How to plan your Causeway Coastal Route
Driving the Causeway Coastal Route is a bucket list dream come true. This Causeway Coast Itinerary will make a poet out of almost everyone, the scenery is jaw-droppingly beautiful and it will imprint this part of Ireland on your heart forever.
From the Nine Glens of Antrim through to the views of Donegal the Causeway Coastal Route is simply one of the most scenic drives in the world.
Map of the Causeway Coastal Route
What to see on the Causeway Coastal Route
There are over 50 stops along the Causeway Coast and that isn’t the least of the scenic views and points of interest.
Many of these stops were and are being used in the HBO Game of Thrones series. When you travel the route, you will see small plaques with the information as to what scene was filmed in that location. You can if you want do your very own self-guided GOT tour or take one of the many tours out of Belfast or Dublin.
The Causeway Coastal route begins in Belfast and ends in Derry (London/Derry) and covers over 120 miles or 190 km of the North Coast of Ireland.
30 Stops along the Causeway Coast Route
- Island Magee
- Slemish Mountain
- Torr Head
- Fair Head
- Rathlin Island
- Giant’s Causeway
- Dark Hedges
- Dunluce Castle
- Mussenden Temple
Ultimate Guide to touring the Causeway Coast of Ireland
From Belfast head east to Carrickfergus, this is about a 26 minute, drive. The biggest draw in Carrickfergus, and there are quite a few is the castle.
Carrickfergus castle is a Norman Castle Built by the Anglo-Norman John de Courcy over 800 years ago. The castle sits on the edge of the water looming out over the bay protecting the harbour to this day.
The castle has several historical displays and houses cannons from the 17th through 19th centuries. The Castle is open to visitors year round but check the website as the winter hours do differ. Cost for entry into the castle is €5.50 per adult and €3.50 for children and seniors.
This is a fabulous Walking Tour Guide from the Mid and East Antrim Borough Council that will come in very handy if you want to spend more time in Carrickfergus and learn about the history of the area.
Whitehead, Islandmagee and Larne
From Carrickfergus the trip down the coast to Whitehead is around 30 minutes or less but it passes through some incredibly scenic roads. Whitehead is a really pretty Irish seaside town. It history goes back to the 1600’s when a small village grew up around Chichester Castle, the ruins of which can be seen on Chester Avenue.
Because it was a good port for shipping from Scotland, the village grew and when the railway arrived in the mid 1800’s a suburb of Belfast was born. Folks moved out to Whitehead because transportation into the city was now easy. With the railway the village became an easy visit for day-trippers and holidaymakers, a seaside promenade was built, and with it cafes, restaurants and walking trails.
From Whitehead to Islandmagee is around a 10-minute drive. Islandmagee is not exactly an Island but a peninsula, which is a simply beautiful place for a day out for a picnic and bird watching or hiking. Islandmagee is also, where you will find the world famous Gobbins Walk along the limestone cliffs, which range for 3-4 miles along the eastern coast. The Gobbins walk must be booked ahead of time and will take around 4 hours.
Larne, which is around 10 minutes from Islandmagee, is rather undiscovered by tourists but is full of history dating back thousands of years. You can see a standing stone, have a look at the Armada Tree, which is said to date back to the 16th century and grown from seeds in a Spanish sailor’s pocket.
Take a look at the Cairndhu Castle ruins and if you are in the mood for a walk take a small stroll to the north of Larne along the Glenarm Coastal Path to see the Madman’s Window. This is two large limestone boulders that have naturally created a window shaped gap in the rock that look towards the Irish Sea.
Glenarm, Slemish Mountain and Carnlough
Glenarm is literally a walk from Larne (admittedly a long one) and only a 20-minute drive. Glenarm is the perfect place to spend the night and rest up after your Gobbins Walk.
Glenarm is the first of the 9 Glens of Antrim and is a picturesque little village with lots to offer. There are Georgian streets, which date back to the 17th century, and it is one of the oldest villages on the Causeway Coast Route. There are Red squirrel and Sculpture trails at Glenarm Forest that the kids will love. Pay a visit to Glenarm castle and although this is a private home, you can walk the beautiful walled garden and have a light lunch in the Cafe.
Glenarm Castle is where the McDonnell Family moved to when they left Dunluce. The Barbican, which is the old entrance to the Castle, is available as a B&B and makes a perfect romantic getaway.
If you are a hiker and walking fanatic then you will want to do the Glenarm to Slemish Mountain Walk. This is a 22-mile walk/hike that takes you up to Slemish.
Slemish is the area that St. Patrick was brought to as a slave when he was captured. The Slemish Mountain, which can be seen from several areas on the Causeway Coastal Route, is the remnant of an old volcano that over the centuries has become flattened by glaciers and time.
The route up Slemish is around 1430 feet and there is a car park at the base from which you can climb the Mountain. It is a hard climb but the views are spectacular.
After a vigorous climb up Slemish Mountain, you will head onto Carnlough probably for a meal and a rest. Carnlough is around a 20-minute drive from the Mountain.
Carnlough lays at the foot or mouth of Glencloy another of the 9 Antrim Glens. Carnlough has a beautiful harbour built by the Marchioness of Londonderry who inherited the estate.
Take some time here to either stay over at the Londonderry Arms right across from the Harbour the Marchioness built. The Arms was a coaching house and Winston Churchill owned the hotel from 1821-1924. Churchill inherited the estate from the family.
A must do walk when in Carnlough is Cranny Falls a beautiful waterfall set in a gorge in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The walk is around kms each way and it is signposted with interpretation panels along the route.
Waterfoot and the Nine Glens of Antrim
Continuing along the Causeway Coast Route for around 18 minutes you will come to Waterfoot. Right on the Coast Waterfoot has a beautiful red sand beach and the small village sits at the foot of Glenariff the Queen of the Glens.
Just outside Waterfoot on the coast road is the White Lady, a chalk figure carved by the sea washing against the cliffs. If you are in Waterfoot in July, don’t forget to check out the famous Glens of Antrim Féis. This is a Gaelic Celebration including arts, crafts, ancient sports, music, dance singing feasting and more.
Cushendall & Cushendun
Cushendall is a 5-minute drive from Waterfoot Cushendall is sometimes called the “heart of the Glens” and it was the first place in Ireland to be electrified thanks to its wealth of waterfalls. Cushendall is also, where the coast road was widened years ago and you will see the Red Arch that sits below Red Bay Castle.
If you are in the area in August, why not attend the “Heart of the Glens Festival” that takes place over 10 days and incorporates virtually every Irish tradition going.
If you can find Ballybrack road you will find the fairy hill of Tiveragh. It is said there are good and bad fairies living in the hill and this can be seen by the well-groomed side and the rather rough looking side of the mountain. There is a fairy tree half way up and it is said that the fairies come out to play on Halloween or as it used to be known Samhain.
Cushendun at the foot of Glendun and Glencorp was the perfect ferry spot for the Clans as they fled to Ireland the beach stretches for miles fed from the glacial streams of the mountainous glens. Cushendall sits at the summits of Lurigethan and Tievebulliagh where the Fairies are said to hide inside. These mountains and adjacent glens are scattered with the traces and remains of man’s existence since Neolithic times.
They are also scattered with Game of Thrones filming sites and Cushendun is one of the most popular so you will see many tour buses pulling up. Get there early and you can have Melisandre’s caves all to yourself.
Don’t forget to take some apples or carrots for the welcoming goat called Johann who greets you by the statue of the last goat who fell victim to Foot and Mouth Disease that struck Ireland in 2001. These days it is Mirriam who welcomes you and your carrots.
Torr Head & Fair Head
Standing on the cliffs at Fair Head and looking off to the west you can see the Republic whose lands in Donegal push further north than any other Irish county. Narrow lanes fenced by stone hand laid and locked into place with consummate skill. Mile long puzzle pieces pulled from a land that couldn’t feed its own anything more than this.
Rain rinsed skies meet a magical coastline as you move east into Torr Head and the Glens. Torr Head looks directly across the Irish Sea to the Mull of Kintyre. The tides of Torr Head are lethal but often it was easier to dare the crossing to Scotland as the valleys and mountains of the Glens behind were more treacherous than the tides.
Ballycastle, Rathlin Island & Bushmills
Glenshesk opens out to the sea near Ballycastle with superb views of Rathlin Island and the Mull of Kintyre, which can be spotted on clear days. Glenshesk means the “glen of sedge” or reeds and it is a wild and untamed area.
Just outside Ballycastle lies the ruin of Bunamargy Friary, which is famous for its “Black Nun”. The nun wished to be buried at the entranceway of the chapel so that “she might be trodden under the feet of all who entered”. Her grave is marked by a round holed cross the only one of its kind in Ireland.
When you are in Ballycastle try and book the Manor House B&B for a stay. A lovely place and really well situated to tour both the small village and harbour area and easy to get to the harbour for a trip to Rathlin Island
You might want to take advantage of an Irish Feast Food tour while you are in the neighbourhood. Caroline does fabulous food tours of Ballycastle, Rathlin Island and Bushmills Village, which you can read more about but are a definite don’t miss activity.
Rathlin Island is not an “official” part of the Causeway Coast tour nor is Bushmills Village but if you have time, you won’t want to miss either location.
Rathlin is most obviously an Island and has no cars (unless you are disabled) however, you can rent a bike or take one of the many tours to the bird sanctuary to see the puffins (of which I am obsessed lol). The Island has a pub so you can take a rest and it is a beautiful peaceful place to visit.
Bushmills Village is of course the home of Bushmills the world famous Irish whiskey. You can’t come to the Causeway Coast and not take a tour of the Village and the distillery.
Bushmills is the closest village to the Giant’s Causeway and is approximately a 20-minute drive from Ballycastle. Set on the River Bush the village has the highest number of listed buildings in N. Ireland and you can visit the distillery.
The distillery is Ireland’s oldest licensed distillery blending whiskey for 400 years. Tours cost a mere £8 per adult and include tastings of the famous brew.
If you are ready to try the death defying Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge experience head out from Bushmills where the drive will take around 15 minutes. There is a good-sized free parking lot at the site and a little cafe and gift shop to warm you up after your long walk.
The walk to the bridge is around a 2.5 km round trip and tickets can only be purchased on the day you want to cross the bridge. The cost is £8 per adult and the ticket must be bought at the bridge site – which means get there early and get your ticket and don’t lose it. As I mentioned the walk is long there and back and quite rough going in spots there are also lots of stairs to go up and down. This isn’t for the faint of heart or someone whose mobility is challenged.
Technically not a part of the Causeway Coast Route but one you shouldn’t miss if possible. The Dark Hedges have starred in the Game of Thrones show and are in some environmental danger due to their age and the over tourism of the site. There is not driving the road anymore as it has caused damage to the area so you need to park and walk to the hedges.
The Dark Hedges are located around a 15 minutes drive from Bushmills village or half and hour from the Giant’s Causeway.
The Stuart family planted the rows of beech trees designed to impress visitors as they approached the entrance to their mansion and today they remain the most photographed spot in N. Ireland.
If you want to visit, Ballintoy Harbour (literally a 5-minute drive from Carrick-a-Rede) which has been featured in the Game of Thrones series you want to make sure you head for the Harbour and not the village of Ballintoy. The harbor which looks out towards Boheeshane Bay, Sheep Island, Larry Bane Head, Rathlin Island and Scotland was built from limestone block quarried nearby and was used for shipping both limestone and selt to Scotland and England for building.
As a Game of Thrones location, Ballintoy was used as the town of Lordsport in the Isle of Pyke and the harbor stood in for most of the exterior Pyke shots and the Iron Islands. This is where Theon Greyjoy arrives back in the Iron Islands and meets his sister Yara and where his ship the Sea Bitch is anchored.
The Giant’s Causeway
The 15-minute drive down a damp slicked and quite likely foggy road (depending on the time of day and year) is made extraordinary by huge bushes edging the lanes. As you stop to let the sheep cross the road, you realize these are ten feet tall fuchsia trees dropping their flowers and carpeting the roadsides.
The Giant’s Causeway is one of those incredible natural sites that simply take your breath away. Formed millions of years ago the basalt columns are mainly hexagonal though there are some with up to eight sides. Some of the formations have names such as the Chimney Stacks, The Harp, The Organ and the Camel’s Hump.
The truly sad thing about the Giant’s Causeway site is the controversy that is being caused by the National Trust’s policies. The site is FREE for all to visit, however the National Trust employees are telling visitors that they must pay £8.50 per person in the vehicle to park the car and enter the Causeway. This is absolutely not true the Causeway is free for all to enter and view you just don’t park in the National Trust lot or use the visitor’s centre. Simply park in the nearby mini railroad parking lot for a fiver or have lunch at the local hotel and pub nearby and park for free. Once you enter the site, go under the tunnel where you can either walk down to the Causeway or take the shuttle for £1.
Visiting Dunluce Castle
Dunluce looks like it should be haunted. An awe inspiring broken down castle at the very edge of the Northern Irish Causeway Coast, it sits still and black amidst the green. The Sea of Moyle crashes below it and can be seen through grills set in the stone to protect tourists from falling onto the rocks below.
Historians and Archaeologists are not buying the legend of the kitchens falling into the sea during a storm. Research and paintings of the castle from the 18th and 19th centuries show the castle was completely whole with kitchens during the time frame it is said that the building started to collapse.
The McQuillans, as part of the Ulster Scots settlements, originally built the castle in 1500. They came to Ireland from Scotland during the 1200’s as paid mercenaries and they built their castle 200 years after their arrival.
13 Facts about Dunluce Castle that may surprise you
- Led Zeppelin’s 1973 LP Houses Of The Holy album cover pictures Dunluce Castle
- The castle doubles as stronghold of Pyke on the Iron Islands in HBO TV series Game of Thrones
- Dunluce also featured in the film Your Highness.
- Victims of the Spanish Armada ship Girona’s sinking are said to be buried in St Cuthbert’s graveyard.
- During World War II, the site was occasionally used as a lookout to monitor shipping.
- No one knows what the original name means. ‘Dunluce’ translates as ‘fort of the fort’, but the meaning of the earlier name ‘Dunliphis’ is a mystery.
- The castle is perched high on sheer basalt cliffs and approached by a bridge. The spectacular Mermaid’s Cave is a huge cavern 25 metres below the castle.
- Maeve Roe, who was the only daughter of Lord McQuillan was kept a prisoner in the north-eastern tower because she refused to marry Rory Og. One wild and stormy night she is said to have escaped to the Mermaid’s Cave with her true love Reginald O’Cahan. They attempted to escape by rowboat but were drowned when their boat was smashed into the cliffs. Maeve’s ghost is said to still haunt her tower prison.
- The McQuillans owned the castle for around 55 years held the MacDonnells, who came over from Islay in 1554, took the castle for about 55 years before it. They still own the castle, but now live in Glenarm.
- The Marchioness of Londonderry’s heirs left the castle to Winston Churchill along with the Estate of Carnlough.
- Archaeologists in the past 5 years or so have uncovered a town across from where the Castle stands which was of course known as Dunluce. It was designed to rival Coleraine. Unfortunately, in 1642 the Irish rebels attempting to capture Dunluce Castle and losing set fire to the town and burnt it down.
- Excavations have discovered a cobbled street stretching through the town towards the castle, with a blacksmith’s forge. They have also found coins from the reign of Elizabeth 1 and Charles 1 as well as bone combs, dress fastenings, gaming pieces, wine glass stems, a bronze tuning pin for a harp and other household items.
- The dig uncovered a Scottish merchant’s house, built in the first two decades of the 17th century, fronting onto the cobbled streets. The walls survive to waist height with plastered walls, an internal privy and a fireplace. The town also held a courthouse and a dungeon.
Portrush & Portstewart
Portrush is a typical Irish seaside village. Ice-cream stalls, people watching cafes, fishing off the rocks and good old-fashioned seaside fun. The town is the heart of surfing in N. Ireland and has three beautiful sandy beaches and one of the world’s best golf courses, the Royal Portrush, that is a links course.
For the kids there is Barry’s Amusements, which is the largest fun park in N. Ireland. There’s bingo, slots, penny arcades lots of shopping and touristy beachy gifts, cafes, restaurants and pubs to grab some food.
Portstewart is around 10 minutes or less from Portrush. Another traditional Irish seaside village Portstewart is the largest town on the route and it’s the only one that is in the County of Derry (Londonderry). Like Portstewart, there are plenty of seaside things to do, with a blue flag beach.
Castlerock, Benone and Binevenagh
Driving east it will take you around 25 minutes to get to Castlerock, which is within the Binevenagh Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is a small village with a brilliant golf course, local shops and tearooms and of course nearby is Benone.
Benone Beach is a gorgeous blue flag beach that has no rocks, seaweed or shingle to interrupt your run into the sea. The sand dunes at Benone are impressive and support a wide variety of bird life in the area.
Take a heritage walking tour around the town and marvel at the lovely 19th century buildings including the railway station church, and of course, the “Twelve Apostles” a row of tiny houses sitting above the beach.
As you drive to Castlerock you may stumbled across Hazlett House, which is a simply stunning thatched cottage from the 17th century. Owned by the National Trust you can tour the cottage and the grounds and experience one of N. Ireland’s oldest buildings.
Binevenagh Mountain aka the Dothraki Grasslands
The Binevenagh Mountain in County Derry was where the Dothraki horde captured Daenerys after Drogon rescued her from the attack on Daznak’s Pit in season 5. It’s also where Jorah – in what would be considered a minor miracle – found the ring she dropped as a clue to where she could be found.
Mussenden Temple & Downhill Strand
Downhill Strand which is a 25 minute ride from the Mountain, stood in for the windswept shore of Dragonstone when Stannis was there. This is where Melisandre sacrificed statues of the seven gods of Westeros and Stannis launched his ill-fated voyage to Blackwater Bay.
Downhill Strand is a fabulous beach and if you look up you will see the Mussenden Temple, which was built, as a replica of the Temple of Vesta in Italy.
The final stop on our Causeway Coast Itinerary is Londonderry or Derry depending on which side of the name you come down on. This drive will take about an hour from Downhill Strand.
Derry is the second biggest city in Northern Ireland borders Donegal and has close ties to the County. Its name Derry comes from the Irish word Daire that means oak forest. Derry is the only remaining intact walled city in Ireland. The old City, which is walled, is on the west bank of the Foyle River and is spanned by two bridges for vehicles and the pedestrian bridge named the Peace Bridge.
Derry is a fascinating place and well worth a day or so, it is an easily walk able city with lots to do and see from the ancient city walls to the Peace Bridge, Bogside and its history of the Troubles to great pubs and lots more.
Ireland is a land of many contrasts and there is much to see and do. Do you have a favourite spot on the Causeway Coast?
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