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Dramatic Scenery, Castles and Cozy Pubs: The Ultimate Ireland Road Trip

By Yvonne Gordon

06.24.19

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Two rocky islands off the coast of Ireland, called Skellig Michael and Small Skellig, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Courtesy of Tom Archer/Tourism Ireland

Two rocky islands off the coast of Ireland, called Skellig Michael and Small Skellig, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A drive along the Wild Atlantic Way, stretching 1,500 miles (2,500 km) along the coast of Ireland, at the very edge of Europe, takes you on a scenic adventure on one of the longest defined coastal touring routes in the world.

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The Wild Atlantic Way stretches from the very top of Ireland to the bottom, following the west coast from Inishowen, in Donegal, to Kinsale, in Cork. Along the way, the drive takes in dramatic coastal scenery, from cliffs and islands to unspoiled beaches and coves. You will pass everything from castles, churches, and megalithic tombs to historic houses, lighthouses, and colorful villages with cozy pubs, galleries, and craft shops.

You can see some of Europe’s tallest sea cliffs at Slieve League, explore the bare rocky landscape of The Burren, drive the windswept bogs of Connemara, admire Yeats’s poetic landscapes in Sligo, or take a bracing coastal cliff walk on a headland along the way. Afterwards, sit by the fire in a pub, tuck into seafood, and enjoy a traditional music session.

Road trippers can spend a few days or a couple of weeks exploring this route, so we’ve chosen a five-day sample itinerary to show you some of the highlights of this magnificent stretch of coastline. Whether you see the Atlantic at its most calm, with blue skies and sparkling waters, or experience the roar of the wind and the power of the ocean at its wildest, a drive down the Wild Atlantic Way will leave you with indelible memories.

Slieve League is home to some of Europe's tallest sea cliffs.
Day one: Harbor cruises and remote villages

We start our journey at the southernmost end of the Wild Atlantic Way, at Kinsale in County Cork, taking in the town’s dynamic food scene, shops, and galleries before checking out local highlights such as the impressive Charles Fort, a bastion fort dating back to 1682.

You can get a sample of the great seafood of the Atlantic in one of the town’s lively restaurants, like locally sourced oysters, lobster, or scallops. Fishy Fishy, High Tide Kinsale, and Toddies are all fun options. If you fancy taking to the ocean waves yourself, book a boat trip to the iconic Fastnet Rock lighthouse, which is on a tiny offshore rock, go on a whale-watching trip, or take a leisurely Kinsale harbor cruise.

From here, leave Kinsale and drive west along the coast, where you’ll come to a series of five peninsulas. The first three, Mizen, Beara, and Sheep’s Head—with their high mountains, pristine beaches, small islands, and plenty of villages—offer a remote experience on the Wild Atlantic Way.

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Leave one full day to explore whichever peninsula you choose. Look out for tiny coves and harbors along the way, or take time to explore the network of walking trails, which are ideal for hiking and exploring. At Mizen Head at the tip of the Mizen Peninsula, you can explore an old signal station, while at the end of the Beara peninsula, a cable car crosses over to Dursey Island for nature walks and bird-watching. Birders will appreciate all kinds of seabird colonies, including puffins, gannets, and razorbills. If you choose to stop in this area for a few days, you’ll find plenty of holiday cottages to rent here, too.

Skellig Michael is the larger of two rocky islands located eight miles off the coast of Ireland and accessible by boat.
Day two: Beautiful beaches and Ireland’s highest mountain

Leaving West Cork for County Kerry, the next peninsula along the Wild Atlantic Way is the Iveragh Peninsula, home to the famous Ring of Kerry drive. Take a full day to explore this looped drive, dropping in to the lively towns and villages and enjoying the beautiful beaches and scenery along the way. Cahersiveen has two old forts and a castle to see, while Sneem is dotted with quaint, photogenic cottages.

There’s plenty to do here, too—stroll the sands of Rossbeigh beach, go kayaking, horseback riding, or hiking, or even tackle Ireland’s highest mountain Carrauntoohil with a guide. (It’s 3,405 feet, or 1,038 meters.)

At the end of the headland beside Ballinskelligs, you’ll see the outlines of two rocky islands that lie eight miles out to sea: Skellig Michael and Small Skellig. Monks lived on these rocks in stone beehive huts until the 13th century. Now, the islands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are full of bird life, with thousands of pairs of puffins and gannets nesting on the cliffs. The Skelligs were even featured in recent Star Wars movies.

You can learn more about the islands at the Skellig Experience Visitor Centre on Valentia Island, or in good weather take a boat trip out from Portmagee. The whole area has also been designated the Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve, with superb views of the starry skies on clear nights.

Ross Castle is a 15-century tower house in Killarney National Park.
Day three: Lake exploration and people-watching

With lakes, mountains, waterfalls, and a lively town centre, Killarney is touristy, but a great base for exploring the Kerry area. There’s plenty to explore in and around the town, too. From here, you can leave the car for the day and take a horse-drawn jarvey (jaunting) car instead. Explore the Victorian mansion and gardens of Muckross House and Killarney National Park, or travel through the spectacular Gap of Dunloe mountain pass in the MacGillycuddy's Reeks mountain range.

Killarney is set on Lough Leane, the largest of the region’s three lakes. You can take a relaxing boat tour to the island of Inisfallen or try kayaking at Ross Castle.

In the town itself, explore shops for local crafts, enjoy people-watching over a pot of tea in a café, or drop in to a pub in the evening for a lively session of traditional music.

Slea Head offers spectacular coastal views of the Dingle Peninsula.

Day four: Whales, dolphins, and breathtaking scenery

The Dingle Peninsula is another popular looped drive in County Kerry, with buzzing towns and lots of activities along the way. To get here, you will drive over the Conor Pass, Ireland’s highest mountain pass, with expansive views down over the peninsula, showcasing the hills, lakes, farmland, and twisting mountain roads below.

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Dingle itself is a colorful town full of shops, restaurants, and galleries, as well as a harbor where you can book a boat trip. You’ll probably meet lots of local characters, but take a dolphin- or whale-watching trip off the Dingle Peninsula and you might be lucky enough to meet the local resident dolphin, Funghie.

Another outing to consider is a day trip to the Blasket Islands at the tip of the Dingle Peninsula. The islands are no longer inhabited; you can learn more about them and the early islanders’ way of life at the Blasket Centre in Dunquin (or Dún Chaoin, as it is often written in Irish), which overlooks the islands. The Dingle area is a Gaeltacht—meaning an Irish-speaking area—so you will see signs and place names written in Irish.

There are plenty of villages where you can stop off for food along the way, so while on the Dingle Peninsula, take a detour drive on the winding coast at Slea Head for some of the Wild Atlantic Way’s most spectacular scenery.

Kilkee is a small town on the coast in County Clare.
Day five: Sea cliffs and ancient stone sites

From County Kerry, bring the car on the ferry from Tarbert to Killimer and enjoy the view of the River Shannon estuary, the mouth of Ireland’s longest river, as you cross it. The crossing takes about 20 minutes, and dolphins often follow the ferry.

In County Clare, take time to enjoy the magnificent coastal looped drive along the sea cliffs around the heritage sites of the Loop Head peninsula, and if you have the time, base yourself for a few days in Kilkee to enjoy the area at a slow pace.

From here, drive a little farther north to The Burren, a unique region full of bare limestone plateaus and dotted with megalithic sites such as Poulnabrone dolmen. Make sure to walk on the limestone pavement and look down closely at the clints (blocks) and grykes (cracks) in the rock to see the tiny wildflowers. Another interesting way to see the Burren is from underground, at Aillwee Cave or Doolin Cave.

Don’t miss the offshore islands, many of them still inhabited, a highlight of the Wild Atlantic Way. From Doolin, in the Burren, you can take a ferry across to the three Aran Islands, which are also part of the Gaeltacht and rich in traditions and culture. Often lashed by Atlantic storms, the three islands, Inis Mór, Inis Meain, and Inish Oirr, have networks of stone walls and plenty of ancient Celtic and Christian sites to explore.

This itinerary is only a snapshot of the Wild Atlantic Way, an attempt to capture the essence of its dramatic coastal scenery and island views, its history and culture. No matter what section of the route you choose, explore by car or on foot, and try to get out on or into the water, whether for a swim from a beach, a surfing or kayaking session, or just a leisurely boat trip.

The Burren is full of bare limestone plateaus and dotted with megalithic sites.
What to bring
  •      Wear layers, as temperatures and weather conditions can change over a few hours, especially at the coast. Pack a waterproof jacket with a hood in case of rain.
  •      Wear proper hiking boots for trekking, and bring swimsuits to wear under wet suits for water sports.
  •      Don’t forget sunscreen, a water bottle, and a reusable cup for hot drinks. Other useful items are a picnic blanket and a towel (for swimming or water sports).

A road sign designating the Wild Atlantic Way.

Additional tips

  •      Bring a GPS or Google Maps, but old-fashioned paper maps can be useful too—cellphone coverage can be patchy in certain areas.
  •      The Wild Atlantic Way route is signposted. If you are traveling south, follow the WAW(S) signs; if going north, the WAW(N) signs.
  •      Always drive on the left on Irish roads. Some roads can be narrow, but roads designated with N tend to be wider.
  •  Buy a Wild Atlantic Way passport (€10) at a post office, tourism office, or online, and collect stamps at different stops along the way.

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