How to DIY Your Giant's Causeway Tour in Northern Ireland
Few methods of travel allow for as much freedom and spontaneity as a good ol’ fashioned road trip. I love that you can pull over at every single viewpoint and drive right by any sights you’re not interested in. You can stop to snap a shot of the curious cow in the countryside or detour to that tiny fish and chips shack you heard about. The one you’d never see on a group tour itinerary.
When coupled with a good playlist or podcast and lots of treats (Munchies snack mix for me and Twizzlers for Wes), road trips have made for some of our most memorable travel moments. Our two week campervan adventure through Ireland and Northern Ireland is still one of my favourite drives. Today we’re sharing tips on how to DIY your own Giant’s Causeway tour, one of the most popular attractions on the aptly named Causeway Coastal Route.
TLDR: This natural site is entirely free to visit if you skip the Visitor’s Centre, free roadside parking is available provided you are not on private property and there are no double solid lines, a travel vlog from our self-guided Giant’s Causeway tour is linked at the end of this post and top-rated tours are available via Get Your Guide for those who prefer to book in advance.
What’s so Special About the Giant’s Causeway?
You’ve likely seen photos of the impressive hexagonal stones that make up this spectacular natural attraction. There are over 40,000 basalt columns that you can freely roam on your Giant’s Causeway tour. The unique formations are said to be a result of volcanic activity millions of years ago and have been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1986.
According to a local legend, the stones that remain on this coast are in fact fragments of a pathway built by the Irish giant, Finn McCool. He made the path in order to get to Scotland where he would fight a rival giant whose rumoured size was a threat to Ireland. There are several versions of the legend but today you will actually find similar basalt stones at the entrance of Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa in western Scotland.
Tips for Visiting the Giant’s Causeway Without a Tour
The Giant’s Causeway is managed by the National Trust, a charity that aims to preserve the country’s national treasures. They’ve built a Visitor’s Centre that charges £12.50 per adult (May 2019) which includes parking, access to the centre, an audio guide and probably a leaflet of sorts. From what I’ve read online, some consider this a tourist trap especially since signage leads you to believe you have to pay to see the stones. Pedestrian access to the Giant’s Causeway is entirely free and you can walk all the way down to the stones and enjoy the nearby trails without paying a pound (as we did).
If you’d like to get an audio guide and check out the Visitor’s Centre, then buying your ticket online will help you save a couple bucks. Alternatively, you can use the Park & Ride shuttle at Bushmill that runs every 20 minutes or so. This ‘green’ option will also save you money on admission. If you do decide to shuttle from Bushmill, note that this is a free service available to those who intend to pay for access to the Visitor’s Centre. Basically, you can’t take the free shuttle from Bushmill and then expect free entrance as a pedestrian. Capiche?
The stones themselves are about 1km from the Visitor’s Centre with a third-party shuttle bus (pictured below) available for £1 each way. Wes and I enjoyed the walk to and from the stones and actually looked forward to it after all the driving we’d been doing on this trip. Members of the National Trust enjoy free admission to the Visitor’s Centre as well as complimentary shuttle bus service to the stones.
Ash of Cairn & Compass shares some info if you’re visiting the Giant’s Causeway by bus:
“You can buy an iLink public transportation card that covers the different travel zones in Northern Ireland. If you’re starting in Derry, you just need one zone. In Belfast, you’d need a card for all five zones (so this option is best from Derry). For one zone, the pass is about 14£ each, but covers all buses and trains for the entire day. For us in wintertime, a train from Derry to Coleraine, followed by a transfer to a bus, gave us quite the show along the coast, and dropped us right in front of the visitor centre for the Giant’s Causeway.”
Free Parking at Giant’s Causeway
The most cost effective way to DIY your Giant’s Causeway tour is if you’re able to find free (and legal) parking on the road like we did. We were hesitant to do this since the roads are quiet narrow in Ireland and there were no cars parked on the road when we first arrived. A local advised us that it’s perfectly fine to park right on the side of the road provided you hug the curb, you’re not on private property and there is no double solid line. This option involved quite a bit of walking to even reach the Giant’s Causeway entrance but we did it anyway after a nearby cafe owner also assured us that cars do this all the time. As we nervously walked back after visiting the stones, we were surprised to see how many cars had followed suite and there was no parking ticket in sight.
If you’re driving a larger vehicle and/or prefer to park in an actual carpark, The Nook is a good option for a nearby snack and offers free parking to patrons. Just keep in mind that this is only available during their operating hours and I’d expect to see touristy prices on the menu. There is also the option to park at the Giant’s Causeway lot and skip the Visitor’s Centre. But it’s currently £10.50 per person which can definitely add up. A sneaky way to save on parking here is to discreetly let your passengers off somewhere nearby and pay the parking fee for just the one driver.
Opening Hours and Best Time to Visit
It goes without saying that this popular tourist attraction can get busy, especially during the summer months. A benefit of doing your own Giant’s Causeway tour is that you can steer clear of peak times which are (generally) between 11:00am and 3:00pm. The Visitor’s Centre opens at 9:00am with closing times depending on the season (between 5:00pm and 7:00pm) and ticket sales ending an hour before closing. The actual Giant’s Causeway site seems to be open from dawn till dusk but, no matter how early or late you go, chances are you won’t be the only one there.
Off-season, early morning or after 4:00pm are the best times to visit as this will increase your chances of avoiding those large buses full of people. Photographers will appreciate the morning fog as well as the beautiful lighting at sunset. Regardless of when you visit the Giant’s Causeway, be patient with your photo ops and respectful of others who are likely eager for an Instagram photo as well. Wear layers and comfortable shoes, keep a safe distance from the water’s edge and take your time exploring the area. How long do you need in total? Well, that’s entirely up to you. I don’t think we spent more than 2 hours at the site which is somewhere between those who came just for the photo and those who hiked every nearby trail and took in all the info at the Visitor’s Centre.
Giant’s Causeway Group Tour vs. Self-Guided Visit
Our entire visit was completely free and we have no regrets about visiting the Giant’s Causeway without a tour. Wes and I aren’t huge history buffs and found that some online reading ahead of time was enough for us to appreciate the afternoon. Because we were filming for an Ireland series on YouTube, we likely wouldn’t have had time to film and listen to the entire audio guide anyways.
That said, I understand that some travellers appreciate the insight and knowledge that can only be gained from an expert guide. After all, the Irish are among some of the best story-tellers we’ve come across and they can really make for a memorable experience. If you prefer to book ahead of time and have the budget for an all-inclusive tour, we’ve heard great things about Get Your Guide and have linked some of their best-reviewed offerings below:
The Giant’s Causeway may be one of the most popular sites in Northern Ireland but it’s only one of many beautiful stops along the Causeway Coastal Route and tons of them are free! If you have time to spare, you can check out the nearby Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge or head west where you can drive right on the shores of Benone Beach before visiting the Mussenden Temple.
This blog exists for other travellers and we’d love to hear from you if this post helped you DIY your Giant’s Causeway tour. We strive to share the information we wish we had read before our travels and always hope to help others see more of the world. Feel free to pin this if Ireland is on your bucket list and take a peak at our travel vlog below for more inspiration to hit the road and explore this gem of an island!
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