One of the great joys of writing about travel is that you get to share some of the most beautiful destinations you’ve had the pleasure to experience. Today I’m completing a trip around the United Kingdom that focuses on its best beaches. We’ve already visited England, Wales and Scotland, so today I’m exploring Northern Ireland beaches. If you’ve never had the chance to see this stunning part of the United Kingdom, it’s time to get booking. With loughs (the equivalent of lochs), estuaries, and dune-bordered beaches, Northern Ireland can bring you natural coastline that will take your breath away.
- 1 Best Beaches Of The United Kingdom
- 2 Reaching The Northern Ireland Coast
- 3 Bangor: Where Belfast Goes To The Beach
- 4 Exploring the Causeway Coast and Glens
- 5 Swimming beaches on the Causeway Coast
- 6 Northern Ireland Beaches: Seven Miles of Pristine Sands at Benone Strand
- 7 Downhill Strand And Mussenden Temple
- 8 Cushendun: Designed To Look Cornish
- 9 Ballintoy Harbour Beach
- 10 Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
- 11 Ballycastle Strand
- 12 Portstewart Strand: A Walk In The Dunes
- 13 The Giant’s Causeway
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Best Beaches Of The United Kingdom
Talking to fellow travelers, I’ve been surprised at how few people think of the UK’s beaches when planning a trip. The great bonus of searching out beaches in the UK is the proximity of all of the UK’s coast to other spots you might be visiting. After all, we’re on small islands, and nowhere is too far from beaches, dunes, cliffs and headlands. I can never pass up on the chance for time at the coast. I call it sea fever, and it’s real.
Spending a week in London? It’s easy to pack a day trip full with many things to do in Brighton. Heading to Exeter or Bath? You’ll find the beauties of the Jurassic Coast and North Devon’s beaches close by. And if Cornwall, the land of myths and legends, is on your list, you’d find it difficult not to check out the beautiful coast. You can read our round ups of the best beaches to be found around the UK here:
Reaching The Northern Ireland Coast
There are plenty of direct flights to Belfast, including from UK airports in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle upon Tyne and Birmingham. Or you can take a ferry crossing from Cairnryan in Scotland or Liverpool to Belfast on Stena Line, with the journey taking approximately 8 hours from Liverpool day or night. A night sailing could be a good way to maximise your time in Belfast. Northern Ireland’s best beaches are only a sleep away.
Once in Belfast, the line to Derry connects many of our beach destinations. Trains run between Londonderry and Bellarena or Coleraine, with a branch line to Portrush. You can check out your options for NI Railways travel here at Translink.
Bangor: Where Belfast Goes To The Beach
This town on the southern side of Belfast Lough is where Belfast spends its seaside weekends and evenings. Indeed, some lucky commuters for Belfast get to call it home. Bangor Marina is one of the largest in Ireland, and holds Blue Flag status. You’ll also find the Royal Ulster and Ballyholme Yacht Clubs here, giving yet more emphasis to the seafaring traditions of this area.
Have family in tow? Then you’ll love the fun park, with its pedal boats, paddling pools, adventure playground and miniature railway. Bangor Castle’s walled garden is atmospheric and calm. Visit Cockle Row Cottages in Groomsport for an understanding of a fisherman’s life at the turn of the last century. The sea front has a promenade leading past the historic McKee clock and onward to the coastal path. In fact, all seaside life is here for your entertainment.
Exploring the Causeway Coast and Glens
This area covers the most northerly part of Northern Ireland. It has a glorious and diverse coastline ranging from jagged cliffs to sandy bays. You’ll find everything from resorts to wild spaces on the coast here.
Starting from the shores of Lough Foyle, the coast stretches from Magilligan Point and Benone Strand to the seaside resorts at Castlerock and beyond to the estuary of the River Bann. Here you’ll find more resorts in Portstewart and Portrush.
Finally you reach Bushmills, home of the world’s oldest distillery, producing Bushmills Irish whiskey since a breathtaking 1608. To put this in context, that was the year that Monteverdi was premiering his new compositions in Mantua, and fire destroyed Jamestown, Virginia.
Here you’ll find some well-traveled locations, including the World Heritage Site of the Giant’s Causeway, the Glens of Antrim and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.
Swimming beaches on the Causeway Coast
If your favourite beach is one from which you can go wild swimming, then there is a good collection of safe swimming destinations on the Causeway Coast. Check out the following Northern Ireland beaches for somewhere to lay out your towel in readiness: Castlerock, Downhill, Portballintrae, Portrush East Strand, Portrush West Strand, Portstewart Strand, Runkerry Bushfoot Strand and Portrush Whiterocks.
You’ll find information on wild swimming on the Antrim coast here.
Northern Ireland Beaches: Seven Miles of Pristine Sands at Benone Strand
Just around from Magilligan Point, you’ll find Benone Strand on the Atlantic coast. Mussenden Temple is perched about on the cliffs leading to Castlerock Beach.
Benone Strand is seven miles of gorgeous sandy bay, in fact it’s one of the longest Northern Ireland beaches. It’s also a Blue Flag beach, meaning that it has met standards for quality, safety, the provision of services, environmental education, information and management. In short, expect a Blue Flag beach to be well cherished. There are watersports and fishing, views to Donegal, walks and hikes and plenty of sand dunes.
Downhill Strand And Mussenden Temple
Downhill is the perfect destination for nature lovers, being a conservation area and one of special scientific interest. It’s a great place for walks and spotting birds among the extensive sand dunes and the waterfalls that cascade down the cliffs. The nearest town is Castlerock, with accommodation, places to eat and transport links.
Here for Game Of Thrones? You may recognise Downhill as Dragonstone, where the Seven Idols of Westeros were burned.
It’s impossible to visit Downhill without spotting the curiosity that is Mussenden Temple up on the cliffs. Commissioned by Lord Bristol, who was also the Bishop of Derry, the Temple was built in 1785 modeled on the Temple of Vesta in Rome. It is part of the Downhill Demesne, now managed by the National Trust.
There’s a potential tale of unrequired love here, as the Temple is dedicated to the memory of the Bishop’s beautiful cousin Frideswide Mussenden. Indeed, it’s said that when the Bishop grew tired of time with his wife, he would often go to visit his cousin. Erosion over the years has brought the building ever closer to the cliff edge, with stabilisation work being carried out in 1997.
The inscription around the building reads:
“Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis
e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem.”
“Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore
The troubled sailor, and hear the tempests roar.”
Lucretius – De Rerum Natura
The building served as the Bishop’s library. The contents of the bookcases that lined the room were protected from damp by a fire kept burning constantly in the basement. Just imagine settling down there with a good read, looking up from time to time to contemplate the majesty of the coast below you. I think I’d have to be forcibly removed from a library like that.
The grounds of this manor house of Downhill Demense are open to the public all year from dawn to dusk. Look west and you can see to Magilligan Point and across to Inishowen in Donegal. To the east, you’ll be viewing Castlerock beach, then on to Portstweard, Portrush and Fair Head.
Cushendun: Designed To Look Cornish
On the Causeway Coastal Route at the foot of Glendun, one of the nine Glens of Antrim, you’ll find the coastal village of Cushenden. It has a small but perfectly formed beach. The village was designed by architect Clough Williams-Ellis in the style of a Cornish village. If his name sounds familiar, it might be for the rather more famous village he also designed: the Mediterranean-style Portmeirion in Wales.
The village is a designated conservation area, and boasts some pretty shops and pubs. That’s impressive for a place with less than 200 residents. Curiosities include a goat sculpture called Johann. You might spot something else you think you’ve seen before. The caves behind the village were used in the filming of Game of Thrones.
Don’t forget to look out to sea on a clear day. Yes, that is Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre a scant 15 miles across the water. Sorry for the earworm.
Ballintoy Harbour Beach
You get extra bonuses for your Northern Ireland beaches trip here. A short distance from Ballintoy village by a narrow and winding lane, you get to see Ballintoy Church. Whitewalled and beautiful, it’s one of Northern Ireland’s most photographed churches. Then you’ve got the harbour itself, the stunning awesomeness of which saw it play Lordsport in the Isle of Pyke in Game of Thrones.
The Iron Islands are nearby. Ballintoy is a raised beach or perched coastline, left above the shoreline by a relative fall in sea level.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
It may not be a beach, but I’d be remiss in leaving out our next recommendation. It’s on the road to Ballintoy, so you can get to explore both on your trip. Despite being petrified of heights, I can’t deny the attraction of the very special journey to little Carrick-a-Rede island. To get there, you’ll need to traverse a 30 metre deep chasm via 20 metres of rope bridge.
Salmon fishermen originally constructed the bridge, although it’s had a few renewals since. Take a deep breath, and look across, not down, is all I recommend. And try not to count your fellow walkers with each passing step, nor ponder too much on the days when the bridge consisted of a single rope handrail and gaps between the wooden slats. It’s all far safer now. But there are still tales of people being unready to face the return journey, and having to be picked up by boat from the island. So be sure you have the return trip within you before you undertake the outbound journey.
“A lone figure is waving
From the thin line of a bridge
Of ropes and slates, slung
Dangerously out between
The cliff-top and the pillar rock.”
Seamus Heaney: A Postcard From North Antrim
This is one of Northern Ireland’s epic beaches. Ballycastle is designated a Blue Flag beach. Three rivers, the Carey, the Glenshesk and the Tow, flow into the Moyle Sea which marks the start of the Strand. This 1.2km beach is made up mostly of sand with a little shingle. It backs onto Ballycastle Golf Course for most of its length, giving a verdant backdrop to the sands.
At the far end of Ballycastle Beach you might spot people fishing from the rocks. These are Pans Rocks, the remains of an iron salt pan. Just beyond Pans Rocks, there are steps in the stone leading to an underwater channel known as The Devil’s Churn.
At the eastern end of the beach, you’ll find some wilder areas. This is part of a giant coalfield formed in the sedimentary rock, with fossils preserved in the seams of coal.
Portstewart Strand: A Walk In The Dunes
This popular beach managed by the National Trust is another Blue Flag stretch of sand, popular with families in the summer months and walkers throughout the year. In fact, it’s one of the ten most popular visitor attractions in Northern Ireland. The magnificent sand dunes here, some of the tallest on the island of Ireland, rise to around 100 feet. The River Bann estuary makes for some fascinating coastal habitats.
There’s a great walk here with 3.5 miles of beach to explore. Unusually, parking is permitted on the sand. The first section of the walk will see you take in a mile of beach, walking towards a landmark you may recognise from earlier in this collection of coastal treasures: Mussenden Temple.
Exploring The Dunes
When you reach the line of wooden posts across the beach, you turn into the dunes, marked by a lifebuoy with the No. 10 on it. Now you climb the wooden sand ladder to take a narrow path to the estuary. White waymarker posts keep you on track. Spot some well manicured grasslands full of wild flowers? That’s rabbits at work. You can also find marram grass plus rare bee orchids in the summer. The air is fragrant with plants such as wild thyme and wild pansies.
Next up is the estuary, where you’ll be spoiled for different species of birds to observe, including shelducks. Your walk takes you briefly onto an old disused railway embankment, then climbs stone steps to take you to the river edge. Now you can see the Barmouth, with the River Bann spilling into the Atlantic, and the headlands of Donegal rising up. Your final task is to walk the full length of Portstewart Strand back to your starting point. It’s a pleasure. Be aware that there is a charge for the National Trust entrance for this walk.
Northern Ireland Beaches: Portrush
Portrush is the seaside neighbour of Portstewart. The town is built on the mile-long peninsula or Ramore Head, with the railway station, shops, restaurants and accommodation being available there. Visit out of season, and you’ll find part of the student population of the University of Ulster at Coleraine living their best seaside lives here. The town has three of Northern Ireland’s sandy beaches: the West Strand, East Strand and White Rocks.
Spotted a very low flying plane? During the annual airshow, the wonderfully named Air Waves Portrush, planes land on the beach.
West Strand, also known as West Bay or Millstrand is a popular beach with Blue Flag status. There’s a busy harbour to the north and the beach is bounded by a pedestrian and cycle promenade. You’ll find lifeguard services here in July and August, and the beach is accessible by pedestrian ramp at the northern end.
Looking at the family vibe of this beach, you wouldn’t necessarily realise that this is a protected area due to peat deposits and ancient sands under the current beach. Beneath your sandy toes are the fossilised remains of alder and birch trees that lived here 7000-9000 years ago.
Keep your eyes out to sea too. There is a resident pod of lively harbour porpoises to observe.
Read more: Where To Spot Dolphins In The UK
If your idea of a wonderful Northern Ireland beach involves surfing or other watersports, East Strand is for you. This two and a half miles of sandy shore merges into Whiterocks. Here you’ll find plenty of facilites, plus a dune system that hosts the Royal Portrush Golf Course. You won’t be short of views while awaiting your wave. You can see out to The Skerries and the headlands of the Causeway Coast.
Biodiversity is a key feature of the dunes. Here you could spot fulmars, eider, gulls, gannets, guillemots and terns.
Stunning limestone cliffs give Whiterocks Bay its name. To my mind it’s one of Northern Ireland’s beaches that makes you want to linger for days. These soft sedimentary rocks have been skillfully carved by nature’s actions over the centuries, producing an abundance of caves and arches. And they all have such evocative names. From Shelagh’s Head (it’s not known whether or not Shelagh was flattered by this naming decision) to Elephant Rock, the Lion’s Paw and Wishing Arch, there’s plenty to spot rising from the ocean. Large caves, accessible only by sea, are home to seabirds, and a place for hawks to hunt. It reminded me of the sea caves of the Wales Coast Path, where we recently spent time exploring.
Whiterocks Bay’s Blue Flag sands stretch from Curran Strand to Dunluce Castle. There’s a large car park at Magheracross to take in views of the headlands lying east towards the Giant’s Causeway. There are also some areas where you can stop to take in the views.
Surf And Watersports At Whiterocks
Watersport is a year round option here. In addition to surfers, you’ll often find bodyboarders and surf kayakers. There’s a surf hire outlet and lifeguards in season, and showers are available at the beach. Walkers are also well catered for with the route to and from Portrush along East Strand being very popular. Don’t be surprised to find horses on the beach, although there are restrictions from May to September limiting riding to before 1100 or after 1900. Dog restrictions also apply to the eastern part of the beach from May to September.
The Giant’s Causeway
It’s not one of Northern Ireland’s beaches. But how could we miss out one of the area’s most popular attractions, a natural wonder and Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site?
Leave aside for one moment all the visitors and just focus on the sheer magic of this place. This is not the world as we know and recognise it. It’s incredible to think that an ancient volcanic eruption produced these 40,000 interlocking basalt columns. It’s symmetry gone wild. Those columns lead from the cliff foot and vanish under the sea. It’s a beach of sorts, but one bigger than our imaginings. It’s not all hexagons either, some of the columns have four, five, seven or eight sides. The tallest columns are around 12 metres high, with the solidified lava of the cliffs being up to 28 metres thick.
Access to the Giant’s Causeway is free of charge, and you do not have to enter via the Visitor Centre. Just make sure that you head here before visiting the world’s oldest distillery at nearby Bushmills. Otherwise it would be easy to consider this a wonderful but implausible figment of your imagination.
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