When it comes to road trips, Northern Ireland has some pretty spectacular landscapes to boast, and the best way to enjoy these is by driving the Causeway Coastal Route. This drive follows the coastal areas between Belfast and Londonderry and it covers a total distance of more than 300 kilometres (with a few additional detours here and there). It’s the equivalent of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, and it has everything from castles to frightening bridges to natural wonders along the way. I didn’t have enough time to drive the full Causeway Coastal Route, but I did get to see many of the highlights. For anyone else planning a trip to Northern Ireland, here’s a look at some places you won’t want to miss:
The Giant’s Causeway is one of the most spectacular sights in all of Northern Ireland, and the tale behind it is just as fascinating. This geological wonder made up of more than 40,000 interlocking basalt columns is the result of intense volcanic activity, however, legend has it that the causeway was a bridge built for giants.
The story goes that Finn MacCool was an Irish giant and he was challenged to a fight by Benandonner, a Scottish giant. Finn accepted and he then built the causeway so that he could cross the North Channel and the two could pull out the punches.
What happens next is a little hazy. One story says that Finn defeated Benandonner, but another says that Finn disguised himself as a baby and hid in a cradle once he realized that Benandonner was much larger than he anticipated. Benandonner then came looking for Finn, but when he saw the size of the ‘baby’, he ran away thinking the real Finn must be an even larger giant, and he destroyed the causeway in the process.
Cool little fact – the same basalt columns that you see along the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland can also be found at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa. That may be how the tale originated.
Address: 44 Causeway Rd, Bushmills, Antrim, BT57 8SU
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge was originally built by fishermen more than 350 years ago. Because the chasm between the mainland and the island of Carrickarede was an ideal spot for salmon fishing, the fishermen needed a way to be able to cast and check their nets, so a rather terrifying rope bridge with only one handrail and a few too many gaps between the slats was devised.
The bridge continued to evolve over the years, and while today you won’t catch any fishermen in this very spot, you will see many tourists who come to walk the 20 meter bridge. Hanging 30 meters above the water, this is definitely not one for those who fear heights, but it does lead to some pretty nice views once you reach the island.
I personally found the bridge to be much smaller than I had envisioned, but apparently it was scary enough as some people needed a little encouraging while others crossed with their eyes closed.
Address: 119a Whitepark Road, Ballintoy, County Antrim, BT54 6LS
The Dark Hedges
While the Dark Hedges aren’t exactly on the Causeway Coastal Route, they are only a short detour away. And since this is one of the most beautiful tree tunnel drives in Northern Ireland, it’s really worth going the few extra miles.
So how did this place come to be? Well, the avenue of beech trees was planted by the Stuart family back in the eighteenth century in order to impress guests who approached their mansion, Gracehill House. Fast forward 200 years later and these trees have continued to grow and twist their branches in impressive ways.
They are such a sight to behold that even the location scouts for Game of Thrones decided that this needed to be one of the show’s filming locations – they transformed it into the King’ s Road in Season 2, Episode 1.
Address: Bregagh Road, Ballymoney BT53 8TP
The ruins of Dunluce Castle sit perched on a rocky outcrop along the shores of the Antrim coast and they are surrounded by steep drops all around. The first castle at Dunluce was built back in the 13th century by Richard de Burgh, the 2nd Earl of Ulster, however, it later ended up in the hands of the McQuillan clan, and later the MacDonnell clan who also added to it and made changes.
There are many tales about the castle involving mermaids, spirits, and even a mysterious kitchen collapse that left the lady of the house so startled that she moved back to London and refused to live in Dunluce any longer. The castle is also said to have provided inspiration for Cair Paravel in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
Address: 87 Dunluce Road, Bushmills, County Antrim, BT57 8UY
Another place to visit along the Causeway Coastal Route is Downhill Demesne and Hezlett House. Here you’ll find the ruins of Downhill House, a mansion built in the 18th century for Frederick Hervey, the 4th Earl of Bristol. Unfortunately, the home was first destroyed by fire, and though it was rebuilt, it fell into disrepair after the Second World War. All that remains today are the walls, but you can still walk through and imagine what this grand mansion would have once looked like.
The property also has beautiful gardens, a small arboretum, and a mausoleum to the Earl’s brother, however, the attraction that everyone comes for is Mussenden Temple. Mussenden Temple was built as a library and it was meant to resemble the Temple of Vesta in Italy. The Earl had it built in the memory of his cousin Mrs. Frideswide Mussenden ‘whose beauty he greatly admired’.
Today the temple stands at the very edge of the cliffs. It is said that at the time of its construction a carriage used to be able to drive a full circle around the temple, but the years of erosion brought it ever closer to the precipice. In 1997 the National Trust carried out a massive cliff stabilisation project to prevent the loss of the building, so thankfully you can still visit it today.
Address: Mussenden Road, Castlerock, County Londonderry, BT51 4RP
The Gobbins Cliff Path
The Gobbins is a modern cliff path that only recently reopened to the public. It is located on Islandmagee in County Antrim, which is just a short drive outside of Belfast. The Gobbins is an experience that leads you across bridges, past caves and through a tunnel, all the while you’re feeling the sea breeze and sea spray in your hair. And did I mention there’s the chance you may see puffins?!
I thought I would just drive up while I was in Belfast and see if I could join a tour, but this place is incredibly popular at the moment, and they were already booked well in advance! Sadly, I didn’t get to experience it firsthand, but I’ve seen the pictures and I’ve read the recent news articles and I think this place is worth all the hype.
If you do decide to visit, keep in mind that The Gobbins can only be visited with a guide and therefore there is no individual access to visitors. Tours last anywhere between 2.5 – 3 hours.
Address: The Gobbins Visitor Centre, Middle Road, Islandmagee, BT40 3SX
What are your favourite spots in Northern Ireland?