Road Trip: Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way
At the western fringe of Europe is a marginal zone where the force of the Atlantic crashes against the jagged rock defenses of Ireland’s western seaboard. The Wild Atlantic Way, a new driving route that covers approximately 1,500 miles, highlights the battle of land and sea with stunning vistas and iconic adventures.
This epic, sign-posted route skirts Ireland’s coastline from north to south and takes travelers through traditional rural outposts where Gaelic is still spoken, tweeds are woven on wooden looms, the fish on the menu is from the boat tied up at the pier, fiddlers play sessions in the pubs at night, and—as the locals say—the craic is mighty (meaning the social banter is fun).
We’ve broken the Wild Atlantic Way into seven segments and offer insider suggestions on authentic cultural experiences, killer views, and little-known highlights.
Donegal is rugged, remote, and sparsely populated, a place dominated by seabirds and sheep. Soaring sea cliffs and northern headlands seem to taunt the fishing fleet—11 lighthouses along the coast help vessels navigate to safety.
Hike One Man’s Pass: Go beyond the viewing platform at the granite cliffs of Slieve League, among the highest sea cliffs in Europe, by hiking the trail along the ridge topping the cliffs. It’s not for those afraid of heights—the sheer drops are dizzying, especially in the stretch known as One Man’s Pass. Stay at Slieve League Lodge in Carrick, where the pub's hot whiskies with lemon and cloves will heal all aches.
Join a program in Glencolmcille: Guided hill-walking is one of the programs offered at Oideas Gael, a cultural center in Glencolmcille. The most popular route is over a mountain to the deserted village of Port and back around the sea cliffs at Glen Head. You can also take a week of classes covering Gaelic language, Irish harp or whistle, archaeology, and more. At Glencolmcille Folk Village, thatched cottages reveal country life during different centuries. Donegal fiddling is often heard in sessions at Roarty’s Bar.
Photograph by Derek Lebowski, Getty Images
Watch traditional Irish hand-weaving: Studio Donegal in Kilcar maintains hand-weaving traditions by spinning their own yarns and weaving signature tweeds and woolens on old wooden looms. Ask for a peak at the workshop, then shop for high-quality wool clothing, plus colorful pillows and throws.
Try sea-stack climbing: With guides from Unique Ascent, descend sea cliffs to a storm beach, cruise by boat to a sea stack, then climb to the stack’s stony summit.
See impressive late Neolithic dolmens: The Dolmen Centre near Portnoo features two stone portal tombs dating back more than 4,000 years. The larger of the two Kilclooney dolmens is one of the best preserved in Ireland and features one of the biggest capstones, which stretches 20 feet wide and soars above upright portal-stone supports. The smaller dolmen is partly collapsed.
Photo op: Driving from Glencolmcille to Ardara, pull off at the top of Glengesh Pass for a view of the road looping downward into what appears to be a Hobbit-like world below.
Get a guide: Derek Vial of Tour Donegal is the expert on history, sights, and everything Donegal.
This stretch consisting mostly of Sligo, with bits of Counties Donegal, Leitrim, and Mayo, is a coastal zone of rugged sand dunes and wild beaches. It’s world-renowned for surfing. Streedagh Strand made news in the summer of 2015 when nine cannons from one of three Spanish Armada galleons wrecked here in 1588 were recovered offshore and taken to the National Museum of Ireland for conservation.
Soak in seaweed: At Kilcullen’s Seaweed Baths, an Edwardian bathhouse in Enniscrone, experience a therapeutic soak in a tub filled with hot seawater and freshly harvested seaweed, which releases nutrients and oils to soothe skin and bones.
Catch a wave: Rossnowlagh hosted the European Surfing Championships back in 1985, and the reliable curls here make it an excellent destination for beginner and experienced surfers. The Fin McCool Surf School will help you hone your technique. You can watch big-wave surfing from the headlands at Mullaghmore in winter; the nearby Prowlers surf break can sometimes throw up waves reaching 55 feet high, attracting the world’s most extreme surfers.
Photograph by DEA/W. Buss, Corbis
Attend a Ballyshannon festival: For decades, the Ballyshannon Folk and Traditional Music Festival has attracted top musicians and bands during the August bank holiday weekend at the beginning of the month. The Wild Atlantic Craft Beer and Whiskey Festival, based at Dicey Reilly’s Bar, is on the same weekend and features tastings, brewer sessions, and tours of the on-site Donegal Brewing Company that produces seven craft beers.
Check out this curious court tomb: Along the main road north of Cliffony is Creevykeel court tomb, a massive Neolithic stone monument built around 3000 B.C. The complete interior court, accomplished architecture of the burial gallery, and monumental size make this structure an impressive achievement and one of the best court tomb examples in Ireland.
Mayo has a varied coastline, with its north coast cliffs, the nearly flat Mullet Peninsula, the tallest sea cliffs in Ireland on Achill Island, and the hundreds of islands and islets in Clew Bay.
Stay in a Coast Guard station: The white fortress of Stella Maris in Ballycastle, County Mayo, is an 1853 Coast Guard station lovingly renovated as a country house hotel and opened in 2002. It features a commanding view across the water to Downpatrick Head and Dún Briste sea stack, romantic decor, and a changing menu inspired by locally harvested produce.
Watch horse racing on the beach: Head to the Geesala Festival in mid-August to watch horse racing on a temporary racecourse—drawn in the sand on Doolough beach at low tide. The action comes complete with bookies, who set up stalls on the beach. This is old-fashioned horse racing, as seen in the movie The Quiet Man, filmed in Mayo.
Gourmet Greenway: The defunct railway from Achill to Westport was converted to the Great Western Greenway for cycling the Clew Bay coastline, and now there's an artisan food trail, the Gourmet Greenway, featuring at least 18 food producers and restaurants along the same path.
360-degree view: On Achill Island, you can drive up to the cell tower parking lot at the top of Minaun for views in all directions, taking in Blacksod Bay, the Atlantic, mountainous terrain, and offshore islands.
Snorkel with basking sharks: The remote beach at Keem Bay on Achill Island features the remains of buildings once used to process basking sharks for oil. Now this Blue Flag beach has a snorkeling trail as part of the Blueway and offers a chance to see the behemoths that still frequent these waters. Keem Adventure has a setup right on the beach.
Boat-to-table dining: The Hassett family covers the spectrum, with Gerard as captain of his own fishing boat; his wife, Julie, running Chalet Seafood Restaurant in Keel (featuring the boat’s daily catch); and a smokehouse producing artisanal smoked fish to take home.
Oscar Wilde described Connemara’s landscape as “a savage beauty.” Ancient castles and monasteries highlight this island-studded coastline backed by otherworldly bogs. There are photo opportunities in every direction.
Ride a Connemara pony: Ride across blanket bogs and sandy beaches on legendary horses said to descend from horses that swam ashore when Spanish Armada ships sank off the Connemara coast in the 16th century. Errislannan Manor near Clifden has horses for all abilities. The Connemara Pony Festival takes place in Clifden in August.
Thatched cottages echo ancestors: Surrounded by bog land, Cnoc Suain near Spiddal is a 17th-century hilltop village of restored stone cottages with thatched roofs. Staying in one of these cozy cottages with turf fireplaces and duvet-covered iron beds is one of the most authentic experiences you could have in Ireland. Dearbhaill Standún and Charlie Troy have created a time warp, which is enhanced with cultural programs.
Photograph by Alex Di Suvero, National Geographic
Great guide: Renowned field archaeologist Michael Gibbons offers guided tours of many destinations in Connemara, as well as wherever there's history to explore and stories to be told. He’s knowledgeable and entertaining. Book through Michael Gibbons Archaeology Travel.
Kayak Killary Harbour: Explore Killary Harbour, an Irish fjard (smaller than a fjord), by kayak with Leenane-based Killary Adventure Co. The stunning fjard is ten miles long and surrounded by mountain peaks. Watch for dolphins.
Ultimate castle stay: The recent multimillion-dollar renovation of Ashford Castle in Cong (which originally opened as a hotel 1939) was so extensive that it exposed the original stone exterior walls. It was then rebuilt with a modern infrastructure and luxe interiors. New owners added 130 crystal chandeliers, 800 works of art, bathrooms with heated marble floors, and rooms with padded silk walls, antiques, and electronically controlled curtains and temperatures. There’s a new spa, cinema, and whiskey bar too. In short, it’s tasteful and glorious—an ultimate castle experience.
Woolen shopping: Check out Standún in Spiddal for a wide selection of Aran sweaters, woolens, tweeds, and fine giftware with reasonable prices.
The Clare coastline mixes sea cliffs (like the popular Cliffs of Moher) with the cracked-limestone landscape of the Burren and the vast dune lands that host famous links golf courses. There are dolphins in the Shannon River and music in nearly every pub here.
Slurp some oysters: The end of September is an oyster frenzy around Galway, where the local bivalve is slurped with gusto and prepared every way imaginable during the Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival. At other times of the year, oyster destination restaurants include Moran’s Oyster Cottage in Kilcolgan, a thatched cottage on the weir run by the Moran family for seven generations, and Paddy Burkes Oyster Inn in Clarinbridge, a thatched-roof pub and seafood restaurant dating to 1850.
Music madness: The Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay, which takes place in mid-July, is a mecca for musicians across the country, as well as fans of traditional music, song, and dance. There are classes, lectures, and recitals, but it is the brilliant sessions late into the night that people talk about. If you can’t make it to Willie Clancy week, stop at the Music Makers of West Clare visitors center to see video clips of the area’s renowned musicians.
Live like a chieftain in your own castle: Ballyportry Castle near Corofin is one of the best restored late medieval Gaelic tower houses in Ireland, and you can have it all to yourself. The 15th-century tower house sleeps eight comfortably and features a stone spiral staircase, a great hall, a modern kitchen, cozy under-floor heating, and fireplaces for crackling fires. It reigns supreme over its kingdom—the karst landscape of the Burren.
Great view: The top of Corkscrew Hill on the N67 road between Ballyvaughan and Lisdoonvarna offers far-off views of green fields, Galway Bay, and the unusual limestone Burren landscape. The looping drive down is a bonus.
Cheese please: Ireland’s best selection of native farmhouse cheeses is at Sheridans Cheesemongers, which has its flagship store in Galway. The selection features about 70 Irish cheeses from 30 artisan producers. You can taste cheeses paired with wines in their upstairs Wine Shop and Bar.
Photograph by Trish Punch, Corbis
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Known as “the kingdom of Kerry,” this county has an abundance of ring forts, standing stones, and ancient monuments, as well as Ireland’s tallest mountains. The Ring of Kerry is well known for its rocky coastal drama, although a loop of the Dingle Peninsula easily equals its jaw-dropping panoramas—with fewer driving miles.
National Folk Theatre: Head to Tralee for an evening at Siamsa Tíre, the National Folk Theatre, where the magical stage performances tell epic tales of the past through dance, live music, and song.
Traditional pubs: In Dingle, don’t miss three historic pubs that were also once stores and still have cubbyholes for goods: Foxy John’s, J. Curran, and Dick Mack’s. With all the traditional musicians in Dingle, a good music session might just pop up in any one of them. O’Sullivan’s Courthouse has music every night, as owner Tommy O’Sullivan draws in his friends to make music.
Great views: At the Scarriff Inn on the Ring of Kerry near Caherdaniel, enjoy the expansive view of quiet coves and rocky islands with an Irish coffee in hand. On the Dingle Peninsula, if you walk to the top of Dunmore Head (the most westerly point on the Irish mainland), you’ll get a great view of the Blasket Islands and can check out an ogham stone, a tall slab inscribed with the slash marks of early Irish writing.
Tour a whiskey distillery: The Dingle Distillery produces single malt and pot still–style whiskey aged in the bracing marine environment of this Celtic outpost. It also makes Dingle Original Gin with botanicals from the Kerry landscape and Dingle Distillery Pot Still Vodka, which is distilled five times in a pot still. You can tour this craft distillery and learn how whiskey is made, then do a tasting. There’s a two-day whiskey school held periodically as well.
See a stone circle: The Kenmare stone circle is one of the largest in southwest Ireland, with 15 stones in the circle and a large boulder-burial in the middle. At one end of the stone circle is a tree known locally as a fairy tree, on which people tie ribbons that represent wishes.
Check out Dingle’s artists and craftsmen: Dingle town is an excellent place to shop for paintings, artwork, and handcrafts. Brian de Staic is a goldsmith known for his ogham jewelry collection, customized with the buyer’s name in ancient ogham writing. Well-known politicians and Hollywood stars are among his customers. Sean Daly, a Waterford Crystal master craftsman, set up Dingle Crystal and has famous clients like Bono. Carol Cronin Gallery features this accomplished artist’s paintings of the sea’s fury, while acclaimed painter Liam O’Neill works with a palette knife to create local scenes in a colorful, textured signature style.
West Cork has peninsulas and headlands stretching far into the ocean, plus myriad offshore islands. The Gulf Stream attracts whales and dolphins to these waters, and the temperate climate enables subtropical plants to flourish in formal gardens. It’s a great place for water-based activities and festivals.
Fiddle Fair: Time your visit for early May to take in the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, featuring top musicians playing in intimate venues and late-night sessions that are legendary.
Bird migration: With a strategic location, Cape Clear Island is one of the best places to watch seabird migrations in Europe, especially in late summer. Songbird migrations happen in spring and fall. Book a birding workshop at the Cape Clear Bird Observatory, which has just opened after a two-year closure for construction.
Lie in the Sky Garden at Liss Ard: The visionary Irish Sky Garden is a unique landscape feature at Liss Ard Estate, a lovely Georgian country house with garden mews in Skibbereen. It was created by earth artist James Turrell and resembles a grass-covered crater. A plinth in the middle lets you lie on your back and contemplate the heavens. Stay in the elegant country house to experience the Irish Sky Garden by day and night.
Hike Sheep’s Head: The Lighthouse Loop Walk on Sheep’s Head Peninsula follows a sheep trail along stony heights to sea cliffs, where a lighthouse clings to the jagged end of the landmass 250 feet above the surf. The trail cuts back through boggy valleys and along coastal bluffs with views across Bantry Bay.
Kayak around the Old Head of Kinsale: Guides at H2O Sea Kayaking in Kinsale insist that even novice kayakers can paddle out to the Old Head, through the sea arches, and over to a secluded beach for a group picnic. The coves and caves here intrigue even experienced kayakers.
Great guide: Tanya Jordan is a nationally certified tour guide with a breadth of experience, a brain for trivia, and talent on the bones, a traditional instrument. She can cover any area in Ireland and even meet you at the airport for day or weeklong trips.