The UNESCO World Heritage Giants Causeway is one of the top tourist sites in Northern Ireland. It’s one of the most unusual yet most spectacular natural features found anywhere in the United Kingdom.
The Giants Causeway consists of thousands of basalt columns, formed millennia ago by violent volcanic eruptions that changed the landscape forever. Legends abound at the Giants Causeway, and the natural spectacle is steeped in local lore as well as geological history, making it a fascinating place to explore.
It’s a must visit destination, and one of the most instantly recognisable sights in Northern Ireland. To help you to plan your journey here, we’ve put together this detailed guide that explains everything you need to know about the Giants Causeway.
What Is the Giants Causeway?
The Giants Causeway is a surreal natural sight. Basalt columns are found stretching along the coast, covering an area of several miles in Northern Ireland.
The basalt columns number around 40,000, and each is uniquely shaped and sized. The largest can reach heights of 12 metres, and most are hexagonal, although each individual column is different.
The coastline where the Giants Causeway is located is rugged and dramatic, and the whole area is one of fascinating natural beauty, with excellent hiking routes, historic castles and breathtaking views to enjoy.
The History of the Giants Causeway
The Giants Causeway is a truly ancient structure. The basalt columns were formed over 50 million years ago, and have been shaped and weathered ever since.
Volcanic basalt seeped through the surface of the earth after a huge eruption. The molten rock then cooled slowly and the huge plain of basalt began to crack as the temperature lowered, in a long geological process.
The basalt columns were shaped and formed by this process, in a remarkable natural way that produced the incredible shapes you see today.
Although the Giants Causeway has been steeped in local legend and known by the people in the surrounding areas for centuries, it wasn’t until 1692 that the ‘discovery’ of this natural wonder made it famous across the world.
The Royal Society began to produce drawings and papers on the Giants Causeway, and an unbelieving world at first refused to believe that something could be produced so perfectly by the forces of nature alone.
It quickly became a popular tourist site, particularly amongst the European elite who were beginning to travel across the continent and were drawn in by such destinations. At first, it was unclear what had formed the Giants Causeway, and scientists and visitors threw around several stories. Many who saw the basalt columns couldn’t quite understand how the forces of nature could have created them, and even argued that it must have been workers using chisels that sculpted the rocks in an elaborate practical joke.
In the 18th century, geologists began to understand more about volcanic activity and it was realised that the Giants Causeway had been created millions of years ago, not by men, but by geological forces.
Ever since its ‘discovery’, the Giants Causeway has been a popular travel spot, and in recent decades visitor numbers have reached into the millions. Modern developments have included being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which occurred in 1986, and the National Trust now manages the area in an effort to promote conservation and to control the effects of mass tourism to this wild and beautiful part of Northern Ireland.
Popular Myths Surrounding the Giants Causeway
Local legends attribute the rock formations to be the work of giants, a story that’s given the natural site its enduring name: Giants Causeway.
It’s said that the legendary giant Finn McCool was protecting the coast of Northern Ireland from another giant in Scotland, just across the stormy seas.
The Scottish giant, Benandonner, wanted to pick a fight with Finn McCool and began to enrage his Irish counterpart.
Finn McCool then used his giant strength to pick up huge pieces of the coastline, before hurling them into the ocean to build a causeway that would stretch across the sea, so he could battle with his nemesis.
The legends have proven popular in local history, and many different versions and retellings of the story have been passed down through the generations. But all believe the rock formations to have been built by giants.
Where Is the Giants Causeway?
The Giants Causeway is located on the far northern coast of Northern Ireland, a part of the wider United Kingdom.
The site is within County Antrim, along what’s known as the Causeway Coast. The nearest town is a few kilometres away at Bushmills, while Belfast is around 90 kilometres away and Derry around 70 kilometres.
The Visitors Centre is the most popular access point to the Giants Causeway, and this is located just a short walk away from the coast.
How to Travel to the Giants Causeway
The Giants Causeway is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United Kingdom, and to cater for this, has great transport links and infrastructure.
There are several different ways to visit, ranging from public transport to private tours. If you are short on time and want to maximise your activities in Northern Ireland, then the most efficient method of travel is on a group tour. These leave Belfast daily for the northern coast, and many combine a trip to the Giants Causeway with stops at other locations along the way.
Belfast is often the main base for travellers in Northern Ireland, as there are great flight connections from the rest of the U.K. and to Europe. From Belfast, it’s just a one-and-a-half hour drive to the Giants Causeway, so you can rent a car and enjoy a road trip along the coast to see the rest of the area’s spectacular scenery at your own leisure.
If you are driving, then you can either park at the Visitors Centre or drive to Bushmills and take the convenient park and ride for the last stretch to the entrance. The Bushmills option can be much less chaotic and much easier, given the huge number of cars and coaches trying to access the main way in.
If you want to spend longer exploring the area, then you can stay at Bushmills and enjoy the local region rather than just passing through.
If you wish to take public transport, then from Belfast it’s fairly simple to reach the Giants Causeway independently. It will take longer than your other options, although it will certainly be more cost effective.
There is a direct bus, which takes approximately two hours, departing once a day at 9.30am from the Europa Bus Centre in Belfast, and returning again at 2pm in the afternoon. Fares are cheap, however the service only runs during peak season, usually from May through to September. Unfortunately, the fact that it only runs there and back once a day also limits the time you can spend at the Giants Causeway, as well as limiting any flexibility you might want.
Another more flexible method of public transport available all year is to travel from Belfast to Coleraine, and then to change here to another service to the Giants Causeway. There are several services through the day and it’s very cost effective, as you can buy a day ticket for the route.
When using public transport, ensure that you double check when the last return bus is if you need to get back to Belfast the same day, as timings can change.
Most people will arrive at the Visitors Centre, regardless of their mode of transport, and from here it’s just a short walk down to the coast to see the Giants Causeway.
When to Travel to the Giants Causeway
The Giants Causeway can get incredibly busy, as it is one of the most visited attractions in the United Kingdom. Peak season is when the crowds will be at their worst; you’ll find most people choose to travel here in summer, generally between May and September. This is when the weather is at its best, but it’s also when people flock to Northern Ireland.
If you visit during peak season, then consider renting a car to drive here early in the morning or consider staying overnight nearby so you can arrive nice and early. The earlier you can arrive at the Giants Causeway, the smaller the crowds will be.
If you don’t mind the cold weather and windswept coastline, then it’s perfectly fine to travel here in winter too, and you’ll avoid most of the crowds. Be prepared with raincoats and warm clothing, as the weather can be particularly bracing.
The Giants Causeway is technically open all through the day, as it’s public land, however, the Visitors Centre is open from 9am until 6pm in summer and from 9am until 5pm in winter. There is an entrance fee to visit the information centre, where you can learn more about the human and geological history of the coastline, but you can actually visit the Giants Causeway itself for free.
Things to See and Do
Of course, the Giants Causeway is the main sight to see when you visit the north coast of County Antrim, and you’ll need at least an hour to truly appreciate the scale and volcanic beauty of the rock formations.
However there’s more to do here if you have the time, and you can start by calling in at the excellent Visitors Centre, which is run by the National Trust and has a wealth of information.
One of the best places to visit close to the Giants Causeway is Dunluce Castle. This ancient fortification dates back to the medieval era, but centuries of neglect and conflict have left it in ruins today.
The crumbling walls and towers are found in a dramatic location atop a rocky outcrop of basalt that stretches into the ocean. Legends abound here too, just as they surround Giants Causeway, and there are tales of haunted towers and kitchens being swept away into the sea during mighty storms.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope bridge
Also looked after by the National Trust, Carrick-a-Rede is another stretch of spectacular coastline in County Antrim that shouldn’t be missed.
You can find a rope bridge here, which is built precariously across a wide chasm connecting the mainland with a small island off the shore. Fishermen originally built the bridge, and you can walk over the swinging planks while the wind howls for a truly adventurous experience.
In the town of Bushmills, there’s a great local distillery creating some of the best whiskey in Northern Ireland.
They have been distilling whiskey since the 17th century and you can tour through the premises to learn more about their history and to learn about the production process.
The Best Walking Trails
With such rugged and spectacular coastline, one of the best things to do around the Giants Causeway is to lace up your hiking boots and start walking.
There are some excellent trails along the coast of County Antrim and you’ll be spoilt for choice. There are several trails leading to the Giants Causeway, and these can be a great option to take if you want to avoid the crowds and enjoy some unique views of the rock formations.
The Red Trail is a short hike of one hour that takes you along the coast, one way from the Visitors Centre and to some of the best viewpoints over the Giants Causeway. The Blue Trail meanwhile, only takes half an hour and leads you directly to the main collection of rocks, with the option to then link up with the Red Trail.
If you are looking for a real adventure, then you can take on the Causeway Coast Trail, a long distance hiking route that takes two or three days to complete and takes you along much of the northern coast of County Antrim.
If you’d like to visit the Giants Causeway as part of a small group tour, check out our great range of tours or contact Overland Ireland to find out more.