Driving the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland
As we continue covering our favourite road trips in the UK and Ireland, we move on to the Wild Atlantic Way.
With its dramatic coastal scenery and ever-changing weather, Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way lives up to its name. This driving route along the west coast of the Republic of Ireland offers visitors the chance to discover some of the Emerald Isle's finest attractions, including fascinating historic sights, delicious cuisine, geological wonders, and diverse wildlife. And with 2500 kilometres of tarmac to explore, one road trip along the Wild Atlantic Way is unlikely to be enough for you to see everything you want to.
What is the Wild Atlantic Way?
The Wild Atlantic Way is a 2500-kilometre signposted tourism trail that stretches from the Northern Ireland border in County Donegal to Kinsale in County Cork. Its total distance includes many branches leading off the main route, so allow 2-3 weeks to explore it in depth. You could also cut the journey down to around 1000 kilometres (taking five or six days) by limiting your stops and taking faster routes between them. Alternatively, if time is short, you could pick a small section of the route and spend a long weekend exploring at a slower pace.
The northern end of the Wild Atlantic Way is about 125 kilometres from the ferry ports of Belfast and Larne, while its southern end is about 220 kilometres from Rosslare Harbour. If you plan to fly and hire a car, there are many airports, including Derry, Knock, Shannon, Kerry, and Cork, along the route.
Wild Atlantic Way route
The northernmost part of the Wild Atlantic Way follows the long coastline of County Donegal, before traversing the shorter coasts of counties Leitrim and Sligo. It’s a landscape of inlets, long beaches, small islands, and spectacular cliffs.
The route begins at the Northern Ireland border, just north of Derry~Londonderry — it actually starts where the Causeway Coastal Route ends, so you could combine the two routes if you want to see more of the north. It then loops around the Inishowen Peninsula, passing Malin Head, the island of Ireland’s northernmost point. The long golden sands of Pollan Strand near Ballyliffin make a great stop for a shoreline stroll, while birdwatchers can spot many species of migratory and wintering birds at Inch Island, where you’ll also find the ruins of 15th-century Inch Castle.
Fanad Head offers beautiful views back across to the Inishowen Peninsula; you can book a tour of the lighthouse, with its 76 steps, and go on coastal walks, or take a sailing trip or play a round of golf nearby. Further along the coast, you can go for a dip at beautiful Marble Hill Strand, a Blue Flag beach in Sheephaven Bay, or escape to small islands like Gola Island, which attracts artists and photographers as well as birdwatchers, walkers, and rock climbers, or check out Arranmore Island's sea caves and sandy beaches.
A must-see along the Wild Atlantic Way is Slieve League, a mountain that rises straight up out of the ocean, resulting in some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe (around 600 metres). About an hour away is the town of Donegal, with its festivals, pubs, and 15th-century castle. It's a good base for walks in the nearby Blue Stack Mountains.
Continue south and you’ll reach Mullaghmore Head in County Sligo, whose sandy beach is one of Ireland's prime surfing destinations. You can also climb the distinctive flat-topped mountain of Benbulbin and take in views along the coast from the summit. On its southern slope is Ireland's tallest waterfall, Sruth in Aghaidh an Aird, meaning "the stream that flows backwards". It gets its name because strong winds sometimes push the falling water back up over the edge of the cliff.
The far west of Ireland, including the counties of Mayo, Galway, and Clare, is home to rocky headlands, remote islands, and beautiful mountains. West of the town of Sligo, you can breathe in the fresh Atlantic breezes at Downpatrick Head, with its distinctive offshore sea stack that looks like a slice of cake thanks to its many layers of rock. There's also wild Achill Island, home to a deserted village, an aquarium, several lovely beaches, and much more. You can reach the island by bike from Westport via the Great Western Greenway, a 44-kilometre traffic-free cycling and walking route that follows a former railway line.
The town of Westport itself is a welcoming place thanks to its many pubs and bars, as well as traditional shop fronts. It's also a great base for visits to one of Ireland's most famous natural features, Croagh Patrick, a 764-metre-high mountain that has a chapel on its summit that's an important pilgrimage site — some pilgrims even climb barefoot. There's no rule saying you can't wear hiking shoes or boots, though, and if you reach the top on a clear day, your efforts will be rewarded with views of the surrounding mountains and the island-strewn Clew Bay.
Further south, you can follow the many walking trails through woodland and across mountains in the wild, remote Connemara National Park. On the edge of the park, spectacular Kylemore Abbey is home to a Benedictine order of nuns, as well as Victorian walled gardens.
In bustling, colourful Galway City, you can explore museums and arts centres, then spend the evening in the Latin Quarter with its many restaurants and pubs. Just outside town is the ruined Menlo Castle, which dates from the 16th century and serves as a pretty backdrop to riverside walks along the Corrib.
In County Clare, south of Galway, you can visit the otherworldly landscapes of the Burren National Park, whose limestone pavements are world famous. The Burren is a short drive inland from arguably the area's most celebrated attraction, the Cliffs of Moher, a stunning coastline of horizontal rock layers stacked 200 metres above the Atlantic waves. A hiking trail takes you along this UNESCO Global Geopark and the views are incredible, especially at sunset on a clear day.
You can see the Aran Islands from the cliffs, and if you fancy paying a visit, ferries leave from nearby Doolin. The islands include Inishmore, where you can explore prehistoric sites, amble along quiet lanes, and listen to live traditional music.
The southwestern part of the Wild Atlantic Way runs through the counties of Kerry and Cork, an area known for long peninsulas that jut out into the sea like fingers, as well as pretty towns and villages, and stunning landscapes that feature some of Ireland's highest mountains.
The Dingle Peninsula is home to the westernmost point in Ireland, Dunmore Head, as well as Stradbally Beach, which is popular with surfers and has stunning views across the bay to the hills beyond. Dingle town, with its marina, restaurants, and aquarium, is a good place to break your journey.
Further south, the Wild Atlantic Way shares the road with the Ring of Kerry, a driving route that circles the Iveragh Peninsula. At the end of the peninsula, you can see out to Skellig Michael — Star Wars fans will recognise this tiny jagged isle, which doubled as Luke Skywalker's home in three of the saga’s films. You can take a boat trip out to see the island's monastery and puffin colony. Inland, Killarney National Park is full of gorgeous forests, lakes, mountains, and waterfalls, while Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest peak, is just outside the national park.
The Ring of Beara, on the next peninsula along, is a less-travelled driving route. From its westernmost point, you can reach Dursey Island by taking Ireland's only cable car. Further round the coast lay Mizen Head and the deliciously wild Cape Clear Island, whose inhabitants speak both Irish and English. On a clear day you should be able to see out to Fastnet Rock, which, for many emigrants sailing to America, was their last sight of Ireland.
The Wild Atlantic Way then heads east along the southern coast of Ireland, passing the beaches and headlands of West Cork, before ending in the harbour town of Kinsale, with its colourful houses, pubs, and restaurants, plus 17th-century forts. Although it's is not on the route, many travellers choose to continue on to Cork, which is only 30 minutes' drive from Kinsale — you can easily add a couple of extra days to your trip exploring all the museums, shops, and pubs the country’s second-largest city has to offer.
NIck Elvin contributed to this post.