The Very Best things to do in Ballycastle – 2024

A fascinating coastal town with easy access to all the Causeway Coast 'bucket list' attractions

Ballycastle, located on the Causeway Coastal Route on the edge of the Glens of Antrim, is both a seaside town with its sweeping beach and busy harbour, as well as a market town with its long high street heading inland up to The Diamond, or town square.

Located as it is, it is an ideal base for exploring the Causeway Coast and Glens, with major attractions within easy reach: Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge – five miles, Giant’s Causeway and Bushmills Distillery – 13 miles, The Dark Hedges – eight miles, and Glenariff Forest Park on your doorstep for those who like a walk. Having said that, Ballycastle is a destination in itself with plenty of things to do and see in and around the town.

Ballycastle Town – Getting your bearings

Ballycastle main street

If you are driving up from Belfast along the Causeway Coastal Route you will arrive in Ballycastle town at a roundabout with the Marine Hotel in front of you. Turn right and you will head along North Street into the harbour area where you will find the Tourist Office, parking and a few bars and cafés as well as waterfront parkland.

Ballycastle Museum
Ballycastle Museum – for information about the history of the area

Turn left and you will head south, or inland, along Quay Street up to The Diamond where many of the local pubs are located as well as a Georgian church.

Along Quay Street there are quite a number of local shops selling all sorts of souvenirs, and while no family connection, quite a number of them carry my name (Donnelly). There is no way you can walk from one end of this street to the other and not buy something.

The small Ballycastle Museum is located just beyond The Diamond at 61 Castle St. The museum is open Monday to Friday in July and August, but less frequently ‘off season’.


10 very best things to do in Ballycastle

1. Walk the beach to Pans Rocks

Pan's Rocks Ballycastle and Footbridge
Ballycastle beach with Fair Head, Pans Rocks and the much Instagrammed footbridge

From the green in front of the Marine Hotel follow a path to the right that takes you over the Margy river via a footbridge and on to Ballycastle beach. The beach runs for almost a mile eastwards, and backs on Ballycastle Golf Club’s greens.

The beach is safe for swimming and watersports, and has lifeguards in attendance in the summer months. Whether you are in the water or walking on the beach you can enjoy views towards the magnificent Fair Head cliffs, or over the Sea of Moyle to Rathlin Island. Sometimes you will see Scotland, and sometimes it seems within touching distance.

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Pans Rocks Ballycastle
Pans Rocks, Ballycastle beach

At the end you will find Pans Rocks where locals used to dry sea salt many years ago and hence the name, (salt) pans rocks. A much Instagrammed wooden footbridge takes you out to the rocks where you can stop to enjoy the views. Our tip is to head out when the tide is high if you want that perfect shot of the bridge! If you search amongst the rocks, you will find five faces carved into them which look out to sea. Why they are there no one knows.

Our tip is to head out when the tide is high if you want that perfect shot of the bridge!

This beach is partly shingle and can be hard walking in places. If you do walk to the rocks and wooden bridge and are walking back to the town, I would suggest you climb up the bank to the road that runs back towards Ballycastle town, and when it turns inland, walk back along the golf course. There is a public path but the golf club has notices up warning you that they accept no liability if you are hit by a stray golf ball!

Alternatively, you can follow the road out to visit Bonmargy Friary.


2. Visit Bonmargy Friary

Bonmargy Friary – Graves, the Black Nun’s Grave, and a memorial for those with unmarked graves

On the outskirts of Ballycastle opposite the golf club is Bonamargy Friary which was founded by the head of the prominent local Irish Clan MacQuillan in 1485 and the friary’s name comes from its location beside the river Margy. With views over the glens, Bonmargy Friary is a beautiful and tranquil place to explore.

It is free to enter the Friary, which you can either do by passing through a gate, or climbing over the stile. As you enter the grounds you will see a memorial stone dedicated to all those buried in unmarked graves. Explore the ruins and see if you can spot the gravestone of the prophetess, Julia McQuillan, better known as the Black Nun. She is said to be buried beneath a holed cross at the entrance to the Friary which is much older than the friary itself. It’s claimed she asked to be buried in the doorway of a church, so the people would walk over her when going to worship.

When the McDonnells (the family name of the Earls of Antrim) became the new lords of the area, they built a side chapel at Bonmargy and the remains of the Earls of Antrim lie within its vault.

There is also a story of buried treasure… the only clue to the location being that it was buried within sight of a candle burning in the eastern window!

As well as functioning as a friary, even after the monasteries were banned, Bonmargy is believed to have been the local parish church until the 1770s when part of the building collapsed in a storm. However, you will see that local residents continued to be buried here until recent times and you will find memorial stones to those who lost their lives at sea in WWI and WWII.


3. Experience The Dark Hedges

The Dark Hedges
The Dark Hedges, 8 miles outside of Ballycastle

Carpark – 139A Ballinlea Road, Stranocum, Ballymoney BT53 8PX

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The Dark Hedges of Game of Thrones fame are only eight miles outside of Ballycastle and very worth a visit as the setting is quite atmospheric, whatever the weather. You should park at the free car park at The Hedges Hotel on Ballinlea Road and then walk over to Bregagh Road where you will find The Dark Hedges. Because The Dark Hedges section of the Bregah Road is closed, we strongly recommend following the road signs directing you to The Dark Hedges otherwise you may find yourself on the wrong end of the Dark Hedges where you are not supposed to park!


4. Take a boat tour to Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge, Rathlin or Jura

Boat trip from Ballycastle to Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge
Kintra Boat trip from Ballycastle to Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge

The Causeway Coast around Ballycastle is dramatic with cliff heads such as the 643-foot Fair Head cliffs (Cliffs of Moher are only 700 foot) and the coastal cliffs running along to Carrick a Rede and beyond to Giant’s Causeway. Rathlin Island also has a dramatic coastline with lighthouses and other historical points of interest. There are also seabirds aplenty, occasional pods of dolphins and seals to be seen.

Both Kintra Boat Tours and Abhainn Cruises operate boat trips from Ballycastle’s harbour. Both companies offer a range of tours including a tour along the coast to Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge, as well as trips to and around Rathlin Island. Abhainn Cruises also offers a distillery tour over to Jura in Scotland which is definitely something special for whiskey – or should we say whisky – lovers.

We took a trip with Kintra Boat Tours along to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge passing underneath the towering cliffs of the Causeway Coasts to view the rope bridge from a different angle. You pass waterfalls and caves, Kinbane Head and castle, and it was amazing to have seabirds flying all around. This was a great experience made all the better by the very knowledgeable and entertaining crew. Having done it, this is something we would highly recommend.


5. Go for a kayak experience

Kayaking

Causeway Coast Kayaking Tours organises guided kayaking trips from various locations along the Causeway Coast. While their signature tour is from Ballintoy Harbour paddling out to Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge, they also do short guided trips out of Ballycastle Harbour.


6. Visit Rathlin Island for hiking, lighthouses, seals and history

Rathlin Island

Rathlin Island is a rugged L-shaped island sitting just seven miles off Ballycastle and it is home to around 150 people, some of whom are Irish speaking. A visit to Rathlin is something that should be seriously considered especially if you are a birdwatcher, and even if you are not. The ferry journey, which must be pre-booked, takes just 25 minutes on the high-speed ferry, and 35 minutes on the slower car ferry. Note that only residents and people with special authorisation can take a car over to Rathlin, which in our opinion adds to its charm.

While most people will do a day trip to Rathlin, you can stay overnight. Once on Rathlin most people will get the Puffin bus (£5 return) up to the RSPB Bird Centre at the famous ‘up-side down’ West Lighthouse, others make the journey on foot. Note that there is a separate entry fee to access the Bird Centre and viewing platform. Ordinarily, it is possible to hire a bike but it seems that for 2022 at least, the bike hire company is closed. After a visit to the Bird Centre, hiking is the next most popular activity on Rathlin with many routes mapped out (Walk NI Trails), and several small businesses offering guided walking tours if you want to take the stress out of planning your own route (see below). You can expect to see all sorts of seabirds as well as seals, and lighthouses as there are three.

Of historic interest, Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, is thought to have stayed in a cave on Rathlin when he had to flee Scotland. While in the cave, as the story goes, he was inspired by the determination of a humble spider weaving its web, and returned to Scotland to fight the English again, this time successfully. Another point of historic interest is that Guglielmo Marconi used Rathlin as a base for early tests of his wireless communication, significantly successfully sending wireless communication between Ballycastle and the East Lighthouse on Rathlin Island in 1898. In 1901 Marconi went on to make the world’s first transatlantic wireless transmission which brought him global fame and a Nobel Prize. The idea of the Rathlin experiment was to send notice to London or Liverpool of ships arriving safely from the Americas as most ships would pass through the channel between Rathlin and Scotland. In Ballycastle Harbour you will see a large rock commemorating this event.

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7. Take a hike or a walk

Fair Head Cliff Hike
Fair Head Hike

We like walking ourselves and if you are staying in Ballycastle, there are quite a few walks for you to enjoy, starting with the easy beach walk described above, to the challenging Moyle Way.

Fair Head Cliffs hike

Fair Head is the cliff face you see to the east of Ballycastle and a great place for a walk with sweeping views up and down the coast. Despite the height, this is not an arduous walk as you can drive up to a car park just 4.5 miles (7km) away at the back of the cliffs, in effect giving you a big leg up.

The land at Fair Head is privately owned by the McBrides who provide and maintain rights of way, footpaths and stiles. To help with the costs involved,there is a charge of £3 for parking paid into an honesty box. There are several marked hiking trails and they all start from the car park. The longest hike is the 2.6 mile (4.2km) ‘blue marker hike’. These walks are not difficult but in places they run close to the cliff edge so you should take extreme care. Also, being exposed, conditions can change quickly so caution is needed. The ground can be pretty wet so proper hiking boots are recommended if you have them, otherwise take a change of socks!

 

 

The Giant’s Parlour walk

This is a short walk westwards from Ballycastle Harbour that follows a rough coastal path beneath the cliffs to The Giant’s Parlour, a cave that was probably used by smugglers in an earlier time. We have not done this walk, but it was pointed out by the captain of the Kintra Boat Tours and looks worth investigating.

Knocklayde Mountain and Ballycastle Forest hike

This rounded mountain sits behind Ballycastle town, rising to a height of more than 310 foot (500 metres) and is crowned by Carn na Truagh (the Cairn of Sorrow), believed to be a prehistoric burial mound. From the top on a clear day you can enjoy views towards Fairhead and Rathlin Island, and if you are lucky you will see Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre some 15 miles across the Irish sea.

You can start the hike from Ballycastle Forest Carpark (postcode BT54 6PZ), which is nine miles out of Ballycastle, and it takes about an hour and a half to walk to the top. The walk can be boggy and because of the dome shape, it is a bit of a steep ascent towards the end. If you don’t fancy a hike up the mountain, then you can enjoy a relaxing stroll around Ballycastle Forest. Learn more – Knocklayde Mountain and Ballycastle Forest

Glenariff Forest Park walks and hike

Glenariff Forest park view

Glenariff is often called the Queen of the Glens and here you will find the Glenariff Forest Park with is trails, waterfalls and views. There is a cafe with a view as well as a restaurant within the park so even if you are not into hiking/walking, you can still enjoy this beautiful area of the Causeway Coast. The park is a 37 minute drive away from Ballycastle, so not exactly on the doorstep, but the drive is spectacular so we feel the experience begins as soon as you set out on the trip.

 

 

The Moyle Way challenge

The Moyle Way is a 29 mile two-day walk between Ballycastle and Waterfoot, a town at the base of Glenariff. This is a challenging walk crossing remote upland moor where navigation skills may well be required, however, the walk is made up of sections with section one covering a similar route to the Knocklayde Mountain Walk, and sections five and six passing through Glenariff Forest Park so you can pick and mix sections to explore more of this dramatic landscape. Download a PDF brochure of the treck.


8. Visit a pub and enjoy live music

Ballycastle pubs - House of McDonnell, O'Connor's, The Glenshesk Arms, music in House of McDonnell's beer garden overlooking the glens, Boyd Arms
Ballycastle pubs – House of McDonnell, O’Connor’s, The Glenshesk Bar, music in House of McDonnell’s beer garden overlooking the glens, Boyd Arms

There are a lot of pubs in Ballycastle with probably the highest concentration around the Diamond. To list a few: The House of McDonnell, established in 1761 and in the same family for 14 generations claims to be the oldest pub in Ballycastle; the very pink Boyd Arms, established in 1761; The Diamond Bar, The Glenshesk, O’Connors, The Central Bar and the Anzac Bar together with The Angler’s Arms and The Harbour Bar down by the harbour.

The Boyd Arms - Horse traders snug
The Boyd Arms – The horse traders’ snug with door for privacy, and a secret window to the bar so drinks could be served without disturbing the business being done

All pubs usually offer pub grub with it said that The Diamond Bar offers an excellent Sunday lunch, all have some form of entertainment depending on the day of the week, and you may need to try a few before you find what you want. These are just some of the bars in the town, there are more. If you want a night out you will not forget or remember, try having a pint of Guinness in the each one!

If you want a night out you will not forget or remember, try having a pint of Guinness in each one!


9. Play golf

Ballycastle Golf Club
Ballycastle Golf Club – views over the Glens

Ballycastle Golf Club is one of the most scenic in Northern Ireland and boasts lush and historic parkland holes as well as wild links with holes carved out amongst undulating dunes. Wherever you are on the course you will enjoy incredible views, whether it be over the glens, or over the Sea of Moyle. The course is open to everyone and visitors can hire golf clubs, trolleys and buggies from the Pro Shop. You can also employ the services of a caddie to give you a little bit of an insight to the course and the area. Learn more – Ballycastle Golf Club.


10.  Enjoy a local festival

Kites flying at Ballycastle Maritimes Festival
Kites flying at Ballycastle’s Rathlin Sound Maritime Festival

Rathlin Sound Maritime Festival

To manage expectations, The Rathlin Sound Maritime Festival’s name comes from the ‘sound’, i.e. the stretch of water, that sits between Ballycastle and Rathlin, and not because it is a massive music festival, although you will find music performances to enjoy. The festival takes places late May/early June and is focused around the harbour and beach with music and arts and crafts, activities such as kayaking and boating displays including the possibility of a tall ship, kite flying on the beach and a celebration of Princess Taisie. Princess Taisie, as legend tell us, was a Rathlin Island princess who was ‘a damsel of imperious beauty’ and who was almost stolen by a Norwegian King. The local glen, Glentaise, is of course named for Princess Taisie.

Armoy Road Races

Armoy, a small town eight miles inland from Ballycastle, hosts an exciting bike road race every July which is a thrill to watch. You can park and tramp out over the fields to pick a viewing point, or buy a ticket for grandstand seats. The event celebrates the legendary ‘Armoy Armada’, Mervyn Robinson, Joey Dunlop, Frank Kennedy and Jim Dunlop and attracts riders from across Britain and Ireland. Learn more – Armoy Road Races.

Auld Lammas Fair - Stall selling Dulse and Yellow Man
Auld Lammas Fair – Stall selling Dulse and Yellow Man

Auld Lammas Fair

Ballycastle is also famous for the Auld Lammas Fair, held in the last weeks of August and dating back 400 years to the 17th century. Thousands flock to the town to enjoy all the fun of the fair, which includes a fun fair, horse rides, a horse market, music and a lot of stalls selling everything from carpets to clothes. You’ll also find traditional delicacies such as Dulse (dried seaweed), or chewy toffee called yellowman which is a nice gift for friends and family back home, unless they have false teeth! Learn more – Auld Lammas Fair.


Authors: David Donnelly, Katie McGregor

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