Sandy beaches, cliff edge castles and a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Causeway Coast is home to many of Northern Ireland’s iconic landscapes, and it is also my old stomping ground. Once upon a time (a long time ago) I actually studied in nearby Coleraine (University of Ulster) and lived for two years in the coastal town of Portstewart. But, other than nearby pub crawls, nights out at Kelly’s nightclub (Lush) and taking my car for spins on Portstewart Strand, I never actually visited any of Causeway Coast attractions. Soon after I was kicked out of university and, since then, I’ve spent most of my time in Asia. But this year I made a return where, for the first half of the year, I was based in Bangor and I inevitably brought Fanfan to explore the awe-inspiring coastlines of my wee country. I admit that this coastline even wows cynical old me. Anyway, here are my 10 Top Causeway Coast Attractions in Northern Ireland.
1. The Dark Hedges
The sinister tree arches of the dark hedges have been famous for a long time in Northern Ireland, but it wasn’t until their appearance in the Game of Thrones franchise that they became a well-known tourist attraction. But this Causeway Coast Attraction is more of a photo-op than anything, along the way, and despite its hard to find location, it will likely be buzzing with tourists who walk, and drive, continuously from one end to the opposite. Technically they aren’t really a Causeway Coast attraction either, as they are a good 20 minutes inland, but it also makes sense to pass them on the way in, given you’re starting out from Belfast. The Dark Hedges are found near the small town of Ballymoney, on a road called Brenagh Road, which can be tricky to find if not already loaded into your GPS/SatNav. Find Brenagh Road, then just follow it until you reach the hedges, or trees as they aren’t really hedges. It’s probably best to get there early, before the crowds.
This alternative entry route to the causeway coast is through the coastal town of Cushendall where we find the terrain to be more mountainous with winding country roads, forests and sheep. To me if felt closer to Mourne Mountain scenery, than the typical tourist stretch of the Causeway Coast. At the time we visited it was on the drive out and the contrast was somewhat surprising as this lesser known Causeway Coast attraction, is still quiet and seemingly off the beaten track. Highlights included some great views over the coastline and mountain backdrop from the Cliff Walk and, along this walk, there is an entrance to the ruins of an ancient gothic church, known as hidden church or Old Layde Church. Definitely worth a visit. We also call in, mistakenly, to Cushendun where there’s a memorial to Johann the Goat, one of the last animals to be put down during the Foot and Mouth cull. Anyway, this would be one of the more peaceful stretches of the Causeway Coast and there are some nice enough hotels and guesthouses in Cushendall.
3. Rathlin Island
Travel to Rathlin Island, and back again, sounds a bit like a full day excursion, yet we managed to squeeze it into a full day’s itinerary along the coast. This itinerary included four of this list of Causeway Coast Attractions and started with a stop in Belfast for Breakfast. So it is easy enough to reach as the Rathlin Ferry, from the Ballycastle Ferry Terminal, typically takes between 25 minutes and 40 minutes to and from Rathlin Island. The port of arrival is a small village harbour and from here is the beginning of scenic walks around the island. If hurried there is also bike rental options and a bus service to and from the RSPB Seabird Centre (£5 return for adults). But a walk along the harbour coastline is intriguing in itself where you’ll past the remains of old stone houses and seals which bask on rocks and beaches. I wrote a full article on Rathlin Island for a bit more about the island. Unfortunately there is limited accommodation on the island and the better option would be to stay on the coast (Ballycastle hotels here).
4. Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
When leaving Ballycastle the Causeway Coast will become increasingly touristy, which goes more so for peak summer periods. It’s probably best to avoid public holidays and first summer days for these parts. Anyway, of this list of Causeway Coast attractions, I can say that the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is the only attraction we’ve not yet been to. We have however photographed it from the carpark above (as shown below), and even pulled up to the entrance gates on three separate occasions, but each and every time, the crowds are just way too busy to enjoy. Even on the drive to the entrance carpark there was a tailback of cars and walkers who trek down from the main road. Note the area is actually free to explore and the admission fee is only for the walk across the bridge. It is run by the National Trust and it maybe worth paying the annual fee if covering a whole bunch of these Northern Ireland attractions.
5. Port Ballintoy
This is one of the lesser known Causeway Coast Attractions which, again, has been made popular by a slightly more significant feature in the Game of Thrones franchise. This cosy harbour village features quite a bit as the harbour of the “Iron Isles” where Theon and those ones come from. Note, the Game of Thrones attractions will be promoted along the way with similar boards as pictured below. Otherwise this little harbour is quite cute and quaint and has sandy beaches and coastal scenery surrounding it. It hasn’t gone completely touristic either as local charm exists where, on our last visit, we found a lively cafe scene next to it, dog walkers, kids swimming in the harbour. There is of course some tourist tack, as expected, like buskers and stalls for local artists but it’s at least amiable tourist tack. It can be hard to find parking next to the small harbour area, as it does get busy, but it is at least off the track of the vans, busses and, tourist hordes, for now. It is also one of the better areas to stay and hotels are found in the Ballintoy village above.
6. The Giant’s Causeway
I’m sure you’d heard of the Giant’s Causeway before reaching here, so I won’t go into much detail here. It has also been long since my own last visit, because I have seen it before, and it’s now a bit of a rip off. But, technically, you do not have to pay to visit the Giant’s Causeway and what the entrance fee is for is the car parking, visitor centre and audio guide. If you park elsewhere, walk in, and just bypass the visitor centre, it’s completely free. Here are some of the alternative options of doing this. And, while I do normally support efforts of the National Trust, like with estates and stately homes and whatnot, I do not think we should be forced to pay, to see our own coastline. Anyway, just to recap, and for those new to the Giant’s Causeway, it is an area of around 40,000 interlocking basalt columns which, during ancient times, was built as part of a causeway crossing to Scotland. It was built by an Irish Giant, called Finn MacCool, so he could go fight with a Scottish giant, called Benandonner. True story.
7. Bushmills Distillery
If there’s one Causeway Coast Attraction not to be missed, it most definitely is the Bushmills Distillery tour. Or maybe that’s just me. The Bushmills distillery tour is a tour of the distillery where Bushmills whiskeys are made (as you probably guessed). And, if you want to know why there’s an “e” in the Irish spelling of whisky, it stands for “excellence”. They’ll probably start the tour with this fun tidbit. Note, photography isn’t allowed through many parts of the distillery tour, which is due to potentially flammable fumes from the distillation and storage processes of the whisky. Therefore you’ll have to use your own imagination. Think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, only with more malt. At the end of the tour there will be whisky sampling, one glass per person, so bring with you a whisky hating friend to get an extra dram and a much needed designated driver. Alternatively, this area would probably be the best area to stay the night (Bushmills hotels here). Also they sell limited edition Bushmill blends in the giftshop which are quite possibly the best souvenirs possible from the Causeway. Again, maybe that’s just me.
8. Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle was only really added to make up a solid 10 Causeway Coast Attractions. Before it used to be no more than a picturesque view along the way, although recently it has been made into a pay-in museum of sorts, I think. It’s only a couple of quid, but it’s still annoying. And, unlike the Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede and Mussendun Temple, which are run by the National Trust, the museum at Dunluce Castle is managed by the Northern Irish Environment Agency. I’m really not sure what’s going on with it to be honest, and the tiny road and carpark leading to it were chock full of busses and hiving tourists on our last visit. So we didn’t bother going much further. However, there is still free access to the surrounding grounds, and the beach below, so it maybe worth calling in for a photo-op if you have the time. There are also some great views from car parks nearby (as below).
9. Drive On Beaches
There are a couple of these drive-on beaches along the Causeway Coast, where cars can be taken onto the beach, but the better and easiest to access, would likely be the Portstewart Strand. This beach stretches for a good 2km, with sand dunes on one side, and coastline on the opposite, and it recently made headlines after being named the UK’s Best Blue Flag Beach. Given the expanse of the beach it also feels relatively empty, even at the busiest of times, but this maybe due to the £4.50 entrance fee the National Trust started to levy with the new visitor centre. It otherwise used to be free. Alternatively there is Downhill Beach (pictured top and left) which is found slightly further along at Mussendun Temple (the last of our Top 10 Causeway Coast Attractions). Note, do not wheel spin and pull hand brake turns on the beaches as your car may get stuck in sand, and you’ll probably be reported and banned on the way out. My car exhaust never did recover. Anyway, the small town of Portstewart is one of the better places to stay (Portstewart hotels here) and in many ways marks the beginning of the Causeway Coastal Route.
10. Mussenden Temple
I’d never actually heard of this Causeway Coast attraction, until just a couple of months ago. While it is apparently well-known, it is also cut off from the main stretch of the Causeway Coast by the mouth of the River Bann. Otherwise it seems like no more than a stone’s throw from the Portstewart Strand side of the coastline (that may be exagerated). So to reach Mussenden Temple it means turning inland and crossing the River Bann at Coleraine the main town in the region. Again, this is another National Trust attraction, meaning there will be an entrance fee to access the temple itself, but views from below at Downhill Beach, are almost on par. The Downhill Beach is of course free of charge. That being said, there are some magnificent views from above and there are other walks and attractions included in the entrance fee to the Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne. Again here, and nearby Castle Rock, are nice areas to stay (Nearby Hotels here).