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The Northern Ireland Road Trip: 5 Days Exploring Antrim And Down (Full Itinerary)

The Northern Ireland Road Trip: 5 Days Exploring Antrim And Down (Full Itinerary)

Howaya! This road trip guide is part of our 5 days in Ireland travel series.

In a nutshell, the series is made up of 5 different ways to spend 5 days in Ireland.

Each guide (you can find them all here) visits different counties and contains a full itinerary for each day along with advice on where to sleep and where to grab a post-adventure pint.

In this guide, you’ll find a 5-day road trip that’ll take you through County Down for a couple of days before tipping on to Antrim. Dive on in below.

Table of Contents

The Down and Antrim Road Trip

  • Day 1: Down (Slieve Donard, Murlough Beach and a very old pub)
  • Day 2: Down (Tollymore Forrest, Castlewellan and Dundrum Castle)
  • Day 3: Down (Scrabo Hill, the Ards Peninsula and the oldest pub in NI)
  • Day 4: Antrim (The fist half of the Causeway Coastal Route)
  • Day 5: Antrim (The second half of the Causeway Coastal Route)

Day 1: Down

Right – we’re ready to rock. Our first day on the road takes us to County Down where we’ll be spending the first three nights (2 in Newcastle and 1 on the Ards Peninsula).

You’ve a lovely little day of exploring ahead of you with very little driving. Try and aim to get on the road early and arrive at stop 1, Slieve Donard, nice and early.

1. Slieve Donard (arrive for 10:00)

Slieve Donard Mountain

Photo by Michal Durinik (Shutterstock)

Our first stop of day one is a hike in the mighty Mourne Mountains. Now, if you’re not a seasoned hiker, don’t be put off.

Although the Mourne Mountains are the highest mountain range in Northern Ireland, there are plenty of walks and hikes for less experienced explorers.

Personally, my favourite hike in the Mournes is the one that takes you up the 850m high Slieve Donard

The hike here will take you between 4.5 and 5 hours, depending on pace, and offers magnificent views of everywhere from the Isle of Man and the Wicklow Mountains to the peaks of Wales, Scotland, and Donegal.

2. A post-hike feed (arrive around 15:00)

fish and chips

Photo by Pixelbliss (Shutterstock)

When you’ve finished your hike, take the handy 10-minute drive to the Great Jones restaurant in Newcastle for a bit of well-earned lunch.

The reviews for this place are top-notch and the fact that it’s only down the road from where you’ll have left your car makes it the perfect place for a post-hike feed.

3. Murlough Beach (arrive around 16:30)

murlough beach in down

Photo by Bernie Brown

When you finish eating, take the short 15-minute spin out to Murlough Beach and head for a saunter along the sand.

If you’re not familiar with Murlough, it’s a gorgeous blue flag beach that situated right at the edge of Dundrum Bay and the Mournes.

The beach is backed by a 6,000-year-old sand dune system that is a designated National Nature Reserve.  As you ramble along the beach, you’ll have mighty mountain views right in front of you.

4. A bed for the night (arrive whenever)

the bedroom

Now, where you stay is going to depend on how much cash you’re comfortable spending. If you fancy a nice and central (and reasonably priced) beach-front apartment, try this place

Or, if you fancy seeing what other accommodation Newcastle has to offer, you can browse places to stay in Newcastle on Booking.com here (just narrow the search to Newcastle).

Note: To avoid having to move around too much, make Newcastle your base for night 1 and 2.

5. Food and a post-adventure pint in a very old pub

The Maghera Inn Down

Photo via The Maghera Inn on FB

If you fancy a pint, I’m going to recommend that you hop in a taxi (if you have a designated driver, happy days) and head to the 200-year-old Maghera Inn.

If you stay near Murlough, you won’t be any more than a short 10-minute drive away. This pub is known for its food and the quality of its Guinness. Here’s what the lads that run it have to say:

‘The Maghera Inn may look like a quaint, understated Northern Ireland pub restaurant, but inside we’re special. We’ve a bar that’s packed with exotic brands; we’re renowned for the quality of our Guinness; and we’ve a menu that will titillate the taste buds of even the most demanding gourmand.’

Day 2: Down

Get a bit of a lie-in on the morning of day 2. While we’ve a busy day ahead there’s, thankfully, very little driving required.

There’ll be plenty of walking squeezed into day 2 along with a heap of scenic sites where you’ll be able to soak up some breathtaking views.

1. Tollymore Forrest (arrive around 11:00)

a bridge in Tollymore Forrest

Photo by Chris Hill

The first stop of day 2, Tollymore Forest Park, is a handy 10-minute drive from Newcastle. This place covers an impressive 630 hectares of land at the foot of the Mourne Mountains and is the perfect spot for an early morning ramble.

There are 4 different trails that you can head off on here. Give The Red Trail a bash. It’s a 4.8 km trail that passes through woodland and offers dramatic views of the Pot of Legawherry.

2. Castlewellan Forest Park (arrive around 13:00)

Castlewellan forest park

Photo by Brian Morrison via Tourism Ireland

Our next stop, Castlewellan Forest Park, is a handy 15 minutes from Tollymore. The forest park at Castlewellan has a 12 km walking trail network that features breathtaking views out towards the Mourne Mountains.

Those that visit will also discover one of Northern Ireland’s most famous lakes, a Victorian Castle, and spectacular panoramic views just minutes from the lively little village of Castlewellan.

It’s also home to some of the oldest and rarest trees in the British Isles. A grand aul spot for a walk with mountain views.

3. Lunch at Maginn’s (arrive around 15:00)

restaurant in the shandon

I’m going to recommend that you take the 5-minute drive into Castlewellan Village for a bite to eat in Maginn’s. I had lunch here last year and the food was the business.

Maginn’s has been owned and ran by the same family since way back in 1919, which is pretty damn impressive. 

Get in, get fed and chill for a while. We’ve a few more stops left for day 2 before heading back to base for the night.

4. Dundrum Castle (arrive around 16:30)

Dundrum Castle in county down

Photo by Bernie Brown via Tourism Ireland

Stop number 4, Dundrum Castle, is 10 minutes down the road from our last stop. If you’re looking for a spectacular view and a bit of history, this place will be right up your street.

Dundrum Castle is situated on a beautiful wooded hill not far from Dundrum village where it treats visitors to stunning views of Dundrum Bay and the Mourne Mountains.

The castle here, which is believed to have been built around 1177, was used to control the land routes from Drogheda to Downpatrick.

5. Ice cream and a stroll on the beach (arrive around 18:00)

Nugelato ice cream

Photo via Nugelato on FB

When you finish up at Dundrum, take the 10-minute spin to Nugelato. Good God the stuff that this crowd produces looks UNREAL.

Nugelato is an award-winning, independent ice-cream boutique based in the town of Newcastle.

They pride themselves on dishing out classics with a modern twist. I don’t know what exactly that is in the top photo above but MY GOD it looks tasty!

Grab something from here and then head down to the sand for a saunter. If you arrive during the winter months, you’ll end up hitting the sand around sunset.

6. A post-adventure pint and bite to eat at the Percy French Inn

Percy French Inn

Photo via the Percy French Inn

If you fancy rounding off the day with a pint and a bite to eat, take the handy 5-minute stroll from the beach over to the Percy French Inn.

You’ll find the Percy French at the foot of the Mournes, on the grounds of the very swanky Slieve Donard Resort.

If you arrive here in the colder months, try and nab a seat near the roaring log fire. Get in, chill and make your belly happy.

When you’re finished, head back to your accommodation (if you need a place to stay in Newcastle, browse accommodation here).

Day 3: Strangford Lough and the Ards Peninsula

So, the bulk of day 3 is going to be spent exploring the area around the Ards Peninsula. If you’ve never heard of Ards, you’re in for a treat!

As we’ll be moving onto the Causeway Coast on day 4, I’m going to recommend that you spend the night on the Ards Peninsula, as it’ll set us up nicely for hitting Antrim the following day.

1. Scrabo Hill (arrive around 10:30)

scrabo hill

Photo by John Clarke Photography (Shutterstock)

The first stop of our final day in County Down takes us on a 55-minute drive from Newcastle up to the mighty Scrabo Hill.

You can take a walk to the summit of Scrabo Hill where you’ll find Scrabo Tower, which was built in 1857. From here, you’ll be treated to spectacular views out over Strangford Lough and North Down. 

2. Mount Stewart (arrive around 12:00)

Mount Stewart Down

Photo by Gerry McNally (Shutterstock)

Our second stop of the day, Mount Stewart, takes us onto the Ards Peninsula, one of the most scenic corners of the county. It’s a short 15-minute drive to here from Scrabo.

Mount Stewart is one of the most popular visitor attractions in County Down and it’s managed by the National Trust.

Those that visit will discover beautifully maintained gardens, a historic stately home, lovely farmland trails, a restaurant and more.

Head for a ramble in the grounds (there’s a red, blue and green trail) and then drop into the restaurant on-site for a bite to eat.

3. Grey Abbey (arrive around 13:30)

Grey Abbey County Down

Photo by John Clarke Photography (Shutterstock)

When you finish off at Mount Stewart, continue down along the coast in the direction of the little village of Greyabbey.

It’s here that you’ll discover the ancient 12th-century ruins of Grey Abbey which was once called home by a group of monks.

There’s a little visitor centre here that you can nip into to learn more about the area. If you fancy, you can also take a stroll to the village and grab a coffee.

3. The road to Portaferry (arrive around 14:30)

portaferry town

Photo by Ballygally View Images (Shutterstock)

When you finish up at Grey Abbey, head down along the coast towards Portaferry. It’s a 20-minute drive but there’s plenty to see on the way.

The first stop to look out for is Kircubbin. You’ll be able to pull in here and soak up a view of Strangford Lough set against a backdrop of the Mourne Mountains.

If you’re fond of whiskey, or if you just fancy a nosey around a working distillery, Echlinville Distillery can be found a handy 5-minute drive from Kircubbin.

The final stop is the buzzy little seaside town of Portaferry. This gorgeous little spot is rich with history and heritage. Park up and head for a ramble around. 

For a view and a half, walk up to the Windmill Hill Viewpoint. From here, you’ll be treated to a stunning view of Strangford Lough from above.

4. The road to Donaghadee (arrive around 18:00)

Donaghadee Lighthouse

Photo by Alan Hillen Photography (Shutterstock)

When you leave Portaferry, aim for Millin Bay Cairn. It’s a 10-minute drive and it’s here that you’ll find an ancient site along with gorgeous views across Millin Bay out towards the Isle of Man.

Continue north along the coast until you reach Cloughey (8-minute drive). If you fancy a ramble, there’s a beach here that’s perfect for a short stroll.

Our next stop is the buzzy little fishing village of Portavogie. If you fancy a bite to eat, you’ll find plenty of restaurants here (give some Portavogie prawns a try).

When you finish up, take the 30-minute drive up along the coast to Donaghadee where you’ll be spending the night. 

4. The oldest pub in Northern Ireland and a bed for the night

grace neill's bar

Photo via Google Maps

I’m going to recommend that you spend the night in Donaghadee, as it sets us up nicely for our 4th day on the road.

If you need a place to stay, I’m going to recommend Pier 36 as it’s central, good value and the reviews are top-notch.

After you’ve checked in, head on down to the restaurant on-site and grab a bite to eat. The reviews of the food are top-notch.

When you finish up, take the 5-minute ramble to Grace Neill’s Bar. Grace Neill’s is the oldest pub in Northern Ireland and has been running since 1611.

Day 4: The start of the Causeway Coast

We say goodbye to County Down and move into County Antrim on day 4. You’ve a lovely, busy few days ahead of you.

Over the next 48 hours, you’ll explore the incredible Causeway Coastal Route, with stop-offs at everywhere from the Gobbins to Dunluce Castle.

1: The Gobbins Cliff Path (arrive for 10:30)

Gobbins Antrim

Photos by Cushla Monk + Paul Vance (shutterstock.com)

Our first stop-off point, the Gobbins Cliff Path Tour, is a 1-hour drive from Pier 36 and it kicks things off with a thunderous bang.

The path wraps its way around the basalt cliffs over County Antrim’s jagged coastline – an architectural marvel considering it was designed over 100 years ago in 1902 by a railway engineer named Berkeley Deane Wise.

Originally aimed at Edwardian ‘thrill-seekers’, the Gobbins Cliff Path walk now gives ordinary Joe Soaps like you and I the chance to experience a slice of the dramatic coastline up close and personal.

Here’s loads more info on the Gobbins to give you a better idea of what to expect if you take the tour.

2. The Cushendun Caves (arrive around 13:30)

cushendun caves

Photo by Nick Fox (shutterstock)

Our second stop of the day is one that’ll strike a chord with fans of the Game of Thrones series – the Cushendun Caves. I love a good cave. They half frighten the shite out of me, which makes them all the more alluring.

The Cushendun caves were formed over 400 million of years of extreme weather conditions and shot to fame a few years back when they were used for filming during the Game of Thrones Series.

They don’t take much time to explore, so head down and have a little ramble around. Fans of Game of Thrones may recognise the Causeway Coastal Route’s Cushendun Caves as the place where Melisandre birthed the shadow assassin.

It’s a longish drive from the Gobbins to the caves. It should take you around an hour and 10 minutes, all going to plan.

3. The Torr Head scenic route (start the drive at 13:30)

torr head scenic route

Phoro via Google Maps

The Torr Head Scenic Route has several different stops. The drive takes an hour, but we’ll allow 2 hours with stops.

I didn’t realise that this route had a name until long after I stumbled upon it. I was driving the Causeway Coastal Route with a friend and we had just left Cushendun.

We then somehow managed to get half-lost/half-intrigued after copping a sign-post for the Torr Head Scenic Route.

We met a handful of cars and were treated to the view above. This is the ‘alternative route’ to Ballycastle and it clings to the coast, taking drivers along narrow roads and up steep hills high above the sea.

If you’re a nervous driver, or if you’re driving a large vehicle like a caravan or a mobile home, this route isn’t for you.

There’s a reason this road ranked high in our guide to 13 of the narrowest and bendiest roads in Ireland.

4. Torr Head

Scotland from the causeway coastal route

Photo © The Irish Road Trip

Torr Head was another place that I had never heard of until the trip that I mentioned previously. 

We arrived on a nice clear-ish day and had a view out towards Scotland (you can see it on the horizon in the photo above).

Admire from afar or drive the winding road down to the little car park and head for a wander.

5. Murlough Bay

Murlough Bay ballycastle

Photos via Shutterstock

When you’ve had your fill of Torr Head, hop back in the car and point it in the direction of Murlough Bay (pop it into your GPS as the turn is easily missed).

Take the narrow track to the clifftop car park. From here, you can stop and stroll or you can take the track down to sea level and park and walk.

You could spend the day at Murlough Bay. It’s secluded, quiet and boasts an endless amount of raw coastal beauty.

6. Ballycastle for a late Lunch (arrive around 15:30)

fish and chips

Photo by Pixelbliss (Shutterstock)

When you finish up at Murlough Bay, head off towards the town of Ballycastle (it’s a 15-minute drive).

There’s some great restaurants in Ballycastle to nip into. Give yourself an hour enjoy the food, chat and fuel up on coffee. We’ve a few places left to see before the day is over.

If you fancy, you can head for a ramble over on Ballycastle Beach.

7. The Crumbly Kinbane Castle (arrive around 16:40)

kinbane castle on the causeway coastal route

Photo by shawnwil23 (Shutterstock)

Our second-last stop of the day takes us 10 minutes up the road from Ballycastle to the crumbly Kinbane Castle.

Kinbane Castle is another place that just rocks you a little (no pun intended). You may have read about it in our guide to the most unique things to do in Ireland (if you didn’t, check it out!).

To say that the location of Kinbane Castle is dramatic and other-worldly would be doing it a colossal injustice.

Built in 1547 on a small rock promontory called Kinbane Head which extends out into the sea, the scenery surrounding the castle is just breath-taking.

Isolated ruins, jagged cliffs and the powerful Atlantic Ocean combine to make this a place that’ll cement itself in your mind.

8. The Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge (arrive around 17:20)

Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge

Photos via Shutterstock

We’re a short 7-minute spin from our final stop of the day – the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. When it comes to exploring a country, the more hands-on and unique the experience the better, and it rarely comes more unique than a stroll across the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge.

For those afraid of heights, a quick heads up – the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge hangs 25 feet above the icy waters below.

The first rope bridge was erected between the mainland and Carrick-a-Rede Island way back in 1755, as the little island provided the perfect platform for local fishermen to cast their nets off into the Atlantic.

If you’re planning on crossing, fret not – the bridge in place today is made of sturdy wire. The perfect spot for some hands-on exploring with heaps of photo opportunities along the way!

9: Chill time, dinner, pints and bed

pint of guinness kilkea bar

A very creamy pint

I’m going to recommend that you stay in the Fullerton Arms in Ballintoy, as it’s a handy 3-minute drive from the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge. 

Staying here also lines us up nicely to continue our road trip on day two. Check-in and chill for a while before heading down to the restaurant for a bite to eat. 

Day 5: Into the belly of the Causeway Coast

Get a bit of a lie-in on the morning of day 5. We’ve plenty to see, but the majority of the attractions are located nice and close together, so there’s no need to rush out of the nest.

We want to get on the road for 10:00, so grab breakfast in the hotel and then hit the road for another adventure-packed day.

1: Ballintoy Harbour (arrive for just after 10:00)

ballintoy harbour

Photo by Chris Hill

Our first stop of the day (5-minute drive from where you stayed on night 4) is going to be of particular interest to Game of Thrones fans.

You’ll find Ballintoy Harbour at the end of a small, narrow, steep road down Knocksaughey Hill. The harbour is surrounded by limestone cliffs and by the late nineteenth century it was used for the production of lime and shipping sett stones.

Ballintoy Harbour was used as one of the filming locations along the Causeway Coastal Route for HBO’s Game of Thrones (it was used for exterior Pyke shots and for the Iron Islands).

For those that were immersed in the series, the harbour featured in the scene where Theon Greyjoy arrives back in the Iron Islands and where he later admires his ship.

2: Dunseverick Castle (arrive around 11:30)

Dunseverick Castle antrim

Photo by Ondrej Prochazka (Shutterstock)

Now we’re getting into the belly of the Causeway Coastal Route – as you drive from Ballintoy Harbour to Dunseverick Castle (15-minute spin), you’ll begin to appreciate why this stretch of road is revered across the globe.

Saint Patrick is reported to have visited Dunseverick castle in the 5th century to baptise a local man who later became the Bishop of Ireland.

Park in the little car park next to the castle and take the short stroll over to its crumbly remains. The original stone fort that occupied the position was attacked by Viking raiders in 870 AD.

3. The Giants Causeway (arrive around 12:30)

the giants causeway coastal route

Photo by Arthur Ward

Next on the list (10-minute drive) is a place where, according to legend, an Irish giant named Finn MacCool began his quest to defeat a cocky Scottish giant.

An official Unesco World Heritage Site since 1986, the Giant’s Causeway was formed around 50 to 60 million years ago as a result of a volcanic eruption.

What emerged from the eruption led to the creation of a corner of the world so wonderfully unique that it has been nicknamed the 8th wonder of the world.

As you cast your eyes around you you’ll see some of the estimated 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that make up this natural masterpiece.

4. Lunch at the Causeway Visitor Center (arrive around 13:30)

giants causeway tour

Photo by Gert Olsson (Shutterstock)

I rarely remember food unless it gave my taste buds a good kick in the arse. It’s been two years since I visited the Giants Causeway, but I still remember the Beef and Guinness Stew that I milled out of it in the visitor centre.

If you visit the Causeway on a cold day, the wind will cut you asunder. This is the perfect food to heat the body back up and get you ready for the afternoon ahead.

5: Bushmills Distillery (arrive around 15:00)

bushmills tour

Photo via Bushmills

I’ve known both whiskey lovers and whiskey haters to enjoy our next tour, so don’t worry if you’re not a fan. You’ll find Ireland’s oldest working distillery a 15-minute drive from the Giant’s Causeway.

The Old Bushmills Distillery was originally granted permission to distil back in 1608, and there has been distillation on the site ever since.

For this road trip, we’re going to recommend that you join the Bushmills Brand Experience tour, which involves a guided tour around the working distillery.

Spend some time soaking up the history, the smells and the sounds of Ireland’s oldest working distillery.

6. The Dark Hedges (arrive around 16:30)

the dark hedges ireland

The Dark Hedges: Photo by Matthew Woodhouse

Our next stop is the Dark Hedges (15 minutes from Bushmills). If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you may recognise this place as The Kings Road, which is where this stretch of road gained its global fame.

In 1775 a man named James Stuart constructed a stunning Georgian estate around two and a half miles north of the village of Stranocum.

Although the estate was an impressive spectacle in itself, the family decided that in order to make the drive up to the mansion more formidable, they needed to do something about the entrance.

They decided to plant 150 beech trees along the avenue that led to the house. Over the years they grew to enclave the Bregagh Road, creating what we now know as the Dark Hedges.

7. Dunluce Castle (arrive around 17:30)

dunluce castle game of thrones

Photo by Matthew Woodhouse

Our final stop of the day, Dunluce Castle, is a 20-minute spin from the Dark Hedges. You’ll find the iconic ruins of Dunluce Castle perched on dramatic cliffs along County Antrim’s magnificent coastline.

A source of wanderlust for travellers the world over, the castles unique appearance and quirky legend has seen it receive enormous attention online in recent years.

According to legend, on a particularly stormy night in 1639, part of the castle’s kitchen next to the cliff face collapsed into the icy waters below.

Legend tells that when the kitchen dropped into the sea, only a kitchen boy survived, as he was sat in the corner of the kitchen which remained intact.

You can do the tour if you like or admire it from the outside. This is hands down my favourite stop on our Causeway Coastal Route itinerary.

8: A walk on Portstewart Strand before dinner, a drink and bed 

portstewart strand

Photo by Chris Hill

Our final stop of the road trip takes us to Portstewart Strand (20 minutes from Dunluce), where we’ll round the trip off with a stroll along the sand.

This 3 km stretch of golden sand is one of the finest beaches in Northern Ireland, and it offers brilliant views of the Inishowen headland and the Mussenden Temple.

Stroll, gulp down lungfuls of fresh sea air and look back on what was an eventful 5 days of exploring the Causeway Coastal Route and County Down.

For those of you looking for a place to stay, I’m going to recommend that you kick-back in the Port Central B&B for the night.

Check-in to your room and if you fancy a nightcap, take the short 8-minute stroll to the Anchorage Inn.

And that’s a wrap

Hopefully you’ve found the above guide useful. Is it perfect? Absolutely not! Feel free to chop and change wherever and whenever you fancy.

If you fancy seeing what other road trips Ireland has to offer, hop into our road trip hub. You’ll find itineraries for every type of trip.

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