The Complete Guide to the Giant's Causeway

Giant's Causeway stone pillars in County Antrim Northern Ireland

 Chiara Salvadori/Getty Images

The Antrim coast is known for its unique and rugged beauty, but the most breathtaking stop of all is surely the Giant’s Causeway. Made up of 40,000 black basalt stone columns placed at the water’s edge, the Giant’s Causeway is an important geologic formation and a World Heritage site. The stone pillars rising from the sea attract almost a million visitors every year who come to marvel at the incredible natural wonder.

Know when to visit and find out how exactly the columns were created – here is the complete guide to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

History

News of the Giant’s Causeway generated a huge amount of interest when the existence of thousands of stone columns along the northern Irish coast was announced in London in 1693. The natural formation of rocks was discovered by the Bishop of Derry in 1692, but information about the magnificent place only really made a stir when it was reported in a paper published by Sir Richard Bulkeley of Trinity College a year later.

While written reports of the natural attraction have only existed for a few hundred years, the Giant’s Causeway is much older than that. The causeway was formed just under 60 million years ago when the landmasses of Europe and North America were still attached to each other. As the European landmass started to pull away, huge cracks were created on the earth’s surface. Molten lava was then able to come up through these gaps. Eventually, rivers formed when things cooled down and changed the new landscape even further.

It was during a second period of volcanic activity that the basalt rock columns that make up the Giant’s Causeway were actually formed. This time when the molten lava reached the surface, it encountered a rough landscape covered with soil. The specific conditions that existed in this exact spot 60 million years ago were so unique that the Giant’s Causeway is the only rock formation of its kind anywhere in the world.

In fact, when it was “discovered” in the 17th century, scholars could not agree if the unique columns of basalt were natural or if they had been carved by man. The shape and number of the rock formations have been inspiring artists and stirring imaginations ever since and have even resulted in a beloved local legend about the history of the site.

The Legend of the Giant’s Causeway

There is really no doubt that the Giant’s Causeway was created by volcanic activity, but the formation takes its name from a popular local legend that claims it was built by an Irish giant named Fionn mac Cumhaill—better known as Finn McCool.

Finn McCool was actually not that large when it came to giants, and he stood at a mere 52 feet and 6 inches tall, but that did not stop him from picking a fight with a much larger Scottish giant named Benandonner.

Finn and Benandonner spent their days yelling at each other across the Sea of Moyle until they finally agreed to meet to test their strength and decide once and for all who was the mightier giant. Finn even offered to build the pathway—a causeway—across the Irish Sea to make the meeting possible.

Finn set to work and built a path to the Scottish isle of Staffa, which his rival giant called home. However, the work of building the causeway was so exhausting that Finn had to lie down and sleep.

The next morning, Finn’s wife awoke to the deafening sound of heavy footsteps—it was the Scottish giant crossing the causeway for the long-anticipated meeting. Her husband was still asleep and she realized that he would be no match for the much larger Benandonner. Thinking quickly, she threw a nightgown over Finn’s sleeping form and covered his face with a bonnet.

When the Scottish giant arrived demanding to fight Finn, Finn’s wife whispered, “Be quiet! You’ll wake the baby!”

Benandonner took one look at the “baby” and turned and ran away back across the causeway. “If this is Finn’s baby,” he thought, “Finn himself must be truly enormous!”

The scared Scottish giant destroyed the pathway on his way out, ensuring that Finn could never follow him home. This ruined pathway is what we now know as the Giant’s Causeway.

What to See and Do

The Giant’s Causeway is a natural attraction, meaning it is entirely outside.

When visiting the beautiful outdoor area, the must-see stop is the Grand Causeway. This is the largest of the three rock outcroppings and the best place to see the hexagonal basalt columns that the causeway is famous for.

There are various walks that will loop visitors past some of the best-known formations and sights including the Harp, the Chimney stacks, and the Camel, who served as Finn McCool’s horse according to legend and can be spotted by his humps which lie at the bottom of the cliffs.

You will find gorgeous views of the Giant’s Causeway at Port Noffer, a picturesque bay that wraps around the rock formations. Here you will find a path to the water where one particular rock draws a lot of attention. Shaped like a gigantic shoe, this stone is known as the Giant’s Boot and supposedly belonged to Finn McCool.

Another picture-worthy stop is at the Wishing Throne, where the rocks have formed a natural throne fit for a king. Find your seat (it is well worn away now), and snap a photo. 

The one-of-a-kind rock formations of the Giant’s Causeway have also created a unique habitat for seabirds, plants, and insects. Keep an eye out for the amazing biodiversity as you follow the paths along the rocks. 

Finally, there is a lovely and award-winning visitors center designed by Heneghan Peng, which opened in 2012. The unique architecture is designed to look like the natural black stone columns that make up the Giant’s Causeway. Inside are interactive exhibits about the geology and history of the site, audio guides (which can be taken out on walks), and a cozy cafeteria with free Wi-Fi.

Location and How to Visit

The Giant’s Causeway is part of the larger Causeway Coast which skirts the Atlantic Ocean for 33 miles in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.

The easiest way to reach the Giant’s Causeway is by car, and there is parking on site. The visitors center and access to the rocks can be found off the B147 Causeway Road, about two miles outside the village of Bushmills. From April to October, there is also a free shuttle from the village to the center, and visitors receive a green discount if they arrive this way.

Several buses also stop at the Giant’s Causeway, including Ulsterbus Service 172 and the open-top Causeway Coast Service 177.

The most unique way to arrive is via train using the Giant's Causeway and Bushmills Railway Company. The small railroad is now used as a tourist attraction, but it was first built in the 1880s. It reopened for service in 2002 and now runs between the town of Bushmills and the Causeway Hotel, with daily departures in July and August and a weekend-only timetable for September and October.

The best time to visit the Giant’s Causeway is between April and October when the weather is relatively mild. The outdoor site is open every day from dawn to dusk, which means longer hours in summer when there is more daylight. Note that the trails may not be accessible in very bad weather due to the risk of landslides.

Accommodations

The most iconic place to stay near the Giant’s Causeway is at the classic Causeway Hotel. The three-star hotel was recently remodeled and has maintained its traditional charm while adding modern touches. Best of all, the property is a five-minute walk from the visitors center. 

There are also numerous B&Bs in the village of Bushmills that are close to the site but offer a town setting, which is lacking at the stand-alone Causeway Hotel. 

What Else to Do Nearby

The natural wonder is located just outside the village of Bushmills, which happens to be famous for its whiskey. Plan a visit to the Old Bushmills Distillery to learn more about how the drink is made, and then (of course) taste a few samples.

The ruins of Dunseverick Castle are less than five miles from the main outcroppings of the Giant’s Causeway and make up part of the coastal cliff-top walk along the area. It dates back to at least the 5th century, which is when Saint Patrick is said to have visited.

About a 20-minute drive away, you will find Dunluce Castle, which also lies in ruins. However, the picturesque crumbling walls and fallen towers are so precariously placed next to steep ocean drop-offs that this is easily one of Ireland’s best castles even in its ruined state.

After admiring the views at Dunluce Castle, carry on to Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. The dangling bridge is only 66 feet long, but it sways 100 feet over the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean and will literally take your breath away. Remember to exhale, and then cross the one-of-a-kind bridge to explore Carrick-a-Rede island and learn about its 350 years of fishery history.

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