Everyone knows now, not that it was ever really a secret before. The word is out and the world knows how damn good a visit to the Causeway Coast and Glens of Northern Ireland is.
In case you’re one of those who haven’t heard, there’s a certain behemoth in the travel world called Lonely Planet. They happen to know a thing or two about the best destinations to visit and guess what area is numero uno?
That’s right. Belfast and the Causeway Coast have been named as the best region in the world to visit in 2018. If you’ve never been you’re probably wondering how this happened. Sure there are only some funny rocks and a lot of rain up there, right?
Aside from the allure of the Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland may indeed have seemed like a bleak and unattractive prospect for a trip in the past 50 years or so.
But this is an area full of prosperity now, with the troubled times of the past century fading to memory. The two largest cities in Northern Ireland have long been divided and tumultuous places but even they are moving forward now.
Both Belfast and Derry, cities rich with incredible history and culture, are thriving with vibrant nightlife, fantastic restaurants and great shopping. Derry was the proud UK City of Culture in 2013 and the two cities have teamed up to mount a bid for European Culture Capital 2023. The future certainly looks bright for tourism in Northern Ireland.
To find out the best thing to do in Belfast, check out The Dreampacker’s rundown of the highlights of Northern Ireland.
The real gold, however, is what lies between those two cities…
What is ‘The Causeway Coast’?
This 120 mile stretch is recognized as one of the greatest scenic drives in the world. The road passes through the lush green Glens of Antrim, past castle ruins, historical sites and numerous look-out points, never wandering far from the wild beauty of the Atlantic Ocean.
Yet, somehow, the Causeway Coastal Route has been something of a lesser-known gem until now, enjoyed by the Irish and a small minority of tourists. Instead, many visitors to the Emerald Isle are drawn here by fantastical ideals fed to them from distant relatives and Hollywood movies.
The North’s troubled past has kept many tourists to Ireland south of the border. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing down there. Kerry, Cork and Dublin are all worth a visit and of course the West coast is spectacular.
But it’s time to pull the curtain back on Northern Ireland.
There’s much more than the IRA up here. The Giant’s Causeway is really only the tip of the iceberg.
Game of Thrones fans have already been flooding in for a few years now to discover how magical the area is. They block cars on the road for Instagram selfies and act the eejit by dressing up at castles.
Now that Lonely Planet has spoken, 2018 is going to be a big year for the Causeway Coast.
Are you ready to come and discover the magic?
Highlights of the Causeway Coast
The Giant’s Causeway
Some fools believe that this mesmerising rock formation was the result of millions of years of volcanic activity along the coast. Anyone who isn’t completely full of whiskey knows that this was the handy work of Finn McCool, an Irish giant, skilled builder and possible aquaphobe.
Old Finn wasn’t best pleased with fellow giant Benandonner hurling bad manners from across the water so he decided to take a walk over and sort him out.
His wonderful hand-crafted rock bridge may have kept Finn’s feet dry but the plan backfired when he realized Scottish Benny was no pipsqueak.
High-tailing it back across the Causeway, Finn curled up in the arms of his wife, who wrapped a blanket around him to pretend he was her baby.
Once Benandonner saw how big the baby was, he thought that Finn himself must be a monster of ungodly proportions. With that, off he scampered back to Scotland, tearing most of Finn’s hard work down upon his retreat.
That’s how it happened and don’t believe anybody who comes at you with crazy scientific facts. A volcano in Ireland? Pfft, don’t be ridonkulous!
Here’s a heads up for you all – visitors to the Giants Causeway will be charged an arm and a leg for parking in the visitor centre car park. Furthermore, most people don’t realize you don’t actually have to pay for the museum either or even the guided tour. You can visit the Causeway without actually doing all of the extras! I’ve already given you the highlights so now you just have to go and take those great photos!
If you want to save your money for the whiskey later, then park down the road and just stroll up for free!
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
This is one of the best stops on a trip of the Causeway Coast. It certainly was my favourite when I finally explored the area in September, which was a great time to visit weather-wise.
Members of the National Trust can enter for free while the rest of us are asked to stump up the toll of £7. Not bad for one of the best experiences anywhere along the Causeway Coast and Glens. (Which in turn would make it one of the best experiences in the world, isn’t that correct Lonely Planet?!)
The ocean views and rolling green cliff-sides that dive into the azure waters are incredible. Having spent the previous two years gasping through the smog of Asia, it felt great to be charmed by the wild ocean spray and fresh grass.
The gales blowing in from the Atlantic were kind that day but not to be underestimated. So you must remember the golden rule of walking near cliff edges – Don’t be stupid.
The bridge itself was thrown up by fairy goblins fishermen in the 18th century and has stood strong against the test of time and the elements ever since.
Some absolute gobshites tried to cut it down earlier in 2017, which resulted in a short closure for maintenance. Anyhow, not to worry for the bridge is safe and sound again and as popular as ever. The trick is not to look at the duct tape.
Old Bushmills Distillery
Now, how about that whiskey? The Causeway Coast is home to one that lays claim to have been the first whiskey on the planet! Personally, I’m a Jameson fan but there’s another from this part of the world that is definitely worth a taste.
Named after the little village on whose river banks it sits, Bushmills Distillery has been licensed since 1608, making it the oldest whiskey distillery in the world! Visitors pay just £9 for a tour and the chance to see how the fine stuff is made. Chances are you might part with a few more quid before you walk stagger out the door again.
The Causeway Coastal Route isn’t that long but to conquer it all in one day would be a little exhausting. There’s so much to see and do that you should take your time over a few days.
Why rush when you can Portrush?
Okay that was lame. What’s not lame, however, is the town of Portrush.
Nestled on the Antrim coast with a small port and fantastic sunset views, Portrush is a great base on any tour of the Causeway Coast. With Coleraine University not far away, there’s a decent student population here and so the handful of great restaurants and bars in the area have a great vibe almost any night of the week.
That’s not by default though as each of the four restaurants owned by the Ramone complex near the harbor serve up some incredible dishes. (More on that later!)
Portrush is also home to the largest nightclub in Northern Ireland, Kelly’s, which includes several smaller bars and the famous club Lush.
Northern Ireland doesn’t have a lot of great beaches. That may be shocking to hear but here to soften the blow is Downhill beach.
The iconic Mussenden Temple is perched atop a grassy hill on the far eastern side of the beach. This 18th century temple was actually a library from the Downhill Castle estate and now draws the majority of camera-snappers who make it to the beach. If you trod through all the sheep turd nearby then it’s easy to see why.
The temple itself is a worth a nosey and the views beyond it are some of the best on the whole route, overlooking Downhill beach and that wild ocean as far as the eye can see. The National Trust property is now also open for civil ceremonies if you fancy tying the knot on the Causeway Coast!
This seven-mile stretch of sand is quite popular with anglers and surfers brave enough to tackle the chilly Atlantic waters. Once you’ve had enough, the little town of Castlerock isn’t far to retire to for some pub grub.
In recent times, the much-loved medieval kill-porn show Game of Thrones used the beach to film some scenes. Fans will know it as ‘Dragonstone’, where Melisandre led a murderous coup against the Seven Idols of Westeros.
We have don’t have the swells of Bondi or the white sands of Playa del Carmen but we don’t care because we have the scene where a red-haired Witch burned seven men to death at the stake.
In fact, as many fans of the HBO series know, Northern Ireland has a lot more than just that.
Game of Thrones Filming Locations on the Causeway Coast
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard of Game of Thrones. If you’re one of the 4 people in the world who has never watched it, first off congratulations. How you have resisted giving into curiosity and ultimately avoided being consumed by the incredible debauched cocktail of perilous drama, magic and violence is truly a testament to your resolve. Go you.
Secondly, if you’re truly off-the-radar, then you may not even know that Northern Ireland is one of the chief filming locations for the show. The Causeway Coast has got a few good ones!
The Dark Hedges, Bregagh Road, County Antrim
Believe it or not, but people are coming from all over the globe to take a photo of some hedges in Northern Ireland. Planted along the sides of what was once the entrance to a wealthy estate in the 18th century, some 150 beech trees have grown to form an impressive tunnel of intertwining branches close to the Giants Causeway.
The area was seen by fans of the show when Arya was on the run with Gendry at the end of the first episode in Season 2. Ever since, its popularity has boomed and so you can expect to find people on the road almost any day of the year now. If you want to beat the crowds, turn up at sunrise. If you care about lighting and shadows then you’ll get the best photos at sunrise and sunset.
Undoubtedly, this is one of the most scenic parts of the Causeway Coast and Glens area and yet it remains somewhat undiscovered. Getting there takes a little bit of patient driving along narrow, bumpy “roads”, through rolling green hills, past steep stone walls towards the ocean. If you spot some curious sheep who are practically sitting on the road then you know you’re on the right track. Eventually, it will appear before you in all its glory.
Nestled between Torr Head and Fair Head, Murlough Bay is really quite stunning and so it is little surprise that the guys from Hollywood have used it over and over since the beginning of the show.
You might recognise it as the shore of ‘Slavers Bay’ where Tyrion and Jorah got themselves in a pickle. Another scene shot here was that awkward horse ride when Theon met Yara.
The bay wasn’t the only stop for Theon and Yara along the Causeway Coastal Route as their family home, the House of Greyjoy was here. Dunluce Castle, (or Castle Pyke to Thronies) has been standing since the 13th century. However, it is just about standing now having partially collapsed into the sea over the years.
Now under the care of the Environment Agency, Dunluce Castle can be explored by visitors between 10 AM and 6 PM for £5. You can also check out the remains of the town of Dunluce just next to the castle.
If you just can’t enough of the Iron Islands, then check out this little nook. Take it easy on the drive in through that twisting road as meeting another car could be interesting. Once you get here, you can enjoy another great ocean view and explore the harbour area where Theon arrived home, just prior to that weird equestrian experience.
Speaking of weird, remember when the red Witch Melisandre gave birth to a Shadow Baby in a cave? Well, you can find it right here. The cave that is, not the shadow baby. Please don’t try to re-enact the scene though. This part of the Causeway Coast is haunted enough from the memory. Take your photos and get out of there before it returns.
Where to eat on the Causeway Coast
No road trip is complete without some great pit stops along the way. The Causeway Coast offers plenty of options for grub so you won’t go hungry. If you want to get some of the best food on the Antrim Coast, then look no further than these belters:
Ramore Restaurants, Portrush
Portrush Harbour may only have a few options for eating but when they are as good as the Ramore complex then no more are needed! Nestled around the harbour area you’ll find great options for international fare, top-class seafood and delicious Italian and Asian dishes. Once you’ve had your fill, it’s a short walk to either the Ramone Wine Bar or Harbour Bar. In fact, it could be really short if you go for the Asian flavour in Neptune & Prawn – they have a great cocktail bar right upstairs with possibly the best vibe on the harbour!
Bushmills Inn, Bushmills
With its gas lamps and turf fire, the Bushmills Inn may well be one of the cosiest eateries you’ll find around the Causeway Coast and Glens. You can expect great service, heart-warming food and fine whiskey to cap it off. Definitely one of the best!
Fullerton Arms, Ballintoy
If all that Game of Thrones site-seeing has worn you out, then hitting up this little hotel for some tasty pub grub and good ales will be just the tonic. Go real Irish with the steak & Guinness pie and you’ll be ready for the next stop on the Causeway Coastal route.
A helping of fish n’ chips is like a local delicacy along the Causeway Coast. However, there are Fish-n-chip shops and then there’s this. When it comes to getting food from the chippy, I’m normally all about the burgers but one does not simply go to the Antrim Coast and choose a burger over fresh fish.
I dropped a few quid extra for the biggest, freshest, tastiest portion of fish, chips and mushy peas. A side portion of onion rings and large tubs of gravy and garlic sauce are also great additions if you want to be extra fat that day. I regret nothing.
Harry’s Shack, Portstewart
If a simple battered fish and fried chips is a meal too beneath you, perhaps a seafood snob like yourself should mosey on down the road to Portstewart. There you’ll find the fine establishment that is Harry’s Shack. Sitting right on the bay, this place has more than just a great menu. Enjoy the sweet scent of the wood-burning stove as refreshing sea spray blows up from the ocean. If the waves don’t sweep you away, you can sit and devour some unreal grub, which goes great with that view.
Where to stay on the Causeway Coast
As mentioned already, Portrush is a great base for a trip along the Causeway Coast. The scenic harbour views and fantastic food on offer make it well worth a stop for a night. You’ll find no shortage of little guesthouses and B&B’s in the town, with many offering views of the harbour.
Bushmills Inn, Bushmills
If you do stop for food here, that may be enough to convince you to book a room. It wouldn’t be the worst decision you ever made. It won’t come cheap but you certainly get what you pay for. Aside from great food and The Gas Bar, this old coaching Inn has luxurious rooms, great service and traditional Irish music nights. The Giants Causeway is a short drive and the Bushmills Distillery is within walking distance.
If you really can’t get enough of old Finn’s footbridge, then why not grab a room right on his doorstep? The en-suite rooms here are top-notch and come with fantastic views of the Causeway, which is a mere 5 minute stroll away. You can keep an eye out for any giants when the rest of us are sleeping.
There’s no need to break the bank for a good place to lay your head. The Causeway Coast has great options on here. Fancy $25 off your first AirBnB booking?
More Adventure on the Causeway Coast
Walking in the footsteps of Giants and re-enacting scenes from medieval fantasy shows may not be enough for some. Ireland sure has plenty of magic and myth but if you’re feeling unfulfilled, perhaps you need to take it next level.
It may come as a surprise to learn that the Causeway Coast has some solid options for adventure sports, especially out on that wild Atlantic Ocean. Are you game?
Jump off a cliff
Best known for its alpine cliffs that tumble down into a thick forest, Binevenagh is a short drive inland from Downhill beach that every adrenaline junkie will want to make.
A recently replaced statue of Celtic sea god Manannán Mac Lir overlooks the madness from the edge of the cliff as people come to jump off it.
Don’t worry though, unlike old Manny, who took a tumble and smashed his head, the eejits here have wings.
Hang-gliding and paragliding are the games to play here and with such beautiful views below, you’re sure to remember this for a lifetime.
If the gliding is just a little too crazy, try this instead. It’s cliff-jumping with less gut-wrenching fear. What began as a bunch of lads having the craic around the coastline has became a fully-fledged business. If you like jumping off rocks and body-boarding, then you’ll love this. Get in touch with Causeway Coasteering and before you know it you’ll have your wetsuit on and be making a splash in the Atlantic!
Alive Surf School
This outfit in Portrush is ranked as the number one surf school in Ireland on Trip Advisor. Some might say that’s like being told you’re the best singer in a deaf choir. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that you can have a blast on the Causeway Coast with these guys.
If surfing is a little too tricky, grab a paddle! Stand-up paddleboarding, also known as ‘SUP’ is a lot of fun! When you’re on the coast, make a stop there and see what SUP! (I know, truly awful. I hold myself in contempt!)
Visit Rathlin Island
The only inhabited island in Northern Ireland is just a short ferry ride from the mainland and certainly worth a stop on your tour of the Causeway Coast if you have the time.
The tiny L-shaped island is home to more wild sea birds than people, with puffins, guillemots and kittiwakes vastly outnumbering roughly 150 residents. Boasting plenty of walking trails and postcard-esque views of lighthouses on cliff-sides, Rathlin is a dream for photographers and adventurers alike. With some fairy folklore and a tale of an old King and a spider thrown in, only a fool would miss out on Rathlin!
Need another reason to travel to the Causeway Coast? How about this…
You might catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis. That’s the ‘Northern Lights’ for those who skipped Latin class. It doesn’t happen often but you might get lucky. In a place as magical as this, getting a rub of the green can happen easier than you think!
And if it’s not your lucky day, well there’s plenty of great Guinness around to drown your sorrows with!