The coast of Northern Ireland is even more impressive in person than it looks in photos. Though there are plenty of tours from Belfast and even from Ireland, renting a car gives you more freedom as far as length and specific stops. The Giant’s Causeway and some of the majestic sights surrounding it make for a great Northern Ireland road trip in one day.
Why choose to drive instead of take a tour
Northern Ireland’s coast is just an hour away from Belfast and some of the most beautiful landscapes are just 10 to 15 minutes away from each other. So driving allows you to make as many stops as you want and it saves you time on prescribed tour stops that you may not be very interested in. Because it’s so accessible, you will get a lot more out of driving around to exactly where you want to go without having a time limit at each stop.
Renting a car and doing a road trip instead of a tour can also save you money. A tour can be as much as $45-100 and may or may not include the entrance fees to the different sites. By contrast, a car rental can be as little as $25 a person if you split it three or four ways.
But perhaps the best argument for doing a Northern Ireland road trip instead of a tour is that it will allow you to see all the different sites at the least crowded times. Going on a tour bus will mean you will necessarily arrive when most other buses are arriving with a couple of dozen people in each. That means there will be crowding at the good viewpoints and sometimes lines for certain things. This road trip itinerary can help you see some of the best that Northern Ireland has to offer and to do it on your own terms.
Start your day at the Giant’s Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s most popular natural attraction. The site is large and has a couple of different hiking trails, so there’s a good chance this will be where you’ll spend the most time. You’ll also want to get there as soon as possible because the site get slammed around noon, so if you arrive around 9 or 10 am, you’ll avoid most of the crowds.
The entrance fee at the Giant’s Causeway includes an audio guide that takes you through the site, explaining the myth of the Giant’s Causeway as well as the scientific explanation for how these massive stone steps formed. The audio guide will also point out a few of the notable areas of the Giant’s Causeway like the Giant’s Organ. But outside the audio guide, the site is a fantastic place to explore because you can climb all over the rocks yourself, and you can hike along the side of the surrounding hills and see it from above. Including some souvenir shopping in the visitor center gift shop, we spent well over two hours there.
If you’re looking for a good stop for a pre-Giant’s Causeway breakfast, the Copper Kettle in Bushmills has a delicious menu in an adorable setting to give you all the hiking energy you need. Get anything with whiskey maple syrup and thank me later.
Visit Dunluce Castle
Out of the numerous ruins you’ll stumble upon along the Causeway Coastal Route, Dunluce Castle is one of the most impressive. Despite the missing roofs, the walls that make up many of the rooms and halls of the 13th century castle are still intact. You can even go up one of the drum towers. The medieval ruins sit on the edge of the cliffs along the shore, so not only are the ruins themselves beautiful to admire and get lost inside, all the views from the castle walls are gorgeous rocky cliffs. File this under: things that are more impressive than the Cliffs of Moher.
Make a stop for lunch
If you’re traveling eastward from Dunluce Castle, you’ll pass a few little towns where you can stop for a quick meal and a beer. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, I recommend Fullerton Arms in Ballintoy. This is where you’ll find one of the wooden doors that were created to commemorate the series. They have an entire Game of Thrones dining room with crests on the wall and a life-size iron throne for photos. But of course, I wouldn’t recommend a restaurant if the food itself wasn’t good. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Fullerton Arms has the best Caesar salad I’ve ever had. Fullerton Arms is conveniently located just a couple of minutes from your next stop, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.
For more notable Game of Thrones stops in Northern Ireland, see my other recommendations.
Cross the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge
Of all the beautiful things in this Northern Ireland road trip itinerary, this was my favorite, which is an impressive feat considering the other things to see. The good thing about leaving this for the end of the day is that you’ll have less crowds, which makes a difference because the lines to cross the bridge can get pretty gnarly during peak hours. You should set aside at least 45 minutes to an hour for this stop because you have to hike a bit from the parking garage and ticket counter to the actual bridge. The walk is beautiful and also features fantastic cliffs.
The famous rope bridge itself connects the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickarede. It’s a relatively short bridge, but with the waves crashing on the rocks below you, it’s definitely a terrifying 20 seconds. People can only cross in one direction at a time, so you will probably have to wait in line to get to the island and again to get back. After you survive the crossing, you can enjoy a view of the bridge from above before heading back to your car.
Other stops in the Northern Ireland road trip
If time permits, there are dozens of other stops along the coast. A popular stop on many of the tours from Belfast is the Old Bushmills Distillery, the oldest in the world, where you can stop for a tour and a tasting. There are also mini-ruins like Dunseverick Castle and Kinbane Castle, which are now just a tower on a cliff. The good thing is that you don’t have to go out of your way to see them. They’re visible from the coastal route, which you can take all the way back to Belfast.
However, the shortest route back will probably take you through the center of the country on the A26. This takes you close enough to make one more stop: the Dark Hedges, one of the most photographed Game of Thrones filming locations. You can no longer drive down the tunnel created by beech trees, but you can park for free nearby at the Gracehill House and walk to it. Or you can park at the end of the street illegally.
Tips for renting a car in Belfast
The total time for this Northern Ireland road trip is about 12 hours in total. You can cut down the length of the trip by stopping only once to eat or bringing snacks and eating on the go. To avoid having to rush back to return the car, you can rent from the airport where 24-hour returns are available for most rental companies. Even if you’re renting in city center, you might get some leeway on the return time. The people of Belfast are nothing if not extremely accommodating.
I also recommend leaving Belfast as soon as you can pick up the car. A lot of the attractions along the coast sell their last tickets at 4:30 pm or 5 pm, so if you have a late morning, you might have to rush to squeeze everything in before closing time.