Ireland’s Northern Coastline in 5 days

Causeway Coastal Route and Wild Atlantic Way Itinerary Map
Causeway Coastal Route and Wild Atlantic Way Itinerary Map

Combining two of Europe’s best road trips – the Causeway Coastal Route and the Wild Atlantic Way – makes for an unforgettable driving experience

Starting in Belfast, this incredible route winds its way through iconic landmarks, pretty little villages and Game of Thrones filming locations, culminating in the historic walled city of Derry~Londonderry. This marks the halfway point of your coastal odyssey.

Heading onwards from here, you’ll reach the epic coastline of County Donegal and the start of the northern section of the Wild Atlantic Way, which takes in the Inishowen Peninsula, and the majestic Slieve League Cliffs. Finish up in Donegal town, set in a valley between the Barnesmore Mountains and Donegal Bay.

Get more information on driving on the island of Ireland.

Day 1

Belfast to Ballygally: 31 miles (50km)/62 minutes at 30mph

Belfast city. Starting point for the Causeway Coastal Route and birthplace of Titanic, this resurgent capital is where it’s at right now. People are super-friendly, there’s top-notch sightseeing and a load of beautiful old pubs to check out, making it well worth sticking around for a while.

Titanic Belfast

The perfect day? Explore the epic Titanic Belfast, the largest Titanic attraction in the world; wander the boho Cathedral Quarter district with its galleries, theatres and boutique shops; and finish up with dinner at one of the city’s critically acclaimed restaurants, such as Coppi or Ox.

Cave Hill

Want to stretch your legs before your journey? Walk the Cave Hill Country Park. There are archaelogical sites, great views and you can visit Belfast Castle while you’re at it. A good morning’s work.

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Carnfunnock Country Park

Just before the town of Ballygally, you’ll find the Carnfunnock Country Park. Boasting beautiful coastal views, it’s a woodland wonderland with walking trails, a walled harden and picnic areas.

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Once you’ve enjoyed the best that Belfast has to offer, head north past Belfast Lough as you join the Causeway Coastal Route at Newtownabbey. For a route that is frequently cited as one of the best in the world, expectations are high, but as you pass the seaside town of Carrickfergus, home to the 12th century Carrickfergus Castle, all the accolades ring true.

Carrickfergus Castle

This mighty hunk of a castle was established in 1178, and is one of the best preserved Norman castles in Ireland today. Keep the sense of history going with lunch at the bar in Dobbins Inn Hotel, a 15th century family-run hotel, with wood-panelled walls and an old-style atmosphere. Dobbins has a particularly colourful history, having served as a family castle, townhouse, gaol, armoury and postal collection point.

Day Two

Ballygally to Bushmills: 65.5 miles (105.4km)/ 2 hrs 11 minutes at 30mph

Driving along the Causeway Coastal Route, the next stop is the village of Glenarm, in the first of the nine Glens of Antrim. Stop for a walk around the walled gardens of Glenarm Castle; they’re one of the oldest walled gardens in Ireland and were orginally created to supply the castle with fruit and vegetables. Today, they bloom with colour and specimen plants.

Glenarm Castle

The road winds on to Glencloy, “the valley of the sword”, meandering through the glen and beneath overhanging trees. There are nice woodland walks around the area here, but keep going and you’ll get to the pretty town of Carnlough, with a picturesque harbour overlooking the bay.

Follow the signs to Glenariff Forest Park for trail walks through tranquil woods and lovely mountain viewpoints. The Waterfall Walkway is a highlight of the forest park, passing by picture-perfect waterfalls along the way.

Back on the road, it’s well worth followng the Torr Scenic Route, which winds around windswept Torr Head, a dramatic jut of land that reaches out into the ocean, with exceptional cliff views stretching across to the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland.

Steenson’s in Glenarm

Located in an old bank in the village of Glenarm, the Steenson’s jewellery workshop is a must-visit along the North Antrim Coast. The jewellers have also created pieces for Game of Thrones.

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Giant’s Causeway Walking Trails

The landscape around the Giant’s Causeway is among the most spectacular on the island of Ireland, and there are some great walking trails that bring you right to the edge of the drama.

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And just when you think it couldn’t get any better, it does! Next stop is the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a swaying, wobbly bridge that links the craggy mainland to a small rugged island over a 24m-deep and 18m-wide chasm. It’s an exhilarating experience that you won’t forget.

From here it’s only a short hop to the Giant’s Causeway, one of the natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The award-winning visitor centre is perfect for unearthing the myth-versus-reality origins of the Causeway, but it’s the natural beauty of this remarkable landscape that will really take your breath away.

The Giant's Causeway

These hexagonal basalt columns topple endlessly down to the sea (there are 40,000 of them), and were formed around 60 million years ago as a result of volcanic activity, although some say a legendary pair of warring giants led to its formation.

Finish up the day in the Bushmills Inn, a warm, cosy hotel with a gas-lit bar, and comfortable rooms – it’s a great place to snuggle around an open fire with a glass of whiskey.

The Bushmills Inn

Day 3

Bushmills to Derry~Londonderry city: 50.1 miles (80.6km)/1 hour 40 minutes at 30mph

It’s pretty much essential to take a tour of the Old Bushmills Distillery when you’re in this part of the world. It’s the oldest operating distillery on the island of Ireland, and the tour is a treat, with old copper pot stills and casks of whiskey, and a tasting of course.

The Old Bushmills Distillery

With your designated driver at the wheel, continue to the small seaside village of Portballintrae. Just off this coast, a team of Belgian divers brought up the greatest find of Spanish Armada treasure ever recovered from a wrecked ship.

Next stop is Portrush, and the incredible 16th century Dunluce Castle, which looks like something straight out of a fairytale. Perched high on rocky cliffs, the ruins of this castle overlook the tumultuous North Atlantic Ocean and the stunning pale sands of Whiterocks Beach.

Royal Portrush Golf Club

Stop for a round of golf at Royal Portrush, before heading to one of the coast’s most acclaimed restaurants, Harry’s Shack, perched right at the edge of the beach with views over the North Atlantic Ocean.

Back on the road, get in gear for the next stop: Mussenden Temple. On a coastline full of romantically beautiful sights, Mussenden is almost heartbreakingly lovely. Sitting right on the edge of a cliff in the sylvan surrounds of Downhill Demense, this 18th century folly was inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli near Rome, and is a favourite wedding location.

Mussenden Temple

You can see it up close, or admire it from afar with a walk on either Downhill Strand or Castlerock Beach, both of which it overlooks.

The town of Coleraine makes a great stopping-off point for lunch, so try the hip little café Lost and Found, before you venture out to one of the oldest known human settlements in Ireland at Mountsandel, just a mile outside the town. This incredible Mesolithic site is thought to be around 9,000 years old.

Lost and Found

Make the most of this gorgeous areas’s natural sights by getting out and exploring the natural wilderness as much as you can. Near the market town of Limavady, the Roe Valley Country Park is the perfect go-to for riverside walks through deep gorges, and peaceful woodland rambles.

Finish up with a night in the historic city of Derry~Londonderry, one of the best preserved walled cities in Europe. As well as a vibrant cultural scene, and fascinating walking tours around the city walls, Derry~Londonderry has great traditional pubs, such as Peadar O’Donnell’s, and excellent restaurants including Browns, the Exchange and the Custom House.

The Walls of Derry-Londonderry

And a great place to stay for the night? Try the Beech Hill Country House Hotel; built in 1739, it’s a comfortable and atmospheric country house just outside the city.

Day 4

Derry~Londonderry, County Londonderry to Rosapenna, County Donegal, 161.9 miles

Leaving Derry~Londonderry behind, it’s time to head to the Republic of Ireland’s most northerly county, County Donegal, and the start of the Wild Atlantic Way, a long-distance coastal route covering 2,500km from Muff in County Donegal to Kinsale in County Cork.

Malin Head. Credit: Raymond Fogarty

Starting in Muff, the route arcs up to the very tip of Malin Head on the Inishowen Peninsula, the most northerly point on the island of Ireland. This is a great place to view the Northern Lights, but there are so many great things to do in the area, from visiting the original thatched cottage dwellings of the Doagh Famine Village, to walking remote white-sand beaches, to playing windswept rounds at the Ballyliffin Golf Club.

Swing south along the coast again, and you’ll get to the busy town of Buncrana on the shores of Lough Swilly. Explore Buncrana Castle, view the landscapes on horseback or walk the gorgeous Lisfannon Beach, a Blue Flag beach just south of the town. And make sure to leave some time to visit the Grianan of Aileach (Fortress of the Sun). This circular stone ring fort occupies a sacred site and was referenced by Ptolemy in his 2nd-century map of the world.

Fanad Head

Next stop is Fanad Head, another wild and rugged peninsula shaped by the tempestuous Atlantic. The 200-year-old lighthouse here is a favourite spot for photographers, with its picture-perfect setting. This is a part of the island characterised by its arresting natural beauty, so get out there into the elements and explore memorable spots such as Ballymastocker Bay, described by one British newspaper as “the most beautiful beach in the world”.

On your bike

Why not park the car up for a few days, and explore this incredible area by bike…With quiet roads and deserted beaches, you can do things at your own pace.

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Doe Castle

Built in the 15th century by the Mac Sweeney clan, this castle sits impressively on a small peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides.

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Rosapenna Golf Club

It’s about a 30-minute drive from Fanad Head to the next peninsula along the Wild Atlantic Way, Rosguill. At the Rosapenna Hotel, you can chill out and take some time to walk, cycle or horse ride, or book a tee time at the Rosapenna Golf Club. It’s a great place to chill out for a few days, and there’s no better way to spend your time than with dinner at The Glen Bar, followed by a session at The Harbour Bar or The Singing Pub.

Day 5

Rosapenna to Donegal Town, 131 miles (210km)/ 4 hours 22 minutes at 30mph

Leaving Rosapenna, continue along the craggy coastline through the small fishing port of Dunfanaghy. Drive on to Horn Head for a coffee at Café Arnou in Arnold’s Hotel, and enjoy a pony trek along Killahoey Beach from Dunfanaghy Stables.

Dunfanaghy Beach

The route takes in the stunning landscapes of Falcarragh and the Bloody Foreland before weaving up past Magheraroarty Pier, where you can take a ferry to Tory Island, which lies 15km off the coast and has its own king. If time doesn’t allow a trip to Tory, you can admire it from afar with a walk along the spectacular Magheraroarty Beach.

You’ll now be on your way to the Gaeltact (Irish speaking) area of Bunbeg. Just a 10-minute drive from here is Leo’s Tavern, the birthplace of Irish musical talents Enya, Clannad and Moya Brennan, and a great spot for lunch.

The coastal areas in Donegal are mesmerically beautiful, but it would be a real shame to visit this part of the world and not venture inland to the magnificent Glenveagh National Park. Covering over 16,000 acres of forests and lakes, and including a castle, the park is home to its own herd of red deer.

Heading back to the coast, driving through Kinclassagh and Burtonport, you’ll pass the island of Arranmore as you head towards Dungloe. A nice little detour before you reach Dungloe is the tiny island of Cruit (pronounced Critch) with its pale grasses and white sands. It’s connected to the mainland by a little bridge but has a real sense of escape.

Cruit Island

Passing through Dungloe, keep the Atlantic on your right and you’ll enter a landscape studded with lakes. Keen anglers should bring their fishing rods: Lakes Aderry and Namanlagh, and the River Gweenbarra are fishing havens. Passing through the village of Ardara, the Donegal Tweed Centre makes a great place to buy some local textiles.

Slieve League Cliffs

Heading around the coast towards Killybegs, you’ll enter an area of edge-of-the-world landscapes with epic views and crashing ocean waves. This is where you’ll find the Slieve League Cliffs, among the highest sea cliffs in Europe. Stop off at the Tí Linn visitor centre before taking a trek along the cliffs, which stand at over 600ft.

At Killybegs, pop into Kitty Kelly’s, a 200-year-old Irish farmhouse famous for its unique seafood lunch.

Donegal Town

Finally, you’re on the last leg to Donegal town: visit Donegal Castle, the Craft Village, the Bay Waterbus, and historic Donegal Abbey in this lively market town. Then surround yourself in history with dinner or a drink at the Olde Castle Bar and Red Hugh restaurant, in a landmark building in the centre of town.

Lough Eske

In this part of the world you’re spoiled with two excellent award-winning places to stay if you feel like splashing out. Choose between Lough Eske Castle Hotel, on a secluded castle estate; and Harvey’s Point, winner of TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice Award for Number One Hotel in Ireland in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

What better way to end your trip?

Useful Information

The Causeway Coast and the Wild Atlantic Way

The Wild Atlantic Way

The Causeway Coast

Getting to Ireland

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