimes, I do this because I want to give a city another chance, and, sometimes, the only goal is to continue a love affair that was established with the first visit.
I had visited Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast for the first time last year. Like most people, I had only come up to the area for a day trip from Belfast. Over the course of that day, I got to see the famous spots: the Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede and more. While I was on that fast-paced day trip, I made a promise to myself to return one day to do a proper road trip along that beautiful coastline. Little did I know that that opportunity would come sooner than I thought.
A few weeks ago, I got to spend an entire weekend exploring the Causeway Coast. After catching a flight to Belfast, Brenna and I hopped into our car and set off on a trip that featured gorgeous natural scenery, photogenic ruins and delicious food and drink. After those three days, I knew that my first suspicions had been correct: you need so much more than just one day on the Causeway Coast.
If you’re unsure of whether you should dedicate a whole holiday to this part of Northern Ireland, consider this to be my attempt to convince you to go ahead and book that trip.
– Where is the Causeway Coast? –
Located at the top of Northern Ireland, the Causeway Coast is a stretch of coastline known for its natural beauty, its historical buildings as well as its small villages and towns. While most people only visit a small part of the Causeway Coast, there is a longer driving route available for the road-tripping fans out there. The latter is called the Causeway Coastal Route, which measures 314km and connects Belfast with Londonderry.
Regardless of how long you end up going for, most people travel to the Causeway Coast via Belfast. For our weekend visit, we wanted to be centrally located so that we could have easy access to all of the coast’s sights. An hour’s drive from Belfast, we loved having Portballintrae as our base. We stayed at the Bayview Hotel, which I’d recommend for an array of reasons, yet the biggest one would have to be the photo-ready sea views that can be enjoyed from the hotel rooms.
– The sights –
Whether you visit by tour or choose to drive along the Causeway Coast yourself, there are many sights that will vie for your attention. Although you’ll want to head off in the direction of every signposted attraction along this coastline (and you definitely should), these were some of my favourite discoveries.
This is one of the sights I didn’t get to see on my first trip to the Causeway Coast, yet it’s now one of my favourites of the whole region.
Mussenden Temple was built as part of a grand 18th-Century estate called Downhill Demesne. Owned by the Earl of Bristol, much of the estate is only a shadow of what it must have looked like in its heyday. For example, before you get to the temple, you’ll wander through the ruins of the estate’s mansion, which only remains as a roofless shell.
Yet – and luckily so – some of the former grandeur is captured in Mussenden Temple, which occupies an exposed location on the clifftop. The temple, with Latin inscriptions engraved below its domed roof, was originally designed as a library. We could’ve taken photos for hours and hours here, as one of this site’s top drawcards has to be the coastal views seen from the temple.
Long shelves of waves, a vast expanse of beach, a glimpse of a seaside village and railway tracks; this has to be one of the best views on the whole Causeway Coast.
Plus, if this still hasn’t convinced you to go, fellow animal lovers will be happy to know that there’s a flock of sheep at Mussenden Temple. My advice? You may want to time your trip for the lambing season – I honestly don’t know whether I have more photos of the temple or of the fluffy lambs that now call this estate home.
I feel like most of the Causeway Coast’s attractions could be described as ‘dramatic’, but this especially feels like the ideal adjective for the Carrick-a-Rede experience.
After all, there’s much to do at this spot, but the highlight of a visit is to cross the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. When you see the rope bridge, which spans 20 metres and is suspended 30 metres above the sea, you’ll have to gather a bit of courage to make the crossing. At least I did – and it was no less scary than when I crossed for the first time last year!
Apart from crossing the bridge to a minuscule island once used by fishermen, another perk is being able to walk along the trails here. Each step seems to bring about a new vantage point of the surrounding landscape. At the beginning of the walk, you’ll also be able to spot the flat outline of Sheep Island.
There’s a small fee to cross the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge (£5.90 at the time of writing); National Trust members can make the crossing for free.
Northern Ireland has its fair share of ancient ruins, and Dunluce Castle has to be the most iconic of these.
Perched on the cliffs, Dunluce Castle draws a steady stream of visitors every year, and is said to have even inspired writer CS Lewis, who modelled the Chronicles of Narnia‘s Cair Paravel based on this Causeway Coast castle.
This was the first time where I actually got to go inside the castle and explore, and I loved taking in the crumbling walls and foundations, which contrast starkly against the greens and blues of the coastline. Like most of my top Causeway Coast spots, this is a place where the line between history and myth blurs. According to legend, the kitchens of this 13th-Century castle once collapsed into the sea during a dinner party, and, because of their embarrassment, Dunluce’s owners simply upped and left, never to return.
Whether you believe this tale or not, that first appearance of Dunluce Castle can almost make you forget that you’ve seen anything else on the Causeway Coast. If you’re a fan of history, this site needs to be on your itinerary.
The Dark Hedges
Pay attention, Game of Thrones fans, as the next stop on my Causeway Coast itinerary will look rather familiar…
You’ll need to take a short detour from the coast to visit this spot, but the Dark Hedges will be worth the effort. Put simply, the Dark Hedges is an avenue of trees, but these happen to be the most photographed trees in Northern Ireland. The beech trees lining Bregagh Road date back to the 18th Century and, with time, the uppermost branches have become intertwined.
This phenomena has led to an atmospheric stretch of road and, believe me, it can get busy here. If you’re keen to get a people- and traffic-free photo, you will have to wait a while.
The trees were planted here with the intention of impressing visitors as they approached Gracehill House but, in more recent times, they’ve instead impressed TV audiences as the King’s Road in the aforementioned popular series.
The Giant’s Causeway
As the namesake of this part of the world, perhaps I should have started with this attraction. Undoubtedly, the Giant’s Causeway will be the busiest venue on a Causeway Coast road trip, and it’ll be one of the most awe-inspiring spots too.
Going back to a time when people used stories to explain natural phenomena, the name ‘Giant’s Causeway’ refers to another local legend. While scientists state that the 40,000 basalt columns of the causeway were created by volcanic activity, mythology offers another reason. The Irish giant, Finn McCool, constructed the causeway in order to battle with his Scottish giant nemesis.
Tales were used to explain other natural features surrounding the Giant’s Causeway, such as a rock shaped like a shoe (supposedly the boot of McCool no less) as well as thin columns of rock (said to be a giant’s harp). As someone who studied mythology, I love hearing stories like this but the main features at the causeway are, of course, those seemingly endless angular columns leading down to and disappearing beneath the waves.
It’s a bit of a walk to get there (there’s also a shuttle service) and I strongly advise setting aside a decent amount of time to explore the Giant’s Causeway. There are many formations to discover and, no matter how much time I’ve spent here in the past, it never feels like it’s enough.
The Giant’s Causeway deserves all of the attention it’s gathered, and it’s an unmissable stop on any Causeway Coast holiday.
– Go on a tour –
While we had our own car for the most of our weekend, we saw many of the sights above on a tour with Glenara Elite Travel. I love driving, but the tour allowed us to sit back, relax and take in all of the major sights. What I loved most about this tour is that it included a number of spots that aren’t featured in other Causeway Coast tours, such as Ballintoy Harbour and Portstewart Strand. The other difference is that Glenara Elite Travel uses locals as tour guides.
So, not only did we get to see these stunning sites, but Brenna and I were often accompanied by locals, who would tell us stories of growing up in that specific area and how things have changed since then. It’s a rare opportunity to get a local perspective in this way; by the end of our day, Frances and her team had provided a truly memorable experience of the Causeway Coast and of the people who call this place home.
– The food and drink –
I’ve covered some of the major sites along the Causeway Coast, but we were equally impressed by the food and drink we had during our weekend.
In fact, the very first place we stopped (don’t judge us) after getting the car from Belfast was the Old Bushmills Distillery. The distillery is the home of Bushmills whiskey, and visitors can take a guided tour, which goes into the secrets of what makes this whiskey so famous. After the tour, you get to the best part: the tasting room. We were very lucky to be able to try a few different types and, even though I’m not the world’s biggest whiskey fan, I thought the 21-year Bushmills whiskey had an unbelievably smooth finish.
It wasn’t all about whiskey; we needed decent meals to fuel our sightseeing. I didn’t have a single bad meal during our weekend. At the Bayview Hotel, I had flavourful tomato and mushroom soup followed by one of the tastiest salmon dishes I’ve eaten anywhere. In addition, while we were dining here, we got to see a spectacular sunset over Portballintrae.
In nearby Bushmills, we adored the French Rooms. This was partly due to the decor, which included all manner of clocks and French-inspired artworks, but also because of the food. I had perfectly cooked duck, followed by one of my favourite desserts – creme brulee. If you’re looking for a place to enjoy local music after dinner in Bushmills, the Gas Bar at the Bushmills Inn has traditional Irish bands playing there on the weekends.
My last recommendation is handy if you’re left feeling hungry after your Giant’s Causeway visit. We stopped by the Causeway Hotel for lunch, where I had a salad (which was lovely) yet was left greedily eyeing Brenna’s steak and Guinness pie.
Without exception, all of the dining spots we went to highlighted local produce, with a big focus on locally caught fish. If you want a taste of what Northern Ireland has to offer, I recommend a stop at any of the venues I’ve mentioned above.
– Discovering coastal villages and lesser-known gems –
I’ve written elsewhere of my passion for road trips and driving, yet one of the major advantages of exploring the Causeway Coast by car is the fact that you’re free to go wherever you want. The roadways, most of which were lined with bright-yellow gorse at the time of our visit, take you past small seaside towns and villages, off-the-beaten-path viewpoints and secluded harbours. It got to the point where Brenna and I would get to a brown tourist signpost and, inevitably, we’d say “ok, let’s go that way then”.
It may have not been the most well planned of approaches, but by doing this – and by embracing the freedom that a road trip provides – we stumbled upon some beautiful sights. All of the Causeway Coast’s major sights are worth visiting, but these lesser-known spots held an equal position in my affections.
From the beach walks around Portballintrae to the tiny Portbradden, if you’re going to do a Causeway Coast road trip, take the time to see what unexpected gems you can discover too.
– Driving tips –
This is by no means a definitive list, but these are just some of tips I picked up while driving along the Causeway Coast.
- Some of the coastal roads can be on the narrow side, but this doesn’t mean that locals will slow down when passing you. I feel like I suffered a series of tiny heart attacks right at the beginning of driving on these roads, but you’ll get used to it. I recommend breathing exercises.
- If you do happen to be on one of these roads and spot farming vehicles in the distance, slow down and see what they do. If you’re lucky, they’ll pull to the side and give you right of way.
- While I do recommend turning off whenever you see a sign that interests you, it’s good to have a GPS or a good navigator (Brenna was excellent) beside you. There are plenty of ways to get somewhere, but if you’re short on time, a map will help get you to that final destination faster.
- There are A LOT of traffic circles in Northern Ireland, so remember to indicate while you’re entering a roundabout, as well as when you exit.
- Expect traffic jams. Yes, some of these may be caused by roadworks, but you might also find yourself stuck in a much more unusual traffic jam too…
I knew that I’d be right about my first impression where I knew that one day on the Causeway Coast would never be enough. But now, even after exploring for an entire weekend, I’m not sure whether three days are enough either! Instead, I know that my next goal will be to drive the entirety of the Causeway Coastal Route.
Until that time, I can confidently say that my love affair with this part of the world has only intensified and, if you haven’t yet experienced the Causeway Coast, I urge you to make this destination part of your upcoming travel plans.
Have you been to the Causeway Coast? Would you like to take a road trip here? Let me know in the comments below.
I travelled to the Causeway Coast as a guest of Visit Causeway Coast and Glens but, as always, all opinions and lamb-related overreactions are entirely my own.
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