Famed for being one of the most scenic drives in the world, Northern Ireland’s magical coastal route promises an incredibly memorable road trip. Northern Ireland’s A2 often finds itself topping the list of the world’s most beautiful roads – with its charming villages, breathtaking views and ruined castles, there’s plenty to see along the way. To truly experience every enchanting element of this route, World Travel Guide recommends setting off from Belfast and heading north to the Antrim Coast and The Glens, a region of County Antrim which was designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1988. During your journey, keep an eye out for these recommended sights, some of which require taking a bit of a detour. Before you go, plan your trip with the Northern Ireland travel guide.

Setting off

The 210-mile (193km) Causeway Coastal Route is clearly signposted as soon as you leave Belfast behind –if you follow these signs, you can’t go wrong. It won’t be long into your journey before the dramatic coastal scenes start to unfold, as well as the nine Glens of Antrim. Each of these emerald green valleys, scattered with villages, waterfalls and forests, are also riddled with fairies and folklore. One of the most spectacular of the valleys is Glenariff, which is known as the ‘Queen of the Glens’ for its beautiful waterfalls and picturesque hiking trails through Glenariff Forest Park.

Bays, beaches and views

On your journey, you’ll pass by endless coastal gems, specifically White Park Bay in the quaint village of Ballintoy is definitely worth looking out for. With sandy shores, sweeping bays and varied grassland, this seaside haven lures geologists, botanists and archaeologists to study the flora and fauna, as well as the wildlife-rich ancient dunes behind the beach. If you fancy making a small, but worthwhile detour on the Causeway Coastal Route, venture to Torr Head, 13 miles (21km) from the A2 highway, northeast of Belfast. This rugged headland overlooks the Irish Sea, and if the weather is clear, you can even spot Scotland, sitting 13 miles (21km) away. Another point of interest is Magilligan – a nature reserve and British firing range, located at the western tip of the Causeway Coastal Route in the northwest of County Londonderry. This area is of great historical and conservation significance, as it features a fort named Martello Tower, an example of the small defensive forts built for protection during the 19th century against the potential attack of the forces of Napoleon. Magilligan Beach, one of the most studied coastal landforms in the region, is famous for its large sand dune system and is ideal for stretching your legs while walking among the seabirds.

The main attraction and more

Believed to have been formed by volcanic lava or the legendary giant Finn McCool, the hexagonal formations of the Giant’s Causeway seem to defy the laws of nature. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, Northern Ireland’s most visited attraction, and the highlight of your Causeway Coastal Route journey is made of up of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns rising up from the shore. Located three miles (4.8km) northeast of the small village of Bushmills, it’s thought that this natural wonder was formed 60 million years ago, with some of the towering columns reaching as high as 160m (525ft).

Situated less than a mile away from the Giant’s Causeway is a small bay named Port na Spaniagh, which translates to Bay of the Spaniards. Here, you’ll find the wreck of the Spanish Armada, known as the Girona. Having been driven into the rocks by a storm in 1588 while escaping Sir Walter Raleigh’s fleet, the ship wreck is now popular with tourists, many of which take to the nearby walking trail that is cut into the cliffs. Another big draw in the region and a 15-minute drive from the Giant’s Causeway is the rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede, near Ballintoy. Swinging 30m (100ft) above the sea, this wobbly bridge, linking the mainland to the island of Carrickarede is not for the faint-hearted, but those who can hack the height, will be rewarded with a spectacular vista of the sea and Scotland in the distance.

Castles and gardens

Northern Ireland is definitely not short on castles, and during your drive, you’ll most certainly pass by numerous estates and ruins. A definite must-see is Glenarm Castle, one of the country’s oldest estates, and the ancestral home of the MacDonnells, the Earls of Antrim. Enclosed by one of Ireland’s oldest walled gardens, this castle is open to visitors where can explore the grounds, before tucking into a classic cream tea at the café. The ruined, medieval Dunluce Castle is spectacular in its own right, particularly for its unique outcrop location, and was even featured in the popular series, Game of Thrones as the seat of House Greyjoy. Perched on the edge of a rocky cliff, over the North Atlantic, this castle is only accessible via a narrow bridge, and was once the home of several clans and Scottish settlers since the time it was built in the 1500s. Situated between the villages of Portballintrae and Portrush on the Causeway Coastal Route, this castle is said to have been abandoned when the kitchen fell into the sea, as a result of a bad storm.

Towns to call in at

Whiskey fans must pay a visit to the village of Bushmills, either on their way to or back from ticking off the Giant’s Causeway. Here, the Old Bushmills Distillery, the oldest working distillery in Ireland, has been handcrafting small batches of whiskey for over 400 years. Visitors can enjoy a tour around the location, and watch the mashing, fermenting and blending process as well as taste the exceptionally smooth whiskeys, such as the Red Bush and the Black Bush labels. The small seaside towns of Portrush and Portstewart are also popular bases for exploring the Causeway Coastline. Portrush, an 18-minute drive from the Giant’s Causeway, is known for its sandy beaches, a golf club and Barry’s Amusement Park – Ireland’s longest-running amusement park, with an array of family-friendly rides and rollercoasters. Meanwhile, Portstewart, neighbouring Portrush, a pleasant Victorian port, has a splendid selection of eateries, outdoor pools and a lovely beach.

Buildings not to miss

Near Castlerock, another quaint seaside village on the Causeway Coast, is the Mussenden Temple, sitting on the grounds of the ruined Downhill Demesne, also known as Downhill House – a striking 18th-century mansion. The views over the North Coast of Ireland from these two structures are truly outstanding. Also, nearby, within Castlerock, is Hezlett House – a 17th-century traditional thatched cottage. Originally constructed around the year 1691, this house is one of the oldest vernacular domestic buildings in Northern Ireland. You can enjoy a guided tour of the property, and learn about the Hezlett family, who lived on the premises.

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