You can visit the Antrim coast as a day trip from Belfast, but don’t. The coast’s historical sites, craggy coastline and Game of Thrones filming sites are plentiful enough to keep you busy for several days. So skip the bus tour, rent a car and take your time on the Antrim Coast road.
For fans of Game of Thrones, you can strap on your sword and chase down a few of the 22 filming locations throughout Northern Ireland. And if you are a fan of stones, then this Antrim Coast road trip will reward you with crazy geology, rocky cliff walks and stone castle ruins.
Taking this road trip from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway combines the best of Thrones and the best of Stones into a robust two day itinerary.
Antrim Coast Road Trip: Belfast to Giant’s Causeway
In the airport, stop at the tourist information desk and they’ll give you a map and guide to Northern Ireland which will help get you from Belfast to Giant’s Causeway. Then, download the Game of Thrones app from the tourist bureau. It will give you a detailed map for finding all of the filming sites along the Causeway coast.
Pro Tip: You can rent a car from Budget in Belfast. Don’t expect an an automatic transmission, and if you aren’t accustomed to driving on the left, get the full insurance coverage. When you return the car, you can catch an inexpensive shuttle bus into central Belfast.
THRONES: Visit the Dark Hedges
The beautiful avenue of beech trees was planted in the 18th century as an entryway to Gracehill House near Ballymoney. But the trees have more recently been re-purposed as the Kings Road in a number of Game of Thrones scenes. Arya Stark was seen traveling down the Dark Hedges when she escaped from Kings Landing. The shots on HBO show a dark and moody laneway. But on my lovely July summer morning, the trees were leafed out and peaceful.
STONES: Visit Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle was the 17th century home-base for the MacDonnell clan. The great stone castle is a bit of a ruin, but there is still enough of it standing to give a good visual overview of the medieval history of the Northern Ireland. And as the castle sits perched right at the cliff edge, it will also give you a great visual overview of the coastal cliffs. Admission is only £5 and the coastal views alone are worth the price of admission. The Castle is open daily from 10a-6p.
On the Giant’s Causeway Coastal Route
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STONES: The Best Way to See Giant’s Causeway
When it comes to Giant’s Causeway, you have a choice. You can choose to believe that the natural wonder comprising 40,000 interlocking basalt stones was caused by a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago. Or, you can chose to believe that it was built by Irish giant Finn MacCool, as a way to bridge the North Sea for a fight with the Scots. I’m choosing to believe the latter. The geography of the stones is so unlikely that the myth of the giant makes them more believable. How are they so perfectly geometrical? How have they not eroded way? Did Finn MacCool use an architect?
When you visit the Giant’s Causeway coastal route, think about going very early or very late in the day. The visitor’s center and parking lot are only open from 9a-7p. But the causeway itself is open dawn to dusk. So if you are visiting in the summer, it leaves a lot of daylight during which you can visit the causeway sans the tourist hoards.
We stayed very close to the Giant’s Causeway, so we awoke early, walked down and had the site largely to ourselves. They have a main paved path, but on the way back up, you can chose the dirt path winding up to the Causeway Coast Way. The Coast Way path runs 52 miles adjacent to the Antrim coast road and you can supplement your Giant’s Causeway visit with a longer hike if you wish.
Where to Stay: We chose the Carnside B&B for convenience to the Giant’s Causeway. There are also several other B&Bs nearby and plenty of lodging in Bushmills. (here are listings from Trip Advisor and Booking.com.
A word about Bushmills Distillery. It’s located in the town of Bushmills and they offer distillery tours. They also have a large parking lot which generously accommodates tour buses, making us leery us about the value of the visit. Rather, we waited until we were in Belfast and then we sampled some local craft spirits at a few fun bars in the University district. But if you are into Bushmills and wish to visit, it open from 10-4:45 most days.
STONES: Stroll Whitepark Bay
The nice thing about a road trip is that it affords you the opportunity to stop whenever you see something interesting. We did just that and had a delightful walk in Whitepark Bay. It’s located on the coastal road just northeast of Giant’s Causeway. We parked at the top of the rocky cliffs and made our way down to the half moon shaped beach. Strolling the beach, it was just my husband and I, the great blue sea….and a herd of cattle.
THRONES: Sunset at Ballintoy Harbour
Drive the Antrim coast road a bit further east of Whitepark Bay to Ballintoy Harbour. In Game of Thrones, the harbor is a stand-in for Pyke and the Iron Islands. It’a also a nice little spot to visit in its own right. You can climb out on the cliff rocks at sunset, take a seat and fill yourself up with views of the Atlantic.
From Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge to Belfast
STONES: Visit the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
As I have mentioned in my Disobeying Rick Steves series, I’m always leery of visiting top tourist sites. Sometimes they are top sites because they are truly unique (like the Eiffel tower). And sometimes a top site exists because someone built the tourist bus infrastructure and the spot got written into a guide book. The Carrick rope bridge is a bit of the latter. But we went anyway. It’s perch out on the ocean offers expansive views of the stark, rocky coastline.
The rope bridge itself isn’t as scary as it sounds and no one could realistically call crossing it “adventure travel.” It also gets busy there so, again, you’ll have the advantage with a car. That way you can go early or late and beat the Belfast tour buses. If you have to wait more than 10 minutes to make the bridge crossing, then it’s not worth it. Just drive to back to Whitepark Bay or Ballintoy and walk the coastline there.
THRONES: Creep Around in Cushendun Caves
You remember Melisandre, the Red Priestess? She’s that witch/adviser/scary lady who’s always telling Stannis what to do. There is a particularly chilling scene in which she gives birth to a murderous smoke baby in a cave. The cave is in Cushendun. I was ever so grateful that the murderous smoke baby was out running errands the day we visited. Cushendun is a sleepy village, but in addition to dodging smoke babies, you can wander around the harbor and walk along the small rocky beach.
From Cushendun, it’s about an hour and a half drive back to Belfast along the Giants Causeway Coastal route. You can detour up the Glenballyeamon valley, eat lunch at one of the many small towns along the way or stop at the Carrickfergus castle.
- Pro Tip: Get prepared for your Thrones trip by reading the books and immersing yourself in George RR Martin’s bloodthirsty world.
Extend this road trip by driving south in Ireland on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Planning your Antrim Coast Trip
Antrim Coast Road Map
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