A couple of weeks ago, we headed over to our neighbours across the sea to finally visit the fourth of our united countries – Northern Ireland.
As per our usual mad travel plans, I curated a solid itinerary that would allow us to check out the Giant’s Causeway and a few other north coast highlights, as well as spend a night in Belfast and make the most of a full day there.
It’s easy enough to do in a weekend from Edinburgh, and after looking up coach tours for the north coast, it actually worked out cheaper between us to hire a car straight from the airport and drop it off at the end of the day before heading into Belfast for the rest of the trip. If you’re flying solo, you’re probably just as well to take one of the tours (as you’ll see in this post, we hit almost all of the same stops!).
We were also joined by fellow blogger (& podcaster) Barefoot Backpacker, who happened to be planning a trip to Northern Ireland at the same time as us, and as we’ve met up for drinks a couple of times now, I invited them along on our road trip!
Here’s what we got up to on our road trip around Northern Ireland.
The flight from Edinburgh is scheduled to be 50 minutes – but we landed in barely 35! Coupled with the fact Belfast International Airport is tiny, meant that we made it from the plane to the car in under half an hour and on our way well before 9.30am.
From there, it’s only an hour’s drive up to Giant’s Causeway, but I had some other places to check out on the way.
The so-called “Dark Hedges” has risen to fame exponentially since its appearance on Game Of Thrones, though I’d seen photos of it for years before that. It’s quite possible that I wouldn’t have known where it was without the fame that came with the TV show though.
Nowadays, it’s a popular spot on all the coach tours, meaning one win for us having the flexibility of a car, and I was hoping to beat the first tours of the day.
Unfortunately… we pulled up at exactly the same time as a coach!
However, we at least had the flexibility to wait until they were back on the coach about fifteen minutes later.
I was a bit worried that the tree “tunnel” would be slightly underwhelming in winter with no leaves, and to be honest it wasn’t the totally magical fairytale-like scene that you might imagine, but it made for some really stunning photos and I think it’s well worth the stop.
There’s also one of the Game Of Thrones doors around Gracehill House, and I suspect it’s in the golf club / restaurant, however I couldn’t find an open door, and everyone around seemed to be gearing up for a round of golf so it felt like it was for club-goers rather than us mere peasants.
Ten doors are located all over Northern Ireland after a storm took out a couple of the trees at the Dark Hedges, and they decided to carve them into Game Of Thrones themed doors. A pretty cool idea, and a fun treasure hunt for Game Of Thrones fans!
We might have missed out on the Gracehill door, but never fear – we found another one later on in the day!
Tip: The “Dark Hedges” road is now closed to traffic, so there is a designated car park across the road which is free, and it only takes a few minutes to walk through the trees next to the car park to get to the road.
The main attraction of the day, we arrived at Giant’s Causeway to find that we needed to pre-book tickets for the exhibition to be able to park there. Thankfully, there’s parking just up the road which only adds about ten minutes on to the walk. Parking is £5 for all day, which isn’t too bad.
From there, it was roughly a 20 minute walk to Giant’s Causeway itself, and luckily the weather didn’t seem too bad so off we trotted, blissfully unaware of the horrors about to be bestowed upon us.
This is where I messed up. Being February, I’d brought waterproof trousers specifically for this exact part of the trip, yet somehow the lack of any sign of the forecast torrential rain lulled me into the false sense of security that I’d be fine just in my, err, skinny jeans.
I can’t believe I fell for this. Oldest trick in the book from the weather gods.
You see, we had just arrived at the Giant’s Causeway, bone dry and taking in the refreshing breeze, when the wind suddenly got up considerably… and it started hailing. Not torrential rain – hail being thrown through the air in an absolute gale.
We ran for cover, hailstones being forcibly slammed into the back of my legs until I was convinced they were bruised. But of course, there is no cover. People were hiding in the one spot the wind wasn’t trying to make them take off, between two cliffs. Eventually I hid around the back, no longer feeling the wind or, in fact, much else.
I don’t remember ever being this wet, even when we were on Skye last year and got caught in the rain and I had to peel my trousers off. My coat, which has withstood Scottish rain, didn’t even protect me as hail dripped down my back. I was having to dodge flying sea foam. And it lasted long enough that we were asking each other if we should just give up and leave, or whether we wait it out and hope it stops.
Eventually, it did stop. There was a collective sigh of relief as everyone left their safe spots and most people headed for home while it was possible!
We stuck around for photos, but here’s something I didn’t entirely expect – I didn’t love the Giant’s Causeway. Having been to Staffa, an island made entirely of volcanic rock, the basalt columns of the infamous causeway didn’t quite match up with how beautiful the island is.
It doesn’t help that we couldn’t go out onto the causeway very far. We didn’t get the usual views back inland across all the depth and spread of hexagonal columns.
We did get the views out to sea though, and boy was the sea wild. I loved taking photos of the waves!
Of course, Gulliver managed to come out of hiding briefly for a dry photo!
A hilarious potato sign
One advantage of parking in the slightly further away car park: we had to pass this sign:
I only really stopped to chuckle at “why potatoes?”. I mean, it seemed a little stereotypical at first glance.
But oh no – it got better. “AN EXCEPTIONAL POTATO WIZARD”. “POTATO RESEARCH AND EXPERIMENTATION”. It’s not a lie that the Irish are serious about their potatoes!
Read more about our time in Northern Ireland: History Lessons, Boats & Beers In Belfast
On the way to Giant’s Causeway, we passed the ruins of Dunseverick Castle right by the roadside. This was just a quick pit stop, as we didn’t need to walk over to it.
There are several castle ruins along the north coast, but this was the only one that we stopped at on this trip.
From the causeway, we headed along the coast to Ballintoy, a charming village with a gorgeous harbour. Here, we stopped for lunch, my trousers unapologetically soaking my seat.
I’d earmarked the Fullerton Arms for lunch, and when we turned up, it looked very understated and just like a mediocre pub.
Unfortunately, there was also a coach trip there – this either meant we were doing our trip right, or we were really only hitting the hot spots.
We went in anyway to enquire about a table, and luckily the coach tour was just about to leave and we got a table no problem.
Two things – the pub is fantastic, and the food is excellent! Never judge a book by its cover.
This is also where the other Game Of Thrones door is, and after walking around the entire pub and coming to the conclusion my eyes aren’t what they used to be, I had to ask one of the staff where it was.
It’s one of the main doors into the pub – but the one on the corner! We’d come in the middle entrance so had managed to miss it completely.
It had meant, however, that we’d walked through a room where they’d set up a throne and a table – and we timed it perfectly, because just as we were about to leave, a tour leader came in and hung props, costumes and wigs around the table, ready for his tour guests to take awesome photos!
(Also you can literally see how wet my legs still were at this point!)
We chatted about the “Game Of Thrones” effect and how it had taken hold of tourism in Northern Ireland. I hadn’t actually realised that the studio was in Belfast – I assumed it was like, for example, King’s Landing in Dubrovnik, where the location itself had left a lasting effect for fans searching for their favourite scenes, and I thought Northern Ireland was just used for filming.
He said they’re making the most of the increased traffic, because who knows how long it will last? It seems like it’ll be a while though – we happened to be there the day after the new Game Of Thrones Studio Tour had opened up a few miles south of Belfast. I have to admit I haven’t watched much of Game Of Thrones, but it looks like a fantastic must-visit for fans.
Anyway, enough about Game Of Thrones – Ballintoy harbour.
…which is also – surprise surprise – a Game Of Thrones filming location.
I can see why – it’s beautiful. The extremely narrow and winding road down to it means it’s off-limits for coaches – another win for the car. There’s also a huge cave, which we assumed was linked on both sides, but apparently not.
Can’t really tell from the photo just how big it is, but we walked into a giant cavern hoping to make it to the other side.
Driving down the east coast of Northern Ireland
There are other stops along the north coast, but Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge was closed when we were there, and we didn’t make time for any of the other castles such as Dunluce or Kinbane. In the summer, we might have prioritised some the beaches, such as Whitepark Bay, which looked beautiful in the wild winter and is uniquely home to a herd of cows.
We decided instead to maximise our mileage and drive back to the airport via the east coast of Northern Ireland.
By this point, the rain had picked up, so we only made a couple of stops – one being the adorable village of Cushendall.
From there, it was a quite frankly astonishing drive alongside the sea, for miles and miles. There are plenty of short hikes along the route, but we mostly just took in what views we could (the valley through Glendun seemed particularly stunning, even in the rain).
Unfortunately due to the weather I didn’t actually manage to get any photos which seems a bit of a shame, so you’ll just have to take my word on the fact there was, in fact, amazing scenery when we could see it!
However, Ash did get a pretty good video on the coastal road:
Eventually, we turned off at Larne to head back to the airport and finish our brief but mostly enjoyable road trip of Northern Ireland.
Was it worth doing a day road tripping Northern Ireland? Absolutely!!
The coach tours advertise 9-hour days and cover the first half of what we did, but I’m not quite sure where they go after that. The flexibility of having a car is invaluable if you want to do a bit more, such as the drive down the east coast, and took us less time than the coach tour anyway. So to me, it was totally worth it.
Obviously there are plenty of places we missed – Derry, castles along the north coast, stops down the east coast, and in reality we only covered a small portion of the country. You could spend several days there and not see it all, but then that’s not what we were planning to do, so it suited us perfectly!
Plus hiring a car cost us £30, whereas a lot of the tours are as much as that per person, and petrol only cost £15 for the whole day.
Here’s a handy map of everywhere that we visited (with driving time) to help you plan a trip:
Check out my post on Belfast, which we unexpectedly enjoyed so much we’d like to go back!
Fancy a trip south of the border? I have a few posts about Ireland, too!
⭐ A Day In Dublin: How To Have Fun When You Don’t Like Guinness
⭐ A Getaway In Galway, Ireland’s Colourful City