Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

by Dr. Jessie Voigts / Nov 07, 2014 /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

2,400 kilometers of the most beautiful drive in the world – where are you? In Ireland, of course! Stretching from Donegal to Cork, the Wild Atlantic Way is a scenic drive like no other. Passing through city and country, driving this famous route takes you through the essence of Ireland – from rugged coastlines to castles to music to friendly, welcoming people.

We’ve shared how to rent a car in Ireland, and tips on driving in Ireland, as well as music to accompany your journey.

Today, let’s discover things to see along the Wild Atlantic Way.

Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Valentia lighthouse

The journey is so long that it is generally broken up into 5 sections. Now, take your time while traveling (don’t try to do it in 5 days!) – each section deserves time and a slower pace, to soak it all in.

Here are some highlights of each section of the drive – be sure to visit the Wild Atlantic Way website for more details, sample itineraries, and an interactive map. Starting from the top, the closest airport is Donegal, although the route starts just north of Derry/Londonderry.

Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

County Donegal

This section of the route is around 560 km.

Things to see include:

Doagh Famine Village – an outdoor museum showing history from Famine to today

Malin Head, at the tip of the Inishowen Peninsula – Ireland’s most northern point

Inishowen Maritime Museum and Planetarium

Grianán of Aileach (Fortress of the sun) – a circular stone fort dating back to 1700 BC

Colmcille Heritage Centre – history from the Roman Empire to the Medieval period.

Fanad Head – the most northern point of the Fanad Peninsula. Photo opp: Fanad Head Lighthouse!

Fanad Head Lighthouse, from Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Fanad Head Lighthouse

 

Doe Castle – built in the 15th century

Tory Island – take a ferry to the island that elects its own king (who welcomes visitors)

Glenveagh National Park (Glen of the Birches) – over 16,000 acres of forests and lakes – and castles

Donegal Tweed Centre – learn more about this Irish weave – and purchase some for yourself

Killybegs town/Maritime and Heritage Centre – discover history on both local fishing and carpet making (those famous Donegal carpets…)

Slieve League Cliffs – one of the highest maritime cliffs in Europe (be sure to also visit the Slieve League Cultural Centre, and take a boat ride to view the cliffs from the sea)

Slieve League Cliffs. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Slieve League Cliffs

Donegal to Mayo

This section of the route is around 625 km.

aerial view, horseback riding on Bertra Beach, Mayo. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

aerial view, horseback riding on Bertra Beach, Mayo

Things to see:

Mullaghmore Head – home to big waves and surfing competitions (learn how to surf yourself – take lessons!)

Dernish Island – ride horses on the beach, or explore nature and history

Gleniff Horseshoe Valley – hike along this beautiful trail

Streedagh Beach – visit here at low tide to see the wreckage of three ships (1588)

The Yeats Experience – a dining experience like no other; poetry included

Glencar Waterfall - more Yeats goodness

Downpatrick Head – photo opps aplenty, with this place of extraordinary beauty named after St Patrick

Downpatrick Head. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Downpatrick Head

Céide Fields – ancient Celtic farming land full of surprises – be sure to stop in at the visitor centre

North Mayo Sculpture Trail – 14 outdoor sculptures located from Ballina to Belmullet

Ballycroy National Park – hike through bog and mountains

Coney Island – the original! There’s only one pub on this island (McGowans) so you’re sure to meet friendly locals.

Achill Island – wander the deserted village (book a tour with archaeologists or walk it yourself)

Achill Island. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Achill Island

Croagh Patrick – the most famous mountain in Ireland, and an important St Patrick pilgrimage site

Traditional Irish Peat with Croagh Patrick in the background. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Traditional Irish Peat with Croagh Patrick in the background

Westport House & Country Park – home of the Marquess of Sligo, built in the 18th century. Come in late June to experience the Westport Festival of Food and Music

Mayo to Clare

This section of the WAW is about 530km.

Boats, Galway Harbour. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Boats, Galway Harbour

Things to see:

Killary Harbour – come in May for the Connemara Mussel Festival

The road from Letterfrack to Clifden – home to the legendary water horse – get your camera ready!

Flaggy shore – a small (1/2 mile) section of coastline made from limestone rock – beautiful!

Finish Island – walk there at low tide from Carna – just be sure to get back in time

Derrigimlagh Bog – one thin road traverses this amazing natural wetlands. Rent a bike to explore it fully

Coral Strand (just past Ballyconneely) – the sand on this beach is actually coral

Aran Islands – ferry out and rent a bike or explore by pony cart

Dun Aengus, Inismore, Aran Islands. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Dun Aengus, Inismore, Aran Islands

Galway city – time for some town fun, from pubs to ceilidh to shopping

Galway by night. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Galway by night

The Burren – this rocky landscape is like no other. Get out and walk this UNESCO geopark. Be sure to see Poulnabrone – this portal tomb is, quite possibly, one of the most photographed things in Ireland

Cliffs of Moher – possibly the most famous cliffs in the world! The visitor centre is worth a visit, and take a boat ride to see it from the sea, as we did

Doolin – the launching place for those boat rides, it’s also a charming village with plenty of great traditional music

3 sisters, Dingle. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

3 sisters, Dingle

Clare to Kerry

This section is about 540 km and you’ll sometimes be driving on the Ring of Kerry.

Windsurfing on Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Windsurfing on Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Things to see:

Loop Head – another great photo opp with the Loop Head Lighthouse (you can stay there!)

Shannon Estuary – hop on a boat with Dolphinwatch and see the many bottlenose dolphins

Foynes Flying Boat & Maritime Museum – interesting (and the site of the first Irish coffee!)

Tralee – a lovely town, and also the site of Siamsa Tire, National Folk Theatre of Ireland

Dingle Harbour. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Dingle Harbour

Dingle  – ice cream, views, a beautiful small town

Dingle. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way.

Dingle

Dingle coast path. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Dingle coast path

Blaskets Islands – take a ferry to this beautiful and isolated place; be sure to visit the Blasket Centre

Blasket Islands. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Blasket Islands

Skelligs – make your reservations for one of the few boats that visit Skellig Michael, an extraordinary island that was a lonely hermitage in the 6th century and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only visit if you’re fit – there are 670 steps to climb! You will have seen Skellig Michael in the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie.

ruins on Ballinskelligs. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

ruins on Ballinskelligs

Valentia Island – drive there from Portmagee (eat at the Moorings first) and see this beautiful island and its many lush gardens, as well as visit the Skellig Experience Heritage Centre

Valentia Island Lighthouse. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Valentia Island Lighthouse

Portmagee Harbour, looking to Valentia Island. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Portmagee Harbour, looking to Valentia Island. Photo Wandering Educators

Waterville – stop and pose with the famous statue of Charlie Chaplin

Derrynane House – home to Ireland’s ‘Liberator’ - well worth a stop to learn about an important part of Ireland's history, as well as see their beautiful gardens

Derrynane House. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Derrynane House

Staigue Fort – another ancient ring fort, with unrivaled views

 

Sneem – lovely small town with a village green filled with statues. Park and stretch your legs (ice cream here, too)

Kenmare – the center of many water sports, you can also shop at the weekly market and visit the Kenmare Lace Center to see this antique skill come to life

 

Kerry to Cork

This section is about 460km

West Cork Beach. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

West Cork Beach

Things to see:

Beara Peninsula – one of the most beautiful (and remote) drives in Ireland

Dursey Island – with only 6 permanent residents, this island is a step back in time. See castle ruins, a lighthouse, standing stones, and gorgeous sunsets. Accessed via a 10 minute cable car ride

Cable car to Dursey Island. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Cable car to Dursey Island

Ewe Sculpture Garden at Glengarriff – worth a stop!

Bantry House – built in 1700, you can walk the gardens here and even make a reservation to stay!

Mizen Head – the southernmost point of the Wild Atlantic Way. See a lighthouse and the old signaling station, now a museum

Mizen Head. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Mizen Head

Cliffs, Mizen. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Cliffs, Mizen

Sheep’s Head Peninsula – includes a famous walking route

Baltimore Harbour – look for the Beacon, a symbol of Cork. Plenty of lighthouses here

Beacon, Baltimore Harbour. From Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Beacon, Baltimore Harbour

Old Head of Kinsale – site of the sinking of the Lusitania. Also home to a golf course with, perhaps, the best views in Ireland?

Whale watching – take a tour with Whale Watch West Cork to see whales and dolphins!

Kinsale – lovely town, former Viking trading post, foodie’s heaven. Visit Charles Fort, dating from the 17th century

Skibbereen Heritage Centre – exhibits on the Famine and Lough Hyne (a salt lake, and Europe’s first Marine Nature Reserve), as well as a wonderful genealogy service and reference library

Kayaking on Lough Hyne – go with an expert at dusk, and see phosphorescent marine life burst into light

 

Excited? Take the drive of your life on the Wild Atlantic Way!

 

Learn more about Ireland with our A-Z Guide of the best of Ireland on the web

 

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Tourism Ireland, except where noted courtesy and copyright Wandering Educators

 

 

 

 

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