Walking in the footsteps of giants

Some people would have you believe the Giant’s Causeway was formed by molten basalt but the story of the two fighting giants is much more fun!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Visit the Giant's Causeway

This incredible formation of 40,000 basalt columns may be the result of volcanic eruptions - or it could be what remains from a fight between two ancient giants.

To hear more about both the legend and the geology, you can visit the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, which makes for an excellent day trip from Belfast (or even Dublin).

It’s much more fun to believe the legend, right?

Especially when that legend involves a large Irish giant called Finn MacCool, who was challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant on the other side of the water. At least, that’s how this story starts.

The legend of the Giant’s Causeway

Finn, being Irish, loved only one thing more than fighting – and that was accepting a challenge. So he decided to head across the water to fight the Scottish giant, known as Benandonner.

He could hardly swim there, though, could he? And giants aren’t really known for their sailing skills. So, instead, Finn MacCool built a causeway out of stone from Ireland to Scotland.

Giant's Causeway, World Heritage Site, Northern Ireland

Starting from where we are standing today at the Giant’s Causeway at the northern tip of Northern Ireland, Finn MacCool placed the huge basalt columns one by one into the water, building a path all the way over to Scotland (where, on the coast, you can see similar rock formations at the location where the legend says the causeway finished.)

What is the Giant’s Causeway?

The Giant’s Causeway is an incredible natural attraction on the northern coast of Northern Ireland. It’s made up of about 40,000 huge basalt columns rising up from the sea along the coastline.

Why is the Giant’s Causeway famous

The Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. The Giant’s Causeway is famous not just for its spectacular appearance, but also because it is the subject of important Irish legends.

Can you walk on the Giant’s Causeway?

Yes, you can walk on the Giant’s Causeway, including along the top of the black basalt columns that it is formed from. As well as walking on the Giant’s Causeway itself, there are numerous walking trails along the coast and in the countryside around the site.

So, if there’s a start of the causeway in Northern Ireland and an end in Scotland, what happened to the rest of it?

Well, Finn strode across the enormous path of rock that he had built – chest puffed out, arms swinging proudly, eyes fixed ahead – as he went to meet the Scottish giant Benandonner for this fight.

Giant's Causeway, World Heritage Site, Northern Ireland

The problem was… well, you see… Finn made it to the other side but, when he saw Benandonner, he realised he was much bigger than he expected. Finn realised he probably wouldn’t be able to beat him so he did what he thought was best.

He turned around and he ran all the way home to his island!

Giant's Causeway, World Heritage Site, Northern Ireland

But Benandonner had spotted Finn coming in the distance and he chased after him across the causeway.

Finn arrived back in Northern Ireland and realised he was being chased. He didn’t know what to do – but his wife, Oonagh, had a good idea. She told him to dress up like a baby and get into a cot.

When Benandonner arrived at Finn’s house, he demanded his fight but Oonagh told him that Finn wasn’t home. He started to get angry and began to shout.

“Shhh… or you’ll wake the baby,” Oonagh said. Benandonner went into the other room and looked in the cot and saw what he thought was a baby.

“Gosh, if that’s the size of Finn’s baby, imagine how big Finn must be,” he thought to himself. Suddenly he was the one who was scared.

Giant's Causeway, World Heritage Site, Northern Ireland

So Benandonner ran back across the stone path to Scotland, terrified and relieved that he didn’t have to face Finn in the end. In fact, he was so scared of the idea of fighting Finn that he smashed the causeway as he retreated so there was no chance that he would be chased.

And that’s why today you can only see the two ends of the causeway that were left on the coasts of Scotland and Northern Ireland – the much larger and more impressive one being here near Finn’s home.

Giant's Causeway, World Heritage Site, Northern Ireland

How the Giant’s Causeway formed

Now, I’m not one to ruin a decent tale, but you may be thinking that this isn’t actually how the Giant’s Causeway was formed. Well, there is an alternative version that geologists (and the guides when you visit the Giant’s Causeway) will tell you.

What they’ll say is that about 60 million years ago there was intense volcanic activity happening beneath modern day Ireland and Scotland. Some of the molten basalt broke through the seabed and formed a lava plateau.

Giant's Causeway, World Heritage Site, Northern Ireland

But as it cooled down, it contracted and cracked. And the contracting and the cracking formed these pillar shapes. Most of them have either five, six, or seven sides to them – and although they look similar from a distance, when you’re up close you’ll see they are each unique in their own way.

The reason the columns in the same areas are different heights is because the lava cooled at various speeds and that affected their size.

Giant's Causeway, World Heritage Site, Northern Ireland

When you look closely, you’ll also notice that the columns don’t have flat tops. That’s because, as well as cracking vertically to form the column shapes, they also fractured horizontally. When they broke off, it was in a concave/convex way, which created what is known as a ‘ball and socket joint’.

The Giant’s Causeway stretches for about three kilometres along the coast but what you can see on land is only about a third of what exists. The rest of it is underwater (but not all the way to Scotland, I’m afraid).

Visiting the Giant’s Causeway

Regardless of whether you want to believe the legend or the geology, you can’t deny the rather spectacular sight of seeing the Giant’s Causeway for yourself. A trip out here is definitely one of the best things to do in Belfast.

However, working out how to visit the Giant’s Causeway can actually be a bit confusing because there are a few different ways to do it.

Giant's Causeway, World Heritage Site, Northern Ireland

I actually recommend taking a tour from Belfast, because that will cover all the logistics for you, and also provide you with an excellent local guide to explain everything. This is the most popular tour, but there are some other options here:

If you’re visiting the Giant’s Causeway independently, the first important thing to understand is that you can actually go to the site for free – even though there is also a paid option.

Most of the site can be freely accessed, so you can walk right down to the water, climb over the rocks and explore the coast to find different viewpoints and perspectives of the formations. The waves will splash up and wet you if you get too close, but it’s quite incredible that you can do more than just look at this marvel from a distance.

Giant's Causeway, World Heritage Site, Northern Ireland

If you do want to do it for free and you’re driving, you’ll need to park at the Causeway Coast Way carpark, which costs £10 per car, and walk the 10 minutes from there. If you arrive by public transport (or walk/cycle from further away), you won’t need to pay anything.

The paid option is called the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Experience, and it can be a bit confusing when you first arrive because it’s not obvious that this isn’t mandatory. But it is an excellent way to see the site, so you should still consider it.

Giant's Causeway, World Heritage Site, Northern Ireland

The Visitor Experience gives you a few things. Firstly, you get free parking at a more convenient location. You then get access to the Visitor Centre to see the exhibition about the site, which covers lots of information. And you get a free guided tour (or optional audioguide), that will lead you along the stones and share lots more stories.

One of the reasons I recommend taking a tour to the Giant’s Causeway is because you pretty much get all of those things anyway, so it is actually quite good value rather than doing it independently.

Giant’s Causeway walking trails

If you want to stretch your legs and take in the amazing scenery while you’re here, there are also a number of walking trails around the Giant’s Causeway that take you up onto the bracing clifftops and along the coast, with epic views that give you a different perspective of this natural wonder.

The Blue Trail (1.2 kilometres one way) starts at the Visitor Centre and heads down towards the shore, with the cliff on your right and the ocean on your left, before arriving down at the causeway stone outcrop.

The Red Trail (3.2 kilometres return) stays at the top of the cliff, tracing along the edge past the Weir Snout viewpoint and amongst some dramatic prominent boulders, before reaching the top of the Shepherd’s Steps, from where you can go down to the Grand Causeway.

The Green Trail (1.3 kilometres return) is one of the easiest options and is accessible for wheelchairs and prams. From the Visitor Centre, it goes out along one of the bluffs for sweeping views of the Giant’s Causeway and up either side of the coastline.

And the Yellow Trail (2.9 kilometres one way) is a part of the Causeway Coast Way walking trail that goes along the clifftops above the Giant’s Causeway, with interesting views across the water and down to the stones. Although this trail doesn’t go down to the shore, there are places you can detour to do that.

Where is the Giant’s Causeway?

The Giant’s Causeway is on the northern coast of Northern Ireland, about an hour’s drive north from Belfast.

The official address is 44 Causeway Road, Bushmills, County Antrim, BT57 8SU. You can see it on a map here.

How do you get to the Giant’s Causeway?

If you’re travelling independently, the easiest way to get to the Giant’s Causeway is by car. It’s about an hour’s drive from Belfast and three hours’ drive from Dublin. If you’re doing the Visitor Experience, parking is included. Otherwise parking at the Causeway Coast Way carpark costs £10 per car.

To get to the Giant’s Causeway by public transport, catch the train from Belfast or Londonderry to Coleraine and then get the bus Ulsterbus Service 172.

You may find the easiest way to reach the Giant’s Causeway is with a tour, and I would recommend this guided day tour from Belfast (although I’ve got some options for more Giant’s Causeway tours a little bit later in this article).

When is the Giant’s Causeway open?

The coastline and the stones themselves are open from dawn to dusk every day.

The Visitor Centre is open at different times during the year.
From March to May, it’s open from 09:00 – 17:00.
From June to September, it’s open from 09:00 – 19:00.
In October, it’s open from 09:00 – 17:00
From November to February, it’s open from 10:00 – 16:00.
The Visitor Centre is closed on 24, 25, 26 of December.

How much does it cost to visit the Giant’s Causeway?

You can walk down to the stones and the coastline for free, but you need to buy a ticket for the Visitor Experience, which includes entry to the exhibition, a guided tour of the site, and free parking.

Tickets for the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Experience cost:

Adult: £13
Child: £6.50
Family: £32.50
One-adult family: £19.50

Entry is free for National Trust members.

If you choose not to do the Visitor Experience, the Causeway Coast Way carpark costs £10 per car.

More information

You can find more information at the official site of the Giant’s Causeway.

You can decide how you want to experience the Giant’s Causeway, and that’s one of the things I love about it.

Go out on the rocks and pretend you’re a lava plateau, cooling and cracking. Or, if you think it might be a bit more fun, pretend you’re Finn MacCool, an Irish giant building a causeway to run across the sea to Scotland.

The best Giant’s Causeway tours

As I’ve mentioned, there are a few different ways that you can visit the Giant’s Causeway, but I think taking a tour is one of the easiest because it handles the logistics, gives you an informative guide, and means you don’t have to worry about things like driving and parking.

If you’re coming from Belfast, then this is the most popular tour. There’s also this good option from Dublin, which makes for a long day (it also includes a few other sights and a Belfast city tour) but is certainly doable.

Giant's Causeway, World Heritage Site, Northern Ireland

Something I would also suggest considering is choosing one of the tours to the Giant’s Causeway that also includes some of the other sights north of Belfast like the Dark Hedges, Game of Thrones filming locations, and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bride.

Here are a few good ones that offer great value and include a lot of the best things to do in the region:

Depending on what else you’re planning to do, the other option I want to mention is a tour that also includes visiting Titanic Belfast, which is one the city’s highlights. You don’t necessarily need a tour to take you there, but it does take care of the hassle of organising tickets (which have to be for a predetermined timeslot) and getting you out there.

If that’s of interest (and I don’t think you would regret it), then this combined tour is the best one.

THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN BELFAST

As Belfast has embraced tourism in the past few years, there have been a lot of cool new accommodation options pop up in the city.

BACKPACKER

If you’re looking for a budget option, I think the best option in Belfast is Vagabonds.

BUDGET

Unfortunately there aren’t many cheap hotels in Belfast but you can often get good deals at ETAP Hotels.

BOUTIQUE

For a cool boutique hotel, The Bullitt is my favourite choice.

LUXURY

And for luxury in a beautiful heritage building, you can’t go past The Merchant Hotel.

Time Travel Turtle was supported by Tourism Ireland but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

UNESCO logo

This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

5 thoughts on “Walking in the footsteps of giants”

  1. I love the combination of the two stories – it combines creation and evolution- two of my most favourite subjects. I adore the idea that as we are made of atoms, these may revolve so quickly we become matter. Part of the great divine and the wonderful world!

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