It’s a landscape unlike any other on the planet: a place where tens of thousands of mysterious stone columns dramatically rise out of the sea. It’s inspired myths, legends, and folktales that have weathered the centuries. Giant’s Causeway is one of the most curious corners on Earth, and it is well worth your precious vacation time. Here’s what you need to know about this incredible bucket-list destination.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Giant’s Causeway is located in Northern Ireland’s County Antrim, situated on the North Atlantic coast. It’s about 60 miles northwest of Belfast, the country’s capital, and about 165 miles north of Dublin. The Antrim Coast area is green, rugged, and remote, with dramatic views of the crashing ocean below; it’s the perfect setting for the biggest, most amazing seafront patio you’ll ever see.
The science behind Giant’s Causeway is unique: The otherworldly black basalt formations were created 60 million years ago, during the Paleogene Period. Geologists say that the columns formed as successive flows of volcanic lava inched toward the coast, cooling when they hit the ocean. The resulting layers of basalt formed columns, and the pressure between them sculpted each one into a perfect polygonal shape. Most of the columns at the Causeway have five to seven sides, and the tallest ones tower 82 feet above the ocean. There are more than 40,000 of them at the site, varying in size and width. While they are protected today, poachers used to quarry stone from the site. In 2010, seven columns believed to have been taken from the Causeway sold at auction for £19,000.
The legend of this place is a different story altogether, but it’s just as fantastic. As the site’s name would imply, the legend involves a mythical Irish warrior giant, Finn McCool. Finn got into a row with a Scottish giant across the Channel. As the story goes, McCool built the Causeway out of huge stepping-stones so that he could walk across the sea to meet -- and beat -- his rival. Indeed, the rocks at the Causeway resemble steps leading out across the ocean and toward Scotland. On a clear day, you can see the Scottish coast from the rocks.
As you stand perched on one of the columns, staring out at the roiling North Atlantic, neither the science nor the myth seems particularly far-fetched. This is a wondrous place where an incredible geological fluke just might have met up with a little bit of magic generations ago!
The Causeway is easily accessible by car or coach from both Belfast (1 hour) and Dublin (3 hours) on the main highway. That said, if you’ve rented a car, consider taking the coastal road. You’ll need to factor in a couple of extra travel hours, but you’ll be rewarded with unforgettable views of the Antrim Coast. Pack a picnic, or plan to stop in one of the small coastal villages or towns to grab a quick bite. If you’d prefer public transportation, train service from Belfast or Londonderry to Coleraine is available; you’ll need to connect to the Ulsterbus Service 172 to access the Causeway.
On our visit to Ireland, we home-based in Dublin and opted to purchase a tour to the Causeway. While it made for a very long day trip, we were able to leave the driving to someone else, which left us free to marvel at the incredible views. It was well worth it! Prices for a full-day tour start at £65.
Northern Ireland enjoys a mild summer, with high temperatures in the mid-60s. As you might imagine, this is the peak tourist season and the time when many of the Causeway’s 1 million annual visitors make their pilgrimage to these iconic and incredible stepping-stones. If you’re planning to go in the summer, be sure to bring a waterproof, warm jacket, since the ocean breezes and occasional rain can rapidly cool things down. Also, get there early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the massive crush of people.
We visited in January. While it was misty, cool (about 45 degrees), and quite gray, we packed accordingly and had a terrific time climbing and exploring. We nearly had the place to ourselves, since it was the off-season. If you are visiting in winter, plan to bring wool socks and a hat, gloves, and a jacket.
No matter what time of year you visit, if you plan to hike anywhere near the place where the Causeway meets the sea (and you absolutely should!), be prepared for slick, slippery conditions. Take it slow, savor the view, and wear nonslip, heavy-duty shoes.
General admission to Giant’s Causeway costs £12.50. The site is open daily.
There are a number of things to do at the Causeway itself, as well as in the surrounding area. Here are a few of our favorites.
This interactive spot, completed in 2012 at a cost of £18.5 million, was built of both glass and stone, and it blends seamlessly into the coastline around it. The visitor center features exhibits (including some that explain the cool science of the Causeway), a gift shop, a café, restrooms, and lounging areas.
Be prepared to walk -- a lot -- at Giant’s Causeway. It’s at least a 10-minute hike from the parking lot to the front of the site. Once inside, you’ll see several walking trails that will give you views of the stones as well as the nearby cliffs. The trails range from beginner (green) to challenging (yellow) and are well marked so that you can choose what’s best for you.
For a more strenuous climb with an absolutely unforgettable view, consider the Clifftop Experience at the Causeway. The guided 5-mile hike gives a lucky few visitors the chance to access routes usually closed to the public. The daily hike departs from the visitor center at 12:15 p.m.; reservations are required, and the cost is £35 per person.
Once you’ve found a steady, secure spot, go ahead and snap away. You’ve made it to one of the world’s most beautiful and enchanting spots: a geological wonder, and the stuff folktales are made of. Be sure to get the perfect picture!
All of these spots are located a short distance from the Causeway and are worth checking out as well.
Shake off the Giant’s Causeway mist and chill at Bushmills, the world’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery. It’s about 3 miles from the Causeway, and it’s been operating in the town of Bushmills for more than four centuries. A tour costs £9; tastings are also available. Reservations are required.
Just outside of Bushmills, perched on an outcropping facing the North Atlantic, are the crumbling remains of Dunluce Castle. Believed to have been built in the 1500s by the MacQuillan family, it was seized by other Irish clans over the years before it was eventually abandoned in dramatic fashion. The earl who lived there, along with his wife, were waiting on dinner one evening in 1639, when the kitchen broke free from the building and plummeted -- staff and all -- into the sea. The castle, which is still owned by the earl’s family, is open daily. Admission costs £5.50.
About 12 miles from the Causeway is an equally impressive and mysterious site, albeit man-made. The Dark Hedges in Ballymoney date to the 18th century. This impressive row of beech trees was planted by the Stuart family as a landscape element leading up to their home, Gracehill House. The hedge has since grown into a gnarly phenomenon so iconic that Game of Thrones scenes were filmed there.
If your travels take you near Belfast, be sure to spend a bit of time in the capital city. Read up on The Troubles, and then appreciate how far this shipbuilding city has come to achieve peace. The birthplace of the Titanic is home to an incredible museum dedicated to the doomed ocean liner. City Hall is worth your time, and Belfast Castle, with its gorgeous gardens and spectacular views, is a great place to grab a meal. Its cellar restaurant is open Monday through Saturday for lunch, Thursday through Saturday for dinner, and also features a Sunday roast. The city also offers a lively pub scene; our favorite was the Duke of York on Commercial Street in the Half Bap area.