Are you looking for adventure when you get to the Emerald Isle?
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Are dreams of roaming sheep, the world’s highest cliffs, mighty waves, and stopping off in a cozy pub for a pint of Guinness all in that dream?
If so, you’re in luck because that vision is part of the attraction of Ireland’s longest coastal route that runs from Malin Head in North Donegal to Mizen Head in County Cork.
It is called the Wild Atlantic Way.
The 2,500-km route (1,553 miles) covers the counties of Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Mayo, Galway, Clare, Limerick, Kerry, and Cork.
Those counties are broken up into three distinct regions that include:
- The Northern Headlands – the region between Malin Head, the start of the route, and Donegal Town.
- The Surf Coast – from Donegal Town to Erris, Co. Mayo.
- The Bay Coast – from Erris, Co. Mayo to Galway Bay.
- The Cliff Coast – from Galway to Ballybunion, Co. Kerry.
- The Southern Peninsulas – from South Kerry to West Cork.
- The Haven Coast – from Bantry to Kinsale.
Here are some tips on how to plan a trip along the Wild Atlantic Way.
How Much of the Route Do You Want to Do?
This all depends on how much time you have in Ireland.
To be honest, you would need at least three weeks to really do the route justice, meaning to drive it from top to bottom and see a fair bit of attractions in between.
Most people who are vacationing in Ireland simply don’t have that much time, so I often suggest to people that they choose a region of the route and explore that one.
The second thing to take into consideration is your mode of transport around Ireland.
Exploring the Wild Atlantic Way is best done by rental car as it gives you much more flexibility.
However, there are day tours of certain sections of the Wild Atlantic Way that you can take if driving the route is not for you.
A popular one is Wild Atlantic Way Day Tours, with the option of taking tours from Galway, Ennis, or Limerick.
Here are more day tours of the Wild Atlantic Way for you to choose from.
Even if you only do part of the Wild Atlantic Way, there is always another time to return to Ireland and explore the remainder of it!
Whatever part you choose, you really won’t get lost. Be sure, however, to look out for the brown signs like the one shown below.
There are close to 160 Wild Atlantic Way Discovery Point signs that will lead you to distinct sites along the route.
At each Discovery Point, you’ll be able to stop off, rest for a while and learn more about the particular site and what it has to offer.
In addition, the 26 offshore islands located off the west coast of Ireland are also Discovery Points, and information on how to get to them is available at the various sites.
What to See
If you really want to cut to the chase, the 15 “Signature Discovery Points” along the way will give you a taste of the route.
Remember, you don't have to start at the beginning of the route (that could be Malin Head or Mizen Head to the south, whichever direction you choose).
You could go to any of the locations. listed below and just start exploring. There is really no right or wrong way when thinking about how to plan a trip along the Wild Atlantic Way.
For example, if you're flying into Belfast, it makes sense to drive to Malin Head, the nearest signature point from there.
Or, alternatively, if you are flying into Shannon, any of the points in Counties Galway, Clare, or Kerry are excellent places to start.
From Dublin, the discovery points in Co. Galway or easily reached, or even those in Sligo or Mayo. Ireland's motorways will get you to any of these three places in under 3 hours.
Here are some of the major attractions that you can expect to find along the route.
Signature Discovery Point #1: Malin Head, Co. Donegal
Malin Head is the most northerly point in Ireland and is also situated on the Inishowen Peninsula.
It is a truly breathtaking beginning to the Wild Atlantic Way route, with its beautiful coastal scenery.
See Europe’s largest sand dunes at Five Finger Strand, follow the coast road to an old radio station built in 1910, and explore The Tower, a now derelict signal station that was built by the British in 1802 for fear the French would invade.
This is a great place for walking and exploring the coastline.
The beaches here are magnificent, with several worth visiting in the area.
They include Culdaff and Stroove beaches, as well as Ballyhillion, a unique raised beach system that is known for its semi-precious stones, many of which can be set into jewelry.
Other Nearby Attractions:
The Wild Alpaca Way is a mere 1.7 miles away from Malin Head and is a delightful detour on your way south to the other discovery points along the Wild Atlantic Way.
The four Alpacas that you’ll encounter, Bounce, Mojo, Chester, and Badger, belong to the McGonagle family and they are very happy to show visitors their family pets and to give them a tour of their property on the Inishowen Peninsula.
The Doagh Famine Village will take you back to life in Ireland during the 1840s.
The large walkthrough museum includes several thatched dwellings, with plenty of interactive demonstrations that include an Irish wake, an eviction scene, and more. Guided tours are also available.
Signature Discovery Point #2: Sliabh Liag Cliffs, Co. Donegal
The Cliffs of Moher in County Clare are a major tourist attraction in Ireland, but did you know that the Sliabh League Cliffs (pronounced “Schlieve”) are in fact three times higher?
This Donegal landmark stands close to 2,000 feet (609 meters) above the ocean, making it the highest cliffs in Europe.
From the top, you can see Donegal Bay and neighboring County Sligo in the distance.
If you want to get the best view, you can take one of two paths, the One Man’s Pass or the Pilgrim’s Path, both of which will take you to the summit.
If you’re not into climbing, the safest way to see the magnificent view is from the Bunglass Viewing Platform.
Other Nearby Attractions:
Glencolmcille and the Glencolcille Folk Village
The folk village is actually north of the Sliabh Liag Cliffs, so if you’re interested in seeing it, be sure to stop off here before traveling south to the cliffs.
Glencolmcille Folk Village is about 3 km (1.86 miles) outside the village of Glencolmcille, a picturesque little place.
To get to Glencolmcille, you’ll no doubt drive through the Glengesh Pass, where you’ll encounter miles and miles of hilly bogland before the ocean makes an appearance again.
At the folk village, you’ll experience life as it was in Ireland from the 18th through the early 20th centuries.
The thatched cottages are exact replicas of what would have been standing during that time, with the appropriate furnishings to match.
During a guided tour, you’ll discover how people cooked, the beds they laid on, the tools they used, and their means of light and heat.
There’s also a great craft shop on site, with lots of high-quality Irish goods and the chance to purchase some souvenirs.
Between Sliabh League and the next discovery point below are other places that you might want to check out.
They include the town of Killybegs, as well as Donegal Castle in the center of Donegal town and Bundoran, known as a perfect spot for surfing.
Signature Discovery Point #3: Mullaghmore Head, Co. Sligo
This small fishing village in Co. Sligo is a mecca for enthusiastic surfers, and it’s easy to see why if you take the time to visit.
The waves here are some of the highest in this part of Ireland and in indeed in all of Europe, especially during the winter months when surfers come from as far away as Hawaii and Australia to test their skills.
Mullaghmore Head’s skyline is dominated by the mighty Benbulben.
Be sure to take a drive along the coastal road in Mullaghmore.
It’s nothing short of spectacular and you’ll get surprisingly close to the edge of the ocean. Along the way, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Donegal you just left.
If you’d rather walk, the Mullaghmore Head Walk is a popular trek that takes about an hour.
One of the most photographed buildings in all of Sligo, Classiebawn Castle is a striking looking structure that was built by the Temple family who for approximately 200 years served as landlords of a large estate that included the village of Mullaghmore.
The house, which became an occasional summer home for members of Britain’s Royal Family, was built by the Temples.
It was later purchased by Lord Mountbatten, a second cousin once removed from Queen Elizabeth II.
Mountbatten was tragically killed off the coast of Sligo during the 1970s.
The Temples were largely absentee landlords, and their agents, based in Sligo town, forced many local people to emigrate to North America from the area.
Many of them arrived in the city of St. John, New Brunswick, ill-equipped for the Canadian winter that faced them.
The castle is privately owned and is not open for tours.
Creevykeel Court Tomb
This is one of the best examples of a court tomb in Ireland.
Dating to about 4,000 B.C., it makes the Creevykeel Court Tomb one of the world’s oldest monuments.
It is made up of a long, trapezoid-shaped cairn that encloses an oval court.
The burial chamber itself is made up of two compartments at the northwestern end of the court tomb. In the back, there are three other chambers that are built into the cairn.
The ancient burial ground was excavated in 1935 by an archaeological team from Harvard University.
In addition, the links course at Enniscrone is challenging and among the top courses on Ireland’s west coast.
Ballina in Co. Mayo is also worth a stop.
If you’re interested in collectibles, the Jackie Clarke Collection in the center of town is worth an hour or two.
Signature Discovery Point #4: Downpatrick Head, Co. Mayo
Legend aside, Downpatrick Head is an attraction on the Wild Atlantic Way that is not to be missed.
And like many other things in Ireland, this place is also associated with St. Patrick.
Indeed, the name Downpatrick is associated with the fact that Patrick founded a church here, the remains of which you can still be seen today, together with a stone cross and a holy well.
But that’s not why most visitors end up at Downpatrick Head.
More than anything else, the sea stack, known as Dún Briste, is the real reason.
The legend I referred to above goes like this: St. Patrick, angry with a local pagan chieftain for not converting to Christianity, took his crozier and struck the ground with it, thereby splitting a chunk of the headland off and into the sea with the chieftain on top.
The more believable reason is that in 1393 a violent storm separated it from the mainland.
When three U.K. climbers were the first ones to get to the top of the stack in 1990, they discovered the remains of an old building.
It was successfully climbed again in 2016 by a team from Unique Ascent, a Donegal company providing rock climbing and other adventurous activities.
A short drive from Downpatrick Head is the award-winning Ceide Fields, the oldest Stone Age field system in Europe.
The discovery was first made in the 1930s by a local farmer who noticed a large number of stones in a specific formation deep in the bog where he was cutting turf.
Several years later, his son, an archaeologist, found evidence of cultivated fields, houses, and tombs.
The artifacts that were found at the site revealed an ancient farming community that used wooden plows drawn by cattle to grow wheat and barley.
Numerous tools were also found, including pottery and stones.
Be sure to visit the Heritage Centre, which includes several exhibits, including an ancient tree that was dug up from the nearby bogland.
In fact, it’s advisable that you go there first before you venture outside as everything will make more sense if you do. You’ll gain additional insight from a guided tour.
As you drive south, be sure to check out the beautiful town of Westport.
Lots of great restaurants and cafes there and it’s a short drive from the town to Croagh Patrick and Murrisk, located at the foot of the mountain.
If you have the time, check out the Famine memorial, which is across the street from the entrance to Croagh Patrick and the nearby Murrisk Abbey.
If you are feeling energetic, a climb to the summit Croagh Patrick is definitely worth it, with fantastic views of Clew Bay from the top.
Signature Discovery Point #6: Killary Harbor, Co. Galway
Killary Harbour is located in the heart of Connemara, a popular destination for first-time visitors to Ireland.
The area is renowned for its natural beauty and remoteness.
This is Ireland’s only glacial fjord, surrounded by some of Connemara’s highest mountains. It is best experienced on a boat tour.
You can also explore the fjord on foot by taking the trail that runs along its edge. The walk takes about 3 to 4 hours depending on how often you stop to take photos!
Part of the trail was one of the many Famine relief roads built by local people in the mid-1840s.
There are two small villages in the vicinity of Killary Harbour.
They include Rosroe and Leenane, where scenes for the film, “The Field,” were shot.
Kylemore Abbey & Victorian Walled Garden
The beautiful Kylemore Abbey & Victorian Walled Garden should most definitely be on your list of places to visit while in the vicinity of Killary Harbour. It is about 3.5 miles (5.6 km) by car.
The 19th-century neo-Gothic mansion was built for wealthy businessman Mitchell Henry and his wife, Margaret Vaughan Henry.
When completed, the beautiful Kylemore had all the conveniences of the Victorian Age.
The finished home included 13 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, 4 sitting rooms, a ballroom, a billiard room, a library, study, school room, smoking room, gun room, and various offices and living areas for the domestic staff.
A tour of Kylemore’s first floor will give you access to Mitchell Henry’s library and study, the Inner Hall, the Saloon Hall, the drawing-room, morning room, and dining room, as well as the Ante Room and the Gallery Saloon Hall.
Its Victorian walled garden, once compared to Kew Gardens in London, is also a must-see, together with the neo-Gothic church built in the style of a 14th-century chapel and a mausoleum, the final resting place of the Henrys.
Connemara National Park & Visitor Centre
Connemara National Park covers an area of about 7,000 acres, which includes the Twelve Bens mountain range, as well as large tracts of bog, heath, grasslands, and woodlands.
Be sure to stop at the visitor center first to get the necessary information on trails and other things to do and see locally.
The park, which is free to visit, is a popular destination for walkers and hikers.
If you stop here, be sure to take the Diamond Hill Loop, a 4.5-mile (7.24-km) hike that is considered a moderate walk.
You’ll see the surrounding countryside from the top, including Kylemore Abbey. The climb is a bit steep in places but totally doable for most people in good health.
If you’re hungry, the town of Clifden is just 18 minutes away by car.
There you’ll find plenty of restaurants to choose from, including Mannions Bar and Restaurant, a family-owned establishment that serves up locally sourced seafood dishes as well as other delicious food.
Signature Discovery Point #7: The Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare
This is undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ireland, and it is easy to see why.
The cliffs are striking, and the views are equally memorable.
You can see the Aran Islands from here as well the hills of Connemara, described above.
Located on the southwestern edge of the Burren, an area famous for its dramatic limestone landscape, the cliffs rise to approximately 702 feet (214 meters) at their highest point and range for 8 km (5 miles) over the Atlantic Ocean.
Constructed in 2007 into a nearby hillside, the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience center includes a number of exhibitions that bring the story of the cliffs to life. The interactive media displays cover the geology, history, as well as the flora and fauna of the cliffs.
A large multimedia screen shows a view of the cliffs and an underwater video shows the caves that lie several hundred feet below.
A popular landmark along the cliffs is O’Brien’s Tower, which marks their highest point.
The tower was built in 1835 by the local landlord and MP Sir Cornelius O’Brien as an observation tower for English tourists visiting the area.
You can get a different perspective of the cliffs by taking a cruise from nearby Doolin.
The hour-long excursion is available from mid-March through the end of October. Audio commentary is offered in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian.
While you’re in the area, be sure to explore the Burren landscape, a UNESCO Global Geopark.
The limestone formations in this area of Co. Clare is in stark contrast to Ireland’s more familiar green fields, but no less beautiful and truly a sight to behold.
The Burren is actually part of the Burren National Park, one of six protected regions of Ireland.
Its limestone landscape was formed as sediments in a tropical sea that covered Ireland approximately 350 million years ago.
This is why you’ll see the remains of corals, sea urchins, sea lilies, and ammonites throughout the Burren landscape.
There are several ancient monuments to be found here as well, the most familiar and much-photographed one is the Poulnabrone Dolmen.
Free guided walks are available during the summer season.
The seven-way-marked walking trails in the park will give you a more concise view of the landscape. The walks vary in length, from a 30-minute looped walk to a three-hour trek.
There is no visitor center at the park, although you will find information on the Burren when you visit the Burren Centre in Kilfenora. The exhibits there are well worth checking out.
The Burren Tea Rooms and a craft shop are also on the premises.
As you drive south on the Co. Clare coastline, be sure to check out Doolin, the lively village that is known for its traditional Irish music sessions in almost every pub, as well as the Loop Head Lighthouse, where you can take a guided tour.
Signature Discovery Point #8: The Blaskets View, Co. Kerry
If you’re interested in exploring the isolated Blasket Islands, you'll get a taste of what's to come at this Wild Atlantic Way Signature Discovery Point.
Slea Head is perhaps one of the best places to see these iconic islands. The headland is on the westernmost part of the beautiful Dingle Peninsula.
The Slea Head drive is a 30 km (18-mile) loop that will give you panoramic views of the islands.
You also might want to stop at the Blasket Centre, which is dedicated to the unique community that lived on the remote islands until they were evacuated in 1953.
The many images and other interactive displays tell the story of island life and how the people who lived there made their daily living.
Some of those images include the old post office, which was built in the 1900s and provided a vital contact with the mainland; the National School, which was located in the center of the village and also served as a church during the summer months, and the home of Peig Sayers, the island’s most famous person.
During the spring, summer, and autumn months, you can get the ferry to the Great Blasket Island from either Dingle or Ventry.
The journey takes approximately 50 minutes.
The Dingle Peninsula
Some of the sites to see in the Dingle Peninsula include the prehistoric huts at the Gallarus Oratory, believed to have been built between the 7th and 8th centuries, and its accompanying visitor center.
It is one of the oldest Christian churches in Ireland.
Counmeenoole Beach is a popular local beach and a destination for tourists.
The views from here are dramatic, so it’s well worth the visit. There are strong currents in the area, so swimming may not be safe.
Signature Discovery Point #9: Dursey Island, Co. Cork
Dursey Island, located off the coast of County Cork, is home to a handful of semi-permanent residents year-round.
To get there, you will need to take a cable car, the only one in Ireland.
There are no restaurants on Dursey Island and a few shops. Rosarie’s Mobile Café offers coffee and snacks, and Murphy’s Mobile Catering offers fresh local fish and other hot food.
Both are located close to the cable car landing area.
You can take a walking tour around the island, courtesy of Beara Baoi Tours (they also provide tours of the Beara Peninsula).
The tour promises to tell stories of “pre-Christian divinities, Vikings, monks, mariners, bishops, press gangs, pirates and shipwrecks.”
A bus tour is also available.
The island attracts lots of birdlife, including gannets, razorbills, puffins, and rare migrants from North America.
Garnish Island is located on the sheltered Glengarriff Harbor in Bantry Bay.
It is world-renowned for its gardens, which include some plants and flowers that you won’t find in other places in Ireland due to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream.
You can take the Garnish Island Ferry from Glengarriff Pier.
As you make your way toward the Old Head of Kinsale, you’ll have the opportunity to explore West Cork, including the towns of Clonakilty and Baltimore.
Signature Discovery Point #10: Old Head of Kinsale, Co. Cork
If you’ve traveled the entire Wild Atlantic Way route, you’ll arrive at this last Signature Discovery Point, known as The Old Head of Kinsale.
It protrudes 3 km (1.86 miles) into the Atlantic Ocean and is truly a magnificent place to take in the fabulous views that are so common all along the West Cork coastline.
The area is famous for its 18-hole golf course called the Old Head Golf Links and of course its lighthouse.
The Old Head at Kinsale is also the nearest point to where the Lusitania sank in 1915 after being hit by a German torpedo.
Almost 1,200 people died in the incident. Find out more about that at the Lusitania Museum, which is housed in an old signal station nearby.
No visit to the southern part of Ireland is complete without seeing the colorful town of Kinsale, which is known for its excellent restaurants and general all-around charm.
Explore the narrow winding streets that are chock full of galleries, gift shops, cafes, lively bars, and more.
This 17th-century star-shaped fort located in Kinsale Harbor is one of the largest military installations in Ireland.
It has been associated with some of the country’s most momentous events, including the Williamite War of 1689-91 and the Irish Civil War of 1922-23.
The museum is free to visit, part of the Irish government’s initiative to offer free admission at heritage sites across the country through the end of 2021.
Have you driven the Wild Atlantic Way? Let me know in the comments section below.